End Times for American Liberalism

Article excerpt

DESPITE the most blatant violations of civil liberties in American history by a Southern evangelical President fighting a never-ending crusade against 'evil' itself, the three leading Democratic candidates for the 2008 presidential election, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards make almost no mention of civil liberties as a campaign issue on their websites. The most liberal candidate, Dennis Kucinich, an Ohio Congressman, does include it at the very bottom of his list of issues, just underneath animal rights. Senators Clinton, Obama, and Edwards outdo each other speaking of their faith in their Lord and Saviour, without whom they couldn't have gotten through difficult times, and bend over backwards to 'respect' the different opinions of evangelical voters, on such issues as 'intelligent design' or the preservation of adult stem-cell embryos. Clinton voted not only to authorize the Patriot Act (which gutted civil liberties in 2001), but to reauthorize it in 2006. The Democratic candidates vow to hunt down the terrorists and kill them, and to show no tolerance for illegal immigrants, as they speak a language of economic populism focused on the anxieties of the declining middle-class. And all this comes at a time when the self-destructive acts of the radical conservatives in power couldn't possibly have created a more propitious time for the revival of liberal individualism in America.

The label 'liberal' is avoided like the plague by all the Democrats, who prefer to be called 'progressives' these days. Turn-of-the-century Progressivism, whose two leading presidential avatars were Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, was a heady blend of moralistic intervention in public and private life, extending the reach of the regulatory state to areas well beyond the imagination of the nineteenth-century American laissez-faire state. It arose from the earlier Populist movement, which was nostalgic and backward-looking, harkening to a bygone era of agrarian independence no longer possible in rapidly industrializing late-nineteenth-century America. American progressivism has always had a touch of the reactionary about it, seeking to control and discipline unruly human behaviour to mobilize it toward the common good as defined by the elites. It is in many senses the antithesis of what common sense conjures up by the word progressive. The regulatory and redistributive prescriptions with respect to tax policy, health care, corporate concentration, and foreign trade offered by leading Democrats today are little more than pale derivatives of what Democratic populists were offering in the early seventies, after the peak moment of modern-day American liberalism, under Lyndon Johnson's 'Great Society', was already past. As the New York Times recently pointed out (2 September): 'The percentage of Americans who define their political philosophy as "liberal" has been consistently stuck around 18 percent since the 1970s'.

In Fred R. Harris's The New Populism (Saturday Review Press, 1973) and Jack Newfield and Jeff Greenfield's A Populist Manifesto: The Making of a New Majority (Praeger, 1972), which came in the wake of Richard Nixon's successful tarring of Democrats as tax-and-spend liberals more interested in protecting special privileges for the black underclass than in forward-looking programmes for the white majority, one already detects a note of utopian fantasy presented more for the sake of form than as realistic dogma. There is a gloomy tincture of defeatism and paralysis, an abject subjugation by concentrated capitalism that would soon become evident in the Carter Administration's futile efforts to extend the welfare state in even limited areas. Since George W. Bush's election in 2000, a number of academics have predicted an inevitable cyclical return to progressivism, as conservative forces spend themselves out and the pragmatism of the American people, geared more to pocketbook matters than ideology, reasserts itself. …