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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Taking Liberties

This item, the fifth in the Demos/TDS forum on “Progressive Politics and the Meaning of American Freedom,” is by Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute.
Freedom, says John Schwarz, is too important to be left to conservatives. No argument there. For too long, liberals have been flummoxed by conservatives’ success in posing as defenders of liberty against government encroachment. This stance has given the conservative cause a simple, reductive logic and ideological coherence that liberals lack – and often envy. It has enabled the right to tap the deep strain of anti-statism that really does make American politics exceptional.
Modern liberals have chafed at the constraint that this classically liberal understanding of freedom imposes on their social vision. For decades, they’ve struggled to articulate a countervailing principle that can trump the power of what Louis Hartz called America’s underlying “Lockian” consensus.
Arriving in Washington just after Ronald Reagan’s election, I’d often ask shell-shocked liberals to define their first principle. The invariable, deflating answer: “affirming a positive role for government.” This trope reflected a confusion of means with ends – and it goes a long way toward explaining why only about a fifth of Americans have been willing to call themselves liberals since the early 1970s.
The story of how liberalism came to be linked with social engineering and redistribution, with tax and spend, and with rights and entitlements to favored groups is too familiar to need rehashing here. Suffice it to say that liberal efforts to expand government’s role to advance worthy social goals have often crossed lines that are important to many if not most voters. These lines mark the boundaries between individual and collective responsibility, and between government’s legitimate efforts to assure equal opportunity as opposed to equal outcomes.
So Schwarz’s diagnoses is right: the public’s abiding suspicion that expansive government means contracting freedom tends to stack the political deck in conservatives’ favor and keep liberals on the defensive. His ideas for reversing the presumption in liberals’ favor, however, fall short.
When it comes to freedom, liberals face an inescapable dilemma. They can never be as simple-minded as conservatives. They can’t simply counter conservatives’ classic-liberal conception of freedom with a social liberalism that aspires to greater equality and social justice. Mid-century liberals succeeded by keeping these often antagonist approaches in equipoise. Modern liberals have lost the balance, and with it, the ability to persuade a majority of Americans to their point of view.
Here it’s important to distinguish between Democrats and liberals. Most liberals are Democrats, but most Democrats are moderates (and another 17 percent say they are conservative). The outlook of moderate-to-conservative Democrats remains anchored in the classic liberalism of the American creed. Liberal Democrats incline toward social democracy, especially the Nordic model.
If liberals are very far from a majority, Democrats are achingly close. This suggests that we shouldn’t exaggerate the talismanic power of the right’s paeans to personal freedom. They didn’t prevent Democrats, first under Bill Clinton and now Barack Obama, from staging a political comeback. They didn’t stop Obama and his party from finally realizing their oft-deferred dream of universal health care, though it was a close-run thing.
Plus it’s arguable that, on the cultural front, Democrats already hold the high ground of freedom. Where morality is concerned, conservatives are all about government coercion; they want more legal prohibitions on individual behavior, not less. Liberals, to their ever-lasting credit, have fought to defend the individual freedom of minorities, women and gays against discriminatory laws and customs. Often they’ve paid dearly, as when the New Deal coalition splintered over civil rights. Over time, however, the right has been losing ground in the culture wars (to take the latest example, it won’t be long before the Pentagon retires “don’t ask, don’t tell”). No wonder Republicans are now turning from social issues to confront big government, big deficits and President Obama’s supposed plans for a government takeover of economic life.
This is the crucial battleground. Of course, the GOP’s “socialism” canard is ridiculous. But independents and moderates do worry that Democrats are insufficiently respectful of economic freedom and individual initiative, unwilling to discipline public spending, too trusting of central bureaucracies and regulation, and too focused on distributional equity at the expense of growing the economic pie.

In proposing ways for Democrats to allay such qualms, Schwarz is at his least convincing.
Conveniently, he discerns in Obama’ speeches the antidote to the GOP’s invigorating freedom elixir . This “doctrine,” he says, harks back to a richer conception of freedom shared by the Founders and Abraham Lincoln. It “embraces mutual responsibilities and shared sacrifice for others and for the common good as crucial obligations of freedom.” The Obama doctrine also entails the “positive recognition of the need for governmental activism to effectuate the obligations we have toward one another.”
These are attractive propositions. But they’re hardly new or unique to Obama – they sound, in fact, a lot like Bill Clinton’s mantra of “opportunity, responsibility and community.” And it’s a bit of a stretch to ascribe such civic republican sentiments to the Founders, who were mainly Lockean liberals intent on limiting government’s reach to preserve the widest possible scope for individual liberty.
They were schooled in what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty” – freedom as non-interference. From a liberal or progressive perspective, the problem with negative liberty is that it locks in unjust political and economic arrangements. How can people be truly free if they live in poverty, lack opportunity or face structural obstacles, such as class or race discrimination, to personal advancement?
Good question. In response, progressive reformers have posited a more expansive concept of “positive liberty” as encompassing economic and social rights, such as the right to a job, or health care, or a decent pension. In its benign, democratic form, positive liberty leads to the New Deal, the mixed economy and the social welfare state. But as Berlin notes in “Two Concepts of Freedom” (1958), liberals should not delude themselves that positive liberty is simply a more enlightened or highly evolved version of negative liberty. In fact, they stand for competing values:

To avoid glaring inequality or widespread misery I am ready to sacrifice some, or all, of my freedom: I may do so willingly and freely; but it is freedom that I am giving up for the sake of justice or equality or the love of my fellow men. I should be guilt-stricken, and rightly so, if I were not in some circumstances, ready to make this sacrifice. But a sacrifice is not an increase in what is being sacrificed, namely freedom, however great the moral need or the compensation for it. Everything is what it is: liberty is liberty, not equality or fairness or justice or culture, or human happiness or a quiet conscience.
…it is a confusion of values to say that although my ‘liberal’, individual freedom may go by the board, some other kind of freedom – ‘social’ or ‘economic’ – is increased.

This gets to the heart of my problem with Schwarz’s ideas for closing Democrats’ freedom deficit. No rebranding exercise is going to change the way most Americans understand freedom. Limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise are encoded in our political DNA. Instead of trying to splice genes into unfamiliar combinations, Democrats should pay due deference to these bedrock principles, while at the same time counterposing to them other political values – equal opportunity, moral reciprocity, civic duty – that Americans also care deeply about.
For a model, look no farther than to Bill Clinton’s “New Democrat” renovation of the conventional liberal agenda. He inherited a party fixated on wealth distribution and refocused it on economic innovation as the main driver of job growth and U.S. competitiveness. He dismantled a welfare system widely despised for fostering dependence on the state and replaced it with a compact that linked the individual’s responsibility to work to society’s obligation to make work pay.
In a challenge to the prevailing mentality of one-way entitlement, Clinton created a national service system to enable young Americans to give back to their communities in return for student aid. As the economy boomed on his watch, he reduced the size of government and tried to “reinvent” torpid, unresponsive bureaucracies. With innovations like charter schools and job training vouchers, he injected choice and competition into the delivery of public services. He balanced the federal budget, while making space for new spending on health care, anti-crime initiatives and college aid.
To this day, many liberals profess to see no deeper logic at work here than triangulation or accommodating the reigning conservative ethos. Artful dodger though he was, Clinton also was striving for something more ambitious – a new political synthesis of classic and modern liberal ideas to cope with the rise of global markets and a new technic shaped by information technologies and the internet.
Obama for the most part is continuing along the same pragmatic course, which explains why the left seems chronically disappointed in him. Take his signature domestic initiative, health care reform. Nevermind a single payer system; Obama wouldn’t even go to bat for the public option. Rather than demanding universal coverage as a social right, he stressed the prosaic goal most Americans care about: restraining runaway health costs.
Despite the hysterical reaction on the right, Obama’s plan is a classically American approach to universal coverage. It is decentralized, relies on private insurance, offers individuals choice, demands personal responsibility (through the individual mandate) and confines government’s role to subsidizing insurance for those who can’t afford it and barring insurance company practices that undermine the risk-pooling rationale for insurance.
In response to the financial crisis, Obama resisted liberal demands that he nationalize big banks, kill off derivatives altogether, or otherwise regulate our woozy financial system back into the staid 1950s. It’s true that he took a controlling share in General Motors and spent prodigiously to prop up the banks and goose the economy. These are the main exhibits in the conservative’s “socialism” indictment. But now he’s laying the groundwork for pivoting to deficit reduction and perhaps Social Security reform next year, as employment picks up. That’s going to be a jarring transition, but Obama knows that a failure to return America to a sustainable fiscal path will jeopardize our prosperity and economic sovereignty.
Realism and moderation also mark his approach to energy and climate change. Obama is pushing for a price on carbon, the economic game-changer that will unleash large-scale private investment in energy efficiency and clean technologies. But he’s also endorsed nuclear energy and offshore drilling, both to bring Republicans on board and because it will be decades before renewable fuels can come anywhere close to meeting our energy needs.
Maybe Schwarz can find a new paradigm for liberal governance in all this, but damned if I can. In any case, the immediate challenge for Democrats is not to promulgate new doctrines, but to govern effectively. Fortunately, the Obama administration finally has begun to get traction with its hard-fought victory on health reform, the new disarmament pact with Russia, Obama’s nuclear security summit and the likely passage soon of a major financial reform bill. The Republicans, meanwhile, are abandoning the center as Tea Party inmates take over the asylum.
On the minus side, independents have defected in droves from Obama’s winning 2008 coalition. According to Gallup Poll, Democrats’ big edge in party identification has shrunk to near parity for the first time since 2005.
