Reactionary liberalism

Michael Barone:

Once upon a time, liberals were the folks who wanted to change society. They thought existing institutions were unjust and that individuals needed protection against the workings of the market. They looked forward to a society that would be different.

To a considerable extent, 20th century liberals achieved many of their goals. Racial segregation was abolished. An economic safety net was constructed. Government issued regulations were set up to protect the environment. Few Americans want to undo these changes. But they may want others.

Looking back on election year 2004, I am struck by how many of the constituencies supporting Democratic candidates oppose, rather than seek, change -- how they are motivated not by ideas about how to change the future, but by something like nostalgia for the past.

Take black Americans, the most heavily Democratic constituency -- 88 percent to 11 percent for John Kerry in the 2004 NEP exit poll. Blacks have been voting for Democratic presidential candidates by similar margins since 1964, when Republican Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act.

That was a big issue, then. And never mind that a higher proportion of Republicans than Democrats voted for the bill in Congress -- Goldwater did oppose it. But the Civil Rights Act has long since become uncontroversial, racial discrimination disapproved and integration of schools, workplaces and public accommodations widely accepted. Yet 40 years later, the image of the Republican Party as unsympathetic to equal rights for blacks seems to persist. Black voters seem still focused on a moment in history 40 years ago.

Or look at the antiwar constituency, an important part of the Democratic coalition in 2004. These voters denounce the war in Iraq in much the same terms, with much the same arguments, that they denounced, or have heard that their elders denounced, the American military effort in Vietnam. We're in a quagmire, committing atrocities, doomed to failure.

...

On the economic front as well, Democrats seem to be looking more to the past than the future. The Social Security system as it exists is obviously not sustainable: There will be too few workers supporting too many retirees. It will be in good shape, some Democrats argue, until 2042, so there is no need to worry for it. But people who turn 67 in 2042 were 29-year-old workers and voters in the 2004 election. An argument that concedes that Social Security will be in trouble when they reach retirement age can hardly be expected to appeal to them. But these Democrats see no need to change a system created in 1935.

Liberalism used to be about a willingness to change and come up with innovating solutions to problems. Today, it is the conservatives who are coming up with the new ideas, and today's liberals have no alternative other thanto resist change--something they used to accuse conservatives of.

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