Commentary Magazine


What's Left of Liberalism

I have on my shelf a book that bears the subtitle, “The Failure of American Liberalism.” A collection of essays and documents aimed at redefining and rescuing a creed, this book, whose main title is The Great Society Reader, was published in 1967.

American liberals, then, have been recovering from the Failure of American Liberalism for quite some time now. In 1969, the political scientist Theodore Lowi declared “The End of Liberalism” (he meant that it was being replaced by technocracy). During the 1970′s or 80′s, a publisher’s list might have included, in the fall, a redefinition by Robert Lekachman, and then two more in the spring by Robert Kuttner or Michael Harrington under titles like The New Liberalism or The Next Left. In 1983, Amory Lovins, Theodore Roszak, Richard J. Bar-net, and others contributed to a collection called Rethinking Liberalism.

Robert Reich, now Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, made something of a career in the 80′s out of successive redefinitions of liberalism, going through at least four. First (as Mickey Kaus has pointed out), he fought for a vision that emphasized the utility of engineers (wealth generators) against the plague of lawyers and accountants (wealth rearrangers). Then he became a guru of industrial policy, developing an enthusiasm for “flexible production” which was to replace mass production. Next, he pushed the envelope of neoliberalism by embracing the idea of a borderless world. Finally, as Secretary of Labor, he has reverted to paleoliberalism, advocating hikes in the minimum wage. In line with all these rethinkings, Reich and others have offered us a succession of models: Japanese industrial policy, the German social contract, the Swedish nanny state, technopolitics (Gary Hart), managerial Dukakisism, protectionist populism, and so on.

Each electoral setback for liberalism has brought another round of redefinition, and yet each redefining has left liberalism somehow less palatable to the voters than the last one—but even this has not stopped the redefiners, who, in the wake of last November’s elections, have more work to do than ever. “Let’s be clear about it,” read a panel spread across the cover of the post-election issue of the Village Voice:

The Left, whatever exactly it currently is, is finished. Murdered. Tuesday’s returns were the final referendum on the liberal-Left agenda that paid too much attention to its tiny narcissisms and too little to the needs of most Americans.

Inside, the Voice published eight essays designed to get the redefining started.

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Over at the New Republic, a recent defector from conservatism and a newly minted liberal, Michael Lind, was uncharacteristically happy: “The crushing defeat of the Democrats creates the best opportunity in a quarter-century for liberalism,” he wrote, opening a redefinition attempt of his own that favored old-fashioned class warfare. The Nation seized the opportunity to bash the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. And at the American Prospect, the rethinking was equally fast and furious.

Make no mistake: redefining liberalism, which to some might seem a dreary and thankless chore, to others makes for delightful work, putting authors—as opposed to politicians, lobbyists, or party hacks—at the center of things. It is challenging work, too: recasting an ideology is as close to social engineering as a political writer is likely to get. And it is deeply congruent with the rationalist spirit at the heart of modern liberalism. For in all these efforts, liberalism is treated as an institution, along the lines of the health-care system or urban mass transit, and it is deemed to be broken. Therefore, a conscious planning effort is needed to repair it. There is something fitting and appropriate in the spectacle of liberals now inflicting on their own belief system the same set of mental attitudes they have inflicted on so many social institutions.

Yet none of it works, of course. The redefinition exercises are mere repackaging, or at best, more like laying sod than planting seeds. The trouble is that 30 years of shuffling have blurred the creed, so that liberalism now resembles a person who has undergone 27 face-lifts; the natural contours have disappeared. A leftist single-issue movement like feminism may remain cohesive and even vibrant, but mainstream liberalism—the kind that exists in national and local politics as opposed to university campuses—has become vaporous. There are no deep channels of energy.

The Clinton administration’s inability to define a clear policy direction is only the most obvious example of this state of affairs. Forests have been sacrificed to explain the adminstration’s failure. Joe Klein of Newsweek has labeled the problem one of policy promiscuity, tying it to the President’s sexual reputation. David Maraniss of the Washington Post also favors a psychological explanation, arguing for a connection between Clinton’s inconstant intelligence and his restless empathy.

But the administration’s problems are deeper than the problems of one man, as can be seen by a glance at the situation among conservatives. Newt Gingrich’s mind may be as peripatetic as Clinton’s—probably more so. But Gingrich is heir to a relatively cohesive movement. For conservatives there are definite guiding stars—Adam Smith to Ronald Reagan, figures that can be worn on neckties. The important questions of direction have been settled, the important policy goals—privatization, lower taxes, individual responsibility—are consecrated. The Contract With America itself is the product of decades of policy meetings, books, articles, and lobbying. Even when conservatives differ over items in the Contract, there is built into the movement a sense of solidarity with the effort as a whole.

