Politics

Adolph Reed Jr. on the Current State of American Liberalism

Adolph Reed Jr., a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote a piece in Harper’s on the decline of American liberalism. For those of us without a key to the Harper’s paywall, Reed has been making similar arguments in other venues.

Many of Reed’s arguments echo this blog’s recent posts on the background of our current moment in American politics. In particular, Reed critiques “the bogus premise that Democrat = liberal”:

Most telling … is the reinvention of the Clinton Administration as a halcyon time of progressive success. Bill Clinton’s record demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice. A recap of some of his administration’s greatest hits should suffice to break through the social amnesia. Clinton ran partly on a pledge of “ending welfare as we know it”; in office he both presided over the termination of the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to provide income support for the poor and effectively ended direct federal provision of low-income housing. In both cases his approach was to transfer federal subsidies — when not simply eliminating them — from impoverished people to employers of low-wage labor, real estate developers, and landlords. He signed into law repressive crime bills that increased the number of federal capital offenses, flooded the prisons, and upheld unjustified and racially discriminatory sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. He pushed NAFTA through over strenuous objections from labor and many congressional Democrats. He temporized on his campaign pledge to pursue labor-law reform that would tilt the playing field back toward workers, until the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995 gave him an excuse not to pursue it at all. He undertook the privatization of Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing Association, thereby fueling the student-debt crisis.

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Politics

Background Part II: The Reagan Era

In 1964, long before the New Deal era reached its high-water mark, the seeds of the Reagan era were planted. Barry Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination on a small-government platform. Voters rejected him. His supporters and intellectual allies then retreated into think tanks, journals, and other civil society organizations funded by wealthy donors. From there, they built the modern conservative movement.

Or at least, that is one way of telling the beginning of the story.

The political successes of the conservative movement have always had more to do with cultural backlash than economics. Two forms of backlash stand out in particular: racial hostility toward blacks in the wake of the civil rights movement, and a more general revulsion toward the upending of traditional authorities and norms during the cultural liberalization of the 1960s and 1970s. Against this backdrop, however, the public intellectual face of modern conservativism has been strongly defined by economic policy.

The intellectual foundations of the modern conservative economic ideology can be found in works like Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom, published in 1962. As the title suggests, the book argues that classical liberal markets and political freedom go hand in hand. This argument also appears in Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, another keystone of modern conservative economic thought, although one that lies outside the American economic mainstream.

Capitalism and Freedom offers a high-level theory about the need for small government and classical liberal markets—and presents this theory in easily communicated rhetoric that appeals to widely shared American values, especially freedom. The book also offers an assortment of concrete policy prescriptions, such as the use of school vouchers, and the replacement of progressive income taxes with a flat tax. By connecting an overarching theory of modern government with specific policy prescriptions, Friedman offers something extremely powerful: a unified vision of the proper role of government to contrast with the vision of the New Deal. While the New Deal presents government as a force for freedom, Friedman’s vision places government largely in opposition to freedom. The smaller the government, the more free citizens will be. What makes Friedman’s book so powerful, I would argue, is that it offers a widely appealing general framework for thinking and talking about the role of government, alongside policy prescriptions that are concrete enough to be included in a campaign platform or a bill.

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