How Liberalism Self-destructed


Democrats are still looking for explanations for their stunning rejection in the midterms — citing everything from voting rights violations and Middle America’s racist orientation to Americans’ inability to perceive the underlying genius of President Barack Obama’s economic policy.

What they have failed to consider is the albatross of contemporary liberalism.

Liberalism once embraced the mission of fostering upward mobility and a stronger economy. But liberalism’s appeal has diminished, particularly among middle-class voters, as it has become increasingly control-oriented and economically cumbersome.

Today, according to most recent polling, no more than one in five voters call themselves liberal.

This contrasts with the far broader support for the familiar form of liberalism forged from the 1930s to the 1990s. Democratic presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Bill Clinton focused largely on basic middle-class concerns — such as expanding economic opportunity, property ownership and growth.

Modern-day liberalism, however, is often ambivalent about expanding the economy — preferring a mix of redistribution with redirection along green lines. Its base of political shock troops, public-employee unions, appears only tangentially interested in the health of the overall economy.

In the short run, the diminishment of middle-of-the-road Democrats at the state and national level will probably only worsen these tendencies, leaving a rump party tied to the coastal regions, big cities and college towns. There, many voters are dependents of government, subsidized students or public employees, or wealthy creative people, college professors and business service providers.

This process — driven in large part by the liberal attachment to economically regressive policies such as cap and trade — cost the Democrats mightily throughout the American heartland. Politicians who survived the tsunami, such as Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia, did so by denouncing proposals in states where green policies are regarded as hostile to productive local industries that are major employers.

Populism, a traditional support of liberalism, has been undermined by a deep suspicion that President Barack Obama’s economic policy favors Wall Street investment bankers over those who work on Main Street. This allowed the GOP, a party long beholden to monied interests, to win virtually every income segment earning more than $50,000.

Obama also emphasized an urban agenda that promoted nationally directed smart growth, inefficient light rail and almost ludicrous plans for a national high-speed rail network. These proposals appealed to the new urbanist cadre but had little appeal for the vast majority of Americans who live in outer-ring neighborhoods, suburbs and small towns.

The failure of Obama-style liberalism has less to do with government activism than with how the administration defined its activism. Rather than deal with basic concerns, it appeared to endorse the notion of bringing the federal government into aspects of life — from health care to zoning — traditionally controlled at the local level.

This approach is unpopular even among “millennials,” who, with minorities, represent the best hope for the Democratic left. As the generational chroniclers Morley Winograd and Michael Hais point out, millennials favor government action — but generally at the local level, which is seen as more effective and collaborative. Top-down solutions from “experts,” Winograd and Hais write in a forthcoming book, are as offensive to millennials as the right’s penchant for dictating lifestyles.

Often eager to micromanage people’s lives, contemporary liberalism tends to obsess on the ephemeral while missing the substantial. Measures such as San Francisco’s recent ban on Happy Meals follow efforts to control the minutiae of daily life. This approach trivializes the serious things government should do to boost economic growth and opportunity.

Perhaps worst of all, the new liberals suffer from what British author Austin Williams has labeled a “poverty of ambition.” FDR offered a New Deal for the middle class, President Harry S. Truman offered a Fair Deal and President John F. Kennedy pushed us to reach the moon.

In contrast, contemporary liberals seem more concerned about controlling soda consumption and choo-chooing back to 19th-century urbanism. This poverty of ambition hurts Democrats outside the urban centers. For example, when I met with mayors from small, traditionally Democratic cities in Kentucky and asked what the stimulus had done for them, almost uniformly they said it accomplished little or nothing.

A more traditional liberal approach might have focused on improvements that could leave tangible markers of progress across the nation. The New Deal’s major infrastructure projects — ports, airports, hydroelectric systems, road networks — transformed large parts of the country, notably in the West and South, from backwaters to thriving modern economies.

When FDR commissioned projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, he literally brought light to darkened regions. The loyalty created by FDR and Truman built a base of support for liberalism that lasted for nearly a half-century.

Today’s liberals don’t show enthusiasm for airports or dams — or anything that may kick up some dirt. Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Deanna Archuleta, for example, promised a Las Vegas audience: “You will never see another federal dam.”

Harold Ickes, FDR’s enterprising interior secretary, must be turning over in his grave.

The administration would have done well to revive programs like the New Deal Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps. These addressed unemployment by providing jobs that also made the country stronger and more competitive. They employed more than 3 million people building thousands of roads, educational buildings and water, sewer and other infrastructure projects.

Why was this approach never seriously proposed for this economic crisis? Green resistance to turning dirt may have been part of it. But undoubtedly more critical was opposition from public- sector unions, which seem to fear any program that threatens their economic privileges.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why many great liberals — like FDR and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia — detested the idea of public-sector unions.

Of course, green, public-sector-dominated politics can work — as it has in fiscally challenged blue havens such as California and New York. But then, a net 3 million more people — many from the middle class — have left these two states in the past 10 years.

If this defines success, you have to wonder what constitutes failure.

This article originally appeared in Politico.

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University and an adjunct fellow with the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

Photo: Tony the Misfit

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meaningful information

You probably make it look so easy together with your business presentation although We uncover that theme being actually something I'm sure I'd personally by no means comprehend. Seems like way too complex and very wide-ranging to me. My business is looking forward for the future article.

Liberal albatrosses

Ok, the ancient mariner abducted from the wedding shoots the albatross by the south pole and comes home when he sees the snake. If the fickle middle class doesn't see action in the form of Hetch Hetchie dams they'll vote for tax cuts for the rich. So much for innovation technology and transportation infrastructure.

This one is fodder for Politico; it's a means versus ends conundrum. As for civil society? "Where are you tonight, Walt Whitman?" If plastic was the exurban future in The Graduate, today it is carbon reduction through strip mining of clean coal, with suspicious minds still singing "Blue Moon of Kentucky keep on shining." The promise to America--inoculation: cure the disease with the disease.

This article reveals that it is possible in college towns to lose sight of cause and effect and be blind-sided by the post hoc nature of reactionary anti-urbanism: "one if by land; two if BP." And downstream the ancient mariner notices, "water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink!" Apparently, the author, too, is still looking for an explanation for the midterms. The albatross, a good omen until the mariner shot him, arouses storms until his mates force the mariner to wear the dead albatross around his neck. The article has the metaphor map onto the shift from New Deal to Great Society. But the answer is less in the old-school progressivism of the New Deal than in a fear of chapter 18 from "Hot, Flat, and Crowded."

And, it may also be useful to recall that the TVA electrification occurred under Jim Crow. And, speaking of liberal albatrosses, we might also not forget that Steinbeck wrote "In Dubious Battle" during the Depression. And it is around the liberal neck that is exactly where the GOP wants that dead albatross to be: that is the question. Which dead albatross prevails? Perhaps the snake has yet to appear from behind that promise. Keep a light on for the home-bound mariner.

The great "Liberal" inequality project

I make a long comment in THIS thread, (20 Nov, 4.32PM) regarding how modern (non classical) liberalism actually causes INCREASED inequality:

The spam filter here at New Geog does not like my attempts to post this comment here.

Oh, please

You're kidding, right? What an insipid bunch of generalizations, some of them with absolutely no facts to back them up. To address just a few:

  1. "National" high-speed rail network? I don't think so. Several regional high-speed rail networks, yes. We're the only developed country where it takes no longer to fly 300 miles than it does to cover the same distance on the ground. High-speed rail should be a no-brainer along heavily-traveled corridors of those distances, but we're so in love with travel by fossil fuel that those prices are a fraction of their true cost, and rail is actually more expensive than flying.
  2. "The vast majority of Americans," for the first time in history, live in metropolitan areas -- closely tied to central cities. As boomers grow older that number will go up even more. And transportation options besides the automobile -- including rail both light and heavy -- will become increasingly important.
  3. If you think this administration wants to bring the federal government into local governments' traditional bailiwicks (which, by the way, I believe a strong case can be made that healthcare should be a federal issue, but that's for another day), let's take a look back, shall we, at, oh, the Defense of Marriage Act. Liberals have no monopoly on federal intrusion; it's an equal-opportunity offense.
  4. I don't think today's liberals are interested in controlling soda consumption, but we are very interested in assigning to soda consumption all its true public-health costs (dental decay, obesity, diabetes), which are certainly not incorporated into its retail price. If you're so offended by our concerns there, why aren't you railing against corn subsidies?
  5. Plenty of liberals want to "kick up dirt." Many of us, for example, decried New Jersey Governor Christie's cancellation of the ARC Tunnel, a classic case of short-term thinking over long-term vision; and we are furious now at the conservatives' talk of redirecting funds originally intended for high-speed rail to add to our sprawling highway network (can you say "induced demand?"). And by the way, you want big infrastructure plans but you sneer at high-speed rail? Make up your mind.
    Ask yourself: What chance in hell did something like the CCCs or the New Deal have of passing in the last Congress, let alone the one coming up? Don't you think we all would have gone for the big plan if we thought we could get it through? You're right; there is a poverty, but it's not of ambition or vision. It's the substitution of conservative ideology for true governance.
  6. I am at a loss to explain San Francisco's ban on Happy Meals. I'm with you on that one.