The Liberal Project Now

Liberalism is at greater risk now than at any time in recent American history. The risk is of political marginality, even irrelevance. And the reason is not just a shift in partisan control of the federal government. There has been a radical change in the relationship of ideology and power in America. Only by renewing both the principled commitments to liberal ideals and the practical basis of liberal politics does liberalism have any chance of recovery.

Fifty years ago, the absence of ideological divisions was widely thought to be one of the distinguishing features of American politics. Now our politics is rife with ideological conflict, as conservatives take their crusade to remake America deeper into liberal terrain. The issue is no longer, as it was in the earlier stages of conservatism's revival, merely a reversal of Great Society programs and the activism of the Warren Court. What's now under attack are such basic constitutional principles as church-state separation and an independent judiciary and such fundamental elements of modern liberalism as progressive taxation and Social Security.

The Democrats' loss of both Congress and the presidency is the immediate source of jeopardy to liberal principles and policies, but the revolution of contemporary Republicanism is the reason the switch in partisan control has had so great an impact. The Republicans have made themselves into a far more conservative party than they used to be, not just during the Eisenhower years but even during the 1980s. Under George W. Bush, the party has become more closely identified with its conservative religious base and more consistently devoted to dismantling the constitutional and fiscal underpinnings of liberal government.

When historians and social scientists in the '50s said American politics reflected an ideological consensus that was liberal at its foundations, it was the absence of any socialist challenge that they mainly had in mind. Conservatives weren't offering a clear ideological alternative, and the two major parties seemed to have only minor differences. For decades, even as a conservative challenge emerged and partisan differences widened, liberals had a partnership with power, or at least access to it. Liberalism stood for reform, but it wasn't oppositional: Liberals did not regard themselves as outsiders looking in on American politics from a hostile distance. As late as the 1990s, they had a friendly administration, a closely balanced Congress, and federal courts that offered a good chance of vindicating their claims.

Only in recent years -- as Republicans have gained control of Congress and the executive branch, sought to bring the courts into line, and taken the conservative movement and its intellectuals into a governing partnership -- have liberals faced the possibility of being totally excluded, not just from power but from any influence or access. And that loss threatens to make the enterprise of liberal reform, and even protest, seemingly irrelevant. For what point is there to reform or protest if power is not susceptible to persuasion, and perhaps not even to pressure?

The liberalism of the 1950s and '60s, in contrast, was both a governing and a reforming philosophy. Liberals had helped to fashion the domestic order created during the New Deal, and after World War II they had shaped America's internationalist commitments aimed at containing communist expansion and avoiding war. Liberals also aimed, however, to compel a government that espoused liberal principles to confront its own contradictions and limitations. That meant, among other things, dealing with the national shame of racial oppression, the persistence of poverty, the hidden problems of environmental degradation, and the threat of nuclear catastrophe.

The liberal project of the post–World War II era was to awaken the public to long-ignored problems, to make liberal government bolder, and to get its leaders to take political risks. In the public mind, liberalism was the innovative and outward-looking force in American politics; conservatism, the stodgy and parochial source of resistance. Under those circumstances, liberals had power to the extent that they could bring about change, while conservatives had power to the extent that they could stop it.

Now the relationships have been reversed, and liberalism risks getting defined, as conservatism once was, entirely in negative terms. Liberals certainly need to defend liberal accomplishments and oppose conservative measures, but they cannot allow themselves to become merely defensive and oppositional. That, of course, is how the right would like to cast them. The liberal challenge today is to avoid this trap, to make the case for liberalism's first principles, and to renew the project of liberal innovation. And in that effort, magazines such as this one -- and intellectuals generally -- have a useful role to play.

The Project and the Prospect

The early discussions about starting what became The American Prospect took place in the gloomy aftermath of George Bush Senior's defeat of Michael Dukakis in the 1988 election, a period that may hold some lessons for liberals now. The Democrats were failing to connect with their historic blue-collar and middle-class voters, or to defend their own convictions. Dukakis, who was unquestionably a liberal, refused to say so during the campaign, insisting that the election was about “competence,” not “ideology.”

