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Where's the Left? 

American liberalism at century's end

Wednesday, Mar 17 1999


You'd half expect some social theorist to come along any day now and proclaim -- as Daniel Bell proclaimed at the end of the '50s -- that America has reached the end of ideology. At minimum, we seem to be passing through an odd moment of dual exhaustion on both the left and the right. Conservatives don't have welfare to kick around anymore, or the deficit to deplore, or communism to declare the Democrats soft on. They battle now almost solely for the cause of neo-Puritanism -- a cause the majority of their countrymen plainly reject.

Liberals, alas, seem in even worse shape than conservatives. They don't have welfare to defend anymore. They lost the battle for universal health insurance in 1994, and have yet to figure out how to return to the fray. They are resigned to working within budgetary limits that preclude any major new governmental initiatives -- so resigned that not even a projected $3 trillion surplus can shake them from their torpor. To be sure, they joined up by the millions to fight the neo-Puritans on the impeachment issue, but that was more a surreal replay of the culture wars of the 1920s than a signpost to the progressive future.

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To many on both left and right, there's a two-word explanation for this strange narrowing of the political spectrum: Bill Clinton. Conservatives complain that the president has co-opted all their causes; liberals complain that he's compromised their causes to death -- and in the case of welfare, he most certainly did.

But would that liberalism's woes could be laid solely, or even mainly, on the Big Creep. For all that Clinton has disappointed his liberal followers, or betrayed congressional progressives who thought they had his support, the full extent of the liberal collapse far exceeds Clinton's ability to add or detract. It's not Clinton's doing that America has no notable progressive governors and, more remarkably, no progressive mayors in any major cities (unless you count Oakland as a major city for purposes of slipping Jerry Brown under the wire). It's not Clinton's doing that no major liberal has come forth to oppose his proposal to use the surplus to retire the national debt. It's not Clinton's doing that the social-democratic parties of Europe are trimming their own welfare states to appease the gods of global capital.

And it's not Clinton's doing that no candidate from the left wing of the Democratic Party is running to succeed him as president. For now, the Democratic field in campaign 2000 comes down to two candidates from the center of the party: Vice President Al Gore and former Senator Bill Bradley (if two candidates can be said to constitute a field). Progressive Paul Wellstone, liberals Richard Gephardt and John Kerry and neoliberal Bob Kerrey each took a look at the race -- and each took a pass. (Indeed, Gephardt endorsed Gore this past Monday.) Jesse Jackson is making faint noises about running, but has done nothing to prepare a campaign or revive his coalition, which has been in mothballs for the past 11 years.

It's this void on the left that distinguishes this year's Democratic field from all modern predecessors. (And don't think sitting vice presidents get a free ride, as George Bush -- who was challenged by Bob Dole and five other Republicans in 1988 -- could attest.) Think back to the presidential contenders in years when there wasn't a Democratic incumbent seeking re-election: In '92, there were Tom Harkin and Jerry Brown; in '88, Paul Simon, Jesse Jackson and Gephardt (who began his move leftward during the campaign); in '84, Walter Mondale, Alan Cranston and Jackson again; in '80, Edward Kennedy (running against incumbent Democrat Jimmy Carter); in '76, Mo Udall and Fred Harris; in '72, George McGovern; in '68, Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy (with Hubert Humphrey as the rightmost extreme); in '60, Humphrey; in the '50s, Adlai Stevenson (who fooled liberals into thinking he was a lot more progressive than he actually was, but it's instructive that he made the effort); and in '32, some guy named Roosevelt. You have to go back to the 1920s -- to the Democratic Party as it was before the New Deal -- to find a Democratic field in a non-incumbent year devoid of an unambiguous liberal.

SO IS IT A WRAP FOR AMERICAN LIBERALISM? DOES IT die with the century whose greatest glories -- the world's first middle-class majority, the establishment of a social safety net, the enactment of civil rights for racial minorities and women -- it helped create? This hybrid and not very ideological ideology -- descended from the progressivism of the 1910s, with a strain of prairie populism and a dab of Debsian socialism, and then defined by the movements of the '30s (labor and the socialist left) and the '60s (civil rights, feminist, environmentalist and anti-military-interventionist) -- now seems a vestige of a vanished world.

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