One characteristic of political liberals, I believe, is a skeptical attitude toward orthodoxy. It is a mystery to me, therefore, why people who call themselves liberal seem blind to the fact that the economic system that worked so well for this country, for so long, is not working now.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that, along with the news media, they still accept metrics of success that no longer make the first lick of sense.
Or maybe it is because those metrics still make sense for the remaining liberals. Perhaps, as Thomas Frank argues in his trenchant book, Listen Liberal, they have just lost all touch with the working class. They’re willing to tell working people how to make themselves better (Get some advanced degrees, as we did!), but they are not willing to change the system so that working with one’s back or hands pays any better, or to make rent get any more reasonable. What’s the need? They’re comfortable.
Lately we’ve been hearing how well the American economy has been performing under the Trump presidency. It’s the same, inane claptrap liberals regurgitated during the Obama years. Corporate profits are high, stock prices are regularly setting records, and the number of people with jobs is up. These are the measures of economic health in place for the last century or so, at least. What could be better?
What if we changed the metrics? What if we measured the distribution of wealth and income, and changes in those distributions? What if we regarded the flattening of those distributions as a good thing, inasmuch as it helps those who need help, rather than those who do not? We wouldn’t be doing quite so well.
This idea doesn’t come out of the intellectual ether. America was born during the Enlightenment, when the utilitarian thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill were promoting the idea that the greatest good for the greatest number as a worthy goal. We used to think that way.
But if we measured ourselves against such a standard now, we’d have failing grades for the last 45 years. That’s with Republican presidents from Ford through this guy, and Democratic ones from Carter through Obama.
My fellow liberals, it’s past time to try something new.
Oddly, it’s the right-wing that is willing to try something new. Anything, anything at all, apparently. Even Trump. Now it seems as though the Democrats, in large numbers, are bent on defeating Trump and all the Trumpists and returning to the relative comfort of a “liberal” such as a Clinton or an Obama.
That is a fatally wrongheaded attitude. Defeating Trumpism is important, of course, but it is not the goal. The goal is establishing a nation that stands for peace in the world and an economic system that works for the lower end of the income scale as well as the upper. This in no way describes the liberal whose time has passed, whose policies have already been rejected in favor of a known lunatic. If we do it again — if we manage to elect a center-right Democrat like a Clinton or an Obama — the election following will give us another Trump.
Here’s what I mean: I call these people center-right because on social issues, such as gay marriage, abortion, immigration and gun control, they have found the comfortable center of American politics. They do deserve considerable credit for having made it the center. On economic issues like trade and the management of globalization, breakups of large financial institutions, and minimum wages (as opposed to living wages), they are Republican Lite. We have tried their way. It hasn’t done much good for anybody, except those who are already at the top of the national economic heap.
All of that is aside from the slavish behavior of both major parties with respect to the national-security state. People who were appalled at the trillion-dollar bailout of big banks in 2009 turn a blind eye to that kind of expenditure every year for a military-industrial-surveillance complex. We need some presidential elections in which we have something other than a choice between mass murderers.
Strong language? Consider: Every few years, this country goes to unconstitutional war. Between wars, our presidents authorize the murder of God knows how many people — also without constitutional authority. We are bombing seven different countries at this writing, none with a Congressional declaration of war or more than the skimpiest legal fig leaf over the action. None of this mess since the Second World War — absolutely none — has earned the US anything more than the enduring enmity of countless potential friends. Unless, of course, you count as national earnings the profits for Lockheed Martin and Johnson Controls.
There are only two ways to turn: right or left. Turning any further right would land this country in outright fascism. And please don’t tell me the Nazis were socialist just because they said so. The combination of government and corporate power that characterizes fascism is a mockery of socialism as well as democracy. We’re already a long way down that road.
A sharp left turn in American politics, then, is not a radical idea. The radicalism has been going on since the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. It has turned the America we thought we knew into an oligarchy. Poor people, working people, and the victims of violence the world over deserve better. We can do so much better.
Now a codicil. Using the word “liberal” this way bothers me. I described myself as a liberal for 50 years, and I certainly don’t mind being called one now. But I don’t call myself that any longer. It’s because of the followers of the Clintons and the Obamas and the world. They think they’re liberals. If they are, that means I am something else. It is more than possible that it was Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity who poisoned the word, comically describing the Clintons and Obama as left-wingers. Be that as it may, the language has changed. Call me progressive, until they twist that one beyond recognition. Or until liberalism regains both the meaning and the respect it deserves.