HAVING WRITTEN AN ARTICLE a year ago on the question “Is Conservatism Dead?” and answering it in the negative, I am now charged with answering the reciprocal question, “Is Liberalism Dead?”
I am afraid that, pace my friend Bob Tyrrell, I must also answer this one in the negative. Liberalism is not dead for some of the same reasons that conservatism is not dead. Liberalism and conservatism are more or less permanent antagonisms within our system of state capitalism such that neither is likely to disappear unless or until the system of which they are parts somehow blows up. The question, therefore, is not whether liberalism is dead but rather whether our highly institutionalized system of political economy shows signs of breaking apart. If either liberalism or conservatism should expire, then it will be through a crisis or cataclysm much in the way that secessionism disappeared with the Civil War and laissez faire capitalism in the Great Depression.
Such an upheaval, while still unlikely, is not entirely out of the question. The long recession that began in 2007 continues to strain public and private budgets and to undermine the legitimacy of market capitalism. Yet in this accounting there are reasons to conclude that the return of the business cycle will pose the greater threat to liberalism than to conservatism. Thus if we should now be in the midst of an extended period of stagnation, then it is possible that liberalism in the form we know it will not survive as a vigorous political movement. Liberalism is not dead, but it may soon be under siege.
LIBERALISM DEVELOPED INTO A FORCE in U.S. politics only late in the 19th century after extended conflicts over slavery and secession were resolved and industrial capitalism had introduced a new set of issues into the system. Up until this time, parties and interests framed their arguments in terms of the Constitution and the nature of the system it had created. Liberalism, when it emerged late in the century, introduced the element of abstract philosophy into these arguments. More importantly, it set these arguments off into a new direction by asserting that the 18th-century Constitution was inadequate to the challenges of the industrial system. Thus, liberals no longer argued over what the Founders intended but rather over how their creation should be reinterpreted and reformed to meet the challenges of the new century. In this sense, liberalism developed as an aspect of modern capitalism and should be viewed as an enduring element of that system.
Over the past century liberalism has passed through at least four separate stages and is now well into a fifth. It first emerged late in the 19th century under the banner of Progressivism, asserting that new political institutions had to be established to regulate industrial concentrations and to mediate conflicts between business and labor. Progressivism flamed out during World War I and seemed to have disappeared for good during the 1920s. It revived itself during the 1930s as “New Deal liberalism” while preserving a few of the themes of Progressivism. When FDR’s brand of liberalism faded out because of World War II and the prosperity of the postwar period, it revived itself in the form of “Cold War liberalism,” achieving new peaks of popularity and influence during the Kennedy-Johnson years. The rebels, protesters, and reformers of the 1960s authored still a fourth chapter by introducing into the movement the theme of liberation or “cultural liberalism.”
By this last adaptation liberalism strengthened its appeal to the educated classes but at the expense of its broad support among working- and middle-class voters-the “Archie Bunkers” of America. And it was through this revolution that “liberalism” morphed into “leftism.” The traditional liberal objective of providing economic security for the working man gave way to a desire to reform and even to overturn the inherited fabric of society, thereby politicizing cultural practices relating to family life, sexual mores, and religion. It was only in this fourth phase, in addition, that liberals (and leftists) managed gradually to gain control over the Democratic Party, which up until the 1970s and 1980s had also provided a home for Southern conservatives, national security “hawks,” conservative Catholics, and moderates of various kinds. All of these groups have by now left or been expelled from the Democratic Party, their exodus turning it into a coalition of ideological liberals, public sector unions, and beneficiaries of public programs.
Through these four stages in the history of liberalism one can see a common denominator in the expansion of the power of the national government. Every stage has brought forth an expanding list of demands for government action to address one or another national challenge. This is true even of the cultural liberals of the 1960s like Hillary Rodham Clinton, who sought liberation from just about every institution in American society but the national state. The two themes are obviously connected because as people liberated themselves from religion, family obligations, and community norms, they had nowhere else to turn for protection but to the state. This is why conservatives saw instantly that “liberation” was a challenge to “liberty.”
THE “STATIST” AGENDA OF liberalism, though it is usually framed in idealistic terms, serves a hard-nosed political purpose. If there is a single lesson liberals have learned through the decades, it is that the power and resources of the state can be used to build winning political coalitions. After nearly a century of this, liberalism and the groups associated with it have intertwined themselves with the day-to-day operations of government, implementing the programs they have managed to pass into law and organizing new voting groups around them. Liberalism is no longer merely a philosophy of government, as it was in the Progressive era, but rather an integral part of modern government itself, which is why it cannot be killed off despite failures in policy, lost arguments, or even by lost elections.
Liberalism represents America’s version of the 20th century’s romance with the state. The disasters that befell other countries as a consequence of this infatuation did not happen here because our 18th-century Constitution and the acquired political habits of the American people did not permit it. Here a more gradual and incremental evolution took place that took nearly a century to complete. But make no mistake: the century-long revolution engineered by liberalism has succeeded in overturning the institutional prescriptions of the ancient Constitution. A constitution designed to limit the central government has now been turned into one that empowers it to act in just about every area of life. Liberalism has by stages taken aim at one or another of the institutional pillars of limited government — federalism, strict construction, separation of powers, public thrift — until today few are still left standing. Madison’s “parchment barriers” have been blurred or obliterated to such an extent that today the only genuine limitation on national power is to be found in public opinion.
Nevertheless, critics like Mr. Tyrrell are correct when they point out that liberalism is no longer the nation’s dominant public doctrine, as it was during the middle decades of the last century. Liberalism rode an ascending arc of influence for most of the century before reaching a peak in the 1960s, after which time it has been on a steady downward path. The manifest failure of liberal policies during the 1960s and 1970s, contrasted by the successes of conservatives during the 1980s, was sufficient cause of this reversal of fortune. To make matters worse, these policy failures, as they related to crime, the explosion in welfare rolls, illegitimate births, and the collapse of standards in education, were linked to liberal and leftist attacks on conventional morals that doubly alienated middle-class voters.
