Democratizing the United States

Article excerpt

Liberals have traditionally been concerned with liberty, rights, justice, and equality--in short, the ideals of "liberal democracy." True, the original liberals, beginning with Adam Smith's generation, interpreted democratic ideals as applying only to white men who owned a certain amount of property. But a truly egalitarian democracy was implicit in their rhetoric from the start, though it was only gradually implemented by later generations. Thus, liberalism has become more liberal with age-so much so that its original tenets are now regarded as extreme conservatism. Laissez-faire, for instance, was one of the main planks of the eighteenth-century "liberal" economic platform.

Since about 1980, however, the trend toward an increasingly liberal liberalism has been reversed. Democratic candidates who 20 years ago would have been called moderate liberals are now called "too liberal to win." This reflects a general shift to the right in American politics, under the impact of a sick economy whose symptoms were blamed--rightly or wrongly--on liberal economics. Double-digit inflation and sky-high interest rates in the late 1970s were widely seen as discrediting the Keynesian principles of deficit finance that liberal economists had prescribed for decades as the remedy for recession. Tax-and-spend liberals" then became the chief devils in the old-time conservative religion preached by Ronald Reagan and his supply-side deacons, led by Milton Friedman (ironically, a disciple of Adam Smith, one of the original "liberals").

The debacle of liberal economics in turn cast doubt on liberalism in general, so that the term liberal itself became a kind of political slur, and successfully pinning it on one's opponent increasingly became a way to win elections. To cope with the harsh new political climate, the Democratic Party was forced to become more centrist," which is to say less liberal. If this rightward trend continues, the moderate Democrats of tomorrow will resemble today's conservative Republicans, whereas the latter will then be the equivalent of today's ultra-conservatives.

Bill Clinton's election represents a victory for the new Democratic centrism. Clinton has distanced himself from many of the liberal economic and fiscal policies advocated by oldstyle Democrats because voters were clearly disenchanted with those policies. But during the Reagan-Bush era, much of the public also became disenchanted with liberal political ideals as well. This was reflected in widespread support for (or at least acquiescence in) more than a decade of regressive policies in such areas as equal opportunity, civil rights, social welfare, and environmental protection. The past two administrations were also notable for an erosion of First Amendment rights, for more government secrecy, censorship, and repression, and for an increasing centralization of power in the executive branch--in short, a drift toward authoritarianism and away from democratic ideals.

If the Clinton administration wants to maintain the support of its more liberal constituencies, it must help to restore the good name of liberalism by reaffirming those ideals of liberal democracy that were trampled under by the Reagan and Bush administrations. At the same time, it must remain true to its pledge to discard those elements of old-style liberal economics that proved to be counterproductive. There are, however, a few obstacles in the way.

Unfortunately, most Americans do not yet fully realize how reactionary the Reagan and Bush administrations were--and the press, for the most part, is now interested in other things. Thus, the illusion is fostered that the past two administrations represented nothing out of the ordinary. Twelve years of reactionary propaganda and daily exposure, via the media, to the regressive-thinking-in-action of top government officials produced in much of the public a passive acceptance of illiberal, anti-democratic attitudes. …