The Resurgent Liberal: And Other Unfashionable Prophecies
by Robert Reich
Random House, 303 pages, $19.95
There are no liberal neckties. At a conservative gathering one will generally find a smattering of Adam Smith neckties. In the back of conservative magazines, there are likely to be one-column advertisements for Tocqueville neckties, Madison neckties, even Burke neck- ties. Furthermore, conservatives tend to be constantly mindful of their intellectual guiding lights. Hayek has a following, as does Leo Strauss and Lionel Trilling and Chesterton, Chambers, Aquinas, and even Aristotle. These are all further candidates for necktie designs.
When liberal essayist Robert Reich summarizes a conservative policy in his collection of essays The Resurgent Liberal: And Other Unfashionable Prophesies, he invariably begins his account with its intellectual roots. Even when he irresponsibly caricatures conservative welfare policy, he begins with thinkers from the past: Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner.
But when Reich subsequently sets out to revivify liberal ideology, he makes scant reference to what used to be called The Great Books. There is seemingly no one Mr. Reich can wear on his necktie. Marx wouldn’t do, nor would Keynes. No one seems to read R. H. Tawney anymore. John Stuart Mill gets two passing mentions in this book. One is finally refreshed, on page 265, to find Reich quoting at length from a great thinker of the past to support one of his positions. But that great thinker turns out to be Edmund Burke.
Liberals wear buttons with slogans, not neckties with thinkers. Mr. Reich, clever as he is, does not stand on the shoulders of dead philosophers. In this he is typical of Democratic party policy intellectuals. One finds scant attention to dead political philosophers in the work of Michael Kinsley or in the front section of the New Republic. Robert Kuttner, one of the smartest of the Democratic thinkers, suffers from the same disadvantage.
The problem is that liberalism has become obsessed with money. On virtually any issue, whether it is housing, drugs, welfare, health care, transportation, or even forest management, liberalism has been reduced to a single question: How high is the appropriation? This is not a philosophy; it is the plaint of an interest-group lobbyist. For the past twelve years or so, Democrats have tried to reinvent a liberal “vision.” But visionaries cannot work in the employ of the AARP or the NEA. A think tank cannot revive a collection of special interests. No one needs a theorist to lobby for higher expenditure. On the contrary, he would get in the way.
The savviest Democratic lobbyists have acknowledged this failing. Kuttner has decided to run with it. Quoting Harry Hopkins’ successful formula, “tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect,” Kuttner has basically concluded: Since we are in the business of buying votes with federal money, we might as well buy enough votes to win elections. Hence, subsidies for the middle class.
Reich takes the other route. He tries to redefine a liberal ideology. In press accounts, Reich was closely associated with the Dukakis campaign of 1988. He acknowledges here that his actual association consisted of speaking to Dukakis twice, while noticing that the candidate was scarcely listening to him (the Dukakis campaign must have been a worse mess than anybody imagined).
But Reich did not buy Dukakis’ attempt to redefine the Democratic party as the party of technocrats. One of Mr. Reich’s meatiest essays in this book is actually a refutation of the assertion that was at the heart of the Dukakis campaign: “This campaign is about competence, not ideology.”
That view, Mr. Reich argues, “disregards the role of ideas about what is good for society and the importance of debating the relative merits of such ideas. It thus tends to overlook the ways such normative visions shape what people want and expect from their government, their fellow citizens, and themselves. And it disregards the importance of democratic deliberation for refining and altering such visions over time and for mobilizing public action around them.”
Reich cites Ronald Reagan as someone who used speeches and interviews to educate the public about his approach to government and to explain the framework through which he saw the world. Mr. Reich then goes on to say that a party that consists of a mere coalition of interests will “have a corrosive effect on civic life” by playing classes off against each other, by reducing debates to facts and decisions to tradeoffs.
In case there is any doubt about which party Reich is talking about, he writes, in another essay, “Because liberal pluralism lacked any definition of the public good apart from the sum of individual claims, and also lacked a system of principles for screening and balancing such claims, conflicts grew harsher and claims more insistent. By the late 1970s, liberalism and, inevitably, the Democratic Party, too, appeared less the embodiment of a shared vision and more a tangle of narrow appeals from labor unions, teachers, gays, Hispanics, blacks, Jews, the handicapped, the elderly, and women.”
But where does Mr. Reich go from there? As it transpires, not far. In this collection, more than in any of his previous work, Reich sounds like he is auditioning for a Democratic party keynote address. True, there are these devastating critiques of the party, but too often he lapses into the lazy rhetoric of a Teddy Kennedy or even a Jesse Jackson. He rehearses the familiar attacks on Reaganism as a celebration of greed. Scanning the American economy, he sees nothing but avarice, Boesky, and decline. He argues for high marginal tax rates as if the supply-side movement never existed, as if he had never heard supply-side arguments.
Worse, he slips into Democratic self-righteousness. He suggests that Democrats are more compassionate than Republicans since they are willing to spend more money on the welfare state. Adopting the standard pose of the self-righteous virtuecrat, he explains that liberals are simply more caring than conservatives. Only a liberal revival, he writes, will bring about an appreciation of the importance of “loyalty, collaboration, civic virtue, and responsibility to future generations.”
These are the sort of tired pronouncements that got the Democrats into their current mess. A policy intellectual who claims a monopoly on virtue in this manner is a person who has lost the battle of ideas.
But Reich’s problem is more fundamental than just a weakness for easy rhetoric. It gets back to the necktie issue. Having done a superb job of decimating the Democratic status quo, all the way down to long-gone liberals such as Adolf Berle and Herbert Croly, Mr. Reich rests his new resurgent liberalism on parables. Here he is replaying the argument he made at much greater length in his previous book. Tales of a New America. He says that there are four parables that represent the different strains in American political thought. They are “the Rot at the Top” (malevolent elites), “the Triumphant Individual” (Horatio Alger), “the Benign Community” (local platoons), and “the Mob at the Gates” (the evil Others that threaten us).
Mr. Reich claims the party that wins is the party that can get the American public to associate those parables with its parables. For example, he argues, Ronald Reagan got the American people to see government elites as the Rot at the Top. Communism was Reagan’s the Mob at the Gates. In 1988, Dukakis tried to retell the parables along Democratic lines. The Rot at the Top involved the wealthy preppies such as Bush. The Mob at the Gates were the Japanese. But, Reich says, Bush wielded the parables far more effectively and so won the election.
Isn’t this a little simpleminded? Reich is saying that a political vision can be based on a few dumb-headed parables. The fact is, if simple-mindedness led to political success the Democrats would have been in the White House for the past two decades. The truth, of course, is that dumb parties don’t win. Parables don’t generate policy prescriptions. They are not intelligent enough to animate political leaders. They are not complicated enough to deal with reality. The American people aren’t as simple as Mr. Reich imagines.
There is something horribly self-conscious about liberalism’s attempt to reinvent itself. One is tempted to advise: Find faces to put on your neckties; political success will come afterwards.
David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.