What Happened?

By Michael Tomasky

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 of the man who raised expectations so thrillingly in 2008 and has deflated them so utterly since.

Without question, there is something to the story. But it is, perhaps, a little more cathartic than explanatory. In assuming Obama to be a transcendent man, the master narrative offers an analysis rooted in Carlyle’s idea that “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”–a touch ironic, since liberal historians and practitioners have tended to eschew Carlyle’s view in favor of a more “ground-up” interpretation of events, one that examines not only the people in power but the people out of power, around it, and below it, alongside the institutional forces that shape and surround all of those actors.

Indeed, many liberals have been thinking about the past 14 months in precisely these ways. What are those institutional forces today–which ones are powerful, and which ignorable? What was the true nature of the historical moment of November 2008–a sea change, a more tentative correction, or something even more limiting than that? What realities, beyond those that have to do with Obama himself, exist to nurture today’s liberalism or to strangle it? Is contemporary liberalism equipped–intellectually, organizationally–to address today’s concerns? And if not, how should it change?

Last December, we at Democracy formulated four questions that attempted to sum up these thoughts:

1. We often speak and think of the historical left-right pendulum–e.g., it swung to the left in the 1960s, to the right in the 1980s. Where is that pendulum right now, at the end of Obama’s first year as President?

2. How are things different today from 1933, 1965, or 1993? Is there a general trajectory of change over the last 77 years?

3. Without getting into of-the-moment politics and thinking in more historical terms, what is possible now? Are big things possible today (or even desirable), or is this just a different and more incrementalist time? What are the limits of progressive governance?

4. Is today’s liberalism as it should be? What important attribute or capacity does it lack? What role should it aspire to play in the twenty-first century that it is not playing now?

To answer these questions, we asked some of America’s leading progressive thinkers to give us their takes on where the last 14 months fit within the historical scope of American liberalism. Here are their responses, which get at what may be the central challenge for progressives today. We have a liberalism that wants to do much–that has, over the years and decades, only added to its list of goals and desired interventions. But we have a system that seemingly in both political and policy terms simply can’t accommodate all those desires. We have what you might call an idea-oversupply problem. How, then, do we prioritize? What goals can succeed in the short term–and in the long term, can succeed in opening up more breathing room for the list?

Our symposium does not definitively answer these questions; they are, ultimately, unanswerable, destined for a state of constant flux, like Heraclitus’ ever-flowing river into which one cannot take the same step twice. But they’re the right questions, and our contributors address them in provocative ways.

Obama and Civic Idealism

By Michael Sandel


Missing the Movement

By Michael Walzer


It's Up to Obama


A Time of Limits

By William Galston


Learning from the World

By Martha Nussbaum


Principles Before Heroes

By Robert Reich


What Happened to Women?


Liberalism, Unwilling and Unable

By Brad Carson


DMV Liberalism

By Joe Klein


Michael Tomasky is the editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.

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