As I sit at my desk working my way through a stack of requests for donations and entreaties to renew my membership in various organizations, I am torn about when to write a check and when to save my money. At the moment, the pressing question for me is whether to support the larger, liberal organizations that do what I think of as “mainstream” liberal work—organizations such as The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, The National Organization for Women, and People for the American Way.
For years I have written these checks, almost as an act of dutiful citizenship. After all, I am glad the organizations are there. I want them to continue to exist. That means I have to do my part to keep them alive. But this seems a rather lazy way to make a decision.
I feel I should decide what I really think about liberalism and its prospects in the 1990s. It is clear that in 1996 liberalism is in eclipse—or at least adrift and demoralized. Meanwhile, the Right is in its glory. It dominates the political arena, with an apparent lock on the new ideas, the money, the organization, and the attention that used to belong to liberalism.
Liberalism is nearly an orphan. It has a bad name in many circles. For the Left, it represents a compromised reformism. For the Right, it is socialism in disguise. For the center, it is a label associated with fuzzy thinking and do-gooder incompetence.
Liberals are divided and seem to have lost confidence in their own ideology. The vicious attacks mounted by the Right have scored points with the public by caricaturing liberal programs, their adherents, and their recipients. After fifteen years of such attacks there is now a proven formula: seize on an example of abuse of a liberal program, market an image of the program’s undeserving recipient (preferably a poor person of color) to the taxpaying public, then sit back and wait for the impact. The “welfare queen,” the Black rapist on furlough, the unqualified affirmative action hire—all have assumed powerful symbolic significance.
In the face of these attacks, liberals themselves seem to know on some level that their programs have not worked as planned. Even in defending them, they are forced to appeal to the spirit in which the programs were based, or the benefits they have delivered to their most deserving beneficiaries. Liberals seem unable to mount a vigorous defense of these programs—on their own terms, across the board, without regard to the worthiness of the recipients. By mounting a weak defense, liberals tacitly concede to their Republican attackers that the programs are at least flawed, perhaps even indefensible.
The Swinging Door
I have seen liberalism’s programs and ideology up close for over thirty years. At fifty, I have reached some clarity about liberalism, especially since I have the advantage of a Left perspective—a set of glasses, if you will, that helps to bring the shortcomings of both liberalism and conservatism into focus. Further, I learned my politics during the Vietnam War, a war waged by liberals as well as conservatives.
I know that domestic social programs are intended as amelioration, not real change. I know that the same men who voted for public housing programs voted for aid to the Guatemalan military. I understand liberalism’s self-serving tendency to preserve the status quo, why big business often has found it a useful ally, why its redistributive measures never really disturb the sleep of the rich. I understand why it tolerates police brutality, a rogue FBI, why NAFTA, why GATT. I know all that.
Yet as the Right picks off liberal programs one by one, I mourn each one as if it were the product of a golden age of liberty, equality, and fraternity. My understanding of liberalism’s shortcomings and its history of opportunism is gone. Liberal programs are bathed with a glow of benevolence, set off by a stark contrast with the anti-social and avaricious agenda of the Right.
Take public housing as an example. As it is defunded by the Right and its real estate sold off, I am torn by two conflicting images. In the back of my mind are the towers of Cabrini Green, a massive, notoriously rundown, and dangerous housing project in Chicago. Here the ultimate effect of a liberal program is to segregate poor Black people in a high-rise ghetto. In fact, the numerous high-rise federal housing projects in Chicago form a “wall” that cordons off poor people from the rest of the city. It is difficult to see the result of this liberal housing effort on behalf of low-income families without assuming a malicious intent behind the program.
But in the front of my mind are other images: a broken-down, substandard house in rural Mississippi transformed into a prefab house with indoor water, electricity, and walls that are tight against the weather. Or a range of housing such as scattered rent-subsidized low-income units, low-rise complexes, and rent-controlled apartments that allow people to live in decent conditions even though they have very little money. It is these images that draw me. Perhaps it is sentimental, but I am compelled by the notion of a society that will not tolerate extreme poverty and that responds with redistributive programs—even though the programs are often flawed and sometimes cynical.
This softness toward liberalism is not easy to admit. It can be especially embarrassing to defend liberalism when I am speaking to progressives. It feels like admitting a weakness in my political commitment to Left, progressive values, the values that demand fundamental systemic change and redistribution of power. But this soft-on-liberalism instinct is grounded in my progressive politics. I see the two in relation to each other. I understand the role that liberalism plays in facilitating the work that progressives do. The Left needs liberals to create the breathing room necessary for us to do our work. Liberals, in turn, are given direction and held to some minimal standard of honesty by the Left.
