Over the past century, many reformers and critics in the West have believed that liberal democratic capitalism was evolving, inexorably and appropriately, toward a socialist, planned economy. Liberalism even in its modern form has seemed to them transitional and incomplete, outdated in its individualism, unsatisfying in its conception of the good life and the good society, inadequate to the demands of justice. Socialism would take civilization to a higher stage; it would fulfill ideals that liberalism professed but failed to honor, as well as ideals that liberalism failed even to profess.
With the recent flurry of proposals for universal health insurance, including a new plan submitted on June 5 by Majority Leader George Mitchell on behalf of the Senate Democratic leadership, a struggle that began three-quarters of a century ago in the United States entered another phase. Four times -- in the Progressive Era, during the New Deal, under President Truman, and again in the 1970s -- reformers believed passage of legislation was close at hand. Yet on each occasion the movement failed and receded.
Even before the jubilation in Kuwait City died down -- indeed, even before the Gulf War ended in a decisive allied victory -- many who warned that the war would go badly were warning that the war's aftermath would go badly. That is a safe prediction. No one has ever won a nickel betting on peace and harmony in the Middle East or gained a reputation for political clairvoyance by predicting that a war in the region would end its ancient conflicts.
In the past year, the opinion has gained currency, particularly in conservative circles, that the great ideological battles of our time are shifting to the terrain of culture. The controversies over free speech and the arts; multiculturalism and education; the relevance of gender, race, and class to the study of the humanities and society; the relation between popular and high culture; the prominence of violence and sexuality in popular music and the mass media -- these and other questions have been stirring stronger passions, at least on campuses and the opinion pages, than any dispute over economic policy or electoral politics.
"We make our vision, and hold it ready for any amendment that experience suggests. It is not a
fixed picture, a row of shiny ideals which we can exhibit to mankind and say: Achieve these or
be damned. All we can do is to search the world as we find it, extricate the forces that seem to
move it, and surround them with criticism and suggestion.... Too far ahead there is nothing but
your dream; just behind, there is nothing but your memory. But in the unfolding present, man
can be creative if his vision is gathered from the promise of actual things."