The current political moment is not so much one of conservative triumph as of liberalism’s withering away. To say that the American “reform tradition” is in crisis is to underestimate the extent of the debacle, since unlike a crisis, no visible reason exists why the present trend — the gradual abandonment of hope that liberal achievements of the past can be extended or even preserved — cannot continue forever. The great counterexample, Obama’s health reform, proves the rule: passed only thanks to a once-in-a-generation Democratic supermajority and the approval of every major industry lobby it affected, it emerged as a painfully inadequate, jerry-rigged palliative, already languishing under the scalpel of austerity. The only true exception to liberalism’s demise concerns equal rights for ethnic, sexual, and other minorities — a principle won long ago at a cultural level but whose institutional consolidation is still incomplete and whose most recent advance was New York State’s legalization of gay marriage. On all other questions, the watchword is despair.
For a few years, following the centrist resignation of the Clinton years, and especially after the Iraq invasion, a certain spirit of rebellion seemed to well up from the liberal base as it witnessed its Democratic leaders meekly concede to the Bush administration on one issue after another. This impulse helped give rise to the Obama campaign and the enormous, often inexplicable hopes invested in it — a remarkable episode of mass projection, insightfully recognized as such by the candidate himself1. Today, except among the president’s most die-hard acolytes, this hope has all but flickered out. It is clear to all that Obama, and the Democrats generally, have made themselves the instruments of an energized and revanchist ruling class which has seized a moment of economic dislocation and working class disarray to roll back the meager but long-hated social protections of the New Deal and Great Society.
Traditionally, liberalism’s troubles have inspired two kinds of responses from the Left. The first is an abandonment of any critical distance as a crisis atmosphere takes hold and the need to confront the “threat from the Right” supersedes all other considerations. Conservative resurgence is painted as a fascist menace and any liberal alternative is by comparison invested with a “progressive” halo. This dynamic played a part in Obama’s rise as a surprising number of figures with impeccable leftist credentials made themselves appendages of the “Obama movement.” The second kind of response is a sort of theoretical schadenfreude, a philosophy of “the worse, the better” applied to the political realm. The labor historian Jefferson Cowie has observed this dynamic at play in the late 1970s, as seen through the eyes of the socialist intellectual Michael Harrington: “Unlike many leftists at the time, he understood that the Left depended upon liberalism being strong in order to build upon. Others saw it differently, operating from the idea that if activists tore down liberalism then people would move to the ‘true’ left.”
Harrington was right. Any future resurgence of the Left will almost certainly coincide with a revival of liberalism, and the liberal ranks will surely supply a disproportionate share of recruits to the radical cause. The 1960s offers a case study of this process. In his history of Americans for Democratic Action, the historian Steve Gillon chronicled the group’s transformation over the course of the decade: starting from a stance of sterile anticommunist “growth liberalism,” the organization was transformed by a new breed of “reform liberals” who swept into positions of power, pushing out the most conservative stalwarts, bringing Michael Harrington onto the board, and swinging the group by 1969 toward democratic socialism. “There was not a bit of difference between the ADA and Socialist Party on economic issues in the 1970s,” remarked one leading ADA liberal from that period.
Radicals must avoid submerging our identities into an insipid and ahistorical “progressivism”; we must remain firmly anchored to the socialist tradition and never shy away from the ruthless critique of liberalism. But socialists should also be wary of slipping into a rhetorical posture of unrestrained invective that only cements the Left’s marginal status in American political life. Don’t dance on liberalism’s grave. There’s nothing to celebrate.
- “I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.”