Last week I wrote about the Republicans becoming more of a resistance movement than a governing party. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf gets at something similar in his analysis of the rise of Donald Trump and Ben Carson, “The Anti-Utopian Instinct and the Conservative Revolt.” Mr. Friedersdorf writes that Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson (“both winners in realms more meritocratic than politics—unlike, say, Jeb Bush”) come off as “world-weary pragmatists” not given to the “fanciful thinking” of establishment politicians.
Yes, Mr. Trump’s great wall across the Mexican border is its own kind of fanciful thinking, but he and Mr. Carson do symbolize resistance to the ideas that all Americans should own their own homes, or go to college, or have health insurance—and that the government should do something to achieve these goals. They appeal to voters who have no confidence in a New Deal, or a Fair Deal, and certainly not Hillary Clinton’s “New New Deal for communities of color.” They expect no good to come from the federal government, which is why, as I argued, they place more importance on electing fellow dissidents to lower offices than on nominating someone who can win the White House.
Mr. Friedersdorf doesn’t completely buy the anti-utopian view, but he understands it: “an anti-utopian impulse is a not-unreasonable reaction to a bipartisan establishment that gave the United States a series of failed wars of choice, a financial bubble, a Wall Street class that leeches off assets better than it allocates them, a college bubble, and federal costs that have far exceeded revenues for decades. America’s fed-up populists are very light on coherent solutions, in part because common sense unmoored from empiricism can lead one astray. But they’re not wrong that there’s a problem, and some of it is utopian thinking in the ruling class that runs through significant parts of the conservative and progressive movements.”
There are different reasons to be skeptical of utopian thinking in Washington. Libertarians and Ayn Rand admirers simply want government to be as small as possible. Others don’t like the “federal” part, putting more trust in local governments and charities to better the world. Paul Ryan, the new Republican speaker of the House, seems to straddle both views and has suggested that cutbacks in federal social-welfare programs is consistent with Catholic teaching and the doctrine of subsidiarity. As Nathan Schneider wrote in America after Pope Francis used the term in his address to Congress, a political interpretation of subsidiarity is that “Decisions should be made at the level of those who are affected by them, as locally as possible.” (But, he added, “subsidiarity also means, as Pius XI wrote, ‘harmonious cooperation’ between different levels of governance, not simply passing big social problems along to smaller entities that are ill-equipped to handle them.”) Both groups have reason to be wary of the Democratic candidates and can see what they want to see in the vaguely anti-Washington pronouncements of Mr. Trump and Mr. Carson.
Utopian thinking may also face more resistance in large, pluralistic societies such as the United States. When there’s a lack of consensus on moral values, no one can be sure what utopia would look like, let alone how to get there. (Is universal gun ownership utopian? Who should be covered by anti-discrimination laws? Do we want to expand access to child care or encourage more parents to stay at home?)
It’s also difficult to separate racial differences from American politics. The Washington Post’s Emily Badger last week reported on a study suggesting that cities with higher racial segregation spend less on roads, parks, police departments and sewer systems—the kind of things that would seem to make a community more utopian, or just livable. “Why, exactly, might this happen?” wonders Ms. Badger. “People are sometimes less likely to support public spending on programs they believe won’t benefit them, like housing vouchers for the poor or public schools for other families’ children. But here we’re not talking about public spending that benefits some group of others. We’re talking about spending on public goods that benefit everyone.”
Ms. Badger writes that political scientist Jessica Trounstine, who conducted the research, has a theory: “segregated cities are…more politically polarized, not necessarily along liberal-conservative lines, but along racial ones…. [In] these cities, blacks and whites are more likely to support different candidates (even if all of them are Democrats or the elections are nonpartisan). This kind of racial polarization makes it hard to create the broad coalitions you need to raise taxes, or issue public bonds or agree on big new investments in public transit.”
National politics are polarized along both partisan and racial lines, making it difficult to assemble a broad coalition to do anything. The result is that recent initiatives that could be called utopian, such as immigration reform and the Affordable Care Act, have stalled or suffered from implementation problems. This only confirms the worldview of anti-utopians, who seem to have an ever-tighter grip on the Republican Party.