Friday, November 14, 2008

The 2008 election and the dawning of a new liberal order

Peter Beinhart examines in Time magazine this week the history of modern liberalism from the early 20th Century through the present (using Grant Park during the Democratic Convention in 1968 and Grant Park on election night 2008 as bookends for its temporary demise) and the dawning of a new liberal order under President-elect Obama:
In America, political majorities live or die at the intersection of two public yearnings: for freedom and for order. A century ago, in the Progressive Era, modern American liberalism was born, in historian Robert Wiebe's words, as a "search for order." America's giant industrial monopolies, the progressives believed, were turning capitalism into a jungle, a wild and lawless place where only the strong and savage survived. By the time Roosevelt took office during the Great Depression, the entire ecosystem appeared to be in a death spiral, with Americans crying out for government to take control. F.D.R. did — juicing the economy with unprecedented amounts of government cash, creating new protections for the unemployed and the elderly, and imposing rules for how industry was to behave. Conservatives wailed that economic freedom was under assault, but most ordinary Americans thanked God that Washington was securing their bank deposits, helping labor unions boost their wages, giving them a pension when they retired and pumping money into the economy to make sure it never fell into depression again. They didn't feel unfree; they felt secure. For three and a half decades, from the mid-1930s through the '60s, government imposed order on the market. The jungle of American capitalism became a well-tended garden, a safe and pleasant place for ordinary folks to stroll. Americans responded by voting for F.D.R.-style liberalism — which even most Republican politicians came to accept — in election after election.

By the beginning of the 1960s, though, liberalism was becoming a victim of its own success. The post-World War II economic boom flooded America's colleges with the children of a rising middle class, and it was those children, who had never experienced life on an economic knife-edge, who began to question the status quo, the tidy, orderly society F.D.R. had built. For blacks in the South, they noted, order meant racial apartheid. For many women, it meant confinement to the home. For everyone, it meant stifling conformity, a society suffocated by rules about how people should dress, pray, imbibe and love. In 1962, Students for a Democratic Society spoke for what would become a new, baby-boom generation "bred in at least modest comfort," which wanted less order and more freedom. And it was this movement for racial, sexual and cultural liberation that bled into the movement against Vietnam and assembled in August 1968 in Grant Park.

Traditional liberalism died there because Americans — who had once associated it with order — came to associate it with disorder instead. For a vast swath of the white working class, racial freedom came to mean riots and crime; sexual freedom came to mean divorce; and cultural freedom came to mean disrespect for family, church and flag. Richard Nixon and later Reagan won the presidency by promising a new order: not economic but cultural, not the taming of the market but the taming of the street.

Flash forward to the evening of Nov. 4, and you can see why liberalism has sprung back to life. Ideologically, the crowds who assembled to hear Obama on election night were linear descendants of those egg throwers four decades before. They too believe in racial equality, gay rights, feminism, civil liberties and people's right to follow their own star. But 40 years later, those ideas no longer seem disorderly. Crime is down and riots nonexistent; feminism is so mainstream that even Sarah Palin embraces the term; Chicago mayor Richard Daley, son of the man who told police to bash heads, marches in gay-rights parades. Culturally, liberalism isn't that scary anymore. Younger Americans — who voted overwhelmingly for Obama — largely embrace the legacy of the '60s, and yet they constitute one of the most obedient, least rebellious generations in memory. The culture war is ending because cultural freedom and cultural order — the two forces that faced off in Chicago in 1968 — have turned out to be reconcilable after all.

The disorder that panics Americans now is not cultural but economic. If liberalism collapsed in the 1960s because its bid for cultural freedom became associated with cultural disorder, conservatism has collapsed today because its bid for economic freedom has become associated with economic disorder. When Reagan took power in 1981, he vowed to restore the economic liberty that a half-century of F.D.R.-style government intrusion had stifled. American capitalism had become so thoroughly domesticated, he argued, that it lost its capacity for dynamic growth. For a time, a majority of Americans agreed. Taxes and regulations were cut and cut again, and for the most part, the economic pie grew. In the 1980s and '90s, the garden of American capitalism became a pretty energetic place. But it became a scarier place too. In the newly deregulated American economy, fewer people had job security or fixed-benefit pensions or reliable health care. Some got rich, but a lot went bankrupt, mostly because of health-care costs. As Yale University political scientist Jacob Hacker has noted, Americans today experience far-more-violent swings in household income than did their parents a generation ago.

