THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM….Yesterday I suggested that liberalism wasn’t as dead as conservatives like to pretend it is ? it just hasn’t made much progress in the past couple of decades. Today I want to follow up on that with some speculation about the future of liberalism, something I first wrote about over a year ago.
My guess is that liberalism is due for a resurgence sometime in the next few years, and for the simplest of reasons: the country has been been on conservative cruise control for the past 20 years and it’s time for a change. What kind of change? I don’t know, but it’s a sure bet that it will be something unexpected ? something that will make today’s debates about posting the Ten Commandments in city hall seem as archaic as fin de siecle debates about the free coinage of silver. Here’s why.
There have been three big progressive waves of the 20th century and each one has been driven by a different idea. The first, roughly coinciding with Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, was heavily driven by labor issues: child labor, safe working conditions, unionization, etc. It ended with the business oriented conservatism of the 20s (“the business of America is business”).
The second progressive wave began with FDR’s election and was mainly driven by the economic issues of the Depression. The old labor issues were still hot buttons, but labor gains were largely being consolidated during the 30s, with the Wagner Act as its last big legislative hurrah. The real issues of the New Deal related to the social safety net, and the signature legislation was Social Security, unemployment compensation, minimum wage laws, and so forth. This second wave ended after World War II when America, once again, took a breather and turned to business as the focus of day to day life (“What’s good for America is good for General Motors, and vice versa”).
The third wave began in the early 60s and was driven by yet another set of concerns. By this time the labor movement, now two cycles old, was practically conservative, and the social safety net from the previous cycle was in its consolidation phase (Medicare was its last showpiece program). This time, the driving issue was individual rights: civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual rights. Roe v. Wade probably marked the cresting of this era, which was followed by a conservative respite and the usual turn to business during the Reagan years and beyond (“Greed is good,” Dow 36,000).
If this cycle continues in its usual way, the next progressive wave is no more than a few years off. The social safety net (two cycles old) will no longer be a contentious issue, and individual rights (one cycle old) will be running out of steam, although it may still be enough of a hot button to inspire at least one major new piece of legislation (maybe something about privacy rights?)
None of this is to say that these issues from previous progressive eras are dead. They aren’t: healthcare, for example, is likely to be a significant issue in the coming decade. At the same time, however, they aren’t likely to be the enormous drivers of social change that they have been in the past.
But if the big issue of the next progressive era isn’t labor, the social safety net, or individual rights, what will it be? Today, in hindsight, we can see Truman’s integration of the armed forces and Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers as the first faint stirrings of the great civil rights crusade that drove the 60s, but nobody in 1950 could have predicted that. Likewise, there is probably something simmering below the surface today that will drive the next big progressive era.