Monday, July 12, 2010

Playing a Weaker Ideological Hand

Peter Beinart puts liberals’ disappointment with the Obama administration into some much-need historical perspective (my emphasis):
“The more fundamental difference between the Obama era and its New Deal and Great Society predecessors is this: Back then, progressives did not define the left end of the political spectrum. In the 1930s and 1960s, America featured honest-to-goodness alternatives to capitalism, home-grown radical movements that scared the crap out of the American establishment and sent some of its denizens scurrying into arms of reformers like FDR and LBJ. Because our entire ideological spectrum has shifted right since communism’s collapse, reforms that once looked like centrist compromises now look like the brainchild of Chairman Mao. . . .

American progressivism has historically occupied what Arthur Schlesinger famously called 'the vital center,' a bulwark against the anti-democratic ideologies of both left and right. Except that today, powerful left-wing ideologies barely exist, and so large numbers of Americans can genuinely believe that Barack Obama is a socialist, if not a totalitarian. Luckily for them, and unluckily for progressives who want dramatic change, America no longer features the real thing.”
Beinart’s point about how being in the middle of the ideological spectrum gave liberalism political vitality is well-taken. American liberalism got a lot of political mileage out of negotiating truces in the class struggle and race relations that were adapted to American republican and democratic traditions. But people like Arthur Schlesinger thought that commanding the center of the ideological spectrum promoted liberalism’s intellectual vitality as well. He thought that liberals had a better ideological hand to play than intellectually parochial conservatives because they had access to insights about industrial and social policy emanating from the social democratic and illiberal left.

The intellectual collapse of the illiberal left (“powerful left-wing ideologies barely exist”) has deprived liberals of a once-immense ideological advantage.  It shows, even if liberals are often the last ones to see it.

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