The death of liberalism and what to do about it

Sam Smith, 2011

As I was listening recently to a Bob Edwards interview with Kirsten Downey, biographer of the New Deal labor secretary, Frances Perkins, it struck me that the first woman ever to hold cabinet office in American history had played a key role in getting more accomplished than the last three decades of American liberalism combined – things like the Civilian Conservation Corps, Public Works Administration, Social Security, federal insurance for bank accounts, welfare, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, bargaining rights for labor, restrictions on overtime, a 40 hour work week and a minimum wage.

Perkins’ colleagues in the New Deal also brought us legal alcohol, regulation of the stock exchanges, the Soil Conservation Service, national parks and monuments, the Tennessee Valley Authority, rural electrification, the FHA, a big increase in hospital beds, and the Small Business Administration.

Add to that the numerous achievements of the Great Society including bilingual education, civil rights legislation, community action agencies, Head Start, job Corps, the national endowments for arts and humanities, Teacher Corps, anti-poverty programs, nutrition assistance, Medicare and Medicaid.

Next to this, post-1980 liberalism seems at best pathetic and at worst a major betrayal of its own past. Even the otherwise crummy Nixon administration did better – bringing us EPA, affirmative action, the Clean Air Act, the first Earth Day, indexing Social Security for inflation, Supplemental Security income, OSHA, and healthcare reform.

Future historians seeking to learn why America so easily surrendered its democratic traditions and constitutional government to a rabid right will find plenty to study in the rise of a liberal aristocracy that became increasingly disinterested in its own historic values. Like all aristocracies, it came to exist primarily to protect itself, had an impermeable faith in its own virtue, and held in contempt those who did not share its values or accept its hegemony.

For many years, 20th century liberalism was saved from becoming an aristocracy because of the dominance of constituencies such as labor, European socialists and ethnic minorities. By the 1980s, however, these constituencies – thanks in no small part to successful liberal policies – had advanced socially and economically to the point that they no longer functioned as a massive reminder of what liberalism was meant to be about.

With the end of the Great Society, Democrats began a steady retreat from liberalism climaxing in Clinton and Obama with their systematic dismantling of liberal programs and paradigms. As Glen Ford, editor of the Black Agenda Report, put it recently, “President Obama seems positively eager to dismantle the safety nets put in place in the thirties and strengthened by a black-led movement in the sixties.”

Among the greatest victims of this retreat have been economic decency, social democracy and civil liberties. It was not that the new liberal aristocrats actually opposed them; it just didn’t matter much to them. Liberalism was no longer a matter of masses yearning to breathe free, but of boomers yearning for an SUV and millennials for a new I-Something.

While there were still repeated expressions of faith in a declining number of icons such as diversity, abortion, and the environment, the fact was that the liberal elite had become far more characterized by its capacity for self-defense than by its concern or action for others.

Most striking was the disappearing interest in those at the bottom. Liberal city councils went after the homeless, pandered to developers, and engaged in other forms of socio-economic cleansing. The Clinton administration attacked welfare in a manner once limited to the Republican right; prison populations soared without a murmur from the liberals; Democrats supported without question a cruel and unconstitutional war on drugs; they joined the war on two centuries of public education; and liberal media aristocrats prided themselves in faux realpolitik and patronizing prescriptions for the masses. Obama gave freely to the banks but hardly noticed the foreclosed.

The trend produced remarkable twists of liberal values. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus backed the war on drugs; the leaders of NOW repeatedly defended a sexually predatory male in the White House. And liberal academia provided all purpose justification through the magic rationalization of postmodernism.

Through it all, the liberal aristocracy was the dog that didn’t bark. Just as Sherlock Holmes’ creature failed to warn of an intruder, so America’s liberal leadership failed repeatedly to warn of infringements of civil liberties, of unconstitutional acts and legislation, or to rise to the defense of people beyond its own class.

When the liberal aristocracy backed the war on drugs, happily sacrificed national and local sovereignty to multinational corporations, yawned as the Clintons disassembled their own former cause, and looked the other way as Obama expanded the police state, it was clear that this atrophied elite would not handle a real crisis.

Thought without action is the coitus interruptus of the mind, which may be why liberals produced so few progeny. A politics so heavily grounded in intellectual considerations as opposed to human experience, runs the constant risk of losing its bearings. A wiser approach was espoused by Julius Nyerere who argued that the true revolutionary acted as one of thought and thought as one of action. Another great African activist, Nelson Mandela, credited cattle farming rather than universities as his inspiration. Moving herds around, he explained, had taught him how to lead from behind.

Too great an intellectual bias turns citizens into data — economic or sociological aggregates rather than human organisms. And it produces bizarre, incomprehensible, ineffective legislation like the current health care law.

Politics involves real people and it helps to speak real people talk. Many liberals have a tin ear for their presumed constituency. This involves more than a choice of words; the over-refined language is clouded with abstractions while disdaining the anecdotes and metaphors that every good preacher knows is the easiest way to propel a message.

I sometimes think that liberalism died when, in the last few decades, its advocates started talking about “infrastructure” instead of public works. The language of obfuscation added to the divide between liberals and others.

Thomas Jefferson said that people “by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties:

“1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes.

“2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise, depository of the public interests.”

There is little doubt as to which of these parties many liberals belong. Rhetoric notwithstanding, too often those leading liberal America believe they were born to rule. In fact, their profound self-assurance on this score helps to explain another anomaly of liberals and leftists: the frequency with which you will find them — Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are names that spring to mind — cavorting with those whose politics should be an anathema. The reason is simply that the blood of their entitlement is thicker than that of their ideology. What really ties Washington together and unites it against the rest of the country is not policy but a common understanding of the sort of person who should be in charge.

