“Liberalism” has always been about freeing people from restraints in order to achieve their full potential as human beings. In the 19th Century, that meant free speech, free markets, representative government, and an end to government regulations that favored protected interests. By the end of the 19th Century, American liberals recognized that their initial plans had failed to foresee the rise of powerful organizations (big business, big labor), the destructive power of prejudices, and inequality of opportunity. What we think of as modern liberalism emerged from this recognition as liberals sought to create a strong state that could hold in check and mediate between powerful organized interests. It then went beyond this mission to attack the racial prejudices and economic disabilities that held back people from reaching their potential. Subsequently, liberals went on to endorse “expressive liberalism” that allowed people to enunciate their core identity (such as being gay) or controversial opinions.

What are we to make of the definition of current liberalism tossed off by Nate Cohn in the New York Times? Cohn defines the Democratic Party’s mission as one of simply “expanding the safety net.”[1] Apparently, there is no philosophy behind this mission, beyond winning elections by spending far more money out of tax revenues than the Koch brothers have at their disposal. In the absence of such a philosophy, Democrats turned to raiding the program of “reform conservatism” for ideas. Health care insurance reform (“RomneyCare”), earned income tax credits, and college tax credits all began as ideas on the right, but were taken over by Democrats without ideas of their own.

Recent efforts to define an agenda for the future have undermined the unity of the party. On the one hand, the Party focused on easing the plight of the poor through the expansion of health insurance to the small minority of Americans who desired it, but could not afford it, and by trying to raise the minimum wage. On the other hand, liberal activists on the left wing of the party have pushed it to embrace causes which—however sensible in the eyes of reasonable people—clash with the interests or values of many Democrats: climate-change, gun control, and amnesty for illegal immigrants. As a result, Cohn remarks, the Democratic Party lacked a “coherent message for the middle class… in 2014 or even 2012.”

The emerging agenda of the Democrats focuses on what Cohn labels the “parent agenda”: In fact, it is best seen as part of response to the “great wage slowdown” of recent decades. Under the banner of fairness and promoting equality, the “parent agenda” will seek to redistribute resources from the wealthy to the middle class. In part this will be accomplished through the tax system: an expanded earned income tax credit (a transfer payment), child tax-credits, universal preschool, and universal precollege. In part it will be done by the state substituting for the decrepit union movement that cannot bargain for employees: paid family leave is the initial idea, but others are likely to follow. It will require higher taxes on upper income groups, The great advantage to the “parent agenda” is that it can be presented as providing opportunities, rather than as outright redistribution. It isn’t liberalism or even redistribution. It’s just retribution.

All this seems to represent an intellectual exhaustion on the part of the Democratic Party. Doubtless it would be thrown into an even more stark relief if not for the intellectual exhaustion of the Republican Party. The Republicans cling to tax cuts and “patriotism” (i.e. high defense spending by the many and military service by the few) in place of creating an “opportunity society” that might liberate those whom the Democrats have abandoned.

[1] Nate Cohn, “The Parent Agenda, The Democrats’ New Focus,” NYT, 10 February 2015.


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