“Obama’s offer… falls to the right of the average voter’s preference; in fact, it may outflank the views of the average Republican.” George Packer (The New Yorker) citing The New York Times writer, Nate Silver
“Put it this way: If a Republican president had managed to extract the kind of concessions on Medicare and Social Security that Mr. Obama is offering, it would have been considered a conservative triumph” Paul Krugman, The New York Times
“President Obama presented Republicans with what, at almost any other time in recent history, would be seen as a conservative dream…” The Nation editorial
“It was shocking when he betrayed core principles of the Democratic Party, portraying himself as high-minded and brave because he defied his loyal constituents.” William Greider, The Nation
The quotes above and many other similar statements point to a crucial, disturbing moment in the evolution of US politics. Self-styled liberals or, as they now prefer to be called, “progressives,” are recognizing the loss of their influence in the dynamics of the US political process. They are feeling the pain of marginalization.
For liberals, the election of Barack Obama signaled a return to an imagined earlier politics that would establish a coalition of the have-not and have-less elements of US society and would counter the unrestrained pillage of the very rich and powerful. This idealized vision never promised to settle accounts with powerful interests, but only to buffer the pain of the less advantaged with a robust, but patronizing “safety-net.” In foreign policy, liberalism never abandoned imperial goals masked as advocacy of transcendent values, but sought a softer, less belligerent imposition of these goals on client states and potential opposition. In the 2008 election campaign, Barack Obama and other Democratic Party candidates did much to encourage the view that new politics were on the horizon.
Nearly three years after the election, the promise of Obama and the hope of liberals are gone, replaced by shock and disappointment.
Liberals-in-denial blame the Obama debacle on the ultra-right: the determined, uncompromising right flank of ruling class politics that unabashedly promote the interests of the wealthy and powerful while advocating unrestrained US global dominance. Standing by 19th-century economics, libertarian social and political policies, and hyper-patriotism, the ultra-right enjoys a base seduced by an ideology in a world awash in compromise, opportunism and hypocrisy. Against their shrill, ideological fervor, Obama, the prince of civility and concession, stands no chance. For the liberals, the ultra-right violates the rules of fair play, a charge of little sting at a time of profound economic and political crisis.
Still other liberals lash out at Obama as a traitor to the cause, a candidate who side-stepped the promised changes and violated the values enunciated in the 2008 campaign. For the most part, they need to revisit the campaign promises and sweep away the naiveté that blinded them to the massive corporate and elite support that put Obama on the main stage. They need to investigate the available, though widely ignored, accounts of Obama’s political career that cast great doubts on his liberal credentials and show his progressivism to rest on the thin ice of opportunism. Those who bought the puffery of vanity political accounts have no one to blame but themselves. More importantly, liberals fail to acknowledge the many decades of Democratic Party embodiment and facilitation of shifting liberal values; they fail to see the continuing escape from and re-shaping of those values as demonstrated transparently by the previous policies of the Carter and Clinton administrations.
US liberalism is an elusive ideology, if it is an ideology at all. It shares with classical liberalism a reverence for vague and fuzzy notions of freedom and liberty that deny any class relativity to these concepts. For the most part, US liberalism in the era of monopoly capitalism differs from US conservatism by exhibiting more social tolerance, allowing more free space for life-styles, religious attitudes, ethnic differences, and expression. Notably, the limits of liberal tolerance often stop at radical political expression and activity. Liberals are seldom friendlier to socialist, anarchist or Communist movements than their conservative counterparts.
Some locate the roots of modern US liberalism in the Progressive Era. Others see stirrings of the modern variant in the doctrines of Woodrow Wilson. But liberalism, as we came to know it, surely owes its fundamental principles to the Franklin Roosevelt era and New Deal policies. Shaped by a profound capitalist economic crisis, an influential and growing independent left, and emerging ultra-right, fascist threats, Roosevelt and his allies crafted an ideology that re-structured capitalism and its institutions to meet these challenges. Not without many reservations, the Democratic Party became the flag-holder for this new ideology.
Apart from the bloated mythology surrounding the New Deal, the liberal initiatives of the 1930’s ameliorated the hard edge of suffering falling upon most working people, deepened democracy and proved to be immensely popular with a majority of US citizens.
Key elements of New Deal liberalism include the following:
1. Government has a duty to establish a baseline of living standards guaranteed to all.
2. Government has a similar duty to regulate and manage the capitalist economy to ensure its viability and success.
3. Foreign policy should avoid intervention (except in the Americas) and rely on negotiation and international institutions.
To a great extent, these elements served as a cornerstone of liberalism, broadened its appeal and established a loyal base for the Democratic Party. Coupled with the threat of fascism, this produced an uneasy, but stable unity with the socialist and Communist left.
