Democrats Should Embrace the Philosophy of Liberalism

Matt Bai's recent book about the Democrats, The Argument, damns the resurgent party for its lack of ideas: "Now ... the only thing that seemed to interest them was the machinery of politics." Part of this is the usual right-wing blather. Democrats have a wealth of policy ideas. But part of it is dead on. The Democrats have policies, but they articulate no basic philosophy to guide their decisions. And the worst part is that it is a totally self-inflicted wound. For more than 70 years, the Democrats have had a perfectly good philosophy: liberalism.

Ever since the right launched its campaign to demonize the term, however, liberals have been running from the name. During the Democrats' YouTube debate in July, Hillary Clinton suggested that liberalism fell from grace because it became the party of "big government" and termed herself a "progressive" instead. When asked whether he was liberal, progressive, or centrist, Barack Obama told The American Prospect, "I like to think I'm above it." Obama said that traditional liberalism "sometimes seems unreflective and is unwilling to experiment or update old programs to meet new challenges." Edwards may be the least mealy-mouthed this election cycle, but his website too has made much of his freedom from the "liberal label" while pointing out that Clinton is "saddled" with it.

"The greatest triumph that conservatives ever achieved," liberal columnist Clarence Page recently complained, "is to make liberals embarrassed to call themselves 'liberal.'" Why was this such a coup? Because the L word--unlike "progressive" or "populist" or other substitutes--is a place holder not just for a political movement but for a political philosophy. For more than three centuries liberalism has meant the belief in increased sharing of social goods. Over time, the goods have changed, but the underlying dynamic has remained the same. By disassociating themselves from the name, the Democrats are also abandoning the big organizing principle for which it stands.


Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century liberalism, or what we call "classical liberalism," concentrated on the sharing of power. At that time, power was concentrated in hereditary, absolutist governments, so much of the liberal agenda involved limiting those governments. But liberals didn't just dream up the claim for self-governance; they based the claim on a moral foundation of the dignity and rationality of each individual. (The tradition lives on in the contemporary liberal commitment to tolerance of private lifestyle decisions.)

Ultimately, such individualism was unable to cope with the extreme inequality and strife created by the Industrial Revolution, which, in some quarters, risked violent social change. In the European industrialized nations, a kind of collectivism, which philosophers call various names--utilitarianism, socialism--arose to the left of the individualist liberalism, making an argument for sharing of more material goods. These claims too were grounded in a deep belief, in this case a belief in the significance of the human capacity for pleasure and pain and meaningful work. Such sharing required more than opening up existing institutions. It required action by such institutions, particularly the most egalitarian institution that had emerged: representative government. Conservatives resisted, and the new sharing inherited the mantle of liberalism. Most social programs, from workers' pensions in the nineteenth century to health care after World War II, were the products of this "big government" liberalism.

This change came late to the United States; most historians would put it effectively at FDR's 1932 speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, unveiling the first peek at the New Deal. Bai, who criticizes bloggers like Daily Kos's Markos Moulitsas as philosophically illiterate, casually casts this honorable tradition overboard as if it were last season's must-have handbag. Describing liberalism as a "mere" defense of the New Deal, "a slightly dated alternative to the mess that is modern conservatism," he reveals his own ignorance of the depth and flexibility of the liberal tradition, of which the New Deal was just one specific manifestation. Such ignorant name-calling simply further impedes Democrats from claiming their rightful heritage.

Liberal sharing rests in part on a desire to keep the peace, but also importantly on the assumption that members of a society have a moral claim to a minimally decent life and that the more fortunate members have a corresponding moral responsibility. More recently, people have also come to support collective action because there are some issues, like climate change, which cannot be addressed efficiently--or at all--without it. The government is neither good nor bad. It's just an instrument. If liberalism means sharing, because it's the right thing to do and sometimes the more stable and less expensive one, too, then ... bulletin to all Democratic candidates: You're liberal.

Their policies certainly adhere to the concept of liberal sharing. Clinton backs a universal health-care plan that would subsidize insurance premiums for low-income Americans. She supports energy conservation and ratification of the Kyoto Protocol. Edwards would "require businesses and other employers to either cover their employees, or help finance their health insurance," and has endorsed reductions of greenhouse gas emissions and envisions spending $10 billion on alternative-energy programs. Obama has said, "I am absolutely determined that by the end of the first term of the next president, we should have universal health care in this country" and pledges to "dramatically increase federal investment in advanced clean-energy technologies and energy efficiency." And of course the campaigns have stepped up the rhetoric on infrastructure since that bridge in Minneapolis went down. If you put all those policy positions together, they add up to a moral and practical obligation to act collectively, even if it means using the government.

Rather than embrace this bedrock commitment, however, Democrats shy away from it. The best example of this failure is their talk about the cost of health care. Most sensible analysts agree that, even with efficiencies of scale, any of the Democrats' health care plans is going to cost more than it saves. So the dreaded government is going to have to use its taxing power. How to justify taxing people to pay for the health of others? Because it's immoral for a society to deprive a large segment of its population, who can feel pain, of the resources to save or substantially ease lives based on income.

But instead of invoking these moral arguments, the Democrats just don't tell the voters that a lot of them will have to pay higher taxes in order to insure all Americans. Instead Clinton talks about choice: "I think you don't want to take choices away from Americans. We're big on choice here." Edwards and Obama make the medicine go down by contending that their more ambitious plans can be paid for with taxes on a tiny percentage of the richest Americans--those making more than $200,000 or $250,000 a year. Recently in New Hampshire, Edwards reinforced the painless prescription, asserting that "For the vast majority of people in New Hampshire, the cost will have no effect on their taxes."

From time to time, of course, talk of morality does seep into the Democrats' rhetoric. Erstwhile big government critic Hillary Clinton, for example, put a statement on her website in February calling health care a "moral imperative." But simply invoking the word "moral" is meaningless if it isn't backed by a true commitment to the philosophy of liberalism, what it means to be human and what such humans should expect from their common public life.


Ironically, even as the Democrats strive to emulate the Republicans' love affair with market choices and tax-free social programs, all that individualism has finally fallen from fashion. During the decades of Republican hegemony, the pressing problems of political life changed once again to issues that can only be solved collectively--health care, global warming, income inequality, infrastructure. This presents the Democratic Party with a chance to lay down a liberalism of collective responsibility similar to what the industrialized nations of the European West figured out long ago. The last thing Democrats should do now is deny that they have the commitments and tools to solve what is on the table.

Democrats may think a bunch of disconnected policy initiatives are all they need. But, as the wilderness years should have taught the Democrats, a political party is vastly more likely to succeed if it has a vision of what it means to be a good member of society and how the secular institution of government may advance that vision. Lacking a clear and coherent message, the Democrats may win the election handed to them by the Iraq war, but they will never build a political movement. The scary thing about the rejection of the evolved liberalism is that it is exactly that movement, complete with its morality of collective action, the Democrats need.

By Linda Hirshman