Liberalism’s core values remain strong, persuasive and enduring. Their fighting vitality is apparent in the spreading youth-led protests on Wall Street and across the country. What we lack is a coherent progressive narrative explaining and justifying liberalism’s role in the radically changed circumstances of the twenty-first century—a liberal vision of the kind Thomas Jefferson and Sam Adams offered the founders or John Dewey gave the Progressive Era. Liberals need to stop denying who they are and, like the young protesters, start fighting for what they believe in. For though aggravated and anxious, liberals have never been less visible in the struggle for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens.
With no coherent new liberal narrative to render our values timely, we too often cleave to the center and compromise to the right. We care about civility, but civility is looking a lot like surrender. We must not step away from our values before negotiation begins, allowing runaway financial markets, bloviating plutocrats and anti-government hubris to dominate, while poverty, social justice and climate change slip off the legislative agenda. And when we do take to the streets to voice our anger, we lack the clarity and focus that only a relevant narrative can offer.
The stakes have never been higher: nearly three years after the inauguration of a moderate African-American president, our nation confronts a rapacious plutocracy reminiscent of the Gilded Age and a noisome corporate media along with a noisy, supposedly anti-plutocratic populist Tea Party that is in fact funded by that very plutocracy. This weird coalition of the smug and the frightened cries, “We’re number one!” even as it dismantles the democratic institutions and programs that make America great and plays roulette with the debt ceiling and America’s global reputation.
The Tea Party screams, “Less government!” but liberals are loath to retort, “More government!” because we no longer have a compelling narrative showing that government or even civil society can be an ally of liberty and democracy. Right-wing populists may be uneasy with globalization, but liberals seem even more anxious, ready to curse it rather than question their own parochialism, more prone to build higher walls than to construct longer bridges. And too willing to discount outrageous inequalities, now globalized, that have historically spurred liberals to action.
Those with the highest incomes today make hudreds of times more than those on the bottom; one in three black males between 20 and 29 is in the criminal justice system; and one in five children lives under the poverty line. Because of the recession, Hispanics have suffered a 66 percent drop in wealth since 2005, with blacks declining 53 percent and whites 16 percent, leading to the largest disparity in median wealth between whites and people of color in recent history. Yet though we occupy Wall Street and fight to defend teachers and cops and other public employee unions; and though we do battle in states like Wisconsin and Ohio and organize movements like Rebuild the Dream; and though we try, as Tavis Smiley has with his Poverty Tour, to illuminate the dark corners of American inequality, such admirable efforts cannot by themselves reinforce a common narrative or inspire others too wounded by inequality to engage politically. It is easier for us to ask, What happened to Obama? as Drew Westen did in his much-tweeted New York Times op-ed, rather than, What happened to liberalism? We try to psych out why our wayward president won’t fight rather than give him a reason to fight. We need to recall what FDR said to A. Philip Randolph when the Pullman Porters Union president complained bitterly about how Roosevelt wasn’t backing the union’s struggles. “Make me do it!” said Roosevelt. Liberals need to stop blaming Obama and make him do it.
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Obama has done much that is right and liberal, finally getting beyond “don’t ask, don’t tell,” getting a major economic stimulus bill passed, producing (for all its flaws) the first genuine national healthcare policy, enacting food safety and child nutrition bills, extending unemployment benefits, regulating tobacco and introducing a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; not to mention the new START nuclear arms treaty, drawing down US forces in Iraq and two superb Supreme Court appointments. Moreover, he has recently begun to display the fight we have begged for.
Yet the United States is still bleeding lives and resources on an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, and antagonizing both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here at home, the poor are being rendered invisible by endless rhetoric about the “middle class” that seems aimed at denying that real poverty exists; the banks that got us into our economic mess go unregulated, not even being required to lend out the enormous government handouts they received. The right-wing “no taxes” mantra is being tolerated rather than opposed by the president. And global warming? It’s so totally off the table that Al Gore has become one of Obama’s fiercest critics. It’s hard to turn people on to government when politics and plutocracy seem like synonyms, and harder still to sell democracy to Americans, whether liberal or conservative, when politics feels so fraudulent. When money talks, democracy goes silent.
Liberals fight first for liberty—not for equality and against liberty, not for community and against individualism. The young people in Zuccotti Park (which they call Liberty Plaza, its original name) talk about their “autonomy” before anything else. Liberty is no single ideology’s privileged ground but the alpha and omega of Western political culture. It is the core of the conservative and liberal visions. The difference is that for liberals, liberty is public. Liberals believe that while private individuals enjoy a right to freedom, only citizens realize freedom by making laws for themselves. Humans are social by nature and live in relationships—families, neighborhoods and communities. We must legitimate our dependent relationships and render them interdependent through democratic institutions and government. It is citizens who are truly free. Consequently, government cannot be deemed an anonymous “them” or bureaucratic “it” that oppresses individuals. For in a democracy, citizens are government. Democracy is not opposed to but is the condition of our liberty. It enables citizens to be autonomous as well as to live under the moral and civic restraints imposed by self-legislation—the rule of law.