As a progressive feminist, I want to live in a country that understands that some people cannot manage and that is willing to take responsibility for them. I want a government I can believe in; one that is willing to defy the often malicious intent of local power structures and defend the rights of all its citizens with determination. And I am convinced that only the federal government can deliver that protection. That often means that liberal social programs, administered by the federal government, are the only workable answer to social needs. This doesn’t mean I will get the government I want, but it does mean I cannot afford to throw away the idea of government as an important arbiter of justice.
The Right’s current promotion of states’ rights, which argues that power should be decentralized because only state governments provide for the real needs of local folks, ignores the history of states’ rights as a defense of brutal racial segregation and reactionary social policies. Transferring programs like public housing to the states is a sly method of defunding them. Progressives must be careful, when raising pointed criticisms and mounting protests regarding government programs, that we do not let our anti-government rhetoric feed the anti-government campaign of the Right.
I admit that when looking at liberal programs, I have a tendency to accept liberalism’s most appealing face as reality. I am drawn, for instance, by the 1960s social plan called The War on Poverty. I find a certain poetry, idealism, solidarity, and respect in the words themselves. Even when they turn out to be just words (that stand in ironic contrast to the Vietnam War, which was waged simultaneously) they nevertheless represent a glimpse of ideas and programs propelled by humanity and mutual concern. Perhaps two stories from my own experience will help to explain both my attraction to liberalism as we know it and my ambivalence about it.
In Chicago’s 1982 mayoral race, Harold Washington, a progressive African-American Congressman from the South Side, ran against the machine candidate, Jane Byrne, in the Democratic primary. Washington won. The white machine was stunned, and scrambled to find a candidate to run against Washington in the general election. Since Washington would be the Democratic Party candidate, they would have to find a Republican, but they were hard-pressed to locate one, since Chicago is a one-party town. They did find a rather pathetic man named Bernie Epton, who visibly struggled with emotional instability and barely made it through Election Day. Despite the stark difference in the two candidates’ qualifications, most white voters in Chicago voted for Epton. They preferred the unstable white man with no political experience to the charismatic, experienced, progressive, anti-machine African American. Again, however, Washington won.
There were several reasons for his victory. First, Chicago at that time had a minority population of 45%—a voting block large enough to create a plurality of votes. Second, Washington put together a rare coalition that drew over 90 percent of the African-American vote and most of the Latino vote. And finally, “lakefront liberals”—primarily white, often professional, definitely higher-income residents who lived close to the Lake Michigan waterfront—delivered the balance needed to put him narrowly over the top. Among white voters, only the lakefront liberals defied their race allegiance and voted for the Black man.
For me, the Washington election captured a clear irony about life in Chicago. I was proud that Chicago was no ordinary racist northern industrial city. Chicago is organized. It is perhaps the most organized city in the country—the birthplace of the community organizing style of Saul Alinsky. All of Chicago’s neighborhoods—especially the White neighborhoods—are organized with the goal of empowering working people, and much of this organizing has been done by liberals.
Yet when those organized citizens were called on to vote for a more progressive future, they were not able to make the connections. The community organizing so conscientiously mounted by liberals did not touch the racism of Chicago’s White voters. Unable to address the basic social problems, especially racism, liberalism came up short in an actual test of its effectiveness in creating change.
But liberalism was not a complete failure in Chicago. The lakefront liberals did the right thing. Faint-hearted, arrogant, complicit, and often self-serving, they nevertheless served as the swinging door against which social change could push. Without them, there was no space, no breathing room, no recourse.
Perhaps the lakefront liberals stood to gain under a Washington Administration that would create more space for their business interests than the locked-down machine offered. Perhaps the communities of color that voted so overwhelmingly for Washington were mostly voting against Chicago’s White political machine. But the reality remains. It was the vote of White liberals that put the progressive Mayor Washington over the top.
Another story comes to mind. In the early 1980s the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of Leftist political groupings in El Salvador, mounted a credible attempt to overthrow the Salvadoran political establishment. The context for this effort was El Salvador’s history of economic exploitation by an oligarchy of landowners supported by a military trained and armed by the U.S., and a complicit Catholic church hierarchy. El Salvador’s social and economic system was injustice and oppression itself.
The FMLN was explicitly revolutionary. However, it had an arm that operated above ground, in the electoral arena. Always at risk from death squads, some brave people were willing to put themselves at risk by being affiliated publicly with this above-ground group, the Democratic Revolutionary Front, or FDR. The president of the FDR, the late Guillermo Ungo, was well-known in the United States.
