Symposium | The Liberal Moment: What Happened?

DMV Liberalism

By Joe Klein

Tagged GovernanceLiberalism

I want to believe in pendulums. Obviously, political tides do change. I’m just not entirely sure how, precisely, they swing or whether the swings can be considered regular, back and forth to the same place, in the way a pendulum implies. The history of political tides might look more like a sailboat tacking in a certain direction; you hope that the arc of history actually does bend toward justice. But who knows?

A year ago, it seemed we had reached the end of the pendulum swing to the right that had begun in 1980. The public seemed open to government activism–at the very least, open to the idea that governance was necessary. If you believe, as Ronald Reagan said in his 1981 inaugural address, that “government is not the solution to our problems,” you tend not to pay much attention to governing, and sooner or later you wind up with the head of the International Arabian Horse Association running FEMA. George W. Bush seemed the ultimate bankruptcy of a movement that was never very far-sighted to begin with (indeed, it was militantly short-sighted), a philosophy plausible only to times of peace and prosperity, and thumpingly callous even then.

I would like to believe that 2008 was a political hinge-point, as 1932 and 1980 were. But I wanted to believe that in 1992, and I’m sure Republicans wanted to think Dwight Eisenhower’s election in 1952 was a sea change, and Democrats in 1976, and so forth. If there’s any solace in the iffiness of the moment, it’s that 1933 or 1981–truly the beginning of new political eras–probably didn’t seem so certain, either. Franklin Roosevelt came to office touting budgetary conservatism–he even cut payments to World War I veterans–and made a wary transition to the Keynesian welfare statism during his first year in office; the fate and nature of the New Deal was very much uncertain in early 1934. Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts didn’t seem to put much of a dent in Paul Volcker’s recession in 1981–indeed, Reagan would have to raise taxes dramatically in 1982. (The Gipper’s 1981 poll numbers look very much like Barack Obama’s in 2009, hovering around 50 percent–he was saved by an economy that revived just in time for his reelection, as Obama may be.)

The point is, there’s no such thing as a clean break when it comes to history. Pendulum swings, if they exist, have ragged edges. The right may be philosophically exhausted these days, but it has considerable vestigial influence over the media and the public. The politics of the past 30 years was very different from the politics that came before. It was far more intimate and intense. It was defined by the exploitation of new technologies: more sophisticated use of polls, focus groups and direct mail; cable news networks and talk radio, and, of course, the Internet. All these made the prevailing political philosophy–in this case, Reaganite conservatism–more influential in the lives of average citizens than ever before; after all, it was a direct, surgical response to their prejudices as measured by political consultants. It will take some time, and some clear-headed, strategic liberal governance to change existing assumptions and prejudices, if such a turn is possible absent a disaster even more dramatic than last year’s economic collapse.

After 30 years of non-stop cynicism about government action, it’s going to take hard proof, over time, for people to begin to believe that government can help make them more secure and prosperous. This is especially true in a mature democracy, with rutted special interests, on both sides, bending every significant legislative action to their needs. After 30 years of militaristic jingoism passing for foreign policy (and after 100 years, since Theodore Roosevelt, of Caucasian neo-colonial assumptions), the idea of diplomacy and multilateral cooperation seems soft and turgid and passive. One hopes, perhaps in vain, for a few clear-cut diplomatic victories.

The sad reality is that preferred conservative courses of action–tax cuts, racing to Baghdad in three weeks–may be short-sighted and ultimately counterproductive, but they do give the appearance of effective action more than, say, a universal health-care plan that won’t take effect until 2014 (and even then won’t have much of an impact on most people) or attention to an abstract climate crisis, or the containment and deterrence of Iran. This is a structural defect of liberalism in a world where infotainment passes for information: It’s too complicated, and it takes too long.

And yet we know that complicated long-term adjustments are going to be needed in both domestic and foreign affairs if the country is going to continue to prosper, and perhaps even survive. I believe that the public might, over time, be convinced of that, too–but it must be done carefully; gradually, in most cases. This means incremental change, certainly at first, until trust is built. It also means that liberals are going to have to reform themselves–and free themselves of some of the defensiveness and bad assumptions that became embedded in their psyche over the past 30 years.

There are three essential adjustments that liberalism needs to make if progressives hope to launch a tide as influential as Reagan conservatism. It has to focus on governing effectively, it has to embrace the future rather than the past (even when its interest groups represent the status quo), and it has to regain public support for the notion of true progressivity.

Good governance is the predicate for everything else. Democrats not only have to run FEMA far better than Republicans did, but they have to invent new user-friendly ways for citizens to access the government across the board–especially those who have lost their jobs or their health care. This is not very exciting, but it is crucial. (I remember a terrific idea that Doug Ross had when he served in Clinton’s Labor Department: a job-training credit card for the unemployed, giving them access to a computer system that would provide a universal catalogue of existing training programs, what their placement rates were, and how much the jobs paid. It was killed by governors and labor unions who had a stake in the current, outdated, and inefficient system of job-training.)

Thorough congressional reform should also be a priority. I’m not talking about structural changes like the elimination of the filibuster–those sorts of things take up too much time and energy, and are too remote from the public (and fleeting in their utility–until the next Republican-majority Senate). Liberal governance has to be Windex-squeaky transparent and intelligent, especially when it comes to the disbursement of taxpayer dollars. The stigma that some, like John McCain, have attached to relatively tiny transgressions, like earmarks, has to be redirected toward the real culprits: The power of congressional appropriators has to be challenged. The Democratic Party has to be de-Byrded. A good example is the National Infrastructure Bank, which Obama campaigned on but abandoned once in office–this would create an independent board, like the Federal Reserve, that would approve the largest infrastructure projects, according to need and efficacy, rather than political clout. In other words, it would remove some power from the House and Senate appropriations committees, fever swamps populated by the greediest and least visionary legislators. It should also go without saying that a scoundrel like Charles Rangel cannot be allowed to continue as the chair of a major congressional committee. This last may seem cosmetic, but it was the consistent crookedness of congressional Republicans over the past decade that helped turn the electoral tide for Democrats; if the party is to retain congressional majorities, it needs the support of independent voters–the less surly Perot supporters–who insist on small-c conservatism when it comes to the public trust. If the Democratic Party can’t accomplish these relatively small things, it won’t be trusted with the truly significant changes–the continuing evolution of health care, the response to climate change–that need to be made.

A second area that has to be considered is a close look at traditional progressive interest groups, some of which consistently act against the greater public good. The most egregious example, but not the only one, is teachers’ unions, who all too often have blocked important structural reforms and a more creative educational environment for students. The past three decades have brought a fundamental change in how work is organized–from the assembly line as a defining structure to the computer network. Schools are still run as assembly lines, and teachers are organized as assembly-line workers, subject to antiquated concepts like seniority rules and strict pay and time schedules. They need to be treated as professionals. They need to be given flexibility in how they do their jobs; good ones need to be rewarded and bad ones need to be fired without the rigmarole now required by union work rules. Worse, the teachers’ unions have been a decidedly illiberal influence–in tacit alliance with local school boards–when it comes to experimentation with curriculum, hours, calendars, and how schools are organized. I’m not convinced that there’s any one Information Age model for education, as there was during the Industrial Age–given the multiplicity of information sources, that may mean, ultimately, a customized education for every student. But we need to find out what works, and the unions are a significant force standing in the way of that.

This is not a brief for union-busting; it is an argument for progress. It might even lead to significantly higher salaries , and greater public respect, for many teachers. And teachers are not alone: There are other “liberal” special interests that are in need of reform, but I can’t emphasize enough how important education is to the liberal project: Without an enlightened electorate, able to choose long-term benefits over quick fixes, the values of the Reagan era will remain dominant.

Another idea very close to the heart of liberalism is progressivity: the idea that the more you make, the more you should contribute to the common weal. This idea has taken a battering over the past 30 years; Congress has repeatedly raised the most regressive levies (payroll taxes, for example) and lowered the most progressive (like the estate tax). I assume that the progressive Clinton tax rates will be reintroduced as the Bush tax cuts expire, but it also may be time to discourage some of the less constructive antics of the hyper-wealthy, especially the Ponzified casino-gambling on Wall Street that helped cause the 2008 crash. The AFL-CIO and others have offered a small (0.1 percent) tax on all stock transactions, first proposed by James Tobin, the Nobel laureate. I’d favor an even more targeted, and perhaps larger (1 percent) Tobin tax on all financial derivatives transactions–the exotic gambling devices that powered the crash. This would nudge Wall Street back in the direction of raising money for actual goods and services rather than rewarding itself for the churning of financial fantasies. A campaign for this sort of tax would have the added benefit of educating the public about who and what actually caused our recent economic problems; I’d love to see right-wing populists like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin try to rationalize opposition to a tax on credit-default swaps.

Liberals are congenitally disposed to thinking grand thoughts, and that’s a good thing–in the long run. In the short term, however, liberalism has to embrace–and work to markedly improve–the quotidian ceremonies of governance, the places where the public meets the government every day. Liberalism has to prove that it will be hard-headed in spending public money, that it will not go wobbly in defending the country’s security, that it stands for change that is humane and truly progressive rather than simply aggrandizing its traditional allies. I am not pessimistic that this can happen, but it requires discipline and vigilance. It requires a steady accretion of benign interactions between the government and the public. A successful progressive vision involves not only eyes on the prize, but also on the Department of Motor Vehicles.

From the Symposium

The Liberal Moment: What Happened?

The standard narrative, at this point, is this: Fourteen months ago, the progressive breast swelled with joy and hope at Barack Obama's ascent to power; today, much of that hope is lost, and the fault sits squarely on the shoulders...

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Joe Klein is a former Time magazine political columnist and the author of seven books.

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