For liberals, by contrast, endless redefinition has erased any sense that certain issues are settled, that certain guiding policies are constant. Every time President Clinton delivers a major speech, he is urged to redefine his core. After a dozen or so such attempts, the President winds up with something like this year’s State of the Union address, a long and incoherent encyclopedia of nostrums.

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Another consequence of perpettual redefinition is that liberalism has become plagued by self-consciousness, and is therefore increasingly divorced from the immediate concerns of people who do not spend their lives trying to redefine liberalism—in other words, most people. Worse: liberals, including those in the administration, now push a hodgepodge of reforms that do not engage the passions even of liberals themselves. Indeed, we have now seen the emergence of a whole new group of people who consider themselves liberal but are not emotionally committed to liberal policies.

The emergence of this group is noticeable, for example, at the New York Times. In the heyday of liberalism, important liberal voices at the Times included columnists like James Reston, Tom Wicker, Flora Lewis, and Anthony Lewis. Today, the dominant liberal voices belong to the former theater critic Frank Rich, Anna Quindlen (until recently), and soon Maureen Dowd.

What we have here is a tremendous change of sensibility. The former group may have been dull, but they were also serious, and seriously committed to liberal policies. The latter are more interesting to read, but lack political gravity. Far from being associated with a political program, they seem bored by the substance of politics, whether foreign-policy doctrine, fiscal policy, or domestic-policy initiatives. Their judgments, instead, are aesthetic and cultural—and frequently ad hominem.

If, for example, the big political debate of the moment is over the proper size and role of government, it is a debate that Frank Rich sits out, focusing instead on whether or not the conservative writer David Brock, the author of The Real Anita Hill, likes women. The baby-boomer liberals do of course write about politics—Maureen Dowd does so brilliantly—but they seem bored by government.

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The Times’s new op-ed stars are not alone. It is no accident that the most popular liberal magazine of the moment is the New Yorker, which does not publish articles about policy but rather personality profiles that treat political figures as aesthetic objects. The runner-up in terms of liberal popularity is the New York Times Magazine. The Magazine has devoted a tremendous amount of space to the new conservative ascendancy in Washington, offering articles about Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson, Senator Phil Gramm, Senator Robert Dole, and a group of young conservatives (myself included). But in only one of these pieces, the one on Senator Dole, did the author actually discuss matters of political substance. The New Left came into being saying that everything is political; now many of its heirs and epigones treat politics as an epiphenomenon of (pop) culture.

But it is the New Republic that best represents a liberalism that has drifted into frivolity. Once the home of liberal redefinition, it now brings little fervor to the serious issues of the day. Recent cover stories have focused on smell (yes, smell), or on chant (the medieval variety); the shorter pieces inside, though witty enough, are almost always tangential to the larger controversies of the day. Whether or not the New Republic’s writers are younger than those at other magazines, the journal feels younger, perhaps because in its pages youthful mischievousness and self-absorption go largely unchecked. (Exceptions are Fred Barnes, the house conservative; Jeffrey Rosen, the legal writer; and Mickey Kaus, who still seems primarily interested in government policy.) Founded to serve the cause of liberal progressivism, the New Republic now pays loyalty to no larger cause; indeed, in its current manifestation, it seems to represent something of an end point.

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Could liberalism’s course have been different? After all, it is a statist philosophy stuck in a period in which statism is out of favor. Naturally, then, liberals are going to lose elections, and liberal writers are going to drift away from the suddenly unrewarding world of policy.

There is something to this. But it is also true that the constant process of redefinition did actual harm. Not only did it blur the message of liberalism to the point where liberals themselves lost any sense of what it stood for, but it forced liberal strategists to focus on the wrong place. Unable to devise policies the electorate would buy, they came up instead with plans for coalitions, and only then with policies that might bring these coalitions together.

But coalitions are unplannable. Who could have foreseen the Reagan coalition: evangelicals, urban Jewish intellectuals, California libertarians, corporate bigwigs, Rust Belt construction workers? It is policy—that is to say, a set of real ideas translated into real programs—that counts.

The most pernicious byproduct of liberal redefinition is that it has bred a spirit of corrosive skepticism, especially strong among the neoliberals—precisely those who are most intent on modernizing and redefining. And this leads to a question: can the same thing happen to conservatives?

Perhaps it can, in due course. But at the moment, decadence does not seem imminent, if only because conservatives still pay genuine deference to ideas, and to the popular mood that supports one set of ideas as opposed to another. Political creeds have many strands. When voters pick the strand of the day, then movements prosper. When redefiners take control, it is a sign that the movement is finished.

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