A new golden age of liberalism? Not right soon! Conservatism's obituary: Authors' yearning for a new New Deal won't make it happen.


"WE WIN," gloated a recent issue of the conservative Weekly Standard, the hottest new magazine in Washington. Liberalism had surrendered, memorably, in Bill Clinton's line that "the era of big government is over."

Some of the nation's most important liberal writers beg to differ. In a stack of new books dumped into the maw of this down-and-dirty election year, they offer a startling prediction:

Liberalism isn't defunct. Not at all. Instead, it is about to come roaring back. Gingrichism went too far, the theory goes, and a chastened nation soon will put the party of government back into power. They've even given this latest neo-liberal incarnation a name: the New Progressivism.

There's one flaw, however, in the vision of a liberal comeback. Based on evidence from the real world, there's no solid reason to believe it will occur, and plenty of reasons to think it won't. At the moment, in fact, prospects for a new golden age of liberalism look about as likely as the odds that a folk music revival will supplant rock.

The soon-to-be-fashionable idea of a liberal resurgence will surely lift the hearts of dispirited progressives. They've been down in the depths of a seemingly endless political winter. It began with Nixon, worsened with Reagan and hit absolute zero with Gingrich. Today, the profound silence on the left is a poignant, if seldom remarked upon, fact of political life.

The prophets of a liberal comeback say that is about to change. And in at least one way, there's a certain logic to the notion. Contrarians make good prophets, and what shrewder time to forecast the left's rebirth than now, when liberalism has sunk to its lowest level.

The political pendulum, after all, is more than a cliche. Historian .. Arthur Schlessinger believes the history of American government moves in cycles, in a never-ending tug of war between the forces of public (read liberal) purpose and private (conservative) interests. Surely, by this logic, we're overdue for a reversal of the conservative trend that began more than 30-years-ago with Barry Goldwater and reached a new peak with the election of a Republican Congress in 1994.

Historical parallels are an important part of thesis put forward by E.J. Dionne Jr., a leading promoter of liberalism's rebirth, in "They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era" (Simon and Schuster. 352 pages. $24), What's about to happen, he contends, is a lot like what took place during the first Progressive era, which grew out of the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism in the Gilded Age, exactly a century ago.

Mr. Dionne's book is a brilliant

intellectual history of the early years of the Clinton presidency. In it, he illuminates many of the ideas that form the foundation of both the Clinton agenda and the Republican "revolution." And he argues that the extremism surrounding the Republican revolution has turned off many members of the "anxious middle," who control the balance of power in America.

The country's ear

Now is the moment, he says, for liberals to grab the country's ear and remind everyone of the good that government has done - protecting the environment, ending segregated schools, making workplaces safer, providing security for seniors in their final years, and much more.

"Democrats and liberals have been too timid in defending government's legitimate role," writes Mr. Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post. A similar line is followed by Jacob Weisberg in "In Defense of Government: The Fall and Rise of Public Trust" (Scribner. 208 pages. $22, scheduled for publication in May) and former Clinton campaign manager James Carville in "We're Right, They're Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives" (Random House. 183 pages. $10/paper).

Oddly enough, a writer who some call a conservative, Robert J. Samuelson, makes one of the strongest arguments about the triumph of liberal government -the notion that things are not nearly as bad as they seem. In his "The Good Life and Its Discontents: How the American Dream Became a Fantasy, 1945-1995" (Times Books. 293 pages. $25), he writes persuasively that Americans today are better off than at any time our history, and government deserves credit for many of the most important changes that have taken place.

Our discontent, he concludes, arises from unrealistic expectations about our ability to create a perfect society. Government is partly to blame, for promising more than it could possibly deliver. "Government has become a misunderstood, mistrusted, and unpredictable neighbor, even while it was trying to become almost everyone's friend," he writes.

Restoring trust in government, a prerequisite for a New Progressivism, is, interestingly enough, a central thrust of Bill Clinton's re-election strategy. On his campaign swings, he goes out of his way to spot ways that government has made a difference. In Iowa this month, he toured a West Des Moines community that received federal disaster aid after a 1993 flood (during the same trip, only days after delivering a State of the Union message that some Republicans said Ronald Reagan could have given, Mr. Clinton proudly declared himself a Progressive).

But the president's advertisement for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, one of the biggest success stories of his administration, is a little like a mayor boasting about the effectiveness of the fire department. It is likely to take something much bigger, and more sweeping, than that to change the minds of a country that has grown deeply distrustful of its central government.

As it turns out, Mr. Clinton made just such an effort at the outset of his presidency. In an attempt to get the middle class believing in government again, he offered his universal health care plan, a brand new entitlement that would have expanded government and completed the New Deal. The utter failure of that plan to get through a Democratic Congress, thanks in large part to factional divisions within the party, as Mr. Dionne points out, was fatal to the party's chances in 1994.

Now that Gingrich and Company have faltered, liberals sense an opening.

But what, exactly, would this new, revitalized liberalism stand for? How would it use government to solve society's problems in an age when Washington is increasingly hard up for dough? Uh, we'll get back to you, its proponents are forced to say.

Old coalition together again

Some prominent liberals, such as columnist Michael Kinsley, are convinced that the pain inflicted by Republican budget cuts will ultimately put the old New Deal coalition together, and back in charge, again.

But why does it follow that a failure of Gingrichism necessarily ushers in a New Progressive era? Why not simply another brand of conservatism? Or something entirely different, and possibly worse?

The public opinion analyst Daniel Yankelovich, writing recently in Mother Jones magazine, points to growing inequality, or what he calls the lopsided economy, as the greatest problem facing America. "The lopsided economy benefits about 40 percent of working Americans while closing off the American dream for the 60 percent majority," he contends. "It threatens to destabilize our politics and to turn problems such as crime, drugs, race, welfare and illegal aliens into scapegoat issues."

At the moment, the politician best exploiting the fears and anxieties of the lopsided economy is a conservative populist, Patrick J. Buchanan. If liberals hope to come back, they will have to devise a persuasive plan that deals with the problems of inequality. Unless and until they do, they'll continue to lose.

Paul West is The Sun's Washington bureau chief. Before joining the paper in 1985, he was a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution and the Dallas Times Herald.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad