Thursday, June 17, 2010

Liberal Progressivism

Whether you call them “liberals” or “progressives,” most people will assume that you’re referring to substantially the same class of people. Yet those terms have noticeably different meanings. Let me try to get at the difference with some very rough definitions.

A “liberal” is someone who subscribes to a historically specific political program that congealed in the New Deal, and was realized to a greater degree in the Fair Deal and the Great Society. One sign of Obama’s liberalism is his propensity to portray ObamaCare as the culmination of a political campaign that started in the years leading up to the passage of the 1935 Social Security Act. His aspiration to be a transformational president seems to be mostly a matter of redeeming promises made, but not fulfilled, by prior liberal administrations.

A “progressive” is someone who thinks that the winds of history are at his back. Everybody thinks his own public policy agenda is more enlightened than the agenda of his political opponents. The progressive thinks that history tends toward enlightenment as he defines it. That so many liberals were shocked not only by the ferocity, but the existence, of widespread opposition to Obama’s agenda, and reflexively dismissed its opponents as representatives of the paranoid strain of American politics, is evidence of their progressivism.

Since the New Deal, most liberals have also been progressives. They’ve presumed that constituencies that oppose the liberal agenda are living on borrowed historical time.  They haven't been much concerned about the fact that so many people disagree with them  because they're confident that they'll prevail by just waiting them out.

But as I’ve defined those terms, there’s no necessary connection between “liberalism” and “progressivism.” You can reasonably believe, for example, that ObamaCare is advisable without being inevitable. A lot of liberals were tormented by that possibility in the dark days after Scott Brown’s election to the Senate from Massachusetts when it occurred to them that they may have blown their last chance to socialize the costs and risks associated with the delivery of health care.

One of the many virtues of Michael Tomasky’s terrific article about the despair gripping the liberal community is how vividly it raises the question of whether it still makes sense for liberals to think of themselves as progressives:
“What if all these presumptions I grew up with were wrong? What if Reagan wasn’t an aberration? What if Roosevelt and Johnson were the aberrations? True, we had Bill Clinton in the meantime. Poor Clinton never plays a central role in these narratives, and I think today we’re gaining enough historical distance that he is starting to deserve better: His presidency may not have constituted a golden age of progressivism in the way selected Roosevelt and Johnson years did, which remains the reason we focus more on those two, but it was certainly a comparative golden age for the country. Still, as we know, the right marched onward during the Clinton years. And then of course came Bush. The idea we young people of the 1980s once entertained–the idea that the Age of Reagan was somehow false, anomalous, a torn page in an otherwise seamless development of plot–had now to be reexamined, in light of the speed with which Bush and Dick Cheney and Karl Rove undid so many (thankfully not all) of the ideas and policies we had been raised to believe were inviolate. . . .

“And yet, it almost goes without saying, all things weren’t possible, because all things never are. American liberalism has, for the last year and a half, been living through a painful period of coming to terms with this reality. It’s a traumatic process: First, one has to admit to oneself that one was wrong, which can be hard enough; but even harder than that is accepting those feelings of invincibility and redemption were misplaced. That–the idea that the power and euphoria were somehow counterfeit–is difficult to acknowledge.”

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