Rising Tide?

"They almost have a nostalgic quality about them, sort of like the bell bottoms stuck in the back of the closet," writes Jeffrey M. Berry of today's quixotic and starry-eyed liberals. "But liberalism is not dead. Indeed, it's thriving."

In The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups, Berry marshals copious evidence that over the past four decades, liberal citizen groups have outperformed conservative groups and business lobbies in almost every regard—commanding more positive media attention, winning more legislative victories, and indeed lasting longer as organizations.

It is an interesting finding but true about just one narrowly defined band of liberalism. Berry admits that traditional liberalism, the kind primarily concerned with economic equality, is in decline. What he discusses is a new type of liberalism—he calls it post materialism—which addresses the environment, consumer protection, civil rights, and other nonmaterial quality-of-life issues. Postmaterial groups effectively influence congressional agendas and outcomes, he says, because they converted the social activism of the 1960s into "well-functioning bureaucracies" and became indispensable technical experts to government officials.

The result may not be good news at all for liberals, especially for old economic-equality progressives, for Berry's postmaterialism is a liberalism of the affluent. "It may be that Ralph Nader liberalism helped to crowd out Hubert Humphrey liberalism," as Berry himself suggests; a postmaterial liberal agenda would aim for a cleaner environment and child-safe bottles while ignoring issues more pressing for the disadvantaged, such as a living wage or adequate housing.

The proliferation of apparently successful liberal citizen groups could even prevent the formation of broader liberal visions and coalitions. So many groups competing for donors may keep liberalism too fragmented and specialized to capture a political majority, as Karen Paget has argued in The American Prospect [see "Citizen Organizing: Many Movements, No Majority," Summer 1990]. Berry himself is able to find liberals more successful than conservatives because he examines only their lobbying, not electoral politics.

Also worrisome is Berry's acceptance of a kind of checkbook democracy. "The greatest virtue of these [citizen] groups," he says, "is that they represent us in the political process. . . . As attractive as the model of democracy idealized by Tocqueville (and espoused by Putnam) is, the reality is that most governing in America is done by representatives who act on citizens' behalf rather than by participatory institutions." Yet participatory democracy is more democratic because citizens donate time. Berry's citizen groups employ only experts, and citizens can contribute to the cause only by donating money, for which no upper limit exists. As Sidney Verba has pointed out, "When money replaces time as the principal form of political currency, the playing field is no longer level."

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