Posted: August 7, 2012
In the late innings of the health care fight President Barack Obama told a joint session of Congress, "we did not come here just to clean up crises," even one as big as the Great Recession. "We came to build a future," to do the "great things" that "will meet history's test." He concluded, "This is our calling. This is our character." And that had been his ambition all along. "Let us transform this nation," he implored in 2007 when he announced his candidacy for president. As Election Day 2008 approached, he promised, "We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America."
Those words mean this will be a different country when he's finished with it. If, Rip Van Winkle-style, one had slept through the Obama Administration, one would awaken, as it were, in a new land. The old word for such a profound change was revolution. As a self-proclaimed progressive, however, he reckons his revolution will be one in a series, an unending series generated by social progress or history itself. His reforms will connect to Woodrow Wilson's, Franklin Roosevelt's, and Lyndon Johnson's before him, and others yet to come, and all these together will constitute a continual upward evolution. That sounds reassuring, insofar as it promises to take the sting and surprise out of change; but such inevitability comes at the expense of liberty, because there is no choice about the whole of liberal-style progress. In the old days, one could choose to make a revolution or not. A revolution could be defeated or reversed. But you cannot deliberate about the inevitable, which is how progressives think of history. As we've been told for generations now, ad nauseam: you can't turn back the clock.
By the same token, however, you can't turn the clock ahead, either. What Obama invokes as "history's test" is a stern one: success or irrelevance, power or nothingness, to borrow Michael Tomasky's suggestive language. Either you're on the right side of history or the wrong side, where the right side is necessarily understood to mean the winning side, and the wrong side the losing one. Otherwise this would not be a historical test but an abstract moral or philosophical one. The obvious moral difficulty—does the right side always win its wars?—can be finessed for a while by distinguishing between wars and mere battles. It's possible to lose many battles and still win the war, eventually. But "history's test" is of necessity a final examination; it can't be postponed indefinitely without the whole idea of historical validation becoming a laughingstock or an otherworldly stalking horse, neither of which liberalism fancies itself to be. Meeting history's test, as Obama sees it, means recognizing that the "moment" has come for bold, new reforms; but if these prove untimely and unattainable, if the moment comes and goes fruitlessly, then it casts doubt not only on the prophecy and the prophet but on the whole prophecy business. If Obama cannot repeal the George W. Bush-era tax cuts or close the Guantanamo detention facility, those are battles lost. If he cannot get reelected, that's a defeat of an altogether more serious sort. If his heralded new majority for change does not triumph in congressional and state elections in 2012 or 2014 or 2016, then the long-term prospects for a liberal transformation drop still further. If Obamacare is repealed and replaced after 2012 by an energized conservative majority that controls the presidency, Senate, House of Representatives, and most state legislative chambers and governorships, then Obama's legacy and his claim to leadership will lie in ruins.
Even so, American liberals would try to overcome their embarrassment by insisting that poor Obama was too far ahead of his time. Desperate as it is, that argument is neither unprecedented nor implausible, and it has the capital advantage of being unfalsifiable. But it would certainly be a stretch, because it would highlight, by trying to ignore, the dispiriting truth that Obama had it won—had Obamacare enacted and written into law, its implementation under way—only to suffer the ignominy of defeat. After the repeal of Prohibition, for example, how many observers concluded that the problem with the 18th Amendment was that it had been ahead of its time? After the dissolution of the USSR, how many Russians, or even Communists, defended the extinct Soviet Union as too good for this world, or tragically in advance of its age? It's one thing to claim grandiloquently to represent the future, to be the future, ever glorious and ever distant. It's quite another to have been the future. The former trades in utopian speculation, however scientific the speculation claims to be. The latter forces one, wearily, to confront a history of failure and disillusionment—to confess "the god that failed," to borrow that ever resonant term from the Cold War.
American progressives' favorite tense is future perfect; they hate like hell to wrestle with past imperfect. So President Obama faces, by his own standards, a crucial test. The election of 2008 proved, as that of 1992 had as well, that post-Reagan Democrats could win control of all three elected branches of the national government. In his first two years in office Obama further demonstrated that the Reagan legacy, both ideological and institutional, had not rendered impracticable an aggressive agenda of liberal social reform and government expansion. Now he faces an electorate that in 2010 moved dramatically rightward, even as his policies were moving American government briskly leftward. Among other things, he has to show both liberals and conservatives that the future is on his side, not Reagan's, and that the voters will come around to his "new politics for a new time." Tacking rightward, as Bill Clinton did in the 1990s, is out of the question, because Obama's whole project, though he would never put it so candidly, is to prove that the era of big government isnot over. Whatever rhetorical and even policy concessions he may feel compelled to make, you can be sure they will be minor compared to Clinton's. Obama has in effect doubled down on the Left's bet on big government, and it is too late to take the chips off the table now.
