Party in Search of a Notion | The American Prospect
For many years -- during their years of dominance and success, the period of the New Deal up through the first part of the Great Society -- the Democrats practiced a brand of liberalism quite different from today's. Yes, it certainly sought to expand both rights and prosperity. But it did something more: That liberalism was built around the idea -- the philosophical principle -- that citizens should be called upon to look beyond their own self-interest and work for a greater common interest.
This, historically, is the moral basis of liberal governance -- not justice, not equality, not rights, not diversity, not government, and not even prosperity or opportunity. Liberal governance is about demanding of citizens that they balance self-interest with common interest. Any rank-and-file liberal is a liberal because she or he somehow or another, through reading or experience or both, came to believe in this principle. And every leading Democrat became a Democrat because on some level, she or he believes this, too.
Michael Tomasky has been pushing this analysis of what went wrong for the Left in the 1960s for quite some time now and he has it exactly backwards. On his account the New Left transformed the agenda of American liberalism from a communitarianism, aimed at promoting the "common good," to an ideology of individual rights, individual opportunity and social justice.
In fact the New Deal and Great Society, which he applauds as effective, if flawed, programs were devoted to promoting individual rights, individual opportunity and social justice. Roosevelt added "freedom from fear" and "freedom from want" to the traditional four freedoms guaranteed in the constitution. The Civil Rights Movement of the '50s and early '60s, which Tomasky cites as a prime example of Americans pulling for the common good was precisely about individual rights, in particular, the right of individuals to be "treated as individuals" rather than as members of separate estates defined by skin color.
The New Left, by contrast, was deeply communitarian. The New Left merely replaced the the old, conservative commitment to the common good of a national community that excluded racial minorities, stigmatized gay people, and failed the poor, with the communitarian identity politics of restricted communities, defined by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability and the like.
The difference between the Old Left and the New Left was one of objectives and mechanisms for achieving them. Old-style liberalism was narrowly focused and its goals were clear: economic security, material well-being and opportunity. It embodied a vision of the Good Life represented by Norman Rockwell's "Freedom From Want." The Good Life was Levittown--on this traditional liberals and conservatives agreed, even as they disagreed about the means for attaining it.
Old-style New Deal liberals believed that government programs, contrived by technocrats, were the fairest and most effective means for promoting the Good Life. The WPA, CCC and an alphabet soup of New Deal programs would provide jobs. The GI bill would provide education, training and the opportunity for more Americans to move into the middle-class. FHA and VA loans would finance homes in leafy suburbs. All (white male) Americans would have good jobs that paid a "family wage" so that all (white) Americans could be bourgeois. Economic experts in government service would design programs to make that feasible and government bureaucrats would administer them.
The goal of the Civil Rights Movement was to desegregate Levittown--to make the bourgeois life feasible for minorities. The values, means and ends were the same. The Good Life was the life of the white, Anglo middle class and the aim of the Civil Rights Movement was to see to it that members of racial and ethnic minorities could get it too. The means were also the same: government programs and social engineering.
The New Left repudiated the values and goals to which old-style liberals were committed. Children who had grown up in Levittown did not want to move back and were contemptuous of working class strivers who struggled to achieve and maintain a way of life they rejected. In addition the New Left were deeply distrustful of traditional mechanisms for social improvement. They did not merely reject the Establishment as it was--they rejected establishment as such: they distrusted hierarchal institutions, credentialed experts and impersonal mechanisms.
It is easy to see why most Americans found this program repugnant. The institutions that comprised the Establishment--schools and universities, government and the military-industrial complex--provided reasonably fair opportunities for individuals to achieve their goals. The rules and requirements were clear. You got grades and passed tests so that you could go to college. You got more grades and passed more tests to get a credential that guaranteed a good job with a regular paycheck, benefits and a retirement plan. You saved money for the down payment on a house, maintained good credit and got a mortgage. You didn't need to be hooked into a social network or "have contacts"; you didn't need to be socially skilled, lucky or likable. The system was transparent--and it served the interests of "middle American" careerist strivers.
Once the New Left became established, the Democratic Party lost its focus on economic issues and "liberal" was redefined. Environmentalism, reproductive rights, peace and other projects that had nothing to do with the defining agenda of the left as it had been became signature issues of the New Left, which dominated Democratic politics. To the extent that Democrats cared about bread-and-butter issues at all their concern was focused primarily on the underclass and in particular on individuals who could not, or more often, would not pay their dues. Democrats became the Mommy Party with a vision of the state as a secular communitarian church devoted to caring for the least of the brethren. It embodied the sentimentalities and romantic fantasies of the elite but had little to offer the great body of working class Americans who did not regard themselves as victims and did not want care or compassion but fairness, opportunity and the guarantee that if they played by the rules their rights would be respected.
So I agree with Tomasky. Democrats need to "kick some old habits." But it's the habit of framing social issues in communitarian terms and describing their agenda in the language of compassion, care and the common good that they need to break if they are to win over most Americans, who want transparency, a level playing field and the assurance that if they pay their dues they can achieve their goals.