Symposium | The Liberal Moment: What Happened?

Missing the Movement

By Michael Walzer

Tagged Liberalism

I have never found the pendulum metaphor particularly useful, since pendulums swing as far to the right as to the left, and politics is obviously not like that. We have had over 30 years in which all the momentum has been on the right, and the leftward swing of the 1960s has been more than equaled. Politically and ideologically, the shift has been very great; the whole country has moved rightward; every argument starts from a different place than it did 30 or 50 years ago. On a whole range of issues, it is extraordinarily difficult to make any headway: on the state’s obligation to provide health care (without the mediation of profit-seeking insurance companies), on the importance of unions, on a decent environmental policy (and a decent regard for the wellbeing of future generations), and even, in the midst of the recession, on the importance of job creation. November 2008 may have been the beginning of a reversal, the pendulum swinging leftward again. Maybe. But it looks right now like a very weak swing.

1993 doesn’t seem so different, but the ’30s and the ’60s were very different. In those decades there was a vibrant left politics, a movement politics, a grassroots politics, which doesn‘t exist today. The labor movement, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement–all these drove politics leftward. By contrast, Obama’s liberalism has no base. I am sure that surveys would show that he has a lot of support on the issues, maybe even majority support, but this is the kind of support that manifests itself almost entirely in opinion polls, not in the streets or in union halls and churches. What is necessary for a strong leftward pendulum swing is some form of mass mobilization. In addition to the people who tell pollsters that they would like, or would have liked, say, an extension of Medicare to people in their 50s, there have to be people who go to meetings, march in demonstrations, organize in their communities, raise money, and make enough noise so that politicians start worrying about their re-election. The right has been mobilized in exactly that way, at the base, for decades now–through the evangelical churches, the National Rifle Association, the anti-abortion movement, and much more. But since the right also has corporate power and vast amounts of money on its side, mobilization is less critical for it. For the left, it is everything. The only advantage we have is numbers–or, that’s the advantage we used to have.

What happened to that advantage? I think we all know. Starting with the antiwar movement of the ’60s, the left constituency divided in a pretty radical way: on one side, the liberal, secular, well-educated cosmopolitans and on the other side, the religious, socially conservative, working-class patriots. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama managed in different ways to bring these two groups together, at least to some extent, but only as an electoral coalition, not as a cohesive political force able to mobilize its members between elections. Is cohesion and mobilization even possible today? If not, we are likely to have more presidents like Clinton and Obama, who can win elections but cannot enact anything more than a highly compromised version of their own agenda–which is not, in any case, a strong left agenda.

This is an incrementalist time, and the crucial thing is to get the increments right. The economic crisis and the two wars that Obama inherited make this difficult for our embattled president–and the fierceness of the opposition, which I don’t think he expected, makes things even harder. Obama certainly believed everything he said about reconciliation; he thought that he could at least take the edge off the bitter partisanship of Washington politics. Obviously he hasn’t been able to do that, and now every step forward, including the small steps, will require a bloody fight. Meanwhile, the costs of the stimulus and of the wars leave the President very little money for social experiments. He has to move forward with health care and the environment and education even if he can only move slowly, much more slowly than he hoped. This is one form of incrementalism, and what is important is that each move open the way for further moves–no dead ends!

But there is another kind of incrementalism that we need to think about, on the margins, alongside the big issues. I mean things like putting some aggressive liberal/leftists on the National Labor Relations Board, or pushing through small changes in the labor laws that would make union organizing easier, or using federal funds in small amounts to strengthen the kinds of community organizations that the president once worked for, or creating a liberal/left version of Bush’s “faith-based welfare”–enabling local communities, unions, and different sorts of NGOs, as well as churches, to organize family services and mutual aid. This sort of thing is base-building for the future. It can be very quiet and still be effective; its point is simply to loosen the “limits of progressive governance,” so that a Democratic president years from now can do more than Obama can do today.

Liberalism is the American version of social democracy, but it lacks a strong working-class base, party discipline, and ideological self-consciousness. None of these are in the offing, but we need to be aware of what we are missing, and we need to begin at least the intellectual work of making up for it. European social democrats are on the defensive right now, but they have a lot to defend. Liberals here are in catch-up mode, and not doing all that well. We know more or less what we have to do, but we haven’t managed to give the American people a brightly colored picture of the country we would like to create. There is a lot of wonkishness on the liberal left, among American social democrats, but not much inspiration. We haven’t found the words and images that set people marching. As an old leftist, I can talk (endlessly) about citizenship, equality, solidarity, and our responsibility to future generations, but someone much younger than I am has to put all this in a language that resonates with young Americans–and describe a “city upon a hill” that may or may not be the same hill that I have been climbing all these years.

Both liberalism and social democracy are most successful as domestic ideologies. But we also need a doctrine that provides guidelines for foreign policy. Here are the deepest divisions among American liberals–they go back to Vietnam, but they have been reshaped and reinforced by the Bosnia and Kosovo interventions (out of which the “liberal hawks” emerged) and then by Afghanistan and Iraq. During the Bush years, a group of liberal diplomats, political scientists, and public intellectuals worked out an approach to foreign policy that they called “liberal internationalism.” It is a pretty good approach, I think, but it needs a lot more work before liberals and leftists will be able to speak clearly and coherently about military intervention, democracy promotion, foreign aid, global justice, security against terrorism, and the limits of sovereignty. Obama began this work in his Nobel speech, where he defended the use of force, addressing himself to very reluctant Europeans, and insisted on the moral limits of that use, speaking, this time, to his own people.

For some reason, perhaps because of the legacy of World War II, during the Truman years liberals did pretty well governing a great power. We haven’t done well since. Many liberals believe that the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy–and they are right to this extent: that a more egalitarian America would be a stronger and more influential America. But then we have to learn to use our strength and influence internationally, in a long struggle, which is only sometimes military, more often political, and always ideological, for liberalism and democracy.

From the Symposium

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Michael Walzer is co-editor of Dissent and professor (emeritus) of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

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