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July 03, 2005

Is Liberalism in Trouble?

Wil Wilkinson has a fairly puzzling response to Jon Chait's article on the bankruptcy of the liberals-lack-ideas claim. He writes:

He's right: if "ideas" mean novel projects for the technocracy, then liberals are chock ful of them. I think the real complaint here is that there is nothing to be found that is not a specification of "use state power to make things better, according to our peculiar standards of better." The problem for liberals is that if that if they give that up, then they'll stop being who they are. But that's what the voters, the stupid, stupid voters, aren't resonating to. So what we've really got here is a crisis of identity -- the threat that integrity is equivalent to obsolescence.

That's a fairly interesting question. Is the use of state power to achieve socially desirable ends what the voters aren't responding to? In Wil's favor, after the election, Bush bounded out with his new mandate, which seemingly stretched from Iran all the way to pension reform and beyond. Suddenly, a vote that seemed a fairly straightforward foreign policy judgment ("we trust this guy and not the other one") became a resounding popular endorsement of Social Security privatization.

But it turned out that Bush's mandate was a trick of the light, or at least a strategy of the White House. Elections are fought on a full spectrum of issues, some more important than others, but, in the end, they only offer two choices. Are Log Cabin Republicans endorsing conservative homophobia? Probably not, they're just prioritizing gay rights below other policies that they agree with Republicans on. Similarly, the election saw a full range of policy problems enter the discussion, but, like in any squabble, a specific thread of grievance gave the whole thing coherence. This was not, for instance, a health care election. It was not a Social Security election. Social Security was mentioned, but when the President tried to legislate as if the election was a referendum on pension reform, he was rudely rebuffed.

In elections, the winning side often suffers from mandate exaggeration, though Bush had a worse case than most. Campaigns don't give equal time to every issue and voters don't give equal weight to every problem. Those who thought domestic issues, such as health care, were the most pressing broke overwhelmingly for Kerry and his state-based solutions. Those who thought terrorism and cultural values loomed largest gave their votes to Bush. And Bush, to a large degree, attempted to move the election to terrorism and family values by defusing the desire for more state intervention in domestic problems by legislating more state intervention in domestic problems. Remember his Medicare drug plan and NCLB? The White Houses' political operation clearly thought both would resonate with voters, and so pushed two major policy overhauls soaked in liberal attitudes towards state involvement.

What threatens liberals is that our strongest ground is no longer, or at least not currently, receiving many elections. Our welfare state has been mostly enacted, with the notable exception of universal health care, and has proved stunningly resilient to curtailment. Reagan and Bush both tried to change Social Security, neither succeeded (at least not yet). Both were hostile towards Medicare, yet Reagan didn't touch it and Bush expanded it. That's a lot of success.

But voters can punish you for success. Domestic liberals, to a large degree, have served their purpose. In a few years, as risk gets worse and premiums shoot higher, maybe they'll be needed again. But for now, a variety of other issues are being judged more pressing, and they're the issues that comprise the core of Republican's electoral appeal. That wasn't true in 1992, 1996, or 2000, but it's been true since. Does that comprise a crisis for liberalism?

Hardly, at least if you buy Wil's definition of liberalism as singularly dedicated to the preservation of an active government. In that sense, the last four years haven't been very bad at all and the voters have been anything but hostile. What is true is that our historical agenda's overwhelming success has left our last few big domestic desires lacking in urgency, severe domestic insecurity has receded as the country's most pressing problem, at least in voter perception. And, as it happens, the issues that took its place demonstrate our poor public image on foreign policy and cultural issues. That needs to be dealt with, but it shouldn't be confused with wholesale rejection. Voter attitudes, unlike elections, aren't all or nothing. It's just convenient for the winners to think they are.

July 3, 2005 in Democrats | Permalink

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Comments

"Those who thought terrorism and cultural values loomed largest gave their votes to Bush."

