Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 83 (May 1998): 6-7.
Modern American liberalism rests, at heart, on faith in the power of the federal government to solve the fundamental problems of society. The intellectual origins of that faith go back to the nineteenth century, but it first found programmatic political expression in Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism program outlined in 1910 and elaborated in his quixotic Bull Moose campaign for the presidency two years later. TR’s 1912 Progressive Party platform—calling for expanded political democracy, government regulation of the economy, and a federal social insurance program—established a framework for liberal striving that would endure all the way through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society program of the 1960s.
In the process, the traditional liberal suspicion of strong centralized power was transmuted into a lyrical social-democratic affirmation of activist government. As H. L. Mencken, in a characteristic mix of shrewdness and hyperbole, said of TR: "He didn’t believe in democracy; he believed simply in government." And so he did believe—provided, of course, that government remain in the hands of wise and upright men like himself. His progressive successors kept and extended that faith.
The left’s trust in government has been severely tested in recent years. Liberalism has in fact never recovered from the debacle of the Great Society, which began as a popular extension of the New Deal mood and ended in manifest failure (remember the war on poverty?), mass unrest, and bitter social divisions. (To be fair, the worst of the divisions and unrest came, Vietnam aside, on the issue of race, a problem that progressives from TR onward had largely avoided.)
The Watergate scandal diverted the nation’s attention from collectivist liberalism’s failure for some time, and the diversion continued during the odd and inept interlude of the Carter presidency. But the progressive paradigm had been broken, and the "L-word" had become an ideological onus from which prudent politicians carefully distanced themselves. By the mid-1980s Ronald Reagan had captured the political high ground with the rhetoric of conservative restorationism: limited government, federalism, reduced government spending, lower tax rates. Government, he persuaded a majority of Americans, generated more problems than solutions. Finally, the collapse of Marxism—and with it of the socialist dream—seemed the definitive judgment on the collectivist faith. When President Clinton, heir to the progressive tradition, announced to the nation a few years ago that the era of big government was over, he did so to bipartisan applause.
But things are not quite so simple. Government Lite has its political uses in the current climate, but it is unlikely to satisfy for very long the yearnings that bring liberals into politics in the first place: you don’t get much ideological mileage out of campaigns for school uniforms and midnight basketball. Indeed, a liberalism that doesn’t believe in government doesn’t make much sense. That’s what we have conservatives for. There is good reason to believe that for liberals the era of big government, far from being over, is only temporarily in abeyance.
One sign of the continuing lure of social democracy is Alan Wolfe’s op-ed essay in the March 15 New York Times bemoaning our "Couch Potato Politics." Mr. Wolfe, a professor of sociology at Boston University, has over the years written intelligently on the decline of the left both here and in Europe, but, judging from his Times’ essay, he has not forsaken his own faith in the efficacy of government activism. Once a social democrat, it seems, always a social democrat.
Professor Wolfe begins with an ostensible paradox: "The American political system seems to work best when the American economy is performing at its worst." Thus the depression-era 1930s witnessed the creative innovations of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, while the 1950s, by contrast, was a decade "of great prosperity but also of bland politics." As a matter of fact, Wolfe’s model doesn’t hold up very well: he admits the exception of the 1960s—"a period of economic expansion that coincided with a vibrant [!] politics"—and he overlooks the progressive era, a period both of prosperity and of the liberal reforms of TR and Woodrow Wilson.
Be that as it may, Prof. Wolfe is concerned with our current state. The nineties are like the fifties: "Our economy is the envy of the world . . . yet our political system seems deader than dead." What he describes as "apathy" has, Wolfe concedes, its virtues. America has been spared "the passionate politics associated with sectarian strife." For all its faults, "the American system works." But it depresses him that the middle-class citizens he has recently been interviewing (see RJN’s related comment in While We’re At It) lack "a shared sense of national purpose."
Americans, Wolfe says, like to invoke the concept of "responsibility" when attacking welfare or praising entrepreneurial initiative, but they "refuse to accept the responsibilities of national citizenship." "Prosperity, which gives us the opportunity to pay for a sense of national purpose, detracts from our ability to articulate a sense of national purpose." Our economic success "has made us a good society . . . but we will not be a great society until our political will matches our economic abilities." Lyndon Johnson couldn’t have said it better.
Prof. Wolfe muddies the waters by denying that our current divisions occur between liberals who favor government and conservatives who oppose it. Liberals and conservatives differ instead, he says, over the issues on which they would prefer government to focus its attention. The left cares about "economic or racial inequality," while the right concentrates on the collapse of the family, high crime rates, educational failure, and "the triumph of secular humanism." Neither side, Wolfe argues, cares about the issues of the other. The result is stalemate.
It is true enough that liberals and conservatives operate at cross-purposes, but they do not equally look to government to champion their causes. Efforts to eliminate racial or economic inequalities would indeed require massive government intervention, but conservatives argue that solutions to their problems require that government get out of the way, that, at the least, it not act in ways that make matters worse. They look to affirmative government action only, in Wolfe’s litany of their concerns, on the issue of crime, and no one left or right has ever denied government’s necessary role in preserving public order. Most conservatives understand that, given the conditions of modern industrialized society, government will inevitably be big. But they are ever vigilant that it not become gargantuan.
Wolfe’s vision of a "great society" and his repeated invocations of a "sense of national purpose" are commonplaces of social democratic thought, and they suggest the perpetual latent utopianism in the politics of the left. Liberals want an activist government because they believe that a proper politics requires high ends and noble purposes, deep commitments and grand passions. A politics that does not dream of New Jerusalems is an inadequate politics.
Conservatives, by contrast—at least conservatives of a Burkean persuasion—are instinctively mistrustful of great societies (they shudder at memories of the sixties) and disinclined to think it the job of government, except in periods of crisis, to generate a sense of national purpose. As British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once remarked, people in search of purpose should consult their archbishops.
But it is unlikely that such cautionary notes can ever fully register with committed social democrats. To ask them to give up the politics of greatness is in effect to ask them to give up politics altogether.