Joe Biden and the Slow Death of Liberalism

Democrats are again choosing a moribund ideology bereft of new ideas. Radicalism beckons

By Barton Swaim  Mr. Swaim is an editorial page writer at the Journal.    April 11, 2020
EXCERPT FROM THIS ARTICLE:  It’s not the fault of America’s Democrats that they’ve run out of ideas. Liberal democracies and center-left parties across Europe have reached a similar stasis. But stasis is itself the problem, because liberalism is a restless philosophy. It must always be doing something. To rest, or to express satisfaction with the state of things, is to become conservative. Hence liberals’ tenacious belief that “fascism” still threatens the republic, and that racism still blights it.

In nominating Joe Biden, Democrats aren’t choosing a “moderate.” They’re choosing liberalism over revolution. “Joe and I have a very different voting record,” Bernie Sanders said after Super Tuesday. That is demonstrably true. Their records differ in substantial ways. He went on: “Joe and I have a very different vision for the future of this country.” That is not quite right. The idea that Mr. Biden has a “vision for the future” is preposterous. He has a vision for the past, and even that is cloudy.

I don’t criticize him for it. I am a conservative. “Vision,” in my understanding, is for prophets, not statesmen. But Mr. Biden is no conservative. He is a liberal, and liberalism needs vision.

Mr. Sanders is a radical, not a liberal. The liberal worldview seeks a more equitable and open polity by means of piecemeal political reform. The radical outlook envisions a new world, not an incrementally better one. He wants to remake the U.S. economy and banish all forms of inequality.

With Mr. Biden’s ascension and Mr. Sanders’s decision this week to suspend his campaign, Democrats are again choosing liberalism. The important thing to understand about modern American liberalism, though, is that it is a spent force. It is out of ideas. It is visionary, but it no longer sees much of anything. That Mr. Biden has been reduced to protesting the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, safely tucked away in his basement, nicely symbolizes liberalism’s impotence.

The liberal politician can offer a collection of ideas, but those ideas are old ones repackaged. He can offer a vision, but it is the same vision liberal politicians were offering 20 or 40 years ago. Accepting the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, Bill Clinton ridiculed President George H.W. Bush’s disdain for “the vision thing.” Mr. Clinton quoted Proverbs 29:18: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The goals he enunciated in that speech were more or less the same goals every other Democratic nominee has endorsed since the middle of the 20th century: a fair shot for working Americans, new investments in schools, expansion of access to health care. Mr. Biden could give that speech today and few would suspect him of plagiarism.

The modern American liberal is the product of what’s commonly called liberal democracy—the social and political order obtaining in North America and postwar Europe. Liberal democracies value divided governmental institutions, a regulated market economy, a generous welfare state, personal autonomy and the expansion of political rights to formerly excluded classes. Conservatives and liberals alike are “liberals” in this broader sense, but American liberals believe more fervently than conservatives in the power of governmental means to achieve human betterment, and liberals tend to scorn habit and tradition as impediments to righteous goals.

The goals of today’s liberalism are minor and uninspiring. It has little else to do than tinker with the welfare state, ban things deemed dangerous or unhealthy and oppose conservatives. That has been the case for half a century. American liberalism’s last great triumphs came during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and the Social Security Amendments of 1965, which created Medicaid and Medicare. Since then it has accomplished no original reforms, only refined or expanded old ones.

It’s true that liberals have won two major victories on personal autonomy: abortion rights in 1973 and same-sex marriage in 2015. But both came about as a result of court decisions. Neither could have passed the U.S. Congress.

The best evidence that liberals are out of ideas is that they are busy regressing on the ones they had. An obvious example: Liberals since John Stuart Mill have espoused freedom of speech almost as a matter of religious faith, but one now finds astonishingly few people on the left prepared to defend it in a principled way, and quite a few urging governments and corporations to censor unpopular views. Most liberals no longer see much of a problem with campus speech codes. And liberals often seem to believe that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech applies to everything but political speech. Artistic expression, pornography, violent videos, yes; a movie critical of Hillary Clinton—which the government sought to censor in the Citizens United case—no.

