Writing in The Nation earlier this month, William Greider lays out the case for the end of New Deal Liberalism, and what its heirs must do to effect change in the future. Greider also has three suggestions for overcoming the conditions faced by would-be reformers today, "conditions similar to what the Populists and Progressives faced: monopoly capitalism, a labor movement suppressed with government's direct assistance, Wall Street's 'money trust' on top, the corporate state feeding off government while ignoring immoral social conditions."
[T]he administration of Barack Obama has been a crushing disappointment for those of us who hoped he would be different. It turns out Obama is a more conventional and limited politician than advertised, more right-of-center than his soaring rhetoric suggested. Most Congressional Democrats, likewise, proved weak and incoherent, unreliable defenders of their supposed values or most loyal constituencies. They call it pragmatism. I call it surrender.
Democrats are not used to governing aggressively. They haven't done so for decades, and they may no longer believe in it. For many years, incumbent Democrats survived by managing a precarious straddle between the forces of organized money and the disorganized people they claim to represent. The split was usually lopsided in favor of the money guys, but one could believe that the reform spirit would come alive once they were back in power with a Democratic president. That wishful assumption is now defunct.
Once again, Republicans are mounting an assault on liberalism's crown jewel, Social Security, only this time they might succeed, because the Democratic president is collaborating with them. The deficit hysteria aimed at Social Security is fraudulent (as Obama's own experts acknowledge), but the president has already gravely weakened the program's solvency with his payroll-tax holiday, which undercuts financing for future benefits. Obama promises the gimmick won't be repeated, but if employment is still weak a year from now, he may well cave. The GOP will accuse him of damaging the economy by approving a "tax increase" on all workers. Senate Democrats are preparing their own proposal to cut Social Security as a counter to the GOP's extreme version. In the end, they can split the difference and celebrate another great compromise.
This is capitulation posing as moderation.
The current crisis requires people to go back to their roots and re-examine their convictions—now that they can no longer count automatically on the helping hand of government or the Democratic Party. Obama's unfortunate "hostage" metaphor led Saturday Night Live to joke that the president was himself experiencing the "Stockholm syndrome"—identifying with his conservative captors. Many progressive groups, including organized labor, suffer a similar dependency. They will not be able to think clearly about the future of the country until they get greater distance from the Democratic Party.
I suggest three steps for progressives to recover an influential role in politics. First, develop a guerrilla sensibility that recognizes the weakness of the left.
Second, people of liberal persuasion should "go back to school" and learn the new economic realities. In my experience, many on the left do not really understand the internal dynamics of capitalism—why it is productive, why it does so much damage (many assumed government and politicians would do the hard thinking for them). We need a fundamental re-examination of capitalism and the relationship between the state and the private sphere. This will not be done by business-financed think tanks. We have to do it for ourselves.
Finally, left-liberals need to start listening and learning—talking up close to ordinary Americans, including people who are not obvious allies. We should look for viable connections with those who are alienated and unorganized, maybe even ideologically hostile.