Ezra, please find another way to make this point. I know - and you know - that this is shorthand - but it's THEIR shorthand. I realize that you may be referring to the polling data- but even pollsters' questions are biased toward the Right's way of thinking; for example, why is healthcare a "domestic issue" and not a "cultural value?" When pollsters ask me political questions, I find I can't honestly respond to the questions as asked- because they're not referring to my issues as I understand them. The "differences" between how the Right and Left may "rate" their concerns prior to an election might have more to do with language used by the pollster- and may not accurately reflect our actual degrees of concern.

I am as Left as they come (far to the left of you) and I voted AGAINST Bush because I thought "cultural values loomed largest." Values that lead me to vote against poverty, for universal healthcare, for equal rights for gay people and to protect women's reproductive rights.

Unless I'm mistaken the "cultural values" you are referring to in this sentence are not much more than hostility toward (or fear of) gay people and a desire to restrict the rights of women- however Republicans choose to frame it. Some "cultural values," those two! There are more honest ways for us to frame these "issues" without painting Democrats (if even unintentionally) as unconcerned about values.

It's important to say what you mean- and I don't think you meant this the way you wrote it (although it might play well in the "Centrist" publications you seem to admire so much; they tend to use the language of the Right - mistakenly, I believe).

There's more I could comment on- in this post- but I'll leave it to others and just focus on this one bit of phrasing (But a similar argument could easily be made that those of us who voted for Kerry- were ALSO very much thinking about terrorism- and quite possibly as a "domestic issue.")

You're not the only one on the "Left" who does this (using RNC phrasing in your arguments), but it does get tiring to read- and is self-defeating.

Also- this whole discussion just seems so irrelevant considering how very radical we may need to be to get our government back. We're far from parlor discussions of the differences between New Deal Democrats and Goldwater Republicans.

We're in the middle of a crisis- and it might be time to consider that the people in charge right now have abandoned all traditional playbooks.

To answer your question-- yes, Liberalism is in trouble-- as evidenced by the fact that you and I are on the "same team" and seem to speak very different languages.

I'll admit that there is a significant age difference between us-- I can remember when people on "the Left" actually sounded Left-wing...

But that's for another day.

Good night, Ezra.

Posted by: Michael | Jul 3, 2005 2:47:55 AM

Liberalism is on the verge of a massive victory, one that will allow us to turn the rhetorical table right around on the Right. Few see it coming, which is tribute to the power of the narrative that is about to be overthrown.

The Democratic Party during the 20th century defined itself around two slogans: the New Deal and the Great Society. Both have been assualted from their inception with substantial success. In particular the Right has organized itself around the idea that the central pillars of both, New Deal's Social Security and the Great Society's Medicare, were predetermined failures. There is a portion of the Right, which we can call Ayn Randians, that have been rubbing their hands in glee just waiting to say "I told you so!" while dancing and spitting on the grave of FDR. After all "Big Government" simply doesn't work, collective solutions to social problems equates to Collectivism and Socialism. The second worst nightmare for these Randian/Friedman types would be to find out that the Social Security Trust Fund as presently configured was fully funded going forward. Lucky Liberals who have not been fully exposed to the works of Ayn Rand and Uncle Miltie may not be aware of how tightly woven hatred of Social Security is into the fundamental philosophy of the Right. Social Security is so widely popular that the Right have not dared to attack it openly, but make no mistake, their fundamental intent is not to mend it but to end it.

The failure of Social Security has been built into the political narrative. Everyone, Left and Right alike, knows that it is unsustainable, that it is just going to crash into the wall of Boomer retirement. The Left may sigh while the Right gloats but just about everyone understands that FDRs bright shining dream is just about to sputter out.

Except that it isn't. Liberals have a plan. We call it Social Security. What is more we have numbers to back that plan up. The dominant political narrative of our time is simply mistaken on the facts. Social Security is not broke. At all. In fact a straightforward examination of the numbers shows that it is likely to be overfunded at this point.

