Symposium | The Liberal Moment: What Happened?

Liberalism, Unwilling and Unable

By Brad Carson

Tagged Liberalismprogressivism

It would be easy to write the obituary of liberalism, but it seems unnecessary, if only because it is so belated, as the deceased lost the flesh of relevance more than a generation ago. The observation that liberalism is not just dead, but entirely decayed, and the skeleton mostly dried to dust, may seem counterintuitive given the success, in recent years, of the political party most closely associated with the ideal. There is much to rejoice about in the successful campaign of President Obama and, too, of Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives. Moreover, congressional debate in recent months has shown that significant differences do exist between the political parties, despite tired if occasional claims to the contrary. But rearguard battles, no matter how bloody, should not be mistaken for amphibious landings on farther shores; nor should the ascent of a single talented leader be confused with the resurrection of a movement. At a time when the need for political and economic reform is as great as it has ever been, contemporary liberalism is sadly best described as an aesthetic, not an ethic; best viewed as more a cultural posture than systematic program; best recognized as less an ideology than a sensibility.

What do we talk about when we talk about “liberalism,” a portmanteau after all, subject of technical discussion but used more casually and frequently to describe what are in fact a number of philosophical positions and an array of public policies? At a conceptual level, liberalism, rooted in responses to post-Reformation sectarian war, emphasizes tolerance, equality under the law, and a state neutrality toward competing conceptions of the good life. Autonomy of the individual, coupled with justice in and by political institutions, are the esteemed values. But few liberal activists and fewer liberal politicians stay up late reading Locke or Mill or Rawls. For all but the scholarly, liberalism is nothing more abstruse than a sympathy for the marginalized, a confidence in centralized power but a skepticism toward the public expression of religious faith, and an inchoate yearning for a better, more equitable world. At this pragmatic level, the lack of ideological rigor can give liberalism an inconsistent aspect, delimited by what people who self-identify with the label claim it to be, even if those claims reflect the insistent infiltration of arguably non-liberal notions (like multiculturalism).

Nonetheless, it is possible to identify two practices so pervasive, and undertaken with such confidence, that they may rightfully be called the essence of twenty-first century American liberalism. In economic policy, while the current organization of the market is accepted as both basically just and in any event irresistible, liberals try to blunt its often savage blows through a commitment to public education, class mobility, and, for the unlucky, compensatory policies to mitigate the hardships of poverty. In social policy, liberals take a secular and permissive stance on the great cultural questions of religion and sex, social fissures now almost 50 years old but persistently deep and dangerous. Abortion rights? Liberal. Marriage equality? Liberal. Prayer in schools, or nativity scenes in the town square? Not liberal. To realize these substantive goals, liberals often favor the means of litigation, a tactic essential to the struggle against segregation, and one used to compel a begrudging public when persuasion fails and democracy falters.

Liberalism has many remarkable accomplishments, and to argue that its future is now past is not to gainsay those, nor is it to assert that liberalism should not have fought for the recognition of African Americans, women, and, more recently, gays and lesbians, or for national health insurance. It is instead to say that liberalism is on the horns of what, in a different context, has been called the innovator’s dilemma: It has successfully created a world less needful of it, while liberalism’s priorities and processes have become obstacles to adaptation. Liberalism strives to create an open economy tempered by protections against economic insecurity, but what once was accurately diagnosed as merely a bug of the economy has been transmuted by globalization into a chastening feature. Liberalism aspires to emancipate the individual from the tyranny of unjustified hierarchy, but it confronts a country demanding not more liberation from tradition but a progressive reinvention of community. Liberalism disdains federalism–too long a byword for inaction or worse–but does so in an era when technology, by ending the scarcity of information, makes the decentralization of power actually feasible and imperative. Liberalism pursues justice first through the courts, not the ballot box, but at the cost of its own legitimacy, and by obscuring the need for a wholesale reform of political institutions, not a reallocation of rights within them. Liberalism fights for equality but chooses to separate the battle against discrimination from the war for an economic justice transcendent of race, rendering stillborn the coalition which, an end in itself, is also essential to success in the future.

That liberalism finds itself unwilling and unable to respond to the most pressing of social needs–global labor arbitrage, shallow and cynical public engagement, a lack of social solidarity–and that this failure arises in many cases precisely because of past successes lends a tragic pall to today’s politics, and it is this pall that separates the present from the other great progressive moments of 1933 and 1965. When Franklin Roosevelt took office, he could invoke, however hesitatingly, a growing body of new ideas, mostly developed in the United Kingdom and Scandinavia, to support his instinctive and pragmatic genius. And the New Deal was young and half-completed when Lyndon Johnson assumed power, committed to concluding what his admired predecessor left undone, and largely doing so. What remains of this great liberal ambition? Health care, yes; but does this not seem less fresh bloom than final flowering? More the last stately mansion that proves you’ve reached the end of the cul-de-sac rather than the gate to future’s throughway? If health care legislation is passed, liberals will have finally enacted what every other industrial country achieved 70 years ago. Then what?