Taxation, far from being a bureaucratic scam to steal our hard-won earnings by some alien “them” or “it,” is the way citizens pool resources to do public things together they can’t do alone. Attacking the power to tax is attacking the power of the people to spend their money in concert to achieve important public goals, whether national defense, public education or social justice. The anti-tax ideologues pretend to protect us, but in truth they disempower us.
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So to be a liberal today means to fight for more democracy, to fight against the corruption of politics by money and plutocratic special interests that delegitimize it in the eyes of wary citizens. But it also means fighting against that insidious “war on government” being waged by conservatives. Because that war is really a war against “we the people,” against all we share, and hence against democracy itself. Conservatives claim that democracy is ailing, and they are right. Yet as Jefferson said, the remedy for the ills of democracy is more democracy, while those who assail government are opting for less democracy, opting to suspend the social contract that undergirds our democratic civilization.
Public liberty and the egalitarian, democratic values it enjoins must remain the liberal North Star. But the political sky is in motion, and liberal values must accommodate fundamental changes in science and society, technology and capitalism. Capitalism in our time has moved beyond simple industrialism and unfolds today under conditions of automation and an information society, resulting in parallel dilemmas for the capitalist sector: first, increased productivity with fewer jobs. The New York Times recently reported, “Workers are getting more expensive while equipment is getting cheaper, and the combination is encouraging companies to spend on machines rather than people.” Meanwhile, a Chinese company that partners with Apple, exhibiting the future face of capitalism, plans to replace thousands of its Chinese Foxconn workers with up to a million robots.
The second dilemma posed by the new capitalism is the privatization of a digital public utility (the Internet) as the result of Bill Clinton’s decision (in the Telecommunications Act of 1996) to deregulate digital media because of so-called spectrum abundance, which supposedly offers room for diverse voices and needs no government enforcement of fairness or the public good.
These two developments in our automated information society have been accompanied by two other related developments in the capitalist environment. First, neoliberal anti-government ideology has engendered pervasive privatization and a commercialization that have made consumerism ubiquitous, replacing the public citizen with the private consumer and tarnishing the very idea of a “public sector” subject to democratic control. Even quintessentially sovereign public functions like national defense and incarceration are being privatized in ways that subordinate goods like just war and the rehabilitation of prisoners to profits.
Second, the realities of globalization and planetary ecology have signaled the coming of an interdependent world whose challenges are all cross-border and have left territorial and sovereign nation-states unable to govern themselves. While Americans indulge in a deeply parochial and increasingly counterfactual triumphalism in which liberals are sometimes complicit, interdependent reality is demanding new forms of democratic globalism and cooperative interdependence. The Occupy Wall Street movement is going global so fast, its organizers can scarcely keep up. Yet we remain far behind.
September 11 offered a brutal tutorial in the meaning of interdependence: our enemies from “without” actually came from “within,” blurring the difference between “domestic” and “foreign.” Al Qaeda is a malevolent NGO, and old-fashioned national frontiers and armies are of little relevance to its threats. The 9/11 attacks yielded the crucial modern dilemma precipitated by interdependence: the fundamental asymmetry between our challenges and our remedies; between global twenty-first-century problems like terrorism and eighteenth-century sovereign state solutions rooted in territorial jurisdiction, national prerogatives and secure borders.
Terrorism and war are hardly the only interdependent challenges, however. Crime, drugs, prostitution, runaway markets, unprecedented planetary diseases, weapons of mass destruction, unregulated cross-border movement by capital and labor, and—especially daunting—climate change and environmental deterioration are equally perilous. Yet US politics right and left remains fatally parochial. Nowhere are the dilemmas of interdependence more evident than in the two leading crises of our time that most concern liberals: the double-dip global economic recession—precipitated by runaway financial institutions, imprudent lending and linked global markets—which has defied national efforts to stimulate jobs, salvage sinking economies, regulate banks and financial capital, or avert the consequence of a near American default; and climate change, apparently far too inconvenient and politically expensive a truth even for liberals to address. Many liberals and the president seem more concerned with the benefits of oil drilling, shale fracking for natural gas and corn-based ethanol than with their environmental costs or than with fighting for energy independence from foreign sources by seeking alternatives to fossil fuel or by modernizing the grid.
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To succeed in a changed world, a new liberal vision will have to be as interdependent as the challenges it faces, operating across borders and among peoples, focused less on what is good for America than what is good for the planet—which happily also defines what is good for America. It must push out temporal horizons beyond the shrunken limits that define quarterly profit statements and daily political calculations. It must be cosmopolitan rather than parochial, long rather than short term, focused on public goods pertinent to a planetary public rather than on private liberty and personal property. This is a tough sell, but in the long run our fighting creed must insist that liberalism is not just by and for Americans. We must refuse to pit American advantage against global public goods.
