It truly distresses me to find how often I agree with conservative columnist Michael Gerson -- most recently with today's Washington Post column today titled "Shrunken Liberalism."
"A few days after assuming the presidency," Gerson writes, "Lyndon Johnson was warned not to waste his energy on lost causes, however worthy. According to historian Robert Caro, Johnson responded: "Well, what the hell's the presidency for?" The Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Head Start, Job Corps Medicare, the Clean Air Act, the Wholesome Food Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Public Broadcasting Act followed." Gerson might have listed NEPA and NHPA too, but I suppose they lack name recognition.
By contract, as Gerson observes, "it is extraordinary how shrunken liberalism has become." The Obama administration's "vision," he accurately says, "add up to the Marginally Greater Society." Acknowledging that "(i)t is hard to be Lyndon Johnson with a trillion-dollar deficit" (Gerson doesn't mention where THAT came from, but oh well), he posits that American liberalism has become "reactionary liberalism,' concerned more with "the protection of accumulated interests than the application of creative reform to new problems."
As I've written elsewhere, we see what amounts to reactionary liberalism all the time in the tiny worlds of cultural resource management (CRM) and environmental impact assessment (EIA) -- both products of Johnson liberalism. Practice in CRM and EIA has atrophied, become corrupted, become a big part of the problem of environmental deterioration rather than the part of the solution they were meant to be, and chipped away at the underpinnings of democratic society in the process. But the powers that be -- self-conscious liberals all in entities like the Council on Environmental Quality, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the national environmental groups -- can find nothing to do but keep their heads down, clinging to and protecting the status quo -- and lying through their teeth all the while.
I wonder what would have happened had Obama come in with a truly radical set of fixes for the nation's Bush-created economic woes -- including a really Rooseveltian public works-driven stimulus program a la the WPA, with provision for everything that stood in its way to find ways to adapt, with the promise of real reform when the immediate job of recovery was done. On the other hand, I wonder sometimes why we can't just acknowledge the obvious fact that nothing can "grow" forever, that we've stressed our resources to the limit, and that we need a fundamental rethinking of our economic and political priorities. I wonder, most broadly, what would have happened if the Obama administration had been open to truly new ideas, rather than just to ways of defending the status quo.
Even the self-professed conservative Gerson, in the end, says that "America was better off because liberals called attention to those in the dawn, the twilight, and the shadows of life" -- and, I might add, to the environment that sustains us all and the culture that gives meaning to our lives. "And U.S. politics is worse off," he says, "because liberalism has become a shadow of its former self."