After 30 years of shuffling and blurring, the centre left in the US thinks it has established a new hard-edged progressive creed. Stephen Pollard considers the claim that it will dominate for a generation and asks whether New Labour can follow suitby Stephen Pollard / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Rollerblading hit london in 1994, having started in the US in 1989. It takes five years for trends to cross the Atlantic, so we can be pretty sure that Britain will go to the polls in 1997, and that Tony Blair will be elected by an anxious middle class.
The rest should be similarly predictable: the Conservatives will turn to a figure on the right wing of the party who is said by the press to have “mad, staring eyes.” In the 1999 local elections, a rejuvenated Tory party will sweep the board under John Redwood. But within a year the electorate will realise that it doesn’t have the stomach for it. In the absence of any alternative, Blair will win a second term in 2001.
US political trends affect us whether or not we copy them. The best book ever written on modern American politics is Why Americans Hate Politics, by Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne. His latest book is the best of the recent spate of “why it’s our turn now” books from Democrat commentators: a combination of contemporary history (what Clinton did), criticism (what he should have done), analysis (why he didn’t do it) and prescription (what he should do now), overlaid with a virtuoso dissection of the intellectual underpinnings of the Democrats and the GOP. Dionne’s thesis is that today’s Republicanism is a flawed combination of 19th century economic liberalism and social authoritarianism. Only a reborn progressivism-whose purpose is not to undermine the market but “to create the social conditions in which the market can work well in its proper sphere”-has the potential to deliver what American voters want.
This is not a vain hope. “Our time combines social change with moral crisis, enormous economic opportunity with great economic dislocation and distress. It most closely resembles the period 1870 to 1900, which led to the progressive era.”
It is not just European social democrats who had the rug pulled from under them when communism collapsed. For many Americans the notion that there was more to be said for capitalism than they had previously allowed was unsettling, too. Democrats began to recognise that their arguments in defence of government’s necessary role often slipped into advocacy of government for its own sake.
But as David Brooks put it in Commentary last year, liberalism has gone through so many redefinitions-“30 years of shuffling have blurred the creed, so that it now resembles a person who has undergone 37 face-lifts.”
The collapse in liberals’ confidence was in part a result of a new assertiveness on the part of conservatives. Economic liberals and social authoritarians shared a common enemy in the then dominant New Dealers, but conservative polemicists such as William Buckley Jr and Frank Meyer obscured the differences between these contradictory conservative factions: thus Meyer’s new “fusionism” began from the premise that the US is, at heart, a traditionalist society. As Dionne writes, American conservatives began to “use libertarian means to traditionalist ends. If the government just got out of the way, the basic, traditionalist, commonsense decency of Americans would assert itself. To dismantle the big government was to empower family, church and neighbourhood.”
Clinton’s programme, designed to respond to the demands of what Dionne calls the “anxious middle,” had the potential to transform American politics. The campaign themes of health care reform, welfare reform and reforms in training and education responded to the clear message of the 1980s: “Voters are angry at government not just for what it has done, but also for what it has failed to do. The current political upheaval is less a rebellion against big government than a rebellion against bad government.” But for all sorts of reasons-not least the opposition of many in his own party-Clinton was derailed and seen as a typical politician who pandered and shifted.
Part of his problem, as Dionne shows, has been a simple matter of clarity. Clinton is not a “liberal” but a “New Democrat.” Being a New Democrat can mean many things. For conservative Democrats-the southerners in Congress who scuppered Clinton’s first two years-it means no more than being more like the Republicans. This is not what Clinton (and Blair) are about. The point is not to bury the past but to refresh it. New Democrats, and New Labour, accept that the welfare state as it now exists doesn’t work. But the response is not (as the right would have it) to disavow the role of the state but to reassess it. As the Democratic leadership council’s 1990 New Orleans declaration put it: “We believe the purpose of social welfare is to bring the poor into the nation’s economic mainstream, not to maintain them in dependence… We believe in preventing crime, and punishing criminals, not explaining away their behaviour. We believe in the moral and cultural values that most Americans share: liberty of conscience, tolerance of difference, the imperative of work, the need for faith and the importance of family.”
Three years ago, I co-authored with Giles Radice a series of reports into what we termed “southern discomfort”-the insecurities of the lower middle classes and their feeling of alienation from their traditional political home: the Labour party. The Blair agenda of recapturing this pivotal group through reassurance that Labour once again speaks to the hopes and fears of the ordinary citizen is strikingly similar to that of the New Democrats. Joe Klein has written of the “radical middle”-the US’s Essex man who wants both the freedom to live his life unencumbered by the state and the knowledge that the state will provide public services and care in times of trouble.
The radical or anxious middle “is in favour of what works,” according to Dionne. It has realistic expectations; it hopes for no more than a return to the sort of economic growth that characterised the years after 1945. “It looks to greater fairness, a modicum of job security, a sense that hard work will be rewarded and that violent crime will be punished. On questions of culture and morality, the anxious middle is neither repressive nor permissive. It senses the moral crisis, but is inclined to see both its cultural and economic sides. Its attitude toward the power of government is contingent on how effectively government performs. Most in the anxious middle are wary of the economic change now under way but sceptical of efforts to turn the process back.”
It is not enough to do as the new conservatives do: define the problems away. Moral crisis? Not my fault, guv’nor-it’s the media. Economic insecurity? Can’t help you there, mate-blame globalisation. Yet as Dionne points out: “Even the most conservative government will constantly be making rules-through tax laws, regulations or trade agreements-and these rules have consequences. The new conservatism speaks a language of joyful anarchism. In fact, it is, like most political movements, reshaping government to serve particular purposes and interests.” The new conservatives are happy to use government when it suits them: to tackle crime, for example.
Dionne concludes that for all the political problems experienced by Clinton, the fundamental story is one of hope. Only a newly modernised progressivism-alive to its former mistakes-can deliver. Conservatism has exhausted its possibilities. Emboldened by its successes and the feebleness of the progressives’ response, it has marched to the edge of the precipice. The only place it can now go is off the cliff. n