Starting in the 1990s, average Americans began deciding that the conservative economic agenda was a bit like the liberal cultural agenda of the 1960s: less liberating than frightening. When the Gingrich Republicans tried to slash Medicare, the public turned on them en masse. A decade later, when George W. Bush tried to partially privatize Social Security, Americans rebelled once again. In 2005 a Pew Research Center survey identified a new group of voters that it called "pro-government conservatives." They were culturally conservative and hawkish on foreign policy, and they overwhelmingly supported Bush in 2004. But by large majorities, they endorsed government regulation and government spending. They didn't want to unleash the free market; they wanted to rein it in.

Those voters were a time bomb in the Republican coalition, which detonated on Nov. 4. John McCain's promises to cut taxes, cut spending and get government out of the way left them cold. Among the almost half of voters who said they were "very worried" that the economic crisis would hurt their family, Obama beat McCain by 26 points.

The public mood on economics today is a lot like the public mood on culture 40 years ago: Americans want government to impose law and order — to keep their 401(k)s from going down, to keep their health-care premiums from going up, to keep their jobs from going overseas — and they don't much care whose heads Washington has to bash to do it.

That is both Obama's great challenge and his great opportunity. If he can do what F.D.R. did — make American capitalism stabler and less savage — he will establish a Democratic majority that dominates U.S. politics for a generation. And despite the daunting problems he inherits, he's got an excellent chance. For one thing, taking aggressive action to stimulate the economy, regulate the financial industry and shore up the American welfare state won't divide his political coalition; it will divide the other side. On domestic economics, Democrats up and down the class ladder mostly agree. Even among Democratic Party economists, the divide that existed during the Clinton years between deficit hawks like Robert Rubin and free spenders like Robert Reich has largely evaporated, as everyone has embraced a bigger government role. Today it's Republicans who — though more unified on cultural issues — are split badly between upscale business types who want government out of the way and pro-government conservatives who want Washington's help. If Obama moves forcefully to restore economic order, the Wall Street Journal will squawk about creeping socialism, as it did in F.D.R.'s day, but many downscale Republicans will cheer. It's these working-class Reagan Democrats who could become tomorrow's Obama Republicans — a key component of a new liberal majority — if he alleviates their economic fears.

Obama doesn't have to turn the economy around overnight. After all, Roosevelt hadn't ended the Depression by 1936. Obama just needs modest economic improvement by the time he starts running for re-election and an image as someone relentlessly focused on fixing America's economic woes. In allocating his time in his first months as President, he should remember what voters told exit pollsters they cared about most — 63% said the economy. (No other issue even exceeded 10%.)

In politics, crisis often brings opportunity. If Obama restores some measure of economic order, kick-starting U.S. capitalism and softening its hard edges, and if he develops the kind of personal rapport with ordinary Americans that F.D.R. and Reagan had — and he has the communication skills to do it — liberals will probably hold sway in Washington until Sasha and Malia have kids. As that happens, the arguments that have framed economic debate in recent times — for large upper-income tax cuts or the partial privatization of Social Security and Medicare — will fade into irrelevance. In an era of liberal hegemony, they will seem as archaic as defending the welfare system became when conservatives were on top.

There are fault lines in the Obama coalition, to be sure. In a two-party system, it's impossible to construct a majority without bringing together people who disagree on big things. But Obama's majority is at least as cohesive as Reagan's or F.D.R.'s. The cultural issues that have long divided Democrats — gay marriage, gun control, abortion — are receding in importance as a post-'60s generation grows to adulthood. Foreign policy doesn't divide Democrats as bitterly as it used to either because, in the wake of Iraq, once-hawkish working-class whites have grown more skeptical of military force. In 2004, 22% of voters told exit pollsters that "moral values" were their top priority, and 19% said terrorism. This year terrorism got 9%, and no social issues even made the list.

The biggest potential land mine in the Obama coalition isn't the culture war or foreign policy; it's nationalism. On a range of issues, from global warming to immigration to trade to torture, college-educated liberals want to integrate more deeply America's economy, society and values with the rest of the world's. They want to make it easier for people and goods to legally cross America's borders, and they want global rules that govern how much America can pollute the atmosphere and how it conducts the war on terrorism. They believe that ceding some sovereignty is essential to making America prosperous, decent and safe. When it comes to free trade, immigration and multilateralism, though, downscale Democrats are more skeptical. In the future, the old struggle between freedom and order may play itself out on a global scale, as liberal internationalists try to establish new rules for a more interconnected planet and working-class nationalists protest that foreign bureaucrats threaten America's freedom.

But that's in the future. If Obama begins restoring order to the economy, Democrats will reap the rewards for a long time. Forty years ago, liberalism looked like the problem in a nation spinning out of control. Today a new version of it may be the solution. It's a very different day in Grant Park.

1 comment:

Comrade Kevin said...

And in time, liberalism will grow disorderly and conservatives, having reformed themselves to stay relevant and to regain power, will become appealing once again.

Round and round and round it goes.