October 20, 2012


Liberalism's shrinking agenda (Michael Gerson, October 18, 2012, Washington Post)

Obama has largely set out to protect past ambitions, not project new ones.

This may be the fate of any political liberal during a fiscal crisis. It is hard to be Lyndon Johnson with a trillion-dollar deficit. But the Obama agenda also reflects a broader shift in American liberalism, which has become reactive. Liberals often defend unreformed, unsustainable health entitlements -- even though these commitments place increasing burdens on the young to benefit those who are older and better off. They often defend the unrestricted right to abortion -- even though it represents a contraction of the circle of social inclusion and protection. They often defend the educational status quo -- even though it is one of the nation's main sources of racial and economic injustice.

Others have termed this "reactionary liberalism." It is more the protection of accumulated interests than the application of creative reform to new problems. In the place of idealism, there is often anger. When Obama failed in his first debate, liberals were generally not critical that he lacked idealism. They were angry that he wasn't sufficiently angry. The fondest hopes and dreams of many on the left were apparently fulfilled in Joe Biden's sneer.

As a conservative, I can't endorse every policy of the Great Society -- some were essential, others counterproductive. But America was better off because liberals called attention to those in the dawn, the twilight and the shadows of life. And U.S. politics is worse off because liberalism has become a shadow of its former self.

The problem is that the task of making Great Society liberalism sustainable is now essentially the domain of Third Way conservatives, like Paul Ryan.  This should be a cause that moderate Democrats can embrace, but because it identifies them too closely with Republicans they are generally unable to do so.  It is only those figures who lead parties of the Left back from the wilderness by running on such reforms who can get away with this sort of moderation--Tony Blair & Bill Clinton.

Posted by at October 20, 2012 3:49 PM

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