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 Liberalism even in its modern form has seemed to them transitional and incomplete, outdated in its individualism, unsatisfying in its conception of the good life and the good society, inadequate to the demands of justice.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.
Americans may love their country; they may resent anyone showing the least disrespect for the flag. They may judge other countries to be better or worse depending on how closely those nations approximate the American political system. AR the same, they regard their own politicians and government with a mixture of skepticism and scorn. In the United States, especially since Reagan, distrust of the government has virtually become a mark of the authentic patriot. To show some confidence in government may not yet be subversive, but it does raise suspicions.