You can't overstate the effects of the political tsunami that realization of that fact will unleash. There will be nothing left of the Cato Institute but some tattered papers floating in the puddles, and AEI and Heritage will not be looking much better. Liberals have been politically pushing the rock of Social Security up the hill for decades while Rightists sat aside laughing at us while leisurely debating out the degree of largesse they will dole out when that rock ultimately crushes us. They have been building an enormous moral claim based on what they saw and see as inevitable, the simple collapse of the central pillar of the New Deal.

All of a sudden the basis of that claim is being called into judgement. Already they are waking up to the realization that "broke" in context means 76% of a better check that retirees get today. And they are getting nauseous looking at numbers that require the economy to perform down to half of what it is producing today to even reach that 76%. Which is the first worst nightmare of the Right. The economy has rescued the New Deal.

Now some will argue that all this needs to be packaged and presented as new. I don't agree. A fully solvent Social Security system in the face of massive deficits caused by Reagan/Bush II tax cuts shouts out its own message. Workers passed and funded the most popular and successful social program in history. Social Security as currently configured owes exactly nothing to Capital. Indeed Capital in this case owes Workers $1.7 trillion.

A Perfect Storm is about to unleash itself on the Right. The War, $60 a gallon oil, the Supreme Court vacancy(s) and now to cap it all off a fully funded Social Security system that puts the lie to seventy years of effort to kill it off.

Democrats have an idea, and a brand. We will call it the New Deal, which pretty much looks like the old New Deal. FDR is still the One and the Right can just choke on it.

Buckets of Social Security Numbers

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Jul 3, 2005 9:40:11 AM

Will wrote:

But that's what the voters, the stupid, stupid voters, aren't resonating to.

What kind of weaselage is "aren't resonating to"? He would like to say that voters are rejecting liberalism, but the massively negative response to the gov't shutdown of 1995, and the attempted abolition of Social Security, make that untenable.

Voters aren't "resonating" to the New Deal because it isn't new and sexy. But they sure as shit aren't resonating to Wilkinson's insane laissez-faire social Darwinism.

Posted by: kth | Jul 3, 2005 10:14:48 AM

The two last Big Ideas that guided policy were the New Deal and the Great Society. Both of those used state power to make things better.

The New Deal was about regulating business, playing an active role in the economy, boosting the power of labor, and creating programs appropriate for a mobile work force no longer in a farm/family environment (e.g. Social Security).

The Great Society was a mixed bag. Voting and civil rights for blacks. Medicare. Anti-poverty programs.

In neither case was The Market trusted to make things better, which is appropriate, since The Market is not the solution to everything. We are currently in a phase where Market Fundamentalists (to use Soros' expression) are riding high. Market Fundies are partly motivated by ideology and partly by greed. The public has been sold this through a combination of touting busines and denegrating government (especially with the anti-tax crusade).

Alas, it will probably take a massive failure of the market, as a market (stock market/currency crisis) or as a 'solution' (e.g. to provide for retirement), to get a political/policy change.

Remember, many things the New Deal brought in, like regulating securities, regulating energy, rights of labor, were just as sensible in 1928 as they were in 1932. Why didn't the public press for them in 1928? They didn't feel pain at the time.

Posted by: Quiddity | Jul 3, 2005 10:37:17 AM

What the voters have "resonated to", I suspect, is the Republican criticism of/characterization of, liberalism, since 1970. The Republican mantra of cut taxes/shrink government/"strong" defense has gone largely unchallenged by Democrats, while Democrats also largely let the whole "big government is incompetent" thing go unchallenged. (Though Gore, under Clinton, did pour a lot of effort into actually improving government processes.) The Republican criticism of affirmative action as quotas for racially-defined special interest groups was very effective. Surprisingly effective, too, is the stealth theme: they are all alike, they all do it, Democrats are just as corrupt, just as bad. Nixon had Watergate, Reagan/Bush had Iran Contra, and Clinton had Whitewater. Democrats have never been good at getting across the point that Whitewater was entirely a Republican fiction.
Some Republican themes are amazing: when Bush's stump speech asserted that raising taxes on the wealthy would result in higher taxes for the middle class, because the wealthy have lawyers and accountants, I, personally, was struck dumb with wonderment.
Democrats need a brand image, but they also need a capsule critique of Republicans, one which undermines Republican claims to have any kind of principle, and which points out the income redistribution, which the Republicans have pursued at the expense of the poor and the middle class.
That message will be easy to formulate, but difficult to broadcast, because all the broadcasters are owned by Republicans. But, that is what is needed.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jul 3, 2005 12:02:42 PM

