Liberalism today is bereft of ideas and “dying.” So asserts Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic, the magazine that may well have introduced the term liberal in its modern sense into the American political lexicon nearly 90 years ago, and that has been a leading light of liberalism ever since. “Ask yourself: Who is a truly influential liberal mind in our culture?” writes Peretz. “Whose ideas challenge and whose ideals inspire? Whose books and articles are read and passed around? There’s no one, really.”
Once there were such giants as Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), “the most penetrating thinker of the old liberalism.” But Niebuhr, with his pessimistic view of human nature, is largely forgotten in liberal circles these days. “However gripping his illuminations, however much they may have been validated by history,” says Peretz, “liberals have no patience for such pessimism.” Religion in general has been in bad odor with many liberals in recent years, notes Dionne, a columnist for The Washington Post. “How strange it is that American liberalism, nourished by faith and inspired by the scriptures from the days of abolitionism, is now defined—by its enemies but occasionally by its friends—as implacably hostile to religion.”
Liberals no longer have “a vision of the good society,” laments Peretz. For years now, “the liberal agenda has looked and sounded like little more than a bookkeeping exercise. We want to spend more, they [conservatives] less. In the end, the numbers do not clarify; they confuse. Almost no one can explain any principle behind the cost differences.”
Chait, a senior editor at the magazine, sees the absence of “a deeper set of philosophical principles” underlying liberalism as a strength. Unlike conservatives, he says, liberals do not make the size of government a matter of dogma. “Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives.” Its aversion to dogma makes liberalism “superior as a practical governing philosophy.”
“But there are grand matters that need to be addressed,” insists Peretz, “and the grandest one is what we owe each other as Americans.” Instead of taking on that difficult task, he says, liberals continue reflexively to defend every last liberal governmental program of the past and to seek comfort in leftover themes from the 1960s—the struggle for civil rights and the dangers posed by the exercise of U.S. power. They refuse to recognize the immense gains that blacks have made over the past three decades. And though they no longer regard revolutionaries as axiomatically virtuous, many still won’t face up to the full evil of communism—or to the present need to combat Islamic fanaticism and Arab terrorism. “Liberalism now needs to be liberated from many of its own illusions and delusions,” Peretz contends.
Yet even without its other difficulties, “liberalism still would have been undermined” by dramatic changes in the international economy since the 1960s, says Judis, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Facing stiffer competition from abroad, U.S. manufacturers fought harder against unionization and federal regulation. And as businesses moved manufacturing jobs overseas and hired immigrants for service jobs at home, labor unions—a crucial force for liberal reform—lost much of their clout. “To revive liberalism fully—to enjoy a period not only of liberal agitation, but of substantial reform—would probably require a national upheaval similar to what happened in the 1930s and 1960s,” Judis writes. That “doesn’t appear imminent.”