If answers are few, the questions remain many, and therein lies opportunity. Take one example, the organization of work, the key historical concern of the left, and an issue of potentially great power since everyone has a stake in the outcome. Inequality is part of the concern here, and liberals do take note. But overlooked is an inequality of more than income and wealth. The very foundation of American society is being rocked by the febrile and kaleidoscopic character of the new economy. For many in the professional classes (think of people involved in finance, law, media, and insurance), this is all to the good. Work has become conflated with play. You can set your own schedule, engage in constant learning by doing, eschew dependency and celebrate flexibility, all the while confident that nontransferable knowledge rarely loses its potency; and in any case your environment is insulated by a network of well-credentialed friends. Yet this experience of work is entirely alien to most Americans. Whether due to trade, technology, or private equity, all colors of the collar find themselves under assault, subject to displacement from developing country, machine, or the imperatives of shareholder value. Especially disappearing are the careers that provided low-educated or disadvantaged workers lifetime opportunities for on-the-job training, steady advancement through an often-unionized workplace, and retirement benefits. When present, work for this cohort is either ruthlessly regimented–punch that clock!–or increasingly casual, as underemployment, temporary work, and contract work now account for about 20 percent of the labor pool. These startling changes in the nature of work have been examined by thinkers ranging from Roberto Unger and Richard Sennett to Gary Hamel and Ricardo Semler; all note that this is much more than an economic problem, because steady and meaningful work is what the sociologist Sennett has called a “promissory note for social inclusion.”

Everything in its grand history and everything in the troubled present suggests that liberalism should attack with tooth and claw the power gap between economic insiders and outsiders and the resulting disparities in access to capital, technology, and culture. Liberalism’s reluctance to do so–or at least do so with any imagination and creativity–suggests a broader and more debilitating weakness, an inability to address the primary concerns of people in a new language freed from old pieties and reconciling of parochial, centrifugal interests. One reason liberalism largely overlooks the tectonic changes in the organization of work is that most liberal policymakers and surely all liberal pundits are members of that tiny class benefiting from what the vast majority of workers finds nothing less than catastrophic. A second, more important explanation is that liberalism holds these economic changes as resistant to revision, part of the economic furniture if you will, and subject, at best, to amelioration.

But the liberal remedies of yore have been overtaken by facts; effective in a closed economy and at a time when economic dislocation was more frictional than structural, the favored policies are wholly inadequate and may even be counterproductive in an open, winner-take-all economy in which whole classes of jobs are disappearing. Because inequality takes root early in life, meritocracy does little to diminish the hereditary transmission of advantage–this is why egalitarians originally coined “meritocracy” as a term of opprobrium–and indeed hides the persistence of it. Affirmative action does little to assist, as those very capable minorities most likely to receive preferential admission to the portal of the professional classes are precisely those who need assistance the least. Meanwhile, affirmative action alienates economically disadvantaged whites who might otherwise support class-based benefits that would disproportionately, if ironically, help the intended but illusory beneficiaries of current policy. Compensatory payments to economic losers–welfare, in other words–are rarely sufficient and, if adequate, require a level of taxation that is burdensome and resisted, and then avoided.

Not tinkering with the status quo but burying it–this should be the progressive purpose. But liberalism is not up to the challenge. Why support liberal efforts to open up the rewarding precincts of work only to new elite entrants, when it might be possible to expand the new forms of employment to the entire economy, an economy otherwise gripped by a recalcitrant Taylorism on one hand and disposability on the other, through cooperative ownership of assets such as expanded employee stock-option plans or even publicly owned venture capital? So, too, when it might be possible to reinvent the very forms of our governance, why join liberals content merely to invite more groups into the republic’s withered garden, choked by the electoral college and filibusters and first-past-the-post elections, tended occasionally only by distant judicial guardians? Why accept liberal fears of mass collective action–in forms such as referenda and direct democracy–when it is with a faith in the good intentions of ordinary men and women that the left was formed? And why accept liberalism’s push for uniform solutions, developed with technocratic expertise and administered by a bureaucracy that is Napoleonic if not Soviet in intensity? The super-empowerment of the individual and the rise of alternative, sometimes virtual, but still very real forms of community are the salient developments of our time. Remembering their associative roots, progressives should work with these trends, rather than opposing them.

In my experience, most liberals feel beleaguered, silently convinced that their current position is difficult to defend and that their intellectual arsenal is inadequate to the coming conflict. But most know of few alternatives, and there is a real fear that any letting go of the past will allow opposition forces to occupy the ceded ground, while a move to new territory will be derided as hopelessly utopian. That’s why 2008 was so exciting for liberals. Maybe things weren’t as bad as everybody had been led to believe! But great candidates and extraordinary crises come together rarely. Liberalism remains today, as it has been for years, trapped pursuing goals no longer resonant, with means no longer effective. That is why, in the end, and whatever the success of the Obama Administration, there was no political revolution in 2008. For all real revolutions start with revolutions in thought, and, on this, progressives must still wait and work.

From the Symposium

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Brad Carson is the director of the National Energy Policy Institute at the University of Tulsa. He is a former Democratic Congressman from Oklahoma.

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