Looking Past Obama: The Future of Liberalism

Many left-leaning observers commended Barack Obama’s State of the Union last week for its calls for a $9 minimum wage, universal preschool education, immigration reform, climate action, and election reform. Yet most also acknowledged that these goals have little chance of being achieved, given the present composition of the U.S. Congress.

More likely, they represent the first step in creating the long-term program on which the Democratic coalition can campaign and act in the future. In fracturing and discrediting the Republican Party and making American liberalism respectable again, the president has shifted American politics to the left’s advantage. As a result, it is now reasonable to seriously consider what a new era of liberal governance might look like. There is no way to predict with certainty, but the broad features it might have are becoming apparent.

First of all, there are many things that will not change. Capitalism will not be replaced. Corporations will not be abolished. Government power will not be centralized in a benevolent national government. Globalization and technological changes will continue. The military will remain a large, well-funded, and well-regarded institution. America will keep its essentially capitalist economy and individualistic mindset. Radicals should brace for disappointment.

Rather than toppling the existing order, a new liberal America would commit to repairing a frayed social contract and promoting the general welfare of the American people. Its ultimate result would be a society with greater (but by no means absolute) economic, social, and political equality.

In creating the liberal America of the future, the top issue will be the economy and the role of government in its affairs. Reforms of major industries in the first Obama term were a good start, but we can go further. We can boost incomes for poor and middle-class workers. We can build the green energy sector and make carbon pollution more expensive for business. We can increase government revenues and make the tax code more progressive. Social insurance programs can be made sustainable, both financially and politically, by reducing deficits and health care costs. Dangerously outdated roads and bridges can be repaired or rebuilt.

These are all pre-existing proposals that have been discussed at length in recent years. They can be supplemented by even stronger action in the future. We can renew the effort to move the poor into the middle class by providing employment, job training, and education access to lower-income communities. We can improve our elementary and high schools and make college more affordable. We can expand high-speed rail and broadband access.

A new liberal agenda should not be confined to economic reform, of course. Our social policies should become more progressive as well. Fair treatment for LGBTQ people is practically assured by the our generation’s welcoming attitudes on the subject. Elections should be reformed with three goals in mind: the elimination of gerrymandering; easier ballot access, especially in poorer communities; and the reduction of the influence of wealthy and corporate donors on the political process. We should streamline the immigration process. The criminal justice system needs perhaps the most drastic treatment, as we remake it to be less punitive and less racist.

Finally, no political program would be complete without a foreign policy agenda. As this is much more difficult to predict than other fields, it is more difficult to predict, but again the broad contours of liberal foreign policy are becoming clear. It would seek to reduce America’s global military footprint while continuing to engage diplomatically with the international community. The number of nuclear weapons on Earth could be reduced, the “War on Terror” winded down. Global events would be managed on a case-by-case basis, using tactics appropriate for protecting national security and supporting human rights. Many actions abroad will be strongly criticized, as traditions of secrecy, morally ambiguous alliances, and questionable tactics will probably continue. However, leaders with this approach would not be prone to wage war under false or weak pretenses or to thumb their noses at the United Nations. It would be a humbler and smarter foreign policy, but one that still preserves the strength of the military.

The effect of all of these actions would be a society with a smaller gap between rich and poor, a bigger middle class, and a healthy market economy. American democracy would become more vibrant and responsive to the people. Our reputation around the world would improve. That is a vision of practical action built on a foundation of idealism.

The last time liberalism dominated American politics was the postwar period, the era of the New Deal, the Great Society, the Civil Rights Movement, and the War on Poverty. Liberals were, in the words of Arthur Schlesinger, the “vital center” between laissez-faire capitalism and Soviet communism. They preserved a market-based economy and a democratic society by proving that they could be made to work for everybody, not just the rich and powerful. It was not perfect, but the New Deal coalition made America better than it had ever been before.

Today’s liberals have the opportunity and the responsibility to do the same thing. President Obama has done exceptionally well, but our efforts cannot be defined by his actions alone. If we are to keep our nation moving forward, we should continue articulating a vision of what a better America might look like. Then we should push to make that vision a reality. Seizing the present opportunity is the challenge of our generation, and it is imperative that we meet it.

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