Like most progressives, we at Democracy spent last fall and winter wondering what happened. The tea parties. The death panels. Max Baucus spending three months negotiating with people who had no intention of striking any sort of compromise. Jobless numbers going up and up. Faith among people in the government to solve problems, temporarily renewed last year, going down and down. Conservatives doing their usual dreadful job of proposing positive ideas but their usual excellent job of controlling spin. The president looking increasingly like a captain running the currents of the Niagara River.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, was it? But that question merely raises another: Just what was it supposed to be like, then? In that fractious liberal spirit with which we are all so familiar, a wide range of answers was posited. Mine went as follows. The 2008 election did not signal a new openness among Americans to progressive governance. It signaled a disgust with conservative governance. But that didn’t mean that people were ready to toss rose petals at the feet of liberalism—just that people were ready to give the progressives a try, to see if our side proved more competent than the other guys. It would be up to Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress to demonstrate that they were. Others were more hopeful than that. And not without reason: Obama had been given a mandate; congressional Democrats owned large majorities; the right, a year ago, was completely at sea; an era of good feeling seemed possibly upon us.
Which of these interpretations was correct doesn’t matter much anymore—we are where we are. In analyzing why, the daily press and blogosphere tend to focus 90 percent of their conversations on Obama himself—his decisions, miscalculations, errors. Democracy exists to broaden the conversation out and to add historical and analytic perspectives that don’t always find their way into our daily pugilism.
With all that in mind, late last year we asked several leading progressive intellectuals and writers to think about the longer view—about the condition of progressive politics in America right now, not just the condition of Barack Obama. Yes, there are plenty of reflections about the president in our cover package, but much more is on offer than that, as you would expect from a collection of symposiasts of this caliber.
Our contributors represent a broad range of progressive opinion, so the package does not present a consensus view about the way forward. But some common threads emerge. For one, there is a conviction that we should be appropriately sober about progressive prospects in the current climate; for another, a sense that the state of affairs cannot all be pinned on one man. Several essays gesture toward the idea that a crucial weakness of contemporary liberalism is that it is not a mass movement in the way it once was—certainly in Franklin Roosevelt’s day, or even Lyndon Johnson’s. And so 2009 was never going to be like 1933 or 1965, despite numerous hopes and declamations to the contrary.
But the biggest question is whether liberalism today is intellectually and institutionally equipped to confront the challenges the country faces. What has the experience of the last 14 months taught us about liberalism as currently conceived and practiced? Where do old habits hold us back? To what ends should new imagination and effort be applied? What are the proper limits of progressive governance? To these and kindred questions, this symposium offers often chastening answers.
The issue contains gems beyond the cover package. The esteemed criminal justice expert John DiIulio makes a cogent argument for a new federal crime bill. Crime, though famously lower in many cities, is still quite high in much of the country—and, as DiIulio reminds us, part of why crime has been contained to the extent that it has is the result of a massive prison-industrial complex that must be a target of reform as well. Physician and writer J. Wes Ulm delivers a bracing denunciation of Social Darwinism—not because it’s bad and mean, but because it actually hampers productive competition. Michael Kazin reads Going Rogue, Richard Reeves analyzes Amartya Sen and Michael Sandel, the acclaimed novelist Adam Haslett explains why gay marriage actually stabilizes the beleaguered institution, and much else.
I close on a sad note. Clay Risen, our managing editor since Democracy’s inception, has left us for an editing job at the op-ed page of The New York Times. We will miss his company and his keen eye, but take some comfort in knowing that America’s leading newspaper will benefit from both.