We are living in an age of austerity and, together with most Europeans and the Japanese, will probably have to endure it for some time to come. The truly wretched “compromise” on the debt limit that Barack Obama agreed to last August only underscored the political weakness of those of us who anxiously defend the welfare state and dream that, one day, it might provide a decent living and excellent health care for every wage-earner, while also helping to reverse the heating of the planet.
But a single-minded defense of government is neither a sensible nor a fruitful response to the crisis. Once the Left had a major part in creating a vibrant civil society. Labor unions, women’s groups, community organizations, advocates for racial minorities and immigrants, and a press written by and edited for the common man and woman educated millions of Americans about politics and culture and helped to elect liberal office-holders who enacted such landmark reforms as the Social Security Act and the civil rights bill. Left activists constantly made demands on the state, but they seldom put their faith in or bet their future on politicians. They understood that the first concern of any elected official is to preserve and extend his or her own tenure and power.
Gradually, this healthy skepticism eroded. However flawed, the New Deal, the Warren Court, and the Great Society all demonstrated that a caring government could aid millions of people whom institutions of the left had not reached. But progressives mistook these spurts of reform from on high for an irreversible new order. They were shocked when a Reagan, a Rehnquist, a Gingrich, and a Bush demonstrated how fragile and short-lived it really was.
We should be shocked no longer. In an era of dwindling budgets and resistance to raising taxes, Americans will expect less from government and gripe even more than usual about the benefits they do receive. This environment will call out for a newer, smarter Left. It must rediscover the virtues of helping ordinary women and men to organize themselves instead of depending on candidates who talk of “hope and change” but are unable to find the courage or the money to deliver on their lofty promises.
We need to invigorate a feisty civil society of the Left, one updated for the age of the internet and geographic hypermobility. Isn’t this what democracy is supposed to mean—the people making their own history and pressuring the authorities, both those they elect and those they cannot to do what they say needs to be done? The Tea Party, despite the lunacy of its analysis and prescriptions, conducted itself in precisely this way. Its zealous supporters in Congress almost succeeded in destroying the good credit of the wealthiest nation on earth. Imagine what a newer Left, one that no longer waits for salvation from the state, might accomplish instead.
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