For Voters, the 60’s Never Died

For Voters, the 60’s Never Died
Sean Wilentz

Liberalism is back — maybe not in name, but in spirit and in substance. Its return has been forecast several times in the 1990’s, but now it is clearly in flower. From voter surveys to the floors of Congress, we see abundant evidence that Americans are embracing sensible activist government. This swing of the pendulum represents more than a correction of conservative excesses.

Polls by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press and The New York Times/CBS News were the latest to reveal that voters have rejected the antigovernment politicking of years gone by. All of what the respondents identified as the main issues of the day, and most of the secondary issues, breaks in favor of liberals and against conservatives. The Pew poll showed that Americans are markedly less cynical about government than they have been in many years.

The Times/CBS survey showed that the voters rate health care (13 percent) and protection of Social Security (8 percent) as their chief concerns, while only 2 percent cited defense. (Although concern over the health care system was also high early in the decade — especially in 1992, before the Clinton administration’s botched reform plan — it was not viewed as being nearly as important as, say, the economy or the budget deficit.)

The polls’ findings underscore the numerous recent signs that our politics have shifted. The movement started with small bipartisan efforts like mandating television V-chips and endorsing school uniforms but today is moving to support for universal health care and the federal financing of 100,000 new schoolteachers.

In the House, the Republican majority is even grudgingly trying to appear to support some sort of increase in the minimum wage, after years of arguing that such a raise would irreparably injure the economy.

On the Democratic side, Al Gore and Bill Bradley are arguing over whether Mr. Bradley’s health care proposal is concerned enough with protecting poor families.

Over in the Reform Party, the former Republican Pat Buchanan has cozied up to the erstwhile Marxist-Leninist fringe candidate Lenora Fulani. Even Donald Trump, the living symbol of 80’s excess, has gotten into the act, with a soak-the-rich tax proposal that comes straight out of the Huey Long populist playbook.

The easy explanation for the change is that flush times produce more liberal outlooks. With plenty of money in their own pockets and in government coffers, Americans are more willing to back federal spending. But that economic determinist reading is superficial. We are witnessing a revival of a liberal tradition that had been given up for dead but has assumed a new and disciplined form.

When last in bloom, between 1961 and 1965, liberalism achieved an amazing amount in a short time. Using the powers of the federal government, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations effectively outlawed segregation and overturned racist immigration policies. Attempts to enact universal health care failed, but Medicare and Medicaid were the cornerstones of the Great Society.

Even by 1968, when liberal divisions over Vietnam and the G.O.P.’s ”Southern strategy” helped elect Richard Nixon, Nixon did not declare war on domestic programs, but expanded them, establishing, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency.

The backlash truly set in later in the 70’s, when oil shocks and inflation eroded the economy. Ronald Reagan’s counterrevolution lasted into the 90’s, with conservatives tainting their opponents as ”tax-and-spend liberals.” That culminated with the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, when the traces of liberalism that helped elect Bill Clinton two years earlier seemed crushed once and for all.

Yet throughout the antigovernment era, the achievements of the 1960’s were becoming sacrosanct. Liberals and conservatives fought fiercely over affirmative action and the merits of racial gerrymandering, but not over the basic tenets of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Republicans and Democrats clashed (as they continue to do) over the financing and scope of Medicare, but not over the program’s legitimacy. What conservatives condemned 30 years ago as creeping socialism an accepted part of the American Way.

With this baseline of federal commitment firmly established, liberalism was never quite so weak as it seemed to be. A paradox of the Reagan years was that, even though the president was popular (and national Democrats were singularly unpopular), polls repeatedly showed the electorate opposed to the administration on many leading domestic issues, like education and the environment. Too many conservatives misread Mr. Reagan’s twin electoral triumphs (and Mr. Bush’s victory in 1988) as a full-scale ideological conversion by the voters to their cause.

What the voters may have liked best about Mr. Reagan’s politics, his uncompromising anti-Communism in foreign affairs, hardly translated into liberalism’s demise. Until Vietnam, after all, liberalism and anti-Communism had gone hand in hand; many of those Democrats who switched to Mr. Reagan over foreign affairs remained, in their hearts, more liberal than not. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, that underlying liberalism understandably resurfaced.

Liberalism’s comeback, however, required an updating of its themes, which has been the signal success of Bill Clinton.

In his first term, after falling on his face with his health care initiative, he emphasized fiscal responsibility, with (did no one notice?) increased federal spending on social investments.

The turning point was Mr. Clinton’s welfare reform, which was negotiated in the face of severe outrage on the part of much of the Democrats’ longtime base. At the time, it appeared to be a victory for Republicans. But it ended up shattering the conservatives’ claim that government could do nothing right and paradoxically made federal action respectable once again.

This was lost on Congressional Republicans, who have cluelessly followed up their impeachment drive with an outdated agenda of regressive tax cuts and across-the-board budget reductions. The polls strongly suggest that, as a result of their misreadings, the House Republicans are in danger of losing their majority next year. George W. Bush may not know the name of the new leader of Pakistan, but he has been savvy enough to distance himself from the House Republicans, at least rhetorically, and to proclaim himself a champion of a vague ”compassionate conservatism.”

Whatever the campaign year brings, one thing is clear: the Reagan-Bush era is over. Republican nostalgia for that era is politically delusional. And if, as President Clinton once said, the era of big government is over, a new era of liberal government activism, tempered by adversity, could be beginning.

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