In the early 1980s, I was part of a delegation of U.S. foundation staff and donors, led by the director of The Philadelphia Foundation, that went to Central America to meet with humanitarian aid organizations, human rights organizations, and others centrally involved in the conflicts in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. J. Roderick MacArthur, the son of the billionaire donor of the MacArthur Foundation, John D. MacArthur, was part of the delegation. Roderick MacArthur had his own foundation, known as “little MacArthur,” that had been involved in funding organizations opposing government abuses and repression against progressives. Rod MacArthur’s politics were liberal, unusually so for a businessman.
MacArthur met Ungo on that trip and they bonded as prominent businessmen with political concerns. MacArthur was both compelled by Ungo’s story and convinced that there were opportunities for U.S. business in a post-revolutionary El Salvador. When he returned to the U.S., MacArthur arranged to have Ungo come north to tour several cities, meeting with U.S. businessmen. When Ungo reached the Chicago stop on the tour, MacArthur held a reception for him in his Chicago suburban home. It was an opportunity for Ungo to speak to prominent Chicago businessmen. As a courtesy, he invited everyone who had been on the Central America trip to attend.
The meeting was predictably awkward. Ungo was not a charismatic man. The businessmen weren’t sure what the point was, and MacArthur didn’t seem able to sway them to his view. Out of courtesy to MacArthur, the businessmen were politely attentive, but they were not at all open to the revolutionary message of the FMLN, and certainly not able to sign onto MacArthur’s vision of a reformed El Salvador exporting its fabulous beer in profitable quantity to the U.S. The meeting fell rather flat.
Well, I thought, this just illustrates that you can’t promote revolution as a business opportunity. Even to want to do so is so exquisitely liberal! The incident provided more support for my sense of liberalism as complicit and ineffective. Nevertheless, as a result of that meeting, those businessmen were undoubtedly less likely to support a U.S. invasion of El Salvador. They were certainly better informed about the reality of life there, and the unbelievable maldistribution of wealth and the extent of repression. They would no longer give knee-jerk support to U.S. policy toward Central America. Rod MacArthur had made a contribution. He had influenced a sector that is completely inaccessible to progressives. He had begun to create a swinging door against which solidarity work could push.
That Compelling, Illusive Coalition
In June 1982, there was an enormous march in New York City to protest the triumph of the Right Wing of the Republican Party with the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s administration had succeeded in making major changes in the tax structure, lowering the tax rate of the wealthy as one of its first acts in office. The march was so vast that miles of central Manhattan’s streets were filled with people. There were huge puppets, many more than 15 feet high, that eloquently mocked the Republicans and made tongue-in-cheek pleas for decency. A gigantic inflatable whale, emblazoned with the slogan “Save the Humans,” swayed down the packed streets.
There is no accurate count of how many people participated. As usual, the estimate by city officials was absurdly low. Perhaps more important, we don’t have an official record of which sectors of the liberal coalition were represented. But emotionally, I know exactly who was there. Everybody.
Or more accurately, all the White middle class reform movements that dominated and controlled the liberal coalition. The feminists, the gay and lesbian rights movement, the environmentalists, the disability rights movement, the reproductive rights defenders, the liberal unions. The civil rights movement was represented, but in small numbers, reflecting its position within the coalition as just another partner. That march seemed to me the last public display of the united front known as the liberal coalition.
That coalition was the lion that roared. It was a voting block that could propel a liberal to the Supreme Court, stop a war, prevent an invasion, impose curbs on corporate rapacity, force integration, forbid the death penalty, ensure voting rights.
Today it is a fractured remnant of its days of power. The larger, mainstream organizations are bloated, bureaucratic, and riddles with compromise. In order to maintain their programs, they have bowed to donors and corporate sponsors and cleansed themselves of radical voices, excusing their own moderation by pointing to the need to keep themselves alive in a hostile political climate. This applies even to some civil rights organizations. The vigor is gone, the vision is muddled, and the membership is down.
The less-compromised, small organizations are fighting over funds, plagued by professional jealousies and rivalries, and jockeying for position in a context of political defeat and defunding. The leadership is tired and aging and is not being replaced with another generation of dedicated activists.
Perhaps the coalition was doomed from the start. After all, it was frankly reformist, which means that it could take change only so far before it ran into its own contradictions. Nowhere was this more true than on the issue of race. The White-dominated liberal coalition was not about to give up its dearly-held issues because they were not well-suited to the needs of African Americans. Reproductive rights are a perfect example. The demand of African American women for the reproductive rights movement to broaden its agenda to include the concerns of women of color (e.g. that women be assured of the right to have children, as well as not have children) were heard by only a handful of reproductive rights organizations.
But this is just one of the man reasons for the decline of the coalition. Larger events conspired to weaken it and diminish its vision. I don’t pretend to know the exact profile of these forces. Certainly the increased concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer and fewer corporations and individuals under late capitalism has both elevated the individualism so basic to capitalism and defeated the notion of the common good. The attack by the organized and well-funded Right has been successful in undermining the popularity of the liberal vision. And, in any case, it is harder to hold a coalition together when it is undergoing defeat after defeat. By contrast, the Right’s coalition is enjoying victory after victory, and thus finds that continued cooperation and collaboration is visibly rewarded.
With so few victories and so little satisfaction to be had, each member of the liberal coalition now hangs onto whatever pale reformist policies or benefits can be saved. The sectors of the coalition that cannot survive on these remnants, especially working class wage-earners, have been left to make the best of it. The gutting of The Labor Relations Board, The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and The U.S. Civil Rights Commission are just three examples of liberal programs now unable to deliver anything resembling social justice. Is it any wonder that so many working people are seduced by the Right’s vilification of liberalism when liberalism has proved unable to defend them and hasn’t appeared to try very hard?
So, the liberal coalition is fractured, aging, compromised, and lacking in vigor or new ideas. It remains White-dominated and predominantly middle-class. Why, then, do I mourn its passing from the center stage of power? Didn’t it deserve to fade?
Something makes me say: “Yes, but…” A part of me clings to a vision of the liberal coalition as it could have been. Also, frankly, I miss the power. Progressives are used to working at the margins, pushing liberals to redress the heinous injustices created by capitalism, and, when liberals create reformist programs, pushing the envelope to open an opportunity for real change. But without a powerful and effective liberal coalition to pressure, there are very few places for progressive policies to exert influence.
It is true that liberalism plays its own role as an aid to reactionary politics, acting as a buffer for capitalism by protecting it from the wrath of the people it exploits. By providing a veneer of caring and accommodation to human needs as well as profits, liberal programs cloud people’s political consciousness. No doubt about that.
But liberalism also serves as a buffer against fascism. In the 1970s we had the luxury of holding liberalism in disdain because it was a sop that prevented revolutionary social change. In the 1990s, liberalism looks more like a line of defense against the final triumph of the Right.
Come Back, Jimmy
By the end of Jimmy Carter’s administration in the late 1970s, Carter was an easy man to scorn. The populist liberalism of his Presidential campaign had been thoroughly compromised as he “got it” about the Soviet threat. His wobbling political leadership became increasingly neoconservative. It was hard for progressives to find much to like about Carter.
Yet throughout the Reagan administration my mantra was: “Come back, Jimmy. All is forgiven.” What I missed wasn’t a hard-headed political analysis, a shrewd ability to work the system in behalf of social justice goals, an uncompromising commitment to the poor. These we had never had from Carter. What I missed, and had taken for granted, was that the man supported the Bill of Rights.
Carter was a typical liberal in that respect. He understood the role of the Bill of Rights in assuring that in addition to stable democratic institutions, people in the U.S. also have certain concrete rights. Take Article I of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment. It reads in part: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of people peaceably to assemble…” It is meant to protect the individual’s right to protest government actions. In the United States, freedom of speech is a civil liberty.
This guarantee has always been applied selectively. The free speech of racists has always been better protected than the free speech of campus war protesters. In the recent past, it was often necessary for the courts to intervene to protect Leftists from the violations of their First Amendment rights by law enforcement officers, the FBI, or exceptionally hostile Justice Departments, such as those of the Nixon and Reagan administrations.
Free speech is particularly important to progressives because in my attempt to change the status quo there must be room to unmask and debunk it. Censorship imposed by legal means, or self-censorship in the context of repression, means that the Left’s effectiveness is dramatically limited.
Progressives, therefore, are dependent on liberals’ commitment to the First Amendment. Liberals serve as a buffer protecting us from the Right and its history of attacking First Amendment freedoms. For instance, it is liberal legislators who stand in the way of laws banning the burning of the flag. It is liberals who defend “sacrilegious” art. It is liberal lawyers and judges who defend the rights of “communist sympathizers” and anti-war demonstrators, and keep the airwaves open for the likes of Angela Davis and Allen Ginsberg. Without that liberal commitment to the Bill of Rights, the voice of the Left could and would be silenced.
That is not to say that liberals won’t cut and run. If the accused is too politically unpopular or the cause too radical, liberals will hide behind the justification that these defendants or causes threaten national security, and they’ll allow the Bill of Rights to go. Sometimes they’ll cave in under threats by the Right to tar them with the brush of radicalism. In these cases, only progressives will stand up and fight for our guaranteed rights.
