Not Left for Dead

Why red scare attacks on liberalism are red herrings. A response to Fred Siegel.

By Paul Starr

Tagged HistoryLiberalism

Since the time I was in college in the late 1960s, liberalism has been under steady, sharp, and often shrill attack, while many liberals have seemed too uncertain in their convictions, or too angry about their critics, to argue their own case effectively. First there was the siege from the radical left, which denounced liberalism for complacently accepting the injustices of capitalism and miserably failing to achieve full equality and human liberation. Next came the broadsides of the neoconservatives, originally directed against the grand ambitions and unanticipated consequences of liberal social policy. Then, during the Reagan years, a revived free-market conservatism allied with the religious right mounted the first round of a frontal assault on modern liberal government. Round two of that offensive began after the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994, and round three came after George W. Bush became president. Conservatives had long derided liberals during the Cold War as weak for merely trying to contain communism, not to roll it back; after September 11, rather than negotiate with hostile states, Bush and the neoconservatives renounced the traditions of liberal internationalism, seeking regime change through the unilateral use of force. And throughout these years, right-wing populists kept up a steady barrage of attacks, greatly amplified by the advent of conservative talk radio in the late 1980s and Fox News in the following decade.

All of this took place during a period when the South flipped from
the Democrats to the Republicans, unions suffered a steep decline, and
a gender gap opened as white men turned right. The decline of unions
reflected structural changes in the economy, while the Democrats’ loss
of the South and of white men in all regions stemmed largely from a
backlash against social changes set in motion by movements that
liberals had championed.

Which brings us to the central question raised by liberalism’s critics, among them Fred Siegel [“Blinded by the Left,” Issue #5]: Is something basically wrong with liberalism as a public philosophy, and has that misconceived perspective been the source of failed policies and the primary reason that the Democrats lost their status as the nation’s majority party? Or, alternatively, is liberalism basically right, and did liberals lose the influence they enjoyed via the Democrats because of societal changes that they either could not control or could not conscientiously repudiate–and, to a lesser extent, because of remediable mistakes of policy and strategy?

A great deal hangs on the answer. The first view implies a need for
a new public philosophy regardless of how our circumstances change; the
second implies that new conditions may provide the grounds for a
liberal reconstruction if liberals can correct the strategic and policy
mistakes of recent decades. I take the second position. There is much
that liberals need to reexamine, but they do not need to give up on
their principles, rend their garments, and beg for forgiveness. They
need to build on the strengths of their tradition and to refashion it
to fit new conditions. Yet this position raises questions just as
difficult as the first: What are liberalism’s fundamental principles,
and how should they now be interpreted and applied?

These questions have a new urgency as the Bush presidency stumbles
toward an end. Now it is conservatism that seems exhausted, divided,
and deflated as a result of a devastating combination of overreach and
underachievement. Moreover, the backlash against liberalism that began
in the 1960s may now have petered out. Particularly among the young,
public opinion has shifted in a more liberal and tolerant direction.
None of this guarantees a liberal recovery, but it creates an opening,
which liberals ought to seize not just through electoral politics–but
by clarifying what they stand for and want to accomplish.

I wrote Freedom’s Power, as I say in its preface, “to get
straight what liberalism is about and to set straight what has gone
wrong with it in recent decades.” The book offers a historical
interpretation of liberalism, a defense of liberal principles in their
modern democratic and egalitarian form, and an analysis of what went
wrong beginning in the 1960s and how liberals ought to frame their
general approach to politics today.

Although Freedom’s Power is a short book, it takes a long
view of its subject, going back to the origins of constitutional
liberalism in late seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and
America. Two principal reasons motivate this approach. First, modern
democratic liberalism sits atop the foundation that constitutional
liberals created and that continually needs defending. As Michael Lind
correctly observed in his review in the New York Times, I take
the view that “Anglo-American democratic liberalism is the left wing of
classical liberalism, not, like European social democracy, the right
wing of democratic socialism.” And, second, I argue that from its
beginnings liberalism has been a method not only of constraining power
but also of creating it. That constitutionally limited power can be
more powerful than unlimited power has been a crucial lesson of the
past three centuries and the great, counterintuitive liberal triumph.

At the core of liberalism is the idea that each of us enjoys an
equal right to freedom, but liberalism has never been solely about
rights even as it has embraced a broader, more positive conception of
freedom. Rights of personal and civil liberty imply that we are
individually accountable for our own actions; rights to political
liberty imply a civic responsibility to make democracy work; and rights
to basic requirements of human development (such as education and a
minimum standard of security) imply that we have obligations to one
another, mutually and through our government, to ensure the conditions
exist enabling every individual to live in dignity and have the
opportunity for success in life. The central liberal project, I write,
is “the effort to guarantee these freedoms and to create the
institutions and forms of character that will lead a people to assume
responsibility, not as an external burden imposed upon them, but from a
force within.”

