Can liberalism still explain itself? Does it remember its concepts and its words? It has been many decades since liberalism could fall back upon the power of platitudes; the platitudinous authority now belongs to the other side. Cliche may represent a failure in literature, but in politics it is the evidence of a philosophy's success. The repudiation of George W. Bush is not in itself a renovation of liberalism, and neither is the apotheosis of Barack Obama. The public has not yet broken the grip of the conservative discourse that has dominated America for a generation. Consider the insane headline on Newsweek's cover, "We Are All Socialists Now": an exclamation of its inner Hannity, as if the president is preparing to abolish private property or expropriate the means of production. All that is happening, comrades, is that our democratically constituted central government is acting to protect the whole of our economy by taking over, for a period, a part of our economy. But second natures, which are made more by culture than by thought, are not easily extinguished. Sean Wilentz was shrewd to contain the Clinton years in his recent study of "the age of Reagan," because Bill Clinton's inglorious role in the history of liberalism was to teach it to sleep with its enemy. Insofar as his renunciation of ideology was the revival of an experimental frame of mind about public policy, the good sense of "best practices," it was a welcome turn; but it was also a lousy defeatism about the war of ideas, a loss of interest, or of nerve, about first principles. On the day that Clinton pragmatically announced that "the era of big government is over," liberalism forgot itself. Pragmatism has a dark side. The allure of pragmatism was lost on the conservatives, of course. They sought power so that they could act on what they believed. And when they got their chance, they ran the republic down in almost all its aspects. We must not draw the wrong conclusion from the rubble. The problem was what they believed, not that they believed.
The most discouraging surprise of Barack Obama's early days in office, days of emergency, was the new administration's shirking of clarity, its reluctance to attach the grandeur of its initiatives to the grandeur of liberalism. Instead the president's distaste for division, and his Chicago practicality, set the tone. How came it to be that in the aftermath of the greatest liberal victory in our lifetime John Boehner held the stage? Of course the views of the Republicans must be respected, not least when a few of their votes may be needed to do the work of rescue and reform; but political respect must not be confused with intellectual respect. The response of the right to the crisis in America was to flee to its catechism. The Republicans propose to bail out the economy with doctrine. Unemployment is 7.6 percent and rising, and they say: let them eat Friedman. When billions and billions of dollars are needed for the Pentagon (fine with me) and for Wall Street, it is damn the zeroes, full speed ahead--but when the prospect of relief for ordinary Americans in trouble rears its fair and compassionate head, the deficit desperately matters again. The Republicans are not only heartless, they are also hypocritical, since the cause of all this misery was the market abandon that they promoted so messianically. These are the people who would have privatized, that is, destroyed, Social Security: how can their protests not be met vehemently? This vehemence is not "partisanship," it is analysis. It is not "populism," it is liberalism.
But I want the president to say so. I want the president to tell the American people that, contrary to what they have been taught for many years, government is a jewel of human association and an heirloom of human reason; that government, though it may do ill, does good; that a lot of the good that government does only it can do; that the size of government must be fitted to the size of its tasks, and so, for a polity such as ours, big government is the only government; that strong government comports well with strong freedom, unless Madison was wrong; that a government based on rights cannot exclude from its concern the adversities of the people who confer upon it its legitimacy, or consign their remediation to the charitable moods of a preferred and decadent few; that Ronald Reagan, when he proclaimed* that "government is not the solution to the problem, government is the problem," was a fool; and that nobody was ever rescued, or enlarged, by being left alone. For all its grotesqueness, American government is a beautiful thing. I want the president to continue the remedial lesson in the wisdom of liberalism by pointing out that, for Republicans and Democrats alike, economic policy is social policy. When they controlled the government, the conservatives enacted tax measures and fiscal measures and regulatory measures that fulfilled their vision of American society, and now that the liberals control the government they will do the same. Otherwise pork is all there is. A budget is a philosophy in numbers. The president should declare candidly, even ringingly, that not everything in his package is "pure" stimulus, and that he is indeed embarking upon an enterprise of state-building, because state-building is stimulus for anybody who can think beyond the next bonus or the next poll. And I want the president to add--he may gag on this inharmonious observation--that the values of liberalism and the values of conservatism are not the same values, even if compromises may be cobbled together; and that there is dignity in the contradictions.
So it is not enough that Obama was elected or that the stimulus, which may be too small, was passed. It is important also to know why. Conviction, too, must be shovel-ready. Democracy is the most mentally arduous form of government. No other system stands or falls on the quality of the individual's opinions. The pressures upon the formation of opinion are staggering, and they interfere mightily with clear deliberation: as Habermas puts it, mass opinion is not yet public opinion. In an open society, therefore, it is the intellectual duty of the citizen to search for the warrant for his views, to raise opinions into beliefs by means of reasons, right reasons, reasons conceived in the bravery of arguments. This is the only way to resist the regimentations of demagogues and entertainers. The justification of belief is a human adventure. And discovering the reason is like discovering the sunrise.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
CORRECTION: The piece originally stated that Reagan said this “categorically, without exception or complication.” Click here for more.
By Leon Wieseltier