American liberals suffer from a well-earned inferiority complex. How often do we hear phrases like, “We need a Heritage Foundation for our side,” or, “We need ideas and a framework, like the right has”? Robert B. Reich has put forth the most comprehensive such argument in the May issue of the English magazine Prospect: “The radical conservatives have a movement, which explains their success … they have frames of reference used in the policy debates … and they have developed a coherent ideology… Democrats have built no analogous movement.”
It's not that this is wrong. It's inarguably correct (though changing, with the establishment of the Center for American Progress and a few other outfits). But to pretend that all that stands between progressives and power is money, message discipline, rapid response, and a friendly cable-news network or three is a dangerous delusion. By so often looking to the right for the model of ideological success, we risk cutting ourselves off from our own strengths, the power of our own ideas, and, above all, our rich history.
I began thinking about this paradox most recently when I joined a blog exchange, responding to a contention in a National Review Online posting by Jonah Goldberg that his fellow conservatives are universally literate in the intellectual heritage behind their belief system, in contrast to “the generalized ignorance or silence of mainstream liberals about their own intellectual history.” As an example, Goldberg asked, “When was the last time you saw more than a passing reference to Herbert Croly?”
I thought there was a kernel of truth to Goldberg's mostly incorrect claim, and I intend to explore that kernel in more depth through this occasional column. The relationship of liberalism's current plight to its intellectual history is far more complicated than Goldberg recognized.
Consider Goldberg's example: Are liberals familiar with or interested in Croly or the implications of his 95-year-old ideas about national greatness and federal power? In fact, about a decade ago, everyone was reading Croly's The Promise of American Life. E.J. Dionne Jr., John B. Judis, and Michael Lind were, in different ways, calling attention to Croly's ideas about a strong federal government and national identity. Croly's era, which was the transition from the Gilded Age into 20th-century progressivism, was held out as a model or prediction for that time.
But it was not just Croly. In the Bill Clinton-Newt Gingrich years, liberals seemed to be awash in many such ideas and historical antecedents. We were reviving ideas at a mad pace. Communitarians, the “politics of meaning” groupies, those interested in “civil society,” the Clintonites who wanted to incubate “bottom up” community-development strategies, and even the thinkers around the Democratic Leadership Council were among many factions engaged in a deep, ongoing, and not at all destructive debate that was thoroughly rooted in history.
But since then -- silence. After the election of 2000, and perhaps earlier, liberals seemed to begin to fall back on an envious observation of the right, looking for something to emulate rather than finding our own voice. The absence of a coherent economic policy in the 2002 elections was a tactical problem, but also a symptom of a larger failing that went well beyond the policy shop of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
For the most part, the mythologized history of the far right rests on the Alcoholics Anonymous theory: Only when you hit rock bottom can you begin the journey to recovery. Historians of both the left and the right find the roots of the far right's current power in the aftermath of the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, or in soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell's 1971 memo roughly outlining the array of policy and advocacy organizations needed to reverse “the plight of the free enterprise system.”
This is actually a comforting thought -- perhaps too comforting. It suggests that as low as liberalism has fallen, the seeds of its renewal may be sprouting, even if we are doing nothing to water them. Outside the realm of ideas, it is probably true: The Democrats' small-donor fund-raising base, volunteer base, Internet base, and get-out-the-vote activism would never have emerged under circumstances in which the far right's influence and ideas were more muted or forced to compromise. But, with some experience of futility over the last three years, there is little reason to think that it has helped liberals in developing either new ideas or a coherent way of talking confidently about existing ideas. Liberalism is different from conservatism, not its mirror. Liberalism thrives when it has an opportunity to experiment, to debate, to test ideas. And when, in a time of futility, we also cut ourselves off from the historical roots of our ideas, we lose the benefit of the experience and experimentation that has gone before.
The corollary to the rock-bottom theory is an overestimation of liberalism's dominance in an earlier era. We often tend to exaggerate the era of “liberal consensus,” assuming that even through the Nixon administration there was unflinching public support for taxation, an activist government, redistributionist economic policies, and a rich social safety net. But each of these was a struggle then, as it is now. There were backlash and resistance throughout that era, even when conservatism did not seem to offer a coherent ideological alternative. As Jacob Hacker's The Divided Welfare State shows, our social-insurance programs were consistently compromised by the political pressure to expand private-sector social insurance, so that the Bush administration's preference to provide all benefits through private-sector subsidies is not a reversal of earlier trends but simply the latest stage in a long struggle.
The historical legacy of liberalism must include the 1990s, although we are perhaps too close to that era to see its virtues clearly. The Clinton years are still too often summed up in the usually disparaging terms of “Rubinomics” or “micro-initiatives” by which Clinton escaped the Gingrich revolution. But behind each of those is a struggle, a set of choices, alternatives that were either rejected or couldn't succeed politically, as well as other approaches that did not rise to scale. What is the legacy of Clinton's “Empowerment Zone” urban-development strategy, for example? What is the lesson for the future in one of the signature achievements of the 1990s, the reversal of the decline in African American incomes? How did we change the politics of crime in 1994 so that liberals are not always on the defensive, and what were the lessons of that transformation for other issues, such as the role of government and taxation?
Without reflecting on these recent as well as distant historical questions, the liberal search for “ideas” and “coherent ideology” is likely to feel like staring at a blank page for hours trying to come up with something to say. I'm not a historian and I'm not interested in these past episodes just for what they explain about their time. On the other hand, I don't think that history offers models simply to be imported into our era. But I do think that the first question to ask about any aspect of policy -- from the specifics of raising the cap on the Social Security payroll tax to grand themes such as “the opportunity society” -- is always: How did we get here?
Mark Schmitt is the Director of Policy for the U.S. Programs of the Open
Society Institute, and a former congressional staffer. He writes a
weblog, The Decembrist, at