As I think about the results of this year’s midterm elections, there is a part of me that is tempted to give up on politics altogether. I am a 46-year old whose political life as an adult has been dominated by eight years of Reagan and twelve years of the Bushes. And it seems unlikely that Americans, during my lifetime, will elect another President as progressive as Barack Obama. In fact, the next two decades are likely to be as grim, politically speaking, for liberals like myself as the last three have been. Thus, the question I keep returning to is whether liberals should give up on politics.
I am aware of the many arguments about why progressives should not give up. I know, for example, that what conservatives will do in the absence of meaningful opposition — think about the reckless efforts a few years ago to privatize Social Security — will surely be much worse than what they will accomplish if liberals fail to place roadblocks in their way. But in politics, as in sports, there comes a point when one gets tired of repeatedly playing defense.
It seems that the main objective of liberals for the last three decades has been to defend the legal and political gains achieved during the 1960s and 1970s, ones that helped to make this country a fairer and more egalitarian one. But these gains were achieved by an earlier generation of progressives, leaving the task of defending them to my generation (and, apparently, to the next one as well).
Ultimately, however, the real problem is not that liberals have been playing defense for decades. Instead, the real problem is that progressive politicians (President Obama included) during that time have been utterly incapable of defending liberal values — such as society’s moral obligation to help and care for all of its members in need — against the onslaught of attacks by social conservatives and free-marketeers. The thing that I yearn for the most are liberal leaders who are willing to speak in explicitly moral terms about what we owe each other as human beings and as equal members of our society.
Indeed, I would give anything for a leader like Lyndon Johnson, who saw the eradication of poverty in this country as a moral imperative, to say nothing of a leader like Martin Luther King, Jr., who relied on explicitly liberal values to shame the country into providing African Americans with equality under the law.
If progressive politicians were speaking in moral terms today about why we need, for example, health care and financial regulation reform, the political losses, such as the Congressional ones this year, would be easier to stomach. But I see no inclination on the part of liberal leaders — or, for that matter, on the part of much of their constituency — to talk about values. As a result, the future is likely to bring more of the same. Conservatives will continue to speak confidently about the moral demands of traditional and free market values, while we liberals will continue to muddle through, fighting a rear-guard action trying desperately to preserve the small gains we have attained in the past without much hope that our progressive leaders will be able to articulate a moral vision of what our country can and should be.
So maybe the right question is not whether liberals should give up on politics but whether politics has much to offer liberals. It seems that, for most of the last thirty years, the answer to that question has been “no.” I wonder if the future will be any different.