January 4, 2012

I was as shocked as anyone when Rick Santorum said from the Iowa stage that the real question in this campaign was the one Francis Fukuyama asks in the new issue of Foreign Affairs: “Can liberal democracy survive the decline of the middle class?”

Okay, I made that up. Mostly, the GOP candidates asked whether the republic could survive another four years of Barack Obama. But as 100 percent of the media obsesses over what .04 percent of the United States has done, Fukuyama’s piece, “The Future of History,” is essential reading for anyone who wants to mull the mega-question lurking behind today’s voter angst from Des Moines to Nashua.

For starters, it’s nice to see that Fukuyama, who made a splash 20 years ago with an essay (and then book) called “The End of History and the Last Man,” has decided that history has a future. In his earlier triumphalist work, he argued that the worldwide spread of liberal democracies after the fall of the Berlin Wall marked a kind of endpoint of human social and political development. From here on out, he suggested back then, we’d just be tweaking the ideal model.

Two decades on, the march of those infamous twin modern forces — globalization and rapid technological change — has Fukuyama thinking again. “Some very troubling economic and social trends, if they continue,” Fukuyama writes, “will both threaten the stability of contemporary liberal democracies and dethrone democratic ideology as it is now understood.”

His worry is the erosion of the middle class. What if the acceleration of current trends in global capitalism “undermines the middle class and makes it impossible for more than a minority of citizens in an advanced society to achieve middle class status?” To Fukuyama, this phase of development may already have begun. And no one is offering ideas that could stem the tide.

Take first the right. While the Tea Party’s energy is anti-elitist, Fukuyama argues, its members perversely end up supporting conservatives who do the bidding of the financial mavens Tea Partyers claim to loathe. And those conservatives who do sound a different note — notably Rick Santorum, whose empathy for and allegiance to everyday workers is his distinguishing trait — don’t have promising policy responses.

Santorum’s tribute to the dignity of work in his Iowa speech Tuesday night was moving, for example. And his call to renew America manufacturing is important. But as Adam Davidson’s powerful cover story, “Making It in America,”in the new Atlantic Monthly shows, millions of less educated Americans who win jobs in a revitalized manufacturing sector will still make only $13 to $18 dollars an hour. They’ll also live in constant risk of being automated or outsourced out of a job.

“For most of U.S. history,” Davidson concludes, “most people had a slow and steady wind at their back, a combination of economic forces that didn’t make life easy but gave many of us little pushes forward that allowed us to earn a bit more every year. Over a lifetime, it added up to a better sort of life than the life we were born into. That wind seems to be dying for a lot of Americans. What the country will be like without it is not quite clear.”

In the face of such grim new realities, Fukuyama sees the left as equally bereft of ideas. “It has been several decades since anyone on the left has been able to articulate, first, a coherent analysis of what happens to the structure of advanced societies as they undergo [this degree of] economic change, and, second, a realistic agenda that has any hope of protecting a middle class society.”

Yes, the battle for New Hampshire (and South Carolina and Florida) will be gripping, but the clash we need to clarify in this election isn’t Romney vs. Santorum, or Newt vs. Mitt, or even Obama vs. Romney. It’s globalization and rapid technological change vs. the middle class.

As things stand, the showdown between the GOP’s call for nostalgia and the Democrat’s call for resentment won’t get us where we need to go. It’s our perennial problem: The symbols and values the two parties manipulate to get to 50 percent plus one have nothing to do with developing real answers to our challenges.

We need a “ideologically androgynous” agenda to ensure opportunity and security in a global age, and we need to update our institutions and reallocate resources to do this. This will take, among other things, a full-tilt assault on the inefficient health-care and higher-education “industrial complexes” that increasingly put the ingredients of middle class life out of reach of millions with stagnant incomes and limited prospects. It will also take more redistribution, not less.

No one’s saying this is easy to devise or sell. But no one running for president is even trying to mobilize the country around ideas on a scale that match these challenges.

As Fukuyama concludes, “the alternative narrative is out there, waiting to be born.”

Matt Miller, a co-host of public radio’s “Left, Right & Center,” writes a weekly online column for The Post. His e-mail address is mattino2@gmail.com.