In the sixth year of the Obama presidency with stalling on all fronts for progress, and defensive battles against casino’s and tax cuts on the horizon locally in Massachusetts, it’s more important than ever to consider not what we have to defend but what we can still accomplish. I hope to start a conversation reclaiming the word ‘liberal’ from the dustbin of history. When the Bookers and Schumer’s and even Bloomberg’s reclaim the word ‘progressive’ for their corporate agenda-it is time to reclaim a word our own side allowed to be turned into a pejorative but one that once stood proudly as the height of American idealism.
Part of this is repudiating market liberalism, the idea that the government if it pursues growth through neoliberal capitalism can create safety nets to offset those that lose out. This project has started to fray, and it’s time we reassert a strong foundation for a new generation of liberalism. The Fordist consensus between business and liberal government is over-globalization killed it and we aren’t going to recover that era. What we can do-is ensure that our era is as equitable as that one-even more so if we remember the progress made in social liberalism in the past generation bringing gays, minorities, and women into the American project as full partners.
As Tom Edsall elegantly argues, the safety net is merely a bandaid to a systemic failure in American capitalism that is badly in need of regulation and structural reforms. It also alienates the working and middle classes needed to politically sustain it, and has directly contributed to their voting against their economic interests since they view government programs as ‘handouts to the needy’ or even worse ‘handouts to the irresponsible’ rather than rights they should be entitled to as citizens. Medicare and Social Security have largely survived due in part to the fact that everyone pays in so everyone is entitled to receive. The trend of means testing and turning entitlements into anti-poverty programs has the perverse benefit of making those anti-poverty programs far more politically vulnerable.
In practice, Konczal writes, the political left has abandoned its quest for deep structural reform — full employment and worker empowerment — and instead has “doubled-down” on the safety net strategy. The result, in his view, is “a kind of pity-charity liberal capitalism.”
Konczal’s poignant description of the problem goes a long way toward explaining the current struggles of the left. The question is whether there is an effective worker empowerment strategy at a time of globalization, offshoring and robotization.
Insofar as Democrats concentrate the bulk of their efforts on means-tested transfer programs (on the extension of long-term unemployment benefits, Medicaid and food stamps, for example), they leave the most needy and vulnerable to the vagaries of public opinion.
Authors further to Edsall’s left are persuasively arguing that there is a new captive audience in the Millenial voter and the large swath of downscale service workers ready to hear this message and be brought into the tent. Those workers are close to the vaulted ‘Sams Club Mom’s’ that delivered Obama a second term. Many were attracted to the candidates stance on abortion rights, but their is no reason we cannot also deliver a greater amount of this constituency towards economic policies that fairly distribute American wealth.
The rush to erase the term ignores its potency. The discourse of entitlement is a discourse of rights, of human agents claiming what’s theirs instead of asking permission from the powerful. It’s a tradition that regards paternalism and noblesse oblige as pejoratives. Dignity, not charity, is the animating principle. People earn access to the rudiments of life (food, healthcare, shelter) by virtue of their humanity. Rights language invites the beggar to rise from his knees and, without equivocation or supplication, demand his humanity be recognized. Workers are entitled to a living wage. Children are entitled to grow up free from poverty. Homeless people are entitled to a home.