Our Liberal Future

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Ross Douthat takes stock of the state of resurgent liberalism in the wake of healthcare reform’s victory:

Before the 2008 crash, it seemed like this new liberalism might be poised for a long run of domestic policy triumphs: First health care, then climate-change legislation, then card check and immigration reform and so on down the list. But in the wake of the Great Recession, our rendezvous with fiscal retrenchment has been accelerated, and the chances for a rolling series of progressive victories have diminished apace. Barring an extraordinary economic boom, the American situation will soon require the slow and painful restructuring of the welfare state that liberals have spent decades building. This environment may or may not lead to a revival of D.L.C.-style centrism among the Democrats, but at the very least it’s hard to see it proving congenial to further adventures in sweeping social legislation.

There’s something to this, but I’d put it a little differently. My take is fairly simple: the great liberal project of the early 20th century was mostly about the social safety net while the great liberal project of the 60s was mostly about individual rights and environmentalism. And to a large extent, liberals have won those battles: We’ve got Social Security, unemployment insurance, Medicare, subsidized public education, welfare, and the minimum wage. We’ve got the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, gender discrimination laws, and the ADA. Abortion is legal, forced prayer is gone from public schools, and criminal defendants are guaranteed a lawyer. We’ve got OSHA, workers comp, loads of environmental regulations, and consumer protection laws by the bushel.

There’s plenty of work left to be done, but when it comes to the big ticket items we’ve gotten about 80% of what we set out to get over the past century. The one major item missing has been national healthcare. And now, finally, we’re on the road to getting it.

So when Ross says “the chances for a rolling series of progressive victories have diminished,” I think that’s mistaken. There was never any real appetite for a rolling series of big progressive victories in the first place. There was healthcare reform plus a long list of tweaks and smaller projects. And that’s what we’re likely to get. Recession or not, we could always afford to implement national healthcare — in fact, we could hardly afford not to — and we could never afford to do an awful lot more. So over the next couple of decades we’ll finish the job on healthcare, make continuing progress on gay rights, hopefully address climate change in an incremental way, improve our immigration laws, and so forth.

But big ticket items? There probably aren’t any — though obviously that could change depending on what future technology brings. That’s always been the case, and I don’t think either the recession or our future fiscal liabilities have changed that.

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