The political challenge is to win independents back, and Democrats won’t do that by pushing ideas that make those voters even more apprehensive about big government. But independents would take to a Democratic narrative that stressed expanding opportunity rather than government.
The key to expanding opportunity is jobs, and the key to creating jobs is innovation. Fixing Wall Street is important, but what the country needs even more is a progressive opportunity agenda that emphasizes technological advances, business start-ups, modern infrastructure, fiscal discipline, better schools and freedom abroad.
The United States needs to create 12 million jobs in this decade to replace those lost during the recession and meet workforce growth. Over the last 30 years, firms less than five years old have accounted for nearly all net job creation in the United States, according to the Kauffman Foundation. Democrats need new policies that foster an entrepreneurial climate and accelerate the next wave of innovation. These include more public spending on research, especially non-health related; a light-handed approach to regulating and taxing small enterprises; dramatic improvements in K-12 education, especially science and technology; and an immigration policy that gives preferences to skilled immigrants.
Making America the world’s clean tech leader is another urgent priority. We need an energy industrial base as robust as our defense industrial base (in fact, the two overlap considerably). This won’t happen as long as fossil fuels remain cheap, so Democrats must keep fighting for some kind of carbon cap or charge. But they should also break the old taboo on expanding nuclear power. More nuclear energy can help us through the transition to renewal fuels, while also reducing the amount of carbon the United States pumps into the atmosphere.
Democrats should also get behind an aggressive infrastructure initiative. Washington must reverse decades of neglect and double spending aimed at modernizing America’s again and inadequate public infrastructure. Even that, though, won’t be nearly enough, which is why Democrats need to get serious about funding a national infrastructure bank to leverage private investment in high-speed rail, intelligent transportation systems, a smart electricity grid, and next-generation broadband.
Restoring fiscal discipline will be a tougher, but vital, task for Democrats. Too many liberals look at calls for fiscal restraint as a ploy to permanently downsize progressive ambitions. The problem is, most voters (and especially independents) see it as a sine qua non of responsible governance. Democrats need to get back in touch with their inner Jefferson and learn to love “economy in government.” Besides, that’s the only way to carve out space in the federal budget for the party’s big initiatives on innovation, infrastructure and clean energy.
Liberals also need to quit taking evasive action on entitlement reform and embrace progressive ways to trim promised benefits in Social Security and Medicare. But centrist Democrats too will have to screw up their courage to raise the revenues we need to stop America’s heedless borrowing from abroad.
Finally, Democrats should stand more forthrightly for freedom in the world. In the wake of George W. Bush’s disastrous foreign policy, a kind of neo-realism or cultural relativism has crept into the party’s thinking. Through this lens, simple affirmations of liberty and democracy look like arrogance, a dangerous moralizing that could drag us into one conflict after another. Best to ignore what goes on inside other countries and cut deals with them based on mutual interest.
This is, to put it mildly, an overreaction. We’ve already learned that a more humble American mein doesn’t make rogue actors like Iran more tractable. They’re more likely to interpret our modesty as weakness. And Democrats of all people shouldn’t repudiate ignore one of liberal internationalism’s most trenchant insights: there’s a close link between how countries are governed and how they behave in the world. It’s no accident that tyrants who are unaccountable to their people are the biggest threats to international peace and security.
That’s why Democrats should resume the work of the great midcentury liberals who created new global institutions to underpin a liberal world order. For those liberals, freedom was, in Arthur Schlesinger’s phrase, a “fighting faith.” That’s another liberal tradition Democrats would to well to reclaim.

2 comments on “Taking Liberties

  1. janinsanfran on

    This kind of mealy mouthed tripe is why liberals only work to elect Democrats when the alternative is flat out rightwing dictatorship. Our own “moderates” are nearly as much tools of the right as the Republicans.

  2. www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=513583782 on

    what is it with mr. marshall’s obsession with slashing social security benefits? seriously. the only reason for the “crisis” is that the rich folks who have benefited from the 4.5 trillion in loans that have been taken from the trust fund now don’t want to pay that money back. moreover, recent events have proven once again the limits of resting one’s faith in the magic of markets. resisting bush’s attempt to destroy social security was one of the key things in helping dems get their mojo back and contast themselves with republicans and here goes mr. marshall telling dems to ignore that lesson and sacrifice social security for some abstract principle of fiscal discipline that doesn’t map to the problem at hand.


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