The shocking and disquieting events of the 1960s, in particular the assassination of President Kennedy, the urban riots, and the war in Vietnam, produced a psychological change among liberals and leftists toward American society and traditional ideals of reform and progress. From the Progressive era until the 1960s, liberals viewed reform as an instrument of progress through which the ideals of liberty and justice might be more perfectly realized. But in response to these shattering events, liberals began to recast their idea of reform from an instrument of progress to one of punishment. When liberals looked about, they did not see progress but rather blighted cities and ghettoes, a despoiled environment, discrimination against women and minorities, and a national government that coddled dictators in the name of anti-communism. The idea developed in their minds that instead of self-congratulation the nation deserved punishment and chastisement for its manifold failures to live up to its ideals. In this way reform liberalism gave way to “punitive liberalism” and in turn to various policies that sought to punish the middle class for winning success at the expense of higher ideals. From this flowed school busing, race and gender preferences, the coddling of criminals who were “victims of society,” and a legal culture based upon the idea that every wrong can be remedied by a lawsuit. For the new liberals, a sense of anger replaced the sunny optimism of former heroes like FDR and JFK. (I have made this case in greater length in my book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism [Encounter Books, 2007].)
In response to these upheavals, the public soon turned against liberalism until today, according to recent polls, only about 20 percent of Americans are willing to call themselves “liberal,” while about 40 percent describe themselves as “conservative.” In popular circles, where liberalism is associated with high taxes, wild spending, and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the tag “liberal” is often thrown about as a term of abuse. But this does not mean that liberalism is “dead,” only that it is in the process once more of changing its appearance.
LIBERALISM HAS EVOLVED from a popular philosophy in the middle decades of the century into a “vanguard” movement today with great support among experts, academics, journalists, and government workers but with far less support among voters whom these elites purport to serve and who increasingly must pay for the programs they propose. Liberalism has always relied upon its “vanguard” classes to supply it with new problems to solve and new programs for doing so. The Progressives had their academic experts and muckraking journalists, the New Deal had its “brains trust,” and the postwar liberals looked to the federal courts to engineer far-reaching reforms. What is different today is the extent to which the new aims of liberalism — environmentalism, feminism, homosexual marriage, high taxes, and income redistribution — are dissociated from the practical aspirations of the middle classes. The liberal vanguard once claimed to speak for the middle classes but most of the time no longer even pretends to do so.
By the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, liberalism exchanged its broad support among the middle classes for the security and political leverage it found in highly institutionalized sectors of American life. While conservatives now command broad support in public opinion, liberals can claim influence over leading colleges and universities, major newspapers and broadcast outlets, public sector spokesmen, and public employee unions which in combination can shape — or go a long ways toward shaping — the national political debate in the space between elections. Conservatives, to be sure, have learned to fight on this terrain as well but are still outflanked by liberals who occupy strategic positions in much closer proximity to government. As the “party of government,” liberalism by degrees has attached itself to the state such that in many areas (education, welfare, the arts) and place (Sacramento, Albany, Washington, D.C.) it can be difficult to distinguish between them. As the party of “limited government,” conservatism has gradually mobilized its forces at some remove from the state.
This describes the fifth and perhaps the final stage in the evolution of American liberalism. Over the course of the 20th century, it succeeded in rewriting the Constitution, building political coalitions around public spending, insinuating itself within the interstices of government, and gaining control of key institutions that manufacture and legitimize political opinion. Today it has retreated into impregnable redoubts encircling the state from which positions it fights a defensive struggle against voter sentiment increasingly skeptical of its programs of high taxes and public spending.
“Public sector liberalism” represents the logical terminus for a movement that began in an effort to redraw the boundaries of government action in order to bring industrial capitalism to heel and grew in tandem with the expansion of government.
This evolution has produced an unprecedented conflict between the two major political parties with one rooted in the public sector and the other in the private sector.
In the past, political parties were coalitions of private interests seeking influence over government so as to facilitate their growth and expansion within the private economy. This was true of early party conflicts that pitted commerce versus agriculture, or later ones pitting free labor against slavery or business against organized labor. The conflict today between Democrats and Republicans increasingly puts public sector unions and beneficiaries of public programs against the middle-class taxpayer and business interests large and small. In states where public spending is high and public sector unions are strong, as in California, New York, and Illinois, Democrats have seized control; where the public sector is weak or not politically organized, as is the case across the South and Southwest, Republicans have greater strength. This configuration, when added up across the nation, has produced electoral standoffs between red and blue states that have been decided by a handful of swing states that do not fit readily into either camp.
How this standoff is resolved between popular conservatism and public sector liberalism is a legitimate subject for debate and speculation. It is obvious, however, that liberalism can only prosper if it can continue to build coalitions through public spending, public borrowing, and publicly guaranteed credit. These are the resources that underwrite their institutional advantages. Should those resources dry up, as they are now doing as a consequence of the long recession, liberalism will unwind as a political force as public programs are cut, public employees are let go, and retirement arrangements with public sector unions are renegotiated. In some public sector states, such outcomes now appear inevitable. Conservatives are in a position to hasten this process along by refusing to approve the spending, borrowing, and federal bailouts that will be required to keep public sector liberalism afloat, though at the price of being blamed for the pain and suffering associated with its collapse. But this is undoubtedly a price worth paying to guide the nation through an adjustment that will otherwise take place later and under circumstances far less to anyone’s liking.