- On the (Supposed) Demise of Liberalism in American Politics
In what appears to be a fierce attack on all fronts, American liberalism faces a tremendous challenge from conservatives for political survival at the turn of the twenty-first century. If more intense, however, the attack is not new.1 As James T. Kloppenberg claimed at the end of the twentieth century, "For fifty years now the ideas and policies of American liberalism have been on the defensive, first against charges of communism or socialism, more recently against charges of moral as well as economic apostasy."2 In what E. J. Donne Jr., described as "the politics of accusation," such charges reflect "a deep and fundamental polarization of opinion among political elites."3 During the 1950s, for example, conservatives increased their attacks on New Deal politics for its central economic planning and large national state on the grounds that it threatened to lead the nation to totalitarianism. Conservatives in the 1960s, particularly Barry Goldwater, accused liberals of attempting to eliminate private property rights, increase the role of government in private lives, and join [End Page 107] ranks with Communists.4 When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he and his fellow conservatives charged liberalism with being responsible for the breakdown of morals, families, communities, and organized religion. Reagan stigmatized liberalism to the point where his vice president and successor, George Bush, drew blood in the 1988 election by simply associating his opponent, Michael Dukakis, with the "L-word."
How did "liberal" get to be such a dirty word? Part of the problem can be attributed to a lack of what W. Lance Bennett called "governing ideas" coming from the liberal camp, that is, "a broad set of national goals supported by enough citizens and power holders within institutions to sustain new courses of action aimed at changing basic social and economic conditions."5 While Bennett believed that governing ideas were lacking in general, he argued that in recent years Democrats have not been able to challenge the traditional conservative ideas of less government, less intrusion into private lives, and less regulation. This has not always been the case. Bennett also noted that Roosevelt's prevailing New Deal was based in essence on "the idea of a more activist government that would help people who could not solve their own problems."6 Then, in the years following the New Deal, liberalism promoted further changes in social and economic conditions with governing ideas such as the reconciliation of racial discrimination and the promise of social equality.
The moral force of liberalism, established in American politics by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and grounded in the ideal of equality as well as the ideal of individual freedom, brought many changes in social and economic conditions during the 1950s and early 1960s with the civil rights movement, but by the mid-1960s that force started to decline. Senator Goldwater may have lost in a landslide vote to Lyndon Johnson in 1964, but he captured five states in the Deep South and caught the attention of others who were scared and angry about what conservatives identified as undesirable products of The Great Society and the civil rights revolution. As James Sundquist of the Brookings Institution observed, "Ghetto riots, campus riots, street crime, anti-Vietnam marches, poor people's marches, drugs, pornography, welfarism, rising taxes, all had a common thread: the break down of family and social discipline, of concepts of duty, of respect for law, of public and private morality."7 Increasingly, conservatives characterized the successes of liberal Democrats in government in terms of excess.
While liberals claimed great accomplishments...