New Deal liberalism reached its zenith during World War II with its Grand Alliance of those fighting fascism, an alliance that included the Soviet Union. The post-war world envisioned by liberals as well as Communists promised an end to war, peaceful democratic governments and a decided social and economic tilt towards the masses. The Potsdam, Tehran and Yalta conferences sketched the outlines of this post-war world.
But it was not to be.
New Deal liberals and Communists alike underestimated the strength of reaction and failed to stem the counterattack by corporate interests and their political allies.
Within three years of the end of the war, liberals melted before an onslaught of hyper-patriotism and anti-Communist zealotry. In a preview of our current moment, liberalism sought to compromise with the most rabid, anti-democratic forces, conceding civil liberties, foreign policy sanity and the militarization of the US to protect remnants of the New Deal agenda. With the left nearly destroyed or in retreat, liberals lost the spurs that prodded the most radical, progressive policies in the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression. With that loss went the spine of liberalism. The Cold War ushered in the retreat of liberalism and the infidelity of its Democratic Party electoral partner.
With the mass upsurge of the 1960s driving the initiative, liberalism and its Democratic Party vehicle made one last, futile attempt to breathe life into the New Deal agenda. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society returned to the spirit of the New Deal, but made the fatal mistake of embarking on domestic reform while appeasing conservatives with an aggressive, imperialist war. The New Deal and the Cold War were simply incompatible.
Since that time, with liberalism and the Democratic Party joined at the hip, the trajectory of US liberalism and the Democrats has moved further and further away from New Deal ideology. The Democratic Party platform of 1976 was the last gasp of New Deal consensus, only to be neglected and subverted by the Carter administration.
The electoral victory of Ronald Reagan pushed liberals and the Democrats even further from New Deal thinking, with both soon accepting the primacy of free markets, de-regulation, a minimal public sector, balanced budgets, and government non-intervention in the affairs of corporations.
If liberalism had an ideology, it was embodied in the New Deal. With most of the New Deal gone and liberals tepidly defending its remnants – Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – it’s hard to find the soul of this once vital political force.
Liberals and Democrats
US liberalism, since the time of the New Deal, placed its fate in the hands of the Democratic Party. Indeed, most identify modern liberalism with the Democratic Party. It is easy to understand why. During the New Deal era, the Democratic Party was the vessel for New Deal policies and the legislative executor of those policies. But it is also necessary to understand that it was not an easy fit. Roosevelt battled internally with many factions within the Party, as did his closest liberal allies.
From the onset of his term, Roosevelt felt compelled to appoint conservative Party figures to key positions and appease the pro-business orientation of the Party’s old guard. As a self-proclaimed experimenter, he shifted personnel to find answers to the Great Depression: progressives brought him success, conservatives didn’t. In addition, he was always looking over his left shoulder at a Communist and labor movement that was pressing hard at his heels.
His successes won a huge victory for the Democrats in the 1936 election. While many newly elected Democrats were progressive, many were not. And his program after 1936 was often stalled and even reversed by conservative elements in the Party. In short, the Democratic Party was still a bourgeois party. It did not make Roosevelt and his New Dealers progressive; they made the Democratic Party progressive.
In 1948, New Deal liberals, led by ex-Vice President Henry Wallace, understood this well. In the face of a Democratic Party retreat from the New Deal ideology, they formed a third party, the Progressive Party. While many see this as ill-advised and ill-fated, others of us view this move as a premature recognition of the forthcoming decline and dissolution of New Deal liberalism. While the Progressive Party fell victim to Cold War hysteria and liberal divisiveness, it attempted to keep alive the soul of the New Deal.
Over the next many decades, with the rise of television and other new media, the decisive role of polling, and the accompanying critical necessity of fund raising, the Democratic Party became less of a willing partner for New Deal ideas and more of a brand to be manipulated by consultants and other shapers of public opinion. The draw of ideas and issues was replaced with the politics of personality and vapid sloganeering.
Having made its bed with the Democratic Party, US liberalism valiantly stood by as the Democratic Party was polluted and corrupted with corporate money. A Party allied with the bourgeoisie became a Party owned by the bourgeoisie. Instead of a Party seeking the enlightened interests of US capitalism to be found in a measure of social justice, the Democratic Party became a vulgar tool of US capitalism, paying lip service to its core support in the labor movement and among African Americans and other minorities.
Today, liberalism has paid a heavy price for its marriage with the Democratic Party. By slavishly correcting its vision to comply with an increasingly ideologically bankrupt and crassly opportunistic political machine, liberalism has acceded to the sapping of its once politically relevant principles.
It is not for those of us of the anti-capitalist left to find redemption for liberalism. We have our own work to do. But its collapse has left the door open to the continuing advancement of the most extreme, the most rabid supporters of corporate brigandage and political reaction.