But translating these general aims into effective policies depends
on evidence and experience. Modern liberalism emerged in Britain and
America from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries often
by trial and error, in response to a more democratic politics, the
dislocations of industrial capitalism, and the crises of worldwide
depression and war. The enduring reforms (many were winnowed out along
the way) did not sacrifice freedom for prosperity and power–but
successfully reconciled the two. For example, unemployment insurance
and other elements of Social Security have helped citizens preserve
their independence as well as their dignity at moments when they are
most vulnerable to becoming dependent and encouraged them to accept
technological change, trade, and other sources of turbulence necessary
for economic growth. While expanding the state’s role, liberals
confined it to limited but strategic purposes (avoiding, for example,
the nationalization of industry favored by socialists) and insisted on
stronger protections of civil liberties and an autonomous role for the
press, science, and other civil institutions to keep state power in

The major liberal initiatives of the 1960s–equal rights for blacks
and women; antipoverty efforts; Medicare; and stronger consumer,
worker-safety, and environmental protection–were in line with this
tradition and, for all their limitations, rectified long-standing
injustices and helped advance freedom, opportunity, and a decent life
for millions of Americans. As in earlier reform eras, however, some of
the policies and programs failed or backfired. Liberals also became so
reliant on the courts and preoccupied with claims based on race,
gender, and other aspects of identity that they were no longer able to
command a political majority with a persuasive, general vision of the
public good.

The liberalism that we need now has to rebuild a democratic
partnership at home that includes working- and middle-class families
and a partnership with other liberal democracies in defense of our
common values and security. After years when conservatives have not
just accepted but accelerated widening disparities in income and
wealth, liberals need to frame their economic policies around the goal
of a shared prosperity. And in national security, where the Bush
Administration has undermined our constitutional liberties while
dissipating American power, liberals ought to argue that
constitutionally limited power can again be more powerful than
unlimited power and to lay claim to a democratic and inclusive
tradition of American greatness.

At the beginning of his review in these pages, Siegel calls Freedom’s Power
“important” and near the end says the “ideal of liberalism Starr
promotes is worthy of admiration,” though he quickly adds that “our
actually existing liberals are not likely to be governed by it.”
Between those two comments, he makes several mistaken assertions about
the book’s historical argument, the relationship of liberalism to
welfare policy, and contemporary European politics that I have answered
elsewhere. (See, where I have responded to Siegel
along with three other reviews that present a right-of-center argument.)

Siegel’s central complaint concerns my treatment of liberalism’s
relationship with the radical left: “What any rescue party for
liberalism needs to come to grips with,” he writes, “is why liberals,
most notably in the 1930s and 1960s, were so vulnerable to the
extremism and repeated quests for a salvific politics that Starr has
defined away.”

I have “defined away” these issues only in the sense that I
distinguish liberalism from the radical left, and I do not believe that
liberalism can be held responsible for left-wing extremism any more
than I would hold conservatism responsible for fascism. Liberalism has
never offered salvation, and anyone in search of it had better look
elsewhere. During the 1930s, the United States had a liberal government
by my definition, and it did not fall prey to extremism. During the
1960s, we also had a liberal government, and for all its faults, it
also did not fall prey to extremism. People who were true to liberal
principles and kept their nerve did not become extremists. No political
philosophy can be held responsible for the people who abandoned it.

Siegel says that I don’t come to grips with the relationship of
liberalism to the left, but we have a different sense of what the
relationship has been. Here is part of what I write on the subject:

The relationship of American liberalism to the left has
always been ambivalent. While sharing some common ground with
socialists and populists, liberals have favored a more circumscribed
role for the state and often deplored the unwillingness to compromise,
sentimental delusions, tendency to romanticize “the people,”
susceptibility to authoritarianism, and occasional violence on the
left. Unlike the socialist ideal, the liberal conception of equality
does not call for a classless society. … Nonetheless, there has
also been a productive tension between liberals and the left. Radical
movements have often been quicker to take up the cause of the socially
marginalized and sometimes broken through barriers to reform that
liberals mistakenly accepted as unchangeable. As liberalism is a
practical philosophy of government and politics, liberals are
perennially vulnerable to charges from the left that they have violated
sacred ideals for the sake of profane compromises–and sometimes the
accusations are justified. … Liberals sometimes lose their patience
with the impatience of the left. But in attempting to defeat entrenched
interests, liberalism without a left is missing a punch.

I am not sure whether it was a passage like this one that led to the
accusation in the title of Siegel’s review: “Blinded by the Left.” Let
the reader judge my political eyesight.

What is odd about Siegel’s preoccupation is that the radical left
has ceased to be a factor in American politics. Siegel’s admonitions
belong to another era; he seems to be stuck in a neoconservative
foxhole, fighting the old battles of the 1970s. “Salvific politics” in
America today is a phenomenon of the right. Liberalism has not fully
reestablished itself, but it’s not in need of any “rescue party.” The
immediate challenges are strategic, and most liberals understand them
that way: how to repair the damage to America from a disastrous
conservative administration and how to build a durable political
majority around those policies.

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Paul Starr is professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and the co-founder of The American Prospect. His books include Freedom's Power: The History and Promise of Liberalism and, most recently, Remedy and Reaction: The Peculiar American Struggle over Health Care Reform.

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