The New Liberal Opportunity

By Paul Starr
The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 7, 2007

Surely we should not judge the merits of any political philosophy by the fluctuations in public support of the party most closely identified with it. Yet people do so all the time. When the Republican Party was in the ascendancy a few years ago, some conservatives took its rising power as a sign of a new conservative era and the validity of their own ideas. In America winners always think they're deserving. Now that the fortunes of the GOP have ebbed and Democrats seem to have the energy, the edge, and -- most surprising of all -- the lion's share of the money in the 2008 campaign, liberals may be tempted to imagine that those happy circumstances augur a new era for them and confirm that their ideas are true and just.

Which, as a liberal, I would certainly like to believe. But genuine historical watersheds are rare, and it is dangerous to make too much of the latest public mood. At the moment, Americans are mainly reacting against the failures of the Bush administration and the exhaustion of the conservative movement. It's unclear whether that negative verdict will turn into strong positive support for Democrats in general and liberals in particular.

What liberals now have is not a mandate but an opportunity -- actually, three kinds of opportunity. The first is an immediate political opportunity to help Democrats win the next election and reverse the current administration's policies abroad, assaults on constitutional liberties, and weakening of regulatory protections of health, safety, labor, and the environment.

The second is a strategic opportunity to address long-term problems such as rising economic inequality and global warming that conservatives have downplayed or denied and neglected.

And the third is an opportunity -- call it an intellectual or ideological opportunity -- to rebuild a base of popular support for liberal ideas by reopening a conversation with people who believe that liberals have not shown them any concern or respect and by redefining what liberalism means in the minds of a new generation.

Understandably, the immediate political battle absorbs most of the attention today. But if the Democrats win the next election, the historical significance of that victory will depend on whether they can seize the strategic and ideological opportunities, begin to deal with the great challenges facing America and the world, and create the basis for a durable political majority.

This is where the important work of intellectual renewal can make a contribution. A strategic liberalism needs to identify the steps achievable in the short term that can lay the foundations and build the support for more difficult and substantial reforms in the environment, economy, and other areas. And a principled liberalism needs to reawaken the force of a tradition with deep historical roots and bring it to life for a new generation. Those of us who talk and write about such things need to show how liberal principles and strategies are related and why they are relevant to the rough business of politics as it is played today.

My own view is that the materials for a liberal reconstruction lie readily at hand. They come from the heritage of constitutional liberalism that stretches back to the American founding and beyond. They come from the classical liberal thinkers and from those liberals who late in the 19th century and early in the 20th adapted liberal politics and philosophy to the demands of industrializing democracies. They come from the hard-won lessons of liberal internationalism in seeking security and freedom in a world of power politics. They come from the popular movements to win freedom and opportunity for all those groups who were long denied equal dignity and equal rights. And they come from the thinkers and politicians who in recent decades have tried to confront the realities of our time in search of a shared prosperity and democratic partnerships at home and abroad. Nothing needs to be invented from scratch. A practical public philosophy is there for those who look for it.

Of course, winning elections can make it a lot easier to convey what a liberal public philosophy means in practice. Americans who grew up under Franklin Delano Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy did not have to study history to find out what a capable government inspired by liberal principles looked like. They knew from their own experience. And with luck Americans will have that chance again.

Paul Starr is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and co-editor of The American Prospect. He is the author most recently of Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism (Basic Books, 2007).