The Exhaustion of Liberalism?

Barton Swaim[1] describes modern liberal democracy in North America and Western Europe:

“Liberal democracies value divided governmental institutions, a regulated market economy, a generous welfare state, personal autonomy and the expansion of political rights to formerly excluded classes.”[2]

Both “conservatives” and “liberals” share these beliefs.  Where they differ is that “liberals” have a deep faith in the ability of government to improve the human condition, while “conservatives” harbor profound doubts.

The “liberal” achievement in Twentieth Century America has been immense: the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906); the enfranchisement of women (1920); the Social Security Act (1935); the Civil Rights Act (1964); the Food Stamp Act (1964); the Voting rights Act (1965); and the amendment of the Social Security Act to create Medicare and Medicaid (1965).  Most of these laws passed during brief periods when a fundamentally conservative country favored dramatic change.

Swaim sees the historical record as demonstrating the exhaustion of liberalism, although not of liberal democracy.  Much of the liberal agenda has been fulfilled.  There aren’t any more dis-franchised people to enfranchise—except for criminals and non-citizens.  Liberals have turned from defending free speech to curtailing it through campus speech codes, demands that social media censor speech that they characterize as “false,” and demanding that the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision be over-turned.  Increasingly, they place their trust in un-elected experts and bureaucrats to know better than do elected officials.  President Obama extended government regulation of business through federal agency rule-writing because he couldn’t get it through Congress, and President Trump is rolling it back in the same way.

Furthermore, he says, liberals haven’t passed any transformative legislation since the mid-Sixties.  The popular support among voters just isn’t there.  Instead, Swaim argues, liberal reforms have advanced along two lines since the Sixties.  On the one hand, liberal legislative reforms have become increasingly small-scale: the Clean Air Act (1970); the Clean Water Act (1972); and the Affordable Care Act (“Obama Care,” 2010).  On the other hand, and far more importantly, the Supreme Court has approved policies that would not have passed Congress: abortion (1973) and marriage equality (2015).

To the extent that the Democrats have “big ideas,” he says, they are not traditionally “liberal” but “radical.”  The “Green New Deal,” “Medicare for All,” and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s Plans-for-That all run well beyond conventional liberal policies.  Hence, the nomination of Joe Biden as the Democratic candidate for president in 2020 is the victory of the backward-looking “liberal” majority over the forward-looking “radical” minority.

Or perhaps not.

[1] South Carolinian (state flag has a half-moon on it that some people have interpreted as a closet endorsement of Islam); BA, University of South Carolina plus some study at the University of Edinburgh; speech-writer for the “intriguing” (HA!) governor, Mark Sanford; and now an opinion writer and book reviewer for the Wall Street Journal.

[2] Barton Swaim, “Joe Biden and the Slow Death of Liberalism,” WSJ, 11-12 April 2020.

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