Liberalism with a New Accent: Immigrants Are Helping to Create a Dynamic, Globally Focused Movement

Article excerpt

We return to our First Principles series this week with a contribution from Harold Meyerson, who argues that the death of liberalism has been much exaggerated, or at least much misunderstood. An understanding of the New Economy, he argues, could well yield a new progressive movement and majority.

-The Editors

It's quiet out there. Too quiet.

You'd half expect some social theorist to come along any day now and proclaim-as Daniel Bell proclaimed at the end of the fifties-that America has reached the end of ideology. At a minimum, we seem to be passing through an odd moment of dual exhaustion on both the left and the right.

Conservatives don't have welfare to kick around anymore, or the deficit to deplore, or Communism to declare the Democrats soft on. Liberals seem in even worse shape than conservatives. They lost the battle for universal health insurance in 1994 and have yet to figure out a way to return to the fray. Most of them seem resigned to working within budgetary limits that preclude any major new governmental initiatives-so resigned that not even a projected multitrillion-dollar surplus can shake them from their torpor. And you have to go back to the twenties-to the Democratic Party as it was before the New Deal-to find a Democratic presidential field in a nonincumbent year so devoid of an unambiguous liberal. To his credit, former Senator Bill Bradley has advanced a surprising number of progressive initiatives over the past couple of months-something he rarely did during his eighteen years in the Senate. And, of course, Warren Beatty-an unambiguous liberal and an unambiguous "protest" candidate-may yet enter the race. But Bradley and Beatty, should he run, are both filling a void created by the failure of the party's liberal wing to produce a candidate.

And yet-take a closer look at the ostensibly centrist cities and their new, supposedly traditionalist, immigrant populations. Look at the erosion of middle-income jobs and the efforts of the recently moribund labor movement to organize the underside of the New Economy. Look at a liberal movement that has moved beyond knee-jerk protectionism to the first serious efforts to build at a global level the kind of mixed economy that liberalism created at the national level sixty years ago. What you see is the beginning of a new liberalism, moving beyond identity politics to a new emphasis on class politics, and moving beyond national sovereignty to a new emphasis on creating a more equitable balance of power and wealth in the global economy.

For while liberals have been bailing from the presidential race, embroiled in defensive battles on Capitol Hill and losing control of city halls across the nation, they have also been engaged, often far from the public spotlight, in retooling their beliefs and their movements for a progressive resurgence. More concretely, they've been reinventing progressivism for the New Economy-the global, postindustrial, skill-intensive, no-job-security, high-tech, high-flex, whiz-bang economic order invariably celebrated by the Democratic centrists (among many others). The New Dems argue that technological innovation and globalization have rendered the left's traditional concern for income maintenance and more equitable income distribution impossible to sustain. "What you earn," a prominent Third Wayer named Clinton has said repeatedly, "depends on what you learn." The chief role of the state is to provide you with the "tools" to navigate the New Economy's choppy but exhilarating waters. After that, bub, you're on your own.

There's a problem with the picture of the New Economy that is painted by its celebrants, however: It's just one piece of a larger canvas. They are certainly right, for instance, that in a global economy, high-wage manufacturing jobs belong on the endangered species list. They blind their eyes, however, to the actual jobs that take the place of decent-paying assembly-line gigs in aerospace and auto. …