"American liberals have made scarcely a new proposal for reform in twenty years," John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in 1952. Liberals were living off the patrimony of the New Deal. They still are.
Saving Social Security is the priority of the hour for liberal interest groups, progressive bloggers, and congressional Democrats. If half the energy and intelligence the Democrats spent fighting President Bush's privatization plan went into developing new proposals for reform, they might once more be seen as the party of hope. As it is, divided on taxes, war, and social issues, they achieve unity of purpose only in defending a program enacted in 1935. They may stymie Bush—but at the cost of defining themselves as the party of memory.
For the New Dealers "reform" meant reforming capitalism; it meant state intervention in the economy to increase the economic security and individual freedom of ordinary Americans. That idea, a synthesis of populism and progressivism, was called liberalism. Liberals have been in retreat from liberalism for at least a generation. They defend Social Security, but not the principle of intervention behind the New Deal.
George Lakoff, Bill Moyers, and other commentators have attributed the Democrats' troubles to a lack of funding for liberal think tanks to match that of the conservative Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, and the like. But think tanks won't help a party afraid to state its central idea. Think tanks proliferate policies. Democrats already have a policy for every problem. What they lack is a governing philosophy. That's why so many Americans don't know what the party stands for.
Yet the problems the Democrats highlighted in last year's election campaign—from global warming to growing inequality—cannot be managed without state intervention in the economy. Liberals shrink from the "L-word" just when reality has renewed its relevance.
The pollster and political scientist Samuel Lubell famously observed that Americans are ideologically conservative and programmatically liberal. Consequently, liberals have justified economic intervention in pragmatic terms, ceding the ideological high ground to conservatism. But the conservatives in power have demonstrated that the liberal-conservative distinction is not between intervention and laissez-faire. It's between intervening to achieve public benefits that could not be realized through the private market versus intervening to reward special interests. The Republican Party of George W. Bush has lavished billions in subsidies on profitable industries; John McCain refers to the Administration's energy bill as "No lobbyist left behind." Corporations pump millions in campaign contributions into one end of the GOP, and not a few Democratic lawmakers extract billions from the other—in subsidies, tax breaks, and regulatory relief. In decrying the resulting budget deficits, the Democrats legitimate the core, "fiscal responsibility" idea of conservatism which is honored only in the breach by conservatives themselves. Having a real conservative party, one that believed in fiscal prudence as the guarantor of laissez-faire, would be nice; antiquity has its charms. But the Democrats should not be that party. What they say about deficits today could come back to haunt them tomorrow, when they will have to borrow to implement policies that—unlike Bush's tax cuts—at least benefit the future generations paying for them.