There also seemed to be a void in intellectual leadership among liberal political journals. By the late 1980s, what had once been the major liberal magazines were either too far to the left to affect mainstream politics, like The Nation, or ideologically indistinct and ambivalent, like The New Republic. The writers who came together around the Prospect -- some of them long associated with TNR -- wanted to create a new journal of ideas that was forthright about its liberalism and that made its central concern the strategic refashioning of liberal policies and politics. In the prospectus that Robert Kuttner, Robert B. Reich, and I wrote in 1989, we identified ourselves with a long liberal tradition extending back to the Enlightenment and the American Founders, and emphasized that this tradition had grown to embrace new claims and adapt to new conditions. “The core of liberalism,” we wrote, “is not an orthodoxy about policy, but a vision of a just society and self-governing democracy,” and it was in that spirit that we wanted to “formulate new ideas of public improvement” and “reframe public discussion.”

No doubt it takes an extravagant self-regard for a group of writers, especially for a small magazine, to imagine that they can influence the course of politics and intellectual debate. But ours was not an idiosyncratic project; it grew out of a wider sense that the liberal compass had been lost. A conversation about repairing the compass was already in progress among policy intellectuals and political strategists, and the magazine was a way of fostering that conversation, giving it a particular direction (different from, say, the one being promoted by the Democratic Leadership Council [DLC]), and opening it up to more participants and a wider public.

Then history intervened. By the time the magazine appeared in 1990, the dismal shadows of 1988 were starting to lift. Not only did the breakup of the Soviet bloc create a sense that a new era was beginning; as a practical matter, the end of the Cold War might also free up resources for domestic use. At the same time, global economic competition and a deepening recession were focusing attention on the economy, education, and soaring health-care costs, and giving a sense of urgency to domestic reform.

The liberal project of the 1990s, as we understood it, took shape under these influences. The central task in this project was to formulate a program that could realize liberal aspirations for a fair, free, and prosperous society under radically changed economic and social conditions. Those conditions included a globalized economy, a wave of technological innovation, and rising income inequality. Our writers were given neither to the free-market triumphalism dominant among conservatives, nor to the protectionist impulses of some on the left (though some critics may have thought so). Rather, the emphasis was on educational reform and public investment to enable Americans to compete successfully, and on international agreements covering labor and environmental standards to prevent the undermining of hard-won achievements in those areas. Health care had emerged as a major issue, not only because the United States remained the only advanced country without universal coverage but also because health costs were a growing burden on American business and a primary source of the federal deficit. The aim was to fuse an extension of health coverage with new methods of cost containment to address both sides of the problem. More progressive tax policy (including a boost in the Earned Income Tax Credit [EITC]), a higher minimum wage, and enforcement of labor laws, along with universal health insurance, would help to offset the trend toward greater inequality. The Prospect's writers generally supported more of a role for government in achieving these ends than the DLC did.

Nonetheless, we were also concerned to get liberalism out from under the political burdens of the '60s, which had blurred the distinction between liberalism and the radical left and created uncertainty about liberals' patriotism and “family values.” The choice of the word “American” in the magazine's name was a deliberate decision to identify ourselves with this country's tradition and future; curiously, some people assumed at the beginning that a publication presenting itself as “American” must be right wing. (“Prospect” became part of our identity when I had given it to our lawyer for incorporation purposes; it's the name of the street where I live.) We also wanted to move away from the identity politics that had fragmented the wider progressive community and alienated many others. Yet there remained a legitimate unfinished agenda of racial justice, feminist reform, and other aspects of human rights, and unlike the conservatives or the communitarians, we were not interested in repudiating the “rights revolution.”

Although there was much debate about how to pursue that unfinished agenda, we put particular emphasis on the kind of progressive, universal, “race-neutral” policies that the New Deal had established. “We have no sympathy with anyone who wants to give up on the cause of racial justice,” we wrote in the prospectus. “That sort of solution to the political problems of liberalism would come only at the price of its soul. But in the interests of a multiracial society, liberals must look for policies and approaches that unify their natural constituencies, white and black, by stressing interests that cut across race.” Progressive tax, labor, health-insurance, and public-investment policies all fit this description. In Stanley B. Greenberg's formulation, the aim was to create a “bottom-up coalition” around a broad-based politics that would encompass the have-nots but center on middle-class values and interests.

If much of this sounds like the 1992 Clinton campaign, it's not accidental. Several of our editors and writers, most prominently Reich and Greenberg, joined the Clinton campaign and played a role in the administration, particularly at the beginning (much less so after 1994). I was involved in developing the Clinton health plan, taking leave from my university and the magazine during 1993 to work in the White House. The failure of health reform was sobering; we tried to do too much at one time and would have been wiser in the administration's first year to have sought a major expansion of coverage under existing law, as part of the budget, rather than to propose new structural arrangements. The inability of a Democratic Congress to make any progress at all on health care was politically devastating.

But much else did work out. By increasing both the EITC and the minimum wage, as well as raising taxes on the top brackets, Bill Clinton countered the trend toward inequality instead of exacerbating it, as Republican policies had done before and have done since the Clinton years. And contrary to the dire conservative predictions at the time of the 1993 budget and tax increase, the economy did not collapse; the United States entered one of the most sustained eras of prosperity in its history. All groups did well, but median incomes grew faster for blacks and Hispanics than for whites, and the number in poverty dropped by 6.4 million under Clinton compared with just 294,000 during Ronald Reagan's eight years.

For all of Clinton's limitations, his presidency also defused tensions over race, affirmative action, and welfare, and left a budget surplus going into the 2000 election that Al Gore might have turned toward progressive purposes if Florida had ended differently. In the wake of the 1988 election, liberal politics had seemed a nearly hopeless enterprise, but the ideas and strategies that the Prospect had some part in advancing helped to give liberal policies another life. That Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky and Kenneth Starr, and Bush's Electoral College victory in 2000 derailed and defeated so much of the agenda ought not to obscure what was right about those ideas, then and now.

The New Project

America is never kind to losers, and losers in America are rarely kind to themselves. In the wake of every recent electoral defeat, Democrats have turned on their candidates and one another in what has become a familiar ritual. The well-aimed recrimination fulfills a psychological function: Pin the blame on the candidates' personalities, the campaign strategy, the influence of a competing faction, or even your own mistakes and you don't have to acknowledge how deep the party's problems are. True, Democrats have lost the last two presidential races narrowly, but they have now lost Congress decisively. Beneath those losses are historic changes, including the reaction against the equal-rights revolutions on behalf of blacks, women, and gays, the decline of the unions, and the integration of conservative churches into the Republican Party. For decades Democrats used the advantages of incumbency to offset Republican business support; now the Republicans have both, and a party system that was roughly balanced has passed a tipping point.

Today there is a Democratic project and a liberal project, and it is a mistake to confuse them. The once-sturdy Democratic congressional majority disappeared with the loss of southern and western seats that were typically not held by liberals in the first place. Rebuilding a Democratic majority will require a broad and inclusive politics and the acceptance of ideological diversity within the party. As the Republicans support centrists who can win in the blue states, so Democrats -- including liberals -- will have to support centrists who can win in the red states. Some say the Democrats need only the courage of their convictions to tap a deep well of progressive sentiment, but if there is a latent national majority for that kind of pure and unadulterated liberal politics, it has kept itself well hidden for a long time. The more realistic goal is a government that is responsive to liberal influence on foreign and domestic policy and committed to the constitutional principles in force since the late 1930s.

