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.