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Breakthrough Journal: Has Liberalism Entered a Post-Obama Era?

Imagine a new liberal policy magazine in which the word “Obama” appears only five times in 75 pages, and phrases like, “Obama should have …” or “Obama’s big mistake was …” never. Perhaps we have finally entered a post-Obama era, where debates about liberalism are not all refracted through the figure of the great or not-so-great man at the top.

A young colleague of mine at the Roosevelt Institute recently told me that he thought the goal of a progressive think tank should be to build up the arsenal of ideas so that, “the next time there’s a Democratic president, he has more to work with.” There seems to be an increasing awareness that our failure to get the economy on track, or build a vision of it for the future, is a result not just of a feckless president (although a bit of that), but also an absence of smart ideas about what to do—not just specific policies, but bigger, engaging narratives, equivalent to the right-wing conviction that cutting taxes for the wealthy will create jobs. (Except that ours should be, um, true.)

The first issue of Breakthrough Journal, which appeared this week, is among the most complete efforts to provide a fresh answer to that kind of question. It’s the product of the legendary Bay Area provocateurs, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, who have written for TNR and whose 2004 article, “The Death of Environmentalism,” raised fascinating, but incomplete, challenges to the assumptions of liberalism and probably had as much influence on those who hated them as on those (like me) who thought they were onto something. Their subsequent insistence that cap-and-trade was a political mistake, and that instead of that big zero-sum fight we should invest in clean-energy innovation without raising the cost of non-renewable energy, further infuriated environmentalists. But as a political judgment, it was probably correct.

Across a handful of articles, the new journal offers something like a complete worldview. It’s a vision of optimistic, affirmative public policies focused on economic growth, a quest for a national mission reminiscent of the Progressive-Era TNR editor Herbert Croly’s “new nationalism,” JFK’s inaugural, and Reagan’s “Morning in America”: Shellenberger and Nordhaus call for “modernizing liberalism” through public investment rather than redistributionist policies. Sociologist Dalton Conley questions liberals’ focus on inequality, in an improved version of an article he wrote for The American Prospect when I was its editor. Economist Rob Atkinson identifies “The Trouble with Progressive Economics” in its failure to appreciate growth and innovation.

Breakthrough’s brand of liberalism is sort of a counterpart to “national greatness conservatism,” a flash fad of the late 1990s identified with Bill Kristol and David Brooks, and, briefly, John McCain when he was posing as Teddy Roosevelt. It’s an attempt to rescue liberalism from the dreary effort to protect people from market failure, environmental hazards, and inequality, towards a visionary, ambitious, exciting quest for a better life for all. It doesn’t all work, but it does get the brain moving.

As in their 2007 book, also called Break Through (two words, back then), Shellenberger and Nordhaus have trouble extending their biting critique of environmentalists to broader questions of economics and social justice. On the environment, they weren’t afraid to name names—or, at any rate, everyone knew who they were talking about. And those they attacked—like climate scientist Joe Romm—hit back hard. But when they call for “modernizing liberalism” in the first feature of their journal, their enemies are shadowy. On one side, they see “redistributionist” liberals, who favor “entitlements” to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, and aren’t as interested in growing the economic pie. But who are these redistributionists who don’t care about growth? Indeed, from economists like Paul Krugman, Bob Kuttner, and James K. Galbraith, I hear an obsession with getting the economy back on track to growth, and a deep worry that the obsession with fiscal debt and deficits—which none of the Breakthrough authors address—will drag down growth. It’s redistribution to bondholders we should be concerned about. To the extent that liberals would protect “entitlements”—Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security—it’s not that they redistribute wealth, but that they give workers the minimal security to participate in a growth economy. Indeed, part of the appeal of the only purely cash entitlement, Social Security, is that it is only modestly redistributive, and the vast majority of Americans see some benefit from it.

On the other side, Nordhaus and Shellenberger challenge “neoliberals” who are convinced that “the best, most cost-efficient means of providing public goods, whether innovation or health care, is to bribe or regulate private firms into providing them.” This is a long overdue challenge to the consensus that government should “steer, not row,” in the slogan of David Osborne, whose 1990 book, Reinventing Government, inspired Vice President Al Gore’s initiative of the same name. More recently, Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer, writing in the journal Democracy, renewed the idea, calling for a government that operates by what Cass Sunstein, now of the Obama Office of Management and Budget, has called “nudge”—policies that give “citizens the liberty to choose but steer them toward the more pro-social choices.” A government of nudges is, among other things, a government that is vague and invisible to its citizens (what the political scientist Suzanne Mettler calls “the submerged state”), and that doesn’t invite them to share in a clear, inspiring vision of the future. Nordhaus and Shellenberger would eschew the nudge, and instead grab onto what they call “public goods,” investing in them directly and passionately, without embarrassment.

That’s a real enemy and an overdue challenge to the recent Democratic orthodoxy that government will be more popular the more indirectly its services are provided. But there’s a small problem with Shellenberger and Nordhaus’s proposal to focus on “the provision of services that are demonstrably public goods.” They don’t mean “public goods” in the sense that economists use the term—shareable goods like national defense or clean air that you can enjoy without anyone else getting less of it. They mean something more like, “things that we decide, in a democratic process, that are good for the public,” such as preventive health care. A better word for what they’re describing might be, “entitlements.” And what have we been doing for the past two and a half years except arguing about what constitutes that minimal package of socially provided benefits?

The remainder of Breakthrough’s first issue has a similar air of the pulled punch, the solution that doesn’t quite live up to the fervor of the critique. Michael Lind contributes a learned manifesto “Against Cosmopolitanism,” but it turns out that he’s still all for “liberal internationalism”—it’s something more like one-world government that he opposes. And Conley isn’t as complacent about inequality as his setup makes it sound—he just thinks we should be more concerned about the absolute level of deprivation of the least-well-off than about the growing gap between the upper middle class and the super-rich. In this he’s right, and it should start a discussion among liberals about not the fact of inequality, but what it represents and why we care about it—and why sometimes, as when the economy’s growing and we’re approaching full employment, we don’t.

Even when the solutions aren’t that different from what other liberals have proposed, it’s useful to see how different they can sound dressed in the clothes of aspiration, investment, and national mission. The Breakthrough agenda isn’t quite complete, but it’s a useful opening bid for the conversation that has to begin when we finally realize that we need more than just a president.

Mark Schmitt is a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former editor of The American Prospect.