What about jobs? When Marx exhorted, Workers of the world unite! he meant they ought to prefer their economic to their national and religious interests. They have no choice. This is the brutal logic of the marketplace, which mandates that if they fail to unite, workers will secure neither their rights nor their jobs one nation at a time. Who benefits when poor nations use low wages and an indifference to environment and safety to lure jobs from rich nations, only to have rich nations fight to get them back (though at lower pay, with no pensions or healthcare so the jobs are “competitive”) with tariffs and boycotts and novel trade barriers? Or with stealth attacks on social justice via a “conditionality” approach to investment and loans that forces poor nations to sacrifice social welfare programs to receive the aid they require to create jobs. The result is a race to the bottom in which neither developed nor developing nations prosper, and in which the inequality within nations comes to mimic the inequality among nations.
The only way for liberals to break this sinister logic is to insist on cross-border strategies in which “workers” means all workers everywhere, not just those lucky enough to belong to American unions; and in which the global economy includes not just free markets in capital but free markets in labor, with workers as free as capital is to cross borders. This is already happening in practice, despite ineffective national laws forbidding “illegal” immigration, with firms in the United States and Europe looking the other way as undocumented workers cross from Mexico or North Africa to take jobs not available in their own countries. Global market logic here trumps sovereign national law, and the only way to address “illegal” immigration is to globalize law and regulation. International financial institutions like the IMF and the WTO push for global regulations, but on behalf of the interests of global corporations. Liberals need to be fighting for transnational democratic institutions to assure democratic outcomes in the global public interest.
Above all, a fighting liberalism must address radical marketization—a narrowly conceived capitalism that achieves productivity and profits without creating jobs. Liberals must widen the horizon: don’t just bash the banks but make the case for employment at home and abroad as a public good, valuable not just in its economic contributions to productivity but in what it does for individual dignity, civic empowerment and healthy human community. Otherwise, jobs will continue to be downsized, outsourced and disappeared. Economists label as “externalities” those values not immediately part of the economic calculus. What is external to economics narrowly construed, however, is internal and absolutely essential to human happiness. The social dimension of employment may be an externality, but it is crucial to why work matters and should be at the center of a fighting liberal vision. It also explains why liberals should propose a new metrics that includes indicators of social goods and human happiness when we measure, for example, GNP. Why are the creative contributions of artists, teachers and scientists not part of national product? Why aren’t environmental costs a debit? The current system in effect socializes the invisible public costs of capitalism, spreading them across the backs of taxpayers while privatizing the visible profits. This is not capitalism but corporate welfare—socializing risk for the rich and powerful while leaving the poor to the social Darwinism of a pitiless marketplace.
As with unemployment, climate change cannot be addressed one nation at a time. Cities, NGOs and citizens have proven far more able. Take, for example, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a group of megacities working across borders to reduce carbon emissions despite the reluctance of governments. We can also do more than just push (or curse) politicians on such modest measures as cap and trade on emissions or a fossil fuel tax or offshore drilling restrictions; we can protest the Keystone XL pipeline with Bill McKibben, support Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project or state- and city-based initiatives to ban fracking, like the ones in Easton, Pennsylvania, and New York State; and help establish farmers’ markets in poor inner-city areas where fresh vegetables are scarce and obesity rampant. In these efforts, civil society is as important as government.
The Internet also beckons liberals to engage directly. We know well enough that corporate ownership of traditional media is pernicious to democracy, but we are more naïve about its hold on new media. The web’s democratic architecture and disposition to interactivity and interdependence are undeniable: in Berlin the web-inspired Pirate Party just won a significant share of votes, and in Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park alike the new media have proved their democratic organizing potential. But the Internet, too, is subject to the power of money. Liberals may love the web, but sometimes they seem delusional about issues of power and ownership. They do not always recall that we protect speech in order to protect democracy and equal access to civic and political power rather than to protect commerce. Having become adept at using the Internet for conventional electoral purposes, as Howard Dean and Barack Obama did, liberals conclude that a web dominated by commerce, games, pornography and social media isn’t a problem.
With the web (and media generally) it is not enough for liberals to insist (contrary to Citizens United) that corporations are not people; they also must insist (contrary to Buckley v. Valeo) that money is not speech, and recognize that the web is a public utility whose privatization and subjugation to money have diminished it as an instrument of democracy. Private ownership corrupts democracy because money skews power rather than equalizing it. For new media to be potential equalizers, they must be treated as public utilities, recognizing that spectrum abundance (the excuse for privatization) does not prevent monopoly ownership of hardware and software platforms and hence cannot guarantee equal civic, educational and cultural access to citizens.
So we come full circle, to the dream liberals want to rebuild, the dream in whose name young protesters are once again marching. It is a dream that rests on the reality that freedom is public—a shared product of strong democracy. Langston Hughes said, “There is a dream in the land/With its back against the wall…. To save the dream for one/It must be saved for ALL.” Our liberalism today must fight to save the dream for all. For today “all” means not just our country but our ever more interdependent and badly hurting world.