Now the economy has fallen, our world status collapsed, our Constitution tattered, and our civil liberties deteriorating by the day. And in the place of a quietly incompetent alliance between conservative and liberal elites, we now find a rabid Republicanism rising unlike anything seen before – the most extremist mainstream party in our history.

The collapse of liberalism, of course, is only one cause – less important, to be sure, than the cult of Reaganism, reckless capitalism or Citizens UniteD, perhaps the worst Supreme Court decision ever. But this much we know: you cannot win in the eighth or ninth round if you give up in the first or second. At the very least, liberal disintegration opened doors sooner and wider through which the rabid right could easily enter.

And there are scary precedents. For example, Article 48 of the constitution of the Weimar Republic stated, “In case public safety is seriously threatened or disturbed, the Reich President may take the measures necessary to reestablish law and order, if necessary using armed force. In the pursuit of this aim, he may suspend the civil rights described in articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153, partially or entirely. The Reich President must inform the Reichstag immediately about all measures undertaken . . . The measures must be suspended immediately if the Reichstag so demands.”
It was this article that Hitler used to peacefully establish his dictatorship. And why was it so peaceful and easy? Because, according to historian Thomas Childers, the ‘democratic” Weimar Republic had already used it 57 times prior to Hitler’s ascendancy.
There are eerie similarities between Article 48 and the Patriot Act and warrantless powers being granted law enforcement in America. Yet traditional liberals have been astonishingly passive in the face of this huge assault on the Constitution. And get incensed if you mention the word facism.
Progressives, populists, Greens, socialists and others fed up with the bipartisan crisis of our politics need to make  a clearly visible break with dysfunctional liberalism and define a new way of approaching our problems. Here are a few things that could help it happen:

– Put economic issues at the top of the list. If you review the historical examples above you will find an overwhelmingly concern for improving the economic life of ordinary Americans. Today’s liberals, if they care, don’t have much in the way of suggestions; witness the stimulus program that overwhelmingly favored Wall Street over ordinary Americans.

– If you wish to win people’s support, argue with them, encourage them, heal them, teach them but don’t insult them. Raise hell against the big guys but don’t abuse the ordinary citizen. Show them the way, not the door. Today’s liberals repeatedly castigate those they should be recruiting.

– Build communities not clubs. Liberalism used to be street theater. Now it’s a private club. You can’t build a movement with a club.

– Stop federalizing everything. There’s no evidence that it works and people don’t like it. Adopt the principle that government should be carried out at the lowest practical level and you’ll be surprised how many new friends you make.

– Elaborate processes, data collection and rule-making are crummy substitutes for effective policies. Yet they define liberal politics today.

– Encourage reciprocal liberty: I can’t have my liberty if you don’t have yours. So some get their guns; others get abortion. It’s part of the essential nature of being an American: sharing space with those with whom you don’t agree.

– Build new constituencies issue by issue. Many of your allies will disagree with you on other things but so what? One of the reasons that liberals are in such trouble is that they support diversity of skin color but not of thought. Besides when people come together on one issue they discover that the things that divided them aren’t as important as they thought.

– A major cause of violence in America is the completely failed drug war. Liberals have largely ignored this issue.

– Bring back labor unions, the most positive non-governmental institution in America’s past century. Yes, they need to improve their act, but that won’t happen until more people get involved. Encourage them to take new approaches such as pre-organizing the non-unionized on, say, a AARP model or creating co-ops as the USW is currently looking into. But fight against the assault on the folks who brought you the weekend.

– Stop supporting wars just because a Democratic president is leading them. Imagine if the money we’re spending in Afghanistan was being used to help the American economy, its schools, its transportation and the less fortunate. Both our economy and our lives would be much better.

– Help small business. Neither of the two major parties do, so you can make a lot of new friends this way. And, along the way, end corporate personhood.

– Unrig our elections. End campaign bribery by public financing and make it constitutionally clear that corporations are not persons. Press for instant runoff voting.

– Keep it simple. Remember that the media is not comfortable with complexity.

– Give it a name. You know, something simple like the Dunkin Donuts Party that even the media can understand.

That’s just a short list of the sort of things that would separate a new left from liberalism.

Groups of disaffected progressives, Greens and issue activists could use the Internet to compile a short list policies that would define a new movement for a post-liberal era and start to rewrite the political chart. As it stands, we know that liberals hate Palin, Bachman, and the Koch Brothers. But what they really stand for remains a mystery.

If you think there are not enough of us to create a new movement with clear goals, consider this: over the past few years polls have found that a majority of Americans support:

Gay marriage, opposition to the drug war, legalizing marijuana, ending corporate personhood, increasing taxes on the wealthy, leaving Social Security alone, ending capital punishment, universal health coverage, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
doing something about climate change, and public campaign financing, Further, resolutions critical of the Patriot Act have been passed in 378 communities in 43 states including six state-wide resolutions.

On many of these issues, traditional liberals have often been lazy, passive, indifferent, opposed or afraid to do anything. And the media has kept this real majority view well hidden.

We need to change this, but we can’t do it by looking the other way or hiding under the table. You can’t do it sucking up to Democratic presidents who expand wars and send welfare to Wall Street instead of helping those in real trouble. You can’t do it pretending that we’re not losing our civil liberties.

Traditional liberalism must be put to sleep and replaced with something that recovers the spirit and ideals that it lost or discarded along the way.

The liberal approach has become elitist; the alternative is populist. One draws from European history and thought; the other is rooted in American experience. One favors a centralized state and believes in the beneficence of large bureaucracies; the other is skeptical of grand institutions and keeps pulling decisions back towards the community based democracy. One seeks confrontation; the other consensus. One is polar; the other holistic. One is rational; the other spiritual.

And one is dead, and the other is still waiting to be born.

[Some of the above appeared first in an article ten years ago. Sadly, not much as changed]

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