Or consider the expansion of the franchise. From the Reform Bills in Britain in the 19th century to the suffragette movement in the early 20th century to the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s, liberals cared passionately about extending full political rights to groups that lacked them. But everybody has the vote now. Stories of large-scale voter intimidation are not credible. Some favor enfranchising felons and aliens, including those in the country illegally, but these causes cannot sustain a political movement.

Opportunistic complaints about the Electoral College aside, liberals began long ago to distrust universal suffrage. They are generally happy to entrust unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats and elites, domestic and transnational, with vast authority, and they are content to let federal courts decide almost any question, in defiance of legislation and popular will, provided the decision falls on the liberal side.

Some liberals now openly long for the days when moderately corrupt party bosses decided congressional and presidential nominations. The past three years have produced innumerable books by liberal authors attesting to an ongoing assault on “democracy,” but these books mainly lament democracy’s failure to yield liberal results; they do not defend democratic principles themselves. Other recent works advance unabashedly antidemocratic arguments, such as Jason Brennan’s “Against Democracy” (2016) and David Van Reybrouck’s “Against Elections” (2016).

One may see liberals’ fixation on “diversity and inclusion” as a kind of replacement for universal suffrage. It’s a poor one. The “diverse” people liberals demand to be “included”—racial minorities, gays, people of indeterminate sex—already have full rights and privileges as citizens.

Nor does the modern American liberal believe fully in the greatest of all liberal principles—equality. Affirmative action, political correctness, identity politics—each affirms the belief that some citizens have rights that others don’t.

The point here is not to disparage liberalism. It is to point out that liberalism in America achieved the last of its great aims a half-century ago. Since then, liberal successes have steadily diminished in importance. The Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 empowered state and federal governments to alleviate pollution. In 1979 Jimmy Carter signed legislation creating the Education Department, but its function has never been clear. In 1996 Bill Clinton signed a monumental welfare-reform law, but its purpose was to curb liberalism’s excesses, not to further its aims. Then there was the Affordable Care Act of 2010, a nonradical version of a radical idea that managed to make an expensive and confusing system even more expensive and confusing.

Whatever the merits of these laws, none compares, in sheer transformative effect, with the great reforms of the first half of the last century: the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933, the Social Security Act of 1935.

It’s not the fault of America’s Democrats that they’ve run out of ideas. Liberal democracies and center-left parties across Europe have reached a similar stasis. But stasis is itself the problem, because liberalism is a restless philosophy. It must always be doing something. To rest, or to express satisfaction with the state of things, is to become conservative. Hence liberals’ tenacious belief that “fascism” still threatens the republic, and that racism still blights it.

The effort of finding new things to do—of identifying societal injustices and formulating workable remedies—meets with vanishing success. Among this year’s Democratic presidential campaigns, the only two significant new ideas—Medicare for All and the Green New Deal—were generated by radical progressives, and even the names of these proposals were adapted from historical antecedents. The only other memorable ideas—reparations for slavery and the wealth tax—were flirtations with racial militancy and Marxian collectivism, respectively. New liberal ideas were nowhere to be found.

That liberals have found climate change such an attractive issue is a sign of this enervation. There is nothing inherently liberal about taxing carbon emitters or subsidizing solar energy, even if it may be humane or necessary. It’s hard to take liberals’ interest in climate seriously, since if they actually believed what they claim about the planet’s coming inundation, they would support the immediate expansion of zero-emission nuclear power. Very few of them do, for reasons that are negligible next to the threat of extinction. Climate change is chiefly something to fulminate against.

It is a measure of liberalism’s lethargy that Democratic primary voters in 2020 have fixated so exclusively on Donald Trump’s badness. Mr. Trump has inspired liberals in a way that nothing else has in many years. But soon he will be gone, and what then?

A sizable portion of the Democratic electorate, especially its younger members, has wearied of this state of affairs. They want something more to do than tinker and emote. Who can blame them? I happen to think Mr. Sanders’s fanciful policies would ruin the economy he assumes would pay for them, but he is surely right to believe that additional tweaking of the health-care and welfare systems will improve little in American life. He offers sweeping programs of action—an all-encompassing vision—rather than four more years of gestures and incremental fixes.

But Democrats aren’t ready for revolution. They appear determined to choose a placeholder candidate, a man who offers no new ideas and talks mainly about the past. Mr. Biden offers the backward-looking vision of an exhausted liberalism.

Mr. Swaim is an editorial page writer at the Journal.





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