Among us progressives, most discussion of domestic politics is taken up with descriptions of social problems—falling wages and rising inequality, retreats from racial justice, destruction of inner-city neighborhoods, environmental degradation, violence against women, the agonizing problems of urban youth. The inventory reminds us that current policies fail to ‘promote the general welfare’ or to ensure ‘liberty and justice for all’, and why we are saddened and often outraged by how we now govern ourselves as a people. But it does little to advance our understanding of how progressives might organize themselves to improve this state of affairs. It leaves unanswered the question: What is to be done? footnote

In asking that question here I assume that we can in fact do better—thatneither circumstance nor nature prohibit improvement. At some abstract level, this is self-evident. America remains blessed with abundance, free of external military threat, and populated by a spirited and resourceful people no more stupid or corrupt than any other. Our problems are political and admit political solution. They arise from the way this society is now organized, the way power within it is now exercised, the fact that power is not now exercised in sufficiently democratic ways—all things that can be changed. Less abstractly, I do not believe current political circumstance bars such change. While business evisceration of popular democratic forces and domination of popular culture are as advanced as at any time since the 1920s, those forces are still alive and that domination is still contested. We have room for manoeuvre. Indeed, as I’ll argue in a moment, we have something like an open invitation to advance.

I also assume an audience of progressives, not liberals. Without putting too fine a point on it, the difference is that progressives actually believe in democracy. They think that people of ordinary means and intelligence, if properly organized and equipped, can govern themselves, and that if they do the results will be better than if they do not. Liberals lack such confidence in ordinary people—like Neibuhr in his ‘Marxist’ phase, they believe in the essential stupidity of man—and so put less emphasis on popular democratic organization. To achieve social improvement, they typically favor the ‘kinder, gentler’ administration of people, usually through the state.

Given this liberal strategy, often, improvement never comes. Without organized popular support, liberals cannot do the heavy lifting against entrenched and resourceful corporate actors required to enact desired policies. And without the monitoring, enforcement, and trust-inducing capacities of socially-rooted organizations, they commonly cannot administer those policies effectively. When it comes to fighting opposition, liberals often don’t have the troops; when it comes to solving problems inside schoolrooms or communities, their government programs are all thumbs and no fingers. As problems of both kinds become more evident—as they are today, in everything from health care reform to education and public safety—so too do the limits of liberalism.

It is popular awareness of these limits that provides the opportunity for progressives alluded to above. A generation of economic decline and failed government response have forcibly put social control of the economy and the democracy of which that is one instance—the very issues conventional liberalism is least capable of addressing, the signature concerns of progressive movements for two hundred years—back on the table of American politics. All around us is the wreckage of an unconstrained capitalism—falling living standards, families strained to breaking point, rising inequality. Right before us is the alternating feebleness and corruption of a government devoid of any organized base, in hock to monied interests, uninterested in rational debate, incapable of the heavy lifting needed to put the country right, unwilling even to speculate on what sort of lifting might be required. Reflected in public opinion surveys showing sky-high rates of alienation and disgust with government and deep distrust of business, in ‘out-of-nowhere’ mobilizations like that against nafta, in the growth of independent and third-party candidacies and formations—what is new (though this too is now getting old fast) is that these things are now widely recognized. There is mass discontent with politics as usual, a mass hunger for some alternative.

Progressives need not fear, and cannot hope, that conventional liberalism will deliver a democratic one. The reason why is that doing so would require challenging corporate power and mobilizing outside the state. Thirty years ago—given the us military position in the world, the strength of the us economy, the character of popular expectations about race and gender justice or the environment—it was perhaps possible for the bulk of the dwindling voting population to expect security in their liberty and prosperity, absent such challenge and mobilization. Of course the luxury of that expectation never extended to those on the receiving end of us military force, nor to those at home whom our politics had always tended to forget. Whatever the case then, a transformed political economy now leaves open no way of defending domestic living standards, reducing inequality, making jobs safe for families, escaping the legacy of four hundred years’ racism, saving our cities, or greening our economy, without putting serious constraints on capital and without recruiting citizens to their own administration. And this is just what liberals are loathe to do.

The preferred liberal response to current calamities, instead, is to back even further off democratic commitments. In the last twenty years, on matters of class and popular organization in particular, the leadership of the Democratic Party has moved steadily to the right. Most recently, on every major issue of popular contest with the business community—minimum wage, nafta, labor law reform, domestic investment, health care, environmental regulation, campaign finance reform—the Clinton administration has been from the start hopelessly compromised, when not proudly ensconced on the wrong side. Along with a little welfare bashing here, a little ‘toughness on crime’ there, acquiescence to business is nearly the sum of the current liberal program. Not democratic, it is also no more likely to revive liberal political fortunes than a simple-minded defence of the status quo. Liberalism is not just corrupt, but dying, sustained by a life-support system of electoral inertia and government patronage.