After last month’s Inaugural Address and this month’s State of the Union Address, everyone is talking about Barack Obama as a champion of a revived liberalism.
Georgetown historian Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, is having none of it. In an article at The New Republic, Kazin explains why Obama should not be seen as liberalism’s standard bearer. Here is a taste:
But to believe that Obama has truly revived the great tradition of egalitarian reform is to neglect the distinction between two species of modern liberalism: that which promotes the equality of rights and that which works toward a greater equality of opportunity and wealth. The latter, the social variety, emerged from the class tumult of the Gilded Age and inspired such key New Deal measures as Social Security, the WPA, and the National Labor Relations Act. The former harks back to the abolitionists and early feminists; it demands that the promise of individual liberty be extended to every American, regardless of their skin color, national origin, gender, or whom they happen to love.
Most contemporary liberals support both types. But since the 1950s, they have devoted more time and passion to fighting for individual rights—and American society has gradually warmed up to the idea as well. Liberal politicians, spurred by mass movements, did away with legal segregation and immigration quotas created by “Nordic” supremacists back in the 1920s, abolished the barrier between male occupations and female ones, won access for disabled Americans, and are moving ever closer to legalizing same-sex marriage. The scrapping of overt job discrimination did help boost the fortunes of non-whites and women of all races, of course.
Yet the goal of economic equity for the majority of working Americans now seems farther away than at any time since the Great Depression. Anyone who follows the news knows the basics: beginning in the late 1970s, productivity has shot far ahead of wages, the lion’s share of wealth growth has gone to the one percent while the wealth of the bottom sixty percent has declined, the real value of the minimum wage is lower than it was during the Carter administation, and the percentage of union members in the private sector is roughly where it was when William McKinley was president. The real unemployment rate is well above ten percent, while the poverty rate is sixteen percent, the highest it has been since LBJ declared a “war” on poverty almost half-a-century ago. Only federal entitlement programs keep it from rising much further.
What does Obama intend to say or do about these festering failures of politics and policy? Very little, it seems.
Read the rest here.