The liberal project now is at once programmatic, organizational, and intellectual. The central aims of American liberalism remain what they have always been: to realize the ideals of liberty and equality in a prosperous and secure nation. But the project is different for a liberalism cut off from power. Whatever the cause of liberals' loss of public confidence, they have to earn it back by showing how liberal ideas make sense for America. They have to speak to people who think liberals haven't shown any concern for them. Critics such as Tom Frank argued that the way to make that connection and break up the Republican coalition of the rich and the religious is through a revival of populism. But, as much as Bush's policies deserve to be attacked on grounds of bias toward the rich, liberals ought to be wary of a politics of resentment. Populism has always been a political dead end in America. Without trimming their criticism of Bush, liberals have to make the case for economically progressive policies chiefly on the basis of the nation's shared interests and common future.

One way to do that is to focus on young people starting to make a life of their own. So much of current social spending -- and the current political debate -- gets consumed by old programs for older people that it's no wonder the young don't feel any direct and immediate stake. But that's not how it always was. After World War II, the GI Bill and widespread collective bargaining, which gave young workers the same benefits as older ones, provided a great boost to the generation that's now called the “greatest.”

Young people today need the functional equivalent; many of the forces now affecting the economy come to bear hardest on them. The unemployment rate among young workers is much higher than among older ones. For most jobs with a middle-class standard of living, college is essential, but the cost is growing much faster than inflation. The escalation in housing prices may be a bonanza for many homeowners, but it raises a big hurdle for first-time homebuyers. The decline of jobs offering health insurance and pensions makes it difficult for the young to achieve the kind of security their parents enjoyed, but even some companies that offer benefits have introduced two-tier benefit systems that shortchange new employees. Young parents typically need two incomes, but virtually nothing has been done to alter the workplace and make other changes that would help them fulfill their responsibilities for raising their children.

To meet these and other needs, liberals ought to do more than just propose a grab bag of policies aimed at young people; they ought to crystallize their concerns about America's future by developing a “Young America” program as a central theme. It may be objected that young voters don't turn out to vote. But the young are not a special interest. For one thing, parents also worry about how their kids will be able to make a living and a life. Besides, a politics that addressed the young might get them to turn out. The idea of a Young America program also ought to suggest something more: a return to an earlier conception of America as a young nation, capable of great things. Liberals cannot leave that kind of national vision to the right; they ought to argue that an increasingly unequal America that exposes so many of its young to poverty and insecurity cannot be the strong and prosperous nation all Americans want it to be.

Liberals were initially slow to respond, in any organized way, when conservatives in the '70s began building their own think tanks, journals, training academies, and eventually talk-radio stations and cable channels. The right's strategists read the situation at that time correctly. Rather than rely on established institutions, which at the very least couldn't be counted on to disseminate their views, they knew they had to create their own dedicated counter-establishment. With conservative ideas now dominating American politics, liberals confront the same challenge in putting before the public an alternative conception of the country's problems, and, belatedly, liberal strategists have come to see the logic of building a countervailing institutional network.

The founding of The American Prospect 15 years ago was an early and small step in this wider endeavor. The circulation even of successful political magazines is limited, however, and if they have any impact, it is usually more on opinion leaders than on the public at large. Some liberals are today understandably interested in shaping popular opinion and mobilizing support in more direct ways. And some just want to defeat conservatives rather than enter into an argument with them.

But, though it may seem a quaint notion, a journal of ideas rests on the premise that there is a debate worth having with the other side. Sometimes the debate is about policy, or about facts, or about the definition of problems, or about the story of America and its interpretation. The debate now involves matters of fundamental principle, and it calls for liberals to think more deeply about what they believe. The more fundamental the challenge liberals face, the greater is the need to explain the grounds of liberal commitments and to give Americans good reasons to make those commitments their own. This is what “values” are also about. If we are looking for a way back to power, there is one place we must go. Liberalism's power begins within.

Paul Starr is co-editor of The American Prospect.

You may also like