Go to Brad DeLong's Home Page
Professor of Economics
In this dark time for liberals, there is one periodical that keeps my spirits up and my vision of the future bright: the Weekly Standard.
The Weekly Standard is, of course, the brain child of three conservative intellectuals--William Kristol, John Podhoretz, and Fred Barnes, the first two with famous and influential parents--who persuaded Rupert Murdoch that there was space on the American newstand for a conservative weekly alternative to the over-fussy and over-antiquated biweekly National Review. Its purpose was to provide conservative intellectuals with a standard to rally around, a place to have debates, and a forum in which to thrash out--or propagate particular positions on--issues that would do a better job than (and publish more articles by Kristol, Podhoretz, Barnes, and their friends than) the National Review or the American Spectator.
Few would dispute that this is a dark time for liberals. Welfare reform will make more poor children and will make poor children hungrier. Medicare and Medicaid are devouring the rest of federal spending programs. Clinton's attempt to extend health care coverage to all Americans was inept and produced a catastrophic failure. It has provoked a reaction against liberal policy initiatives of whatever stripe, and the loss of what had been for two generations a natural majority of Democrats in congress. Liberal causes are regularly swamped by conservative money in the barrages of propaganda that lead up to elections. The union- and community-based networks that used to mobilize voters on the left are in shreds: our political ecology of urban machines, unions, and memories of the Great Depression has been replaced by one of TV-watching suburbanites, attack ads, and political consultants that is much less hospitable to American liberals. Political observers of all ideologies agree on this same dark picture of liberal power and prospects.
But when I open the pages of the Weekly Standard, I am transported into a different world. I read that the elite media continue their reflexive observance of liberal pieties (for example, June 30, 1997; p. 15) that many prominent conservatives--Jude Wanniski, Jack Kemp--for example--are so dumb it is a miracle they do not drown themselves in their bathtubs (for example, June 16, 1997; p. 5); that other conservatives--Henry Kissinger, Robert Novak--have no moral spine (June 16, 1997; p. 5); that the congressional Republicans have sold out their agenda in return for the blessing of President Clinton, and are going to be politically massacred (June 16, 1997, p. 23; June 23, 1997, p. 22); that the center of gravity of the Republican Party today has no tolerance for the stupidities of supply-side economics (June 16, 1997; p. 22) or for the pursuit of conservative ideological goals (June 16, 1997; p. 26).
According to the Weekly Standard, the attempt by conservatives to use Clinton pre-inauguration scandals to undermine support for liberal policies has been a failure because--whatever else you may think of the Clinton administration--it is good at playing hardball (June 16, 1997; p. 13). According to the Weekly Standard, the United States economy is in much, much better shape than those of other major industrial economies (June 16, 1997)--in large part because of successful economic management by the Clinton administration. According to the Weekly Standard, conservativism is in desperate retreat in the developed world because their central economic goal--shrinking the size of the social insurance state--is desperately unpopular, and "it's very hard to govern a democracy over the protests of its own people" (June 16, 1997; p. 11).
It is a very different world. The world according to the Weekly Standard is a very congenial world for liberals--a much more congenial world than that painted by the rest of the media. It is a much friendlier world for a largely-unreconstructed liberal like me to live in.
Moreover--and here is the most delicious fact--the Weekly Standard is largely correct. The central goal of conservatives--shrinking the size of the federal government--is and always has been overwhelmingly unpopular, for Americans by and large like the government's spending and regulatory programs more than they dislike the taxes they have to pay. (Only when the issue can be posed as one of a free lunch--something for nothing, as in the mythical revenue gains from the tax cuts of the early 1980s--does the conservative position have even a ghost of a chance.) As long as there are even a few honest Republican deficit hawks who dislike tax cuts now that boost the national debt and bring forth larger tax hikes later, the overarching political issue will be whether we want to keep taxes and spending roughly where they are, or cut both in sync. And the majorities for keeping things much as they are will be overwhelming.
Thus the size of the government relative to the economy and the tasks of the government's spending programs remain largely unchanged. The social insurance state stands like a stone wall.
Meanwhile, on the cultural front liberals continue to make enormous progress. State- and society-sanctioned discrimination are on the retreat. Scattered successful attacks on affirmative action are ripples that have little effect on the overall receding tide of prejudice. And public and political support for affirmative action continues to be very, very strong whenever the issue is one of giving people a chance (as opposed to one of taking jobs away from white guys). We are--in spite of everything conservatives do--becoming a freer society, in which less and less of how you lead your life can be badly hindered by the censurous opinions of your neighbors. The culture war has been lost by the right.
The current rout of the tobacco companies, as they desperately try to figure out some way to avoid the sea-change in attitudes toward their highly-addictive death-causing nicotine-laden product, is simply one more sign of how liberal causes are gaining mindshare. For a generation tobacco-provided campaign contributions have frozen congress into allowing the tobacco companies to continue business as usual. But now the logjam is about to break: thus the tobacco companies, not being foolish, are desperately searching for flood insurance.
This does not mean that America is utopia. Discrimination against African-Americans continues to be vicious and frequent (though rarely murderous). The distribution of wealth continues to become more unequal as technological change appears to have become less of a friend to the relatively unskilled worker--real standards of living continue to rise for slots in American society near the bottom of the income distribution, but the rise is slower than we had come to expect and much slower than for slots near the top. The 1996 welfare reform bill has one chance in two of turning out to have been merely a cosmetic and symbolic declaration, but it still has one chance in two of making more poor children and more hungry children in America. The long-term problems of funding the retirement of the baby-boom generation and determining how much of health care will be a market good and how much will be a social insurance entitlement remain unsolved.
America is not a European-style social democracy. We lack the collective memory of the bitter fight for majority suffrage, and struggle against an entrenched aristocratic caste that have together produced a greater degree of social solidarity in western Europe. America will always be a more individualistic, more libertarian, and more unequal society--if also one that is more welcoming to immigrants and less rascist at its core.
But once you accept that America is itself and not a European social democracy and look around, there is little reason for liberals to be depressed: because America is itself it is different from Europe--more progress toward liberal goals in some dimensions, less progress toward liberal goals in others. And any reader of the Weekly Standard who then takes an honest look around cannot but be impressed by the overwhelming strength of the liberal tradition in America--a free country that acknowledges the value of the helping hand of a can-do government. The conservative tradition, on the other hand, has deeper problems: conservatives have few ideas; no public support for the ideas for constraining personal liberty, shrinking cultural tolerance, and abolishing the social insurance state that they do have; are torn by factional struggles; and possess a degree of mutual contempt for one another that outdoes anything seen on the left since the early-1970s decline of the new left.
The American tradition is the liberal tradition.
Go to Brad DeLong's Home Page
Professor of Economics Brad
DeLong, 601 Evans
University of California at Berkeley; Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax