The Magazine

A Prescription for Senile Liberalism

Less Howard Dean, more FDR.

Mar 14, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 24 • By JOEL KOTKIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

. . . The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper'd pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,

His youthful hose, well sav'd, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

--"As You Like It," Act II, Scene 7

WITH THE INSTALLATION of Howard Dean as Democratic party chairman, modern American liberalism enters its dotage. As Jaques says in As You Like It, this age resembles "second childishness and mere oblivion." In Dean, we see the last bloom of baby boom liberalism, reverting to its 1960s type, but "sans taste, sans everything"--including a sense of the moment. Today's liberals are too mired in their childhood traumas to focus on what is their party's main chance: domestic issues surrounding middle-class concerns in an era of social and economic instability, the rising challenge posed by China and India, and the cloudy prospects facing the next generation. These problems point to the failings of the political status quo; constant reminders of this failure include the nation's creaking infrastructure, dysfunctional educational system, and ever-expanding trade and balance of payments deficits. These phenomena represent a threat to continued American preeminence. Rising to meet the challenge would seem perfectly natural to a nationalist progressive of the last century: a Theodore Roosevelt, Al Smith, Fiorello LaGuardia, Franklin Roosevelt, or Hubert Humphrey. Such men would have risen to the challenge with something akin to martial virtue. FDR, in his first inaugural, compared the challenge of the Depression to "every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife, of world relations." He called not for self-pity, weakness, or redress, but for the "frankness" and "vigor" that he considered "essential to victory. "

The senile liberalism speaking through today's Democratic party--in "childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound"--shares none of this robust patriotism. The Vietnam-era orientation of its baby boom elite reeks of ambivalence about a strong America. Even the best of contemporary liberals dare not speak in the harsh, uncompromising terms of national power or security but only appeal to abstract ideals.

Arguments about Wilsonian idealism among the Washington-pundit wing of the Democratic party--while more attractive than Deaniac isolationism--will not rally middle-class voters. A far better approach would be to support a strong American military but with the understanding that, for the foreseeable future, defense and security will not constitute the party's strongest suit.

Domestic issues provide far more fertile ground for Democrats. The vast majority of Americans, according to the most recent Wall Street Journal poll, want their government to concentrate on domestic issues rather than foreign concerns. It is here where the Republicans, and the conservative movement in general, are most vulnerable.

THE BROADEST AREA of opportunity for Democrats lies in a series of domestic issues that, for reasons ranging from ideology to class interest, Republicans are ill-suited to tackle with passion or skill. These revolve around factors affecting America's global competitiveness, both as an economic and technological power, in the new century.

Americans confront these realities far more directly than they do broader geopolitical concerns. They feel them when they travel on pothole-filled roads or when they worry about their jobs or businesses or when they interact with an education system that, even in the suburbs, consistently underperforms those of our rivals.

All but the most addled baby boomers grasp that we are producing a generation that may lack sufficient intellectual and physical mettle to compete with the children of China, India, and other fast-rising countries. Turn-of-thecentury progressives sensed a similar process of debilitation and proposed bold steps to deal with it. They started on the local level, with efforts of city leaders in places as diverse as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and Los Angeles to modernize local political and education systems, and to build modern infrastructure. "Sewer socialism," as opposed to today's remedial liberalism, saw increasing the productive capacity of the nation as the best way to improve the prospects for the middle and working classes.