Nevertheless, right now we need liberal lawyers, judges, journalists, curators, abortion providers, legislators, teachers, unionists, affirmative action officers, and day care advocates. We need the breathing room and protection they provide for progressives. So each time one of them is won over by the Right’s prejudice, myth, irrational belief, inaccurate information, pseudo-science, and outright lies, or each time a liberal resigns from office or retires from the bench (to be replaced by a credentialed Rightist, of course), I worry a bit more. It doesn’t matter whether I particularly like, respect, or admire liberals. I care about them because they are endangered, and I care about what that means for me and for our society.
But is it a Relationship?
Liberalism will raise your hopes and ultimately break your heart. Does that mean that it commands no loyalty? Should it be trashed because it is spineless and flawed? My answer is an unequivocal “maybe.”
It won’t do to say that liberalism could be a useful framework for a late capitalist society if only it wouldn’t act so much like liberalism. It is what it is. Nevertheless, it can be more or less effective according to the principles to which it holds.
The principle of “maximum feasible participation” is an example of the boundaries of liberalism’s potential as an open, humane, and egalitarian ideology. Maximum feasible participation calls for the people who are the recipients of liberal programs to also design, control, and implement the programs. It moves “good works” a step further toward actual power sharing.
Maximum feasible participation was an idea that was barely tried, then abandoned by liberals as unworkable. It is at exactly this juncture that liberalism reveals its intrinsic limitations. There is a crucially important distinction between addressing grievances and inequities with humanitarian aid on one hand, and in solving them through redistributing power on the other. All those who are dispossessed, whatever race, class, or gender, will be given only relief by liberal programs. They will not obtain true justice.
But when true justice is not available—in this country, for lack of the ability of progressives to compete effectively in the struggle for power—humanitarian aid makes a difference. It is this difference that the Right is killing off, program by program. The Right knows that without liberalism’s programs, there is less chance for even the myth of social change, not to mention its reality, to thrive. If they can eliminate the swinging door, then it will be even easier to redistribute power upward. This is one of the reasons that right-wing strategists spend so much time demonizing liberals, especially feminists, environmentalists, gay and lesbian rights activists, and supporters of multiculturalism.
Liberalism has not proved able to stand up to the reactionary onslaught by the Right. Is that surprising? Should progressive people put time and energy into defending liberalism and its programs? Yes – we must. As a strategic response to the current assault by the Right on every democratic principle, it is an important place to put time and energy.
At the same time, it is crucial that progressives continue to work for a more radical vision of social justice and redistribution of power and wealth. Liberalism is in retreat in part because it is not receiving the sort of pressure from progressives that forced it to pursue reform aggressively in the 1970s. Progressives often set the agenda for liberals, by taking direct confrontational action against unjust laws and policies. It is progressives whose public education truly unmasks the structural and individual racism, repression, and other forms of injustice within the U.S. system.
At the moment, the progressive vision lacks the clarity and certainty of the 1930s or the 1960s. But there is an important distinction between our current muddled state, when clarity and unity are diminished, and the death of the vision altogether. We must not confuse the two. To say that the Left is struggling to find its way in a dramatically restructured political environment is accurate. But the fundamental principles around which the Left organizes its radical critique—liberty, equality and fraternity in the service of justice for those whose voices are not heard—are as alive and needed as ever.
Progressives must analyze how the Left became such a weak force. This promises to be a difficult process of self-criticism. Further, more and more people will have to come to the table to help to refine the progressive vision and correct its flaws and omissions. Meanwhile, liberal reforms have to be defended and pressure has to be applied to the few liberals still standing to keep them from waffling or quitting. This is not best done by disdaining or ignoring them.
Like it or not, progressives now must work with liberals, as well as with any other left-leaning sectors such as the Greens, to form a united front against the agenda of the Right. Pat Buchanan’s demonstrated ability to draw 30 percent of the vote in state after state in the recent presidential primaries is just one indicator of how important such a front is.
So, progressives, if you are angry and bitter over the loss of another liberal program killed off without even so much as a debate, don’t apologize. Don’t assume you have become soft on liberalism. This is a natural reaction – a product of this moment in history. And try not to dwell on those years past when there was more certainty, more idealism, and more hope; when working for real change was like moving downstream riding a current of historical inevitability. Now we are swimming against a tide that is thick with peril. The voice in the bubble of this cartoon is no longer saying “Follow that dream!” Now it is saying, “Time is running out. Focus. Get it together. Unite!”
Thanks to Rosario Morales, Dick Levins, Clarissa Atkinson, Denise Bergman, Pat Rathbone, Ruth Hubbard, and Francine Almash for their comments.