When Liberals Must Conserve

“We need a message.” “We need a philosophy.” “We need a simple statement of what we believe, just like the right has.” No meeting of progressives lasts long before these sentiments are expressed. Sometimes a committee will be assigned to frame the new message.

The result might be a crisp but banal statement of uncontested values. Or a list of 62 programs that acknowledge all the key constituencies and causes. As a colleague of mine once said, most attempts at this synthesis are no worse than any other, and no better.
Why is this so hard? Why haven't we been able to define what it means to be a progressive (or liberal) in clear, meaningful terms?

Here's one take at an answer: It's because the progressive message for the current moment is essentially, by tragic necessity, that of conservatism. Although we still do Republicans the courtesy of labeling them “far right,” the fact is they have gone so far around the bend that they have abandoned all of the conservative tradition, except for a small piece of Randian economic libertarianism. And the empty shell of conservatism has been bequeathed to us.

The defining characteristic of Bush-era policies -- from tax cuts to the Medicare drug bill and, above all, the Iraq invasion -- has been a reckless disregard for consequences. Whether that comes from an idealism comparable to that of the dreamiest liberals -- as the president's defenders on Iraq still insist -- or simply an “I've got mine, Jack” brand of social Darwinism plus corruption, the task of dealing with the consequences will fall to those who come next.

And so Democrats, before they can do anything big, will need to restore stability, caution, survival, respect for the future, fiscal discipline, and realism in foreign policy. These are conservative values. We will need them not because they represent our vision of how the world should be but because they are life rafts that can take us back to saner shores.

And hence our speechlessness. This is not language we are comfortable with or get excited about. We want the language of Great Society, full employment, man on the moon, global prosperity, democracy around the world, universal human rights, every life lived to its fullest. We can find our way back to that visionary, aspirational language, but the way back takes us through a dozen meliorative tasks like restoring fiscal sanity, preventing the collapse of the employer-provided health-care system, modernizing entitlements, restoring the tax structure of the end of the 20th century, ending the war in Iraq, rescuing our country's international reputation, and dealing with the real consequences of global warming.

The tools and words for this task come to us mostly from the conservative tradition. And let's admit it: Conservatism has many worthwhile aspects. The Burkean understanding of the connectedness of past and future and of the need for care and humility in trying to reorder human relations is enlightening, as is Friedrich Hayek's conception of the limits of centralized decision making. American liberals learned a lot decades ago from our own mistakes and overconfidence; now it's time to put that hard-won lesson into practice.

The challenge for a progressive message, then, is to find a way to own the conservatism that is our unhappy inheritance, and to imbue it with energy and with a vision of a future that is not quite just over the horizon. We need a language of conservative means to progressive ends, a language of patience.

How progressives can bring vision and passion to an inevitably conservative agenda will be a theme that this column will explore in the future, but I'll suggest some of it here. One step is to reinvigorate the language of shared sacrifice and national commitment. The individualism of the ugly Bush years has to be contrasted with a vision of collective action, and the act of sacrifice -- whether it be serving in the military or as a teacher, consuming less energy, or giving up a familiar tax benefit -- has to be made to seem noble. We should talk about business and corporations in the same way. Anti-corporate politics is not enough. We have to show how business can play a different role in society, one in which it shares in the sacrifice and in which we expect corporations to think in the long term, beyond today's stock price.

Conservative means to progressive ends is a perspective, not a program. It doesn't solve the problem of writing a simple statement of principles. But it helps explain why it's been so difficult, as well as the mental barrier we have to get over to write it. If we can own and appreciate the conservatism we've been handed, we can show the path back to a world where a philosophy of hope is meaningful.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

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