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Liberalism: a Partner, Not a Parent

William Bradley, an advisor in several Democratic presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, writes the New West Notes newsletter. E-mail: bill@brad.com

What does it say about politics in these “Show me the money!” times that the most powerful progressive voice in the country is that of “Star Trek”?

Liberalism is adrift, its commentary at the dawn of Clinton II by turns circling, muted, rationalizing, defensive. “We’re trying to play the margins,” says one prominent Democratic pollster, “which maybe gets us Al Gore in 2000. But it does nothing about the debate in the country.”

Liberal thinking has seldom seemed less relevant to the current moment. Seldom has it been more necessary. But with the need to press the reset button on American politics all too evident, liberalism finds itself moribund, befuddled by new challenges, dominated by backward and inward-looking groups.

What is needed is not a liberalism that merely responds in dusty fashion, which is to say, the reactionary left. And not a liberalism that merely acquiesces as it looks to personal advancement, the Clinton caboose. We need a living liberalism that steps beyond the traps of past glory, particularism and careerism to confront the challenges of the times.

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The most significant challenges to our society and ecology flow from radical capitalism. Driven by new technologies and global markets, decoupling firms from communities, radical capitalism produces both innovative products and schlock, indiscriminately disrupting old arrangements and empowering a new elite based not in America but in the Global City.

The reactionary left provides a counterweight of sorts. But it also exudes an aura of Luddism and special pleading. In a time of growing popular distrust of government and other big institutions, it marched straight into the pitfalls of opposing deficit reduction and ignoring political reform. And the last congressional election demonstrated that the tactical politics of Mediscare and Gingriphobia are inadequate.

The left has decisively lost the present. And its glorious past, long clung to, is over. Which leaves the future and a four-step program for moving from the old liberalism to the new:

* Abandon particularism. Simply promoting the agenda of a particular constituency fails to speak to a majority. And particularist agendas are co-optable agendas.

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* Reject careerism. It hardly matters if our friends have neat titles if they’re not making a difference. Brilliantly networked left-liberal FOBs like Harold Ickes and Derek Shearer assured their contacts of Clinton’s essential progressivism. Ickes had to learn from news reports that his good friend had cast him out of the administration into political Siberia. Top economic advisor turned ambassador to Finland Shearer was already in an equally arctic locale.

* Focus on corruption. As Jerry Brown’s 1992 presidential campaign warned, American politics is up for sale. The reactionary left ignored this because of its ties to the Demosclerotic Congress, with the AFL-CIO actually deluding itself into believing it could win a spending battle for control of Congress. The liberals of the Clinton caboose had to invent a new set of blinders to ignore the Cashola Camelot before them.

* Embrace change. The social welfare net and public education must be reformed before they’re destroyed. We need a new social compact to deal with a dynamic new form of capitalism quite unlike the essentially static, nationalist, mass production mode of the New Deal and Great Society.

In his near-miss presidential campaigns of the 1980s, Gary Hart argued that the New Deal was not akin to the Ten Commandments. FDR was not Moses but an inspired experimenter. Simply preserving the programs of the past won’t win the future. Some, like welfare and affirmative action, long needed reform. But the reactionary left rejected change, to the present detriment of those it claims to represent.

A living liberalism must define a new social compact that recognizes the underlying realities of radical capitalism, respects its possibilities and reins in its excesses. Global economic integration is inevitable. What is not inevitable is its acceleration, which puts a serious downdraft on many incomes and is largely due to political decisions.

A new liberalism cannot play King Canute, vainly commanding the tides of technology and trade to stop. But the interests of Time Warner and Intel are no long coincident with those of America. In reforming the social net and in forging a new social compact, government must be not a parent, as in the old liberal metaphor, but a partner. And not a partner to those with pricey lobbyists and party “trusteeships” but to all Americans.


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