What the voters have "resonated to", I suspect, is the Republican criticism of/characterization of, liberalism, since 1970. The Republican mantra of cut taxes/shrink government/"strong" defense has gone largely unchallenged by Democrats, while Democrats also largely let the whole "big government is incompetent" thing go unchallenged. (Though Gore, under Clinton, did pour a lot of effort into actually improving government processes.) The Republican criticism of affirmative action as quotas for racially-defined special interest groups was very effective. Surprisingly effective, too, is the stealth theme: they are all alike, they all do it, Democrats are just as corrupt, just as bad. Nixon had Watergate, Reagan/Bush had Iran Contra, and Clinton had Whitewater. Democrats have never been good at getting across the point that Whitewater was entirely a Republican fiction.
Some Republican themes are amazing: when Bush's stump speech asserted that raising taxes on the wealthy would result in higher taxes for the middle class, because the wealthy have lawyers and accountants, I, personally, was struck dumb with wonderment.
Democrats need a brand image, but they also need a capsule critique of Republicans, one which undermines Republican claims to have any kind of principle, and which points out the income redistribution, which the Republicans have pursued at the expense of the poor and the middle class.
That message will be easy to formulate, but difficult to broadcast, because all the broadcasters are owned by Republicans. But, that is what is needed.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Jul 3, 2005 12:03:07 PM

Capsule critique of Republicans? They are quite literally Wolves in Shepards' Clothing. Christians have flocked to them only to be fleeced.

Posted by: Porco Rosso | Jul 3, 2005 12:16:03 PM

I think we could use some new grand projects for liberalism in addition universal healthcare.

Posted by: Lavoisier1794 | Jul 3, 2005 11:48:54 PM

Wilkinson vacillates between intelligent, thoughtful commentary and libertarian sloganeering. His latter mode doesn't really deserve a response this thoughtful.

Posted by: djw | Jul 4, 2005 12:38:09 PM

What Bruce Wilder said.

I know that I sound like a one note hummer, but there is substantial power simmering under Social Security Solvency. The message of the day is that Democrats have no message. Of course we do, we want to use government to improve the lives of ordinary Americans while still allowing the economy to become more productive overall. There was a term for this in the mid-twentieth century, people who wanted government to work for the people were derisively called Goo-Goos. "Goo-Goo" was short for Good Government, and generically meant lets provide the same services with a lot less graft and corruption. It wasn't that City Hall wasn't picking up the garbage or filling the potholes, it was that brother in law Rocco got the no bid contract. (And yes we will come clean, in the Northeast at least Rocco was a Dem and the Goo-Goos Reps, which is why all the surviving moderate Reps come from the Northeast, they still want Good Government)

Republicans have gained a bunch of mileage running on the tires of Social Security going threadbare in a way that they will have to patch them, or maybe not. They have placed a huge moral claim on society. A claim that borders on extortion "Give up the tax cut and we won't throw Gramma from the Train!". Now Gramma is kicking back, grabbing the gun, explaining that she has paid her fare and still is, and by the way where is that $1.7 trillion she lent you.

A solvent Social Security system sends a serious disturbance right through (or Right through) the Dark Side. Their battle star was not built for skirmishing over the numbers, those were supposed to be soundly in place. Republican credibility on anything simply shreds when it rubs up on solvency. They will be clearly faced with one of three possible explanations on Social Security: we were stupid, we were liars, or we were stupid liars. None of those is a really good recipe for 2006 mid-terms.

We can leverage this. America is finally waking up to the understanding that they were lied into war. Finding out that they have been systematically lied to on Social Security just allows us to cement the equation. "Republicans lie". Thats a message.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Jul 4, 2005 1:18:10 PM

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