A Renaissance of Liberalism

I haven't checked, but I would bet that the release of the first Harry Potter movie, last November, was declared by someone to be epochal. Epochal stuff has been happening like crazy for years. We live in an epochal epoch, we are frequently reminded. It is hard to say exactly when the monumentalization of the trivial became a way of life in America. It may have been when the National Football League started according contests between large men in skintight pants the sort of solemn designations formerly reserved for armed global conflicts. This year it's Super Bowl XXXVI; that's a lot of epics, a lot of epochs.

Maybe the blame belongs, as it often does, with the Boomers—everything they did, or thought, or merely lived through was epochal. The Summer of Love was epochal, Woodstock was epochal, the Pill was epochal, long hair was epochal. Once you start getting epochal about hairdos, you are on a slippery slope. In the seventies and eighties things got completely out of hand. Saturday Night Fever was epochal; Saturday Night Live, too. Last Thanksgiving, Mick Jagger seemed to be easing into Perry Como's slippers with his own holiday special, "Being Mick"—epochal as parody.

In politics and in policy everything was epochal. This made sense at first. The Civil Rights Act really was epochal, and so was the Vietnam War, and so were the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and of Martin Luther King Jr., the riots on the campuses and in the inner cities, the destruction of the Democratic Party in Chicago, the implosion of New York City, Watergate. But the slope was slippery here, too. Ronald Reagan's supporters declared an epoch before he had even been sworn in. What we had here was not just a new President, it was the Reagan Revolution—the right's answer to JFK's Camelot, that primal example of manufactured epochalism. When Bill Clinton became the first Boomer President, for a while there you couldn't pick up the newspaper without getting smacked in the eye by another Boomer-written article marveling over the epochal nature of it all.

Newt Gingrich was the living end of the political as epochal. He thought and spoke—and spoke, and spoke—exclusively in epochs. Not long after he won the congressional battles of 1994, I covered a conference on the future (or, rather, The Future) in Washington, D.C. Gingrich was the big draw, upstaging the Tofflers, of Future Shock fame. He had a sort of unified theory of epochal relativity, whereby everything that was happening right now (very much including the rise of The Indispensable Newt) fitted into the great story of the ages of man. We in the press balcony dutifully recorded this for posterity. I guess you had to be there.

The genuine epochal events of the sixties were all disasters, and together they gave rise to a declinist and even apocalyptic view of America that would prevail in the politics of the far left and the far right. Progress under democracy was not inevitable; government was not necessarily a force for good and we ourselves were not necessarily good; our leaders were not necessarily competent or honest or even sane.

This view began losing ground in the nineties. The Gulf War, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the spectacular worldwide increase in wealth, the equally spectacular decline, at least in the industrialized world, of pollution—these were not disasters but the contrary. This accumulation of triumphs undercut declinism. Also undercutting it, in the United States and Great Britain, was the rise to power of a new generation of political leaders who practiced a form of activist government that was more about what worked than about what was ideologically prescribed.

On the national level in America this was represented by the Clinton Administration, which in some ways failed, but which did at least restore to respectability the idea of a government animated by the idea of improvement through government. And the Clinton effect nationally was a lagging indicator of change, following the effect locally of the works of pragmatic reformist governors such as Tommy Thompson, of Wisconsin, and George Voinovich, of Ohio, and mayors such as Rudy Giuliani, of New York, and Richard Daley, of Chicago. Millions of people relearned that states and cities were not ungovernable, that authority could in concrete ways make life better.

September 11 was epochal, and a disaster. The historian David McCullough has called it the worst day in the nation's history, and that is not saying too much. But the response to this disaster has been anything but disastrous, and this has greatly spurred the process of rebutting declinism which was already in train. One great effect, I think, will be a renaissance of liberalism, in the old, best sense.

Liberalism can scarcely exist without faith in government, and liberalism thrived in the long years of New Deal politics because most people had faith in government. Faith was rational. Had not government won the war, ended the Depression, built the highways, brought electricity to the farmlands, vanquished the economic terror of old age? Government did great things for all of us.

This sentiment, which seemed impossibly archaic before September 11, has returned in force. A Gallup survey in early November found that 89 percent of respondents approved of the way President Bush was handling the war on terrorism, and 77 percent approved of the job Congress—Congress!—was doing. In fact, the survey found only one major American institution that was widely disrespected. Fifty-four percent of respondents disapproved of the media's performance. For some thirty years after Vietnam and Watergate it was widely assumed that in judging conflicting accounts, the reporter should be believed, not the general or the press secretary. That is no longer so. When people generally believe in their government, then activist government is once again possible.

A second reason for a resurgence of liberalism is the post-September marginalization of what had been since the late 1960s the dominant voice of left-liberal politics—the anti-government, anti-American-culture left of the perpetual protest. This marginalization is not just a matter of disapproval from outside; that has existed for years. More important, it is a matter of a split within. The left is dividing, and on one side of the divide is a majority that sees America as basically a good country and is serious about a liberal approach to making it even better. The patriotic left (the left of Woody Guthrie, not of Oliver Stone) is returning to the mainstream. When liberalism has been associated with scorn for the country, the country has scorned it; when it has been associated with a passion for bettering the country, the country has embraced it. This could happen again.

From the archives:

"One Nation, Slightly Divisible" (December 2001)
The electoral map of the 2000 presidential race became famous—big blocks of Republican red stretched across the heartland, with brackets of Democratic blue along the coasts. Our differences are real, but how deep do they go? By David Brooks

A third reason is a change in the dynamic on the right. Liberals like to think of conservatives as living in two camps: a country-club camp that is interested exclusively in the preservation of its own privileged status, and a redneck Bible-class camp that is concerned chiefly with stamping out sin and keeping down minorities. There is still some truth to these old caricatures, but much less than there used to be. The religious-right wing of conservatism, in frustration at losing the cultural wars, has mostly retreated from practical politics. Country-club, do-nothing conservatism really ended with the election of the anti-establishment Reagan. For years the dominating sentiment in mainstream conservative intellectualism has been about fashioning a conservative approach to addressing the nation's social ills and issues—compassionate conservatism, some call it.

September 11 will advance this process. What was left of the power of the intolerant right died when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson agreed on TV that the attacks were God's just punishment for America's sins. What is left of country-club conservatism aspires to not pick fights in a climate where the idea of working-class heroes has a sudden new currency. It will be instructive to see what happens in Congress the next time an increase in the minimum wage is proposed. Bush's philosophy regarding the domestic role of conservative government is now the only significant view standing in the Republican Party. That philosophy is activist, desirous of progress in addressing social ills. Liberal, you might say.