Symposium | The Liberal Moment: What Happened?

It's Up to Obama

Tagged Barack ObamaDemographicsInequality

Barack Obama’s election was analogous to neither Franklin Roosevelt’s nor Lyndon Johnson’s. His victory was more like Bill Clinton’s: Neither reflected a shift of the U.S. public in a progressive or liberal direction.

In 1992, Clinton made it over the top thanks to independent Ross Perot, who drew votes away from George H. W. Bush; then the 1994 mid-term elections brought the Republican Contract with America that retook the House of Representatives for conservatives. In 2008, independents were again decisive. Their movement to Obama, not growth in the number of voters identifying as Democrats or liberal, put the first African-American president in the White House. Obama won them by signaling a respect for business, emphasizing the ideal of “liberty” more than “equality,” re-describing political issues as practical problems, representing himself as the post-ideological pragmatist ready to meet those problems, and conveying impressive functional competence. By the end of his first year in office, many of these independents had moved back toward the Republicans. Independents are transients; their momentary alliance with the left hardly signaled a liberal resurgence.

If U.S. politics is to move in a progressive direction, it will do so not as a mere reflection of where we already are but only as a response to leadership. The question of the state of liberal or progressive thought at this historical juncture therefore depends significantly on what Obama does with his office.

Is Obama leading in this way? First, it should be acknowledged that moving citizens of this country in a progressive direction is a harder task now than it was for either Roosevelt or Johnson, the two predecessors who converted liberal electoral victories into liberal legislative agendas. With 25 percent of Americans out of work and another 10 percent only partially employed, Roosevelt faced an economy in worse shape than the one that greeted Obama. Nor, in 1933, had the country yet had its argument about big government. The meanings and consequences of growth in federal power remained obscure, so Roosevelt had more room for action in a progressive direction than Obama has had.

Johnson, in contrast to Roosevelt, benefited from the country’s postwar prosperity, although it was waning, and from Kennedy’s tax cut. Johnson was also in a unique position: He had already laid the foundations for his agenda with his work in the Senate, for instance on the 1957 civil rights bill. And for him, too, the most intense arguments about federal power lay still well beyond the horizon, in the Reagan years. Lastly, Johnson’s election did reflect a real realignment in American politics. When he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he remarked that the Democratic Party had thereby lost the South for a generation. But it had also gained: In the subsequent November election, Johnson took 61 percent of the popular vote, and Democrats won 68 seats in the Senate; true dominance. Clearly, Johnson’s powerbase was more substantial than Obama’s.

Yet the challenge of politics is always to meet one’s moment. Current conditions may not be as immediately amenable to movement in a progressive direction as in 1932 and 1964, but if Obama is a leader, and not simply an office-holder, he should be able to guide the public in a progressive direction nonetheless. Is he doing so? He has, by and large, not yet begun.

How do we know? The declining poll numbers are not the tell-tale sign; it’s instead the absence of a strong sense of direction. On the principle that a blueprint for one’s friends is equally a blueprint for one’s enemies, Roosevelt famously kept to himself the timing and nature of his tactical moves. But he showed everyone the target at which he was aiming: “A New Deal for the forgotten man.” So did Johnson: “The Great Society.” So did Ronald Reagan, preparing for reelection: “Morning in America.” Obama has yet to tell us where, under his leadership, we are heading. What evocative ideal can now energize progressive thought and action?

Before one can accurately describe the ideals that are the goal, one needs to know the starting point from which one will move toward their attainment. Just as a constellation looks different from the northern and southern hemispheres, so too is there a relationship between the right way of envisioning an ideal and one’s current position.

This year, 2010, differs fundamentally from 1933 and 1965; long-term change has brought us a different kind of polity. Three major demographic changes raise intellectual questions that must be answered en route to formulating the evocative ideals of a new progressive movement.

First of all, the role of religion in American life has changed significantly. We can date to the late ’70s the point at which older structures of American religious life, dominated by the large institutions of mainline Protestantism, gave way to a more fragmented and multi-faceted universe in which evangelical churches play a significant role. At the same time, among white Americans, religiosity and party affiliation have come into closer alignment. Fully 62 percent of “highly religious” white Americans are Republicans, while 28 percent are Democrats; conversely, 56 percent of “non-religious” white Americans are Democrats, while 28 percent are Republicans. In 1936 surveys, opinion of Roosevelt ran strongly positive among Catholics, Jews, and Baptists, tipped slightly negative among Lutherans and Methodists, and ran strongly negative among Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists. In other words, some highly religious voters were for him and some were against him. In contrast, Obama’s approval ratings run in inverse relation to the religious intensity of voters.

The ethnic makeup of the country has also changed dramatically; the U.S. Census Bureau currently projects 2050 as the year when the country will cease to be majority white, a change that major states like California and Texas have already experienced. We are on our way to being a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nation of a scale and scope that will stretch even our very elastic notion of “peoplehood.” And, lastly, citizens of the United States have come to take the broad powers of the federal government for granted. This may seem counter-intuitive after all the recent headlines given to anti-tax and anti-government activists, but Republicans and conservatives have begun to protect federal programs like Social Security and Medicare, and the single issue that presently generates the most bi-partisan cooperation is education, where the role of the federal government was greatly expanded by a Republican, George W. Bush, not a Democrat.

In brief, this country’s politically engaged citizens are now more spiritually divided, more ethnically diverse, and, paradoxically, also more routinely accepting of governmental power than in 1933 or 1965.

Against this backdrop, to captivate the public with a reanimated ideal of progressivism, progressive leaders will have to answer three major intellectual questions. Those questions concern governmental power, equality, and political polarization; each emerges from the demographic facts laid out above.

On governmental power. Reagan spent his two terms conducting an argument with the citizenry about the nature of governmental power, and he used the opposition between the United States and the Soviet Union to frame that argument. The Soviet Union, as a totalitarian state, was presented as the leading example of what results from excessive faith in the power of government to ameliorate the human condition. The right approach was instead to get government out of the way, to let markets do their work. One still hears voters refer to “trickle-down” economics to explain their views on particular issues. Reagan and his advisers gave the country a political vocabulary that we still use, and that vocabulary works largely to discredit governmental power.

A close reading of Obama’s books and major speeches reveals among his basic political ideas the view that significant state power is simply an inevitable fact of modern life; it should therefore be used, rather than undermined, and used for the good. This good he defines mainly as the achievement of a largely material well-being. In his inaugural address, he explained, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.”

Because the U.S. citizenry now fundamentally accepts broad federal power, there is room for Obama to act on this idea and to accustom the public to an idea of governmental power as beneficial. Indeed, he has done this particularly in responding to the financial crisis. But because the political education of U.S. citizens is still rooted in the Reagan era, Obama’s endorsement of state power also brings into prominence a dialectically linked question. What are the limits of state power, and where should they be set?

In order to advance progressive thought and action, then, he and his aides need to develop progressive answers that aim to displace the answers offered by the Reaganites. The case for seeing the deployment of federal power as a good requires an explanation not only of what and how goods can flow from its use but also of its appropriate limits. Again, return to his inaugural address, in which we heard, “For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.” But what does he mean by this implicit acknowledgment of limits? Does he mean that excessive reliance on government is spiritually enervating? Or does he mean that there are some kinds of problems that bureaucratic instruments are simply incapable of addressing? Or does he mean something else altogether? As it stands, his is an answer only partially worked out.

On equality. I spent much of the election listening for comments in Obama’s speeches on the subject of equality. To my dismay, there were few. Like Bush, he tended rather to emphasize freedom; in the inaugural address, for instance, he enjoined Americans to “[c]arry forth the great gift of freedom [to be] delivered safely to future generations.” In downplaying the language of equality, he conceded to critics of progressivism who have argued since the 1980s that efforts to pursue equality, whether socio-economic equality or equality of opportunity, have gone too far–that, for instance, redistributive policies sacrifice the liberties of some citizens in trying to achieve a chimerical equality of outcome.

Progressive thinkers have not yet effectively answered that powerful critique of the pursuit of equality. The urgency of doing so is all the greater in light of the increase in the country’s diversity, for the types of equality at stake in our polity now again include the political–the challenge of sharing power equally among those with different cultural backgrounds, worldviews, and experiences is pressing itself upon us. How can we make the case for equality in the present day? That question too must be engaged.

On political polarization. The populace of the United States has always been highly polarized; if nothing else, the institutions first of slavery and then Jim Crow ensured that, because slaves and masters do not agree. Since Brown v. Board of Education, however, we have incorporated radical polarization within the empowered citizenry. Moreover, changes in the media (the rise of cable, the transition from reading the paper at home and discussing it to sneaking it on the Internet at work and keeping mum) have exacerbated trends toward polarization by over-emphasizing the voices and views of the most politically engaged, and so of the most ideological, citizens. But the underlying demographic changes are also significant. Ethnicity, religiosity, and even military service now line up with geographical and partisan cleavages. How serious a matter is this? How might one weave anew a sense of shared citizenship? We need to build institutional forms and public practices that more frequently engage politically diverse citizens in pursuit of a common purpose. Forward movement on a progressive agenda requires thought and action here too.

Clearly, then, the questions of the progressive agenda are live, and the moment is ripe for engaging them. But isn’t it always?

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