Popular accounts of American historical development suggest that American politics are fundamentally cyclical, swinging back and forth between periods of reform and retrenchment.
Following this theory—an idea espoused by prominent liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—the reelection of Barack Obama should have been cause not just for short-term exultation at the defeat of Mitt Romney and the far Right, but also sustained excitement that a reform agenda has been given four more years.
In reality, few progressives feel this way. The net result of Obama’s reelection is a perpetuation of the status quo in Washington—a grid-locked Congress that has bought hook, line, and sinker into deficit hysteria, thereby all but guaranteeing that the next several years will continue to be marked by high unemployment, austerity, and painful cuts at the local, state, and federal levels. Disturbingly, this climate is likely to foster widespread disillusionment with the capacity of progressive political leadership to produce meaningful change.
Could Obama have done better with the hand he was dealt, going back to 2009? Some observers argue that he could have gone for a bigger, better-crafted stimulus clearly tied to concrete, visible infrastructure projects on a large enough scale to bring down unemployment more rapidly and, in doing so, averted the loss of Democratic control in Congress in 2010. Perhaps by prioritizing economic recovery over health care, he could have short-circuited the Tea Party and maintained control over the political agenda. Others say Obama should get more credit for helping to avert a depression and for passing a health care bill that, while flawed, at least goes a long way toward establishing the principle of universal health care as a right.
But what if this debate about Obama is largely beside the point? The correct question to ask is not whether Obama could have done better (he could have), but what the frustrations of the Obama era teach us about the capacity of liberal politics to deliver meaningful change—even with a charismatic, intelligent president at the helm.
Poverty has gone up, not down, over the past five years. The nation still has no meaningful policy, let alone a comprehensive strategy, for addressing climate change. Labor is still flat on its back as a force in the nation’s economic life. The defense and security budgets still command an exorbitant share of resources. Obama’s health care bill, though it has important progressive elements, does too little to tackle the cost inefficiencies associated with a private insurance–based system. The nation’s politics are as dominated by money as ever, and the Right has become even more extreme on many issues. Central cities remain largely neglected, investments in public transit and green technology have been minuscule relative to need, and pressing needs for affordable housing are going unmet on a mass scale. The picture is even grimmer for states and localities grappling with impossible budget dilemmas.
It is easy to look at this picture, get depressed, and conclude that there is no meaningful way forward and the nation is destined to continue a long process of economic, social, and ecological decay.
The challenge Gar Alperovitz offers—throughout his entire body of work, but most pointedly in his new, highly readable book, What Then Must We Do?—is to insist that recognizing the weakness of liberalism is not good reason to give up on progressive goals.
Reaching Beyond Liberalism to a Bolder Paradigm
Recognizing liberalism’s weakness is the first needed step toward developing a bolder politics with real policy substance that is capable both of addressing key problems and altering, over time, the underlying power dynamics of the American political and economic system.
This is, clearly, a much taller order than simply electing or re-electing a candidate. But at this stage, the challenge is still primarily intellectual and conceptual: how to develop a new paradigm for meaningful change that takes us beyond traditional liberal strategies and their limitations, both substantively and politically.
Alperovitz shows how the long-term...