But his bet comes just when the political economy of the welfare state is reaching a turning point, both in the United States and Europe. Everyone knew, vaguely, that with Baby Boomers beginning to collect benefits and fewer young workers available to pay taxes, the welfare state would hit a demographic wall eventually—a decade or two or three down the road. That crisis, of unfunded liabilities and revenue shortfalls, is still to come, in fact. The current crisis is related, but different in origin. The wall that Europe is hitting, and that we are coming up on fast, is a wall of deficits and debt. Although unrestrained entitlement spending is a part of it, the immediate problem was precipitated by the financial crisis of 2007-2008, the ensuing Great Recession, and governments' reaction to these shocks. Rather than learn from the Bush Administration's fiscal and monetary mistakes, the Obama Administration compounded them. Obama's costly stimulus and bailouts stimulated mainly the deficit, and the Federal Reserve flooded the economy with money to prevent the banking system's collapse and to prop up economic growth. Unemployment insurance and other "automatic stabilizers" cost much more than anticipated, tax revenues dropped due to the prolonged downturn, and rather than cut discretionary spending the administration piled on more. In other words, the same rock-bottom interest rates, massive deficits, and credit-fueled consumption boom that helped get us into the financial crisis are now being counted on, by a bit of Keynesian magic, to get us out of it. When the banks couldn't handle their bad debts, they sent them to the U.S. government. But to whom does the government turn when it can't pay its bills?
Even as Greece proved insolvent and many other European countries teetered on the brink, Obama's policies on health care, taxation, and regulation pushed America further toward the European model of social democracy. In effect, his audacity made the problems of the American welfare state worse and more urgent. His policies made the chronic inability of big government to "make payroll," as William Voegeli dubs it, that much more acute. The advent of the true crisis of the welfare state has been accelerated, the hole into which it will plunge the economy dug deeper, and the options for dealing with the chronic shortfalls made worse. The Marxists call this policy of speeding up the social and political reckoning "heightening the contradictions." It's possible that Obama wants to heighten the contradictions in order to bring about a crisis of the American welfare state that would be solved by its engorging another 10 or 20% of the American economy: the Swedenization of America. Perhaps, though, he is content to win the moral battle—a historic expansion of the welfare and regulatory state—and leave it to the next administration to wage the fiscal one. Or maybe he believes his own talking points, and regards Obamacare, green energy, and Dodd-Frank as reforms that will save money over the long run. But whatever his intention, even he acknowledges now, with economic growth in the doldrums, that the welfare state cannot continue indefinitely along the same paths.
What history confronts him with, in short, is not merely a test of his own leadership but also a test of liberalism's credibility as the once-and-future American public philosophy. More and more, the blue-state social model, as Walter Russell Mead calls it, looks anachronistic and unimaginative—behind rather than ahead of the times. A health care reform bill, to take the central example, that stretches to 3,000 pages and creates 159 new boards, commissions, and agencies hardly betrays the nimbleness, efficiency, transparency, reliability, and personalization that Americans expect from new companies, products, and services at their best. Liberalism seems about to succumb to the very critique it once leveled disdainfully at the old American constitutional and political order: the failure to evolve. Beyond its bureaucratic shortcomings, however, looms a deeper problem with liberalism's understanding of human nature and the purposes of government, which led it to presume to lead and administer a free society and concoct rights to health care, housing, and a job in the first place. Heightening the contradictions could soon produce a kind of revolution all right, but not the one Obama believes in and anticipates.
The president had a century of modern American liberalism to draw on, and in a strange way his administration has recapitulated that history. He campaigned on Hope and Change, attempting, like Woodrow Wilson (and later John Kennedy), through soaring speechmaking to awaken the idealism of a generation and resume the forward march of progressive politics. Like FDR, Obama exploited an ongoing economic collapse to pass far-reaching regulatory reforms, boost federal stimulus spending, and enact a major new entitlement program that, not incidentally, attempted to fulfill the right to adequate medical care Roosevelt had proclaimed in 1944. And like Lyndon Johnson's administration, only much sooner, Obama faced an electoral rebellion against his signature policies that threatened to eject him and his party from power and to discredit liberalism itself. All in one term, really just two years. The acceleration and compression of events were remarkable. His administration launched a fourth wave of liberal reform to add to the storied greatness, in liberals' eyes, of the first three. But the wave crested so abruptly that it raised questions about its very existence, much less its significance. The wave was real enough in legislative and electoral terms, and coming after almost 30 years of domestic politics (and foreign policy, though that's a more complicated story) conducted in the shadow of Ronald Reagan, it surprised liberals as well as conservatives. Whether it has changed liberalism, and if so, how that change may affect liberal hopes and conservative fears, will soon become pressing questions. President Obama's tenure thus poses the test of history in concentrated form: is liberalism on its last legs, or about to be reborn?
Liberals like crises, and one shouldn't spoil them by handing them another on a silver salver. The kind of crisis that is approaching, however, is probably not their favorite kind, an emergency that presents an opportunity to enlarge government, but one that will find liberalism at a crossroads, a turning point. Liberalism can't go on as it is, not for very long. It faces difficulties both philosophical and fiscal that will compel it either to go out of business or to become something quite different from what it has been.
For most of the past century, liberalism was happy to use relativism as an argument against conservatism. Those self-evident truths that the American constitutional order rested on were neither logically self-evident nor true, Woodrow Wilson and his followers argued, but merely rationalizations for an immature, subjective form of right that enshrined selfishness as national morality. What was truly evident was the relativity of all past views of morality, each a reflection of its society's stage of development. But there was a final stage of development, when true morality would be actualized and its inevitability made abundantly clear, that is, self-evident. Disillusionment came in the 1960s when the purported end or near-end of history coincided not with idealism justified and realized, but with what many liberals, especially the young, despaired of as the infinite immorality of poverty, racial injustice, Vietnam, the System, and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Relativism rounded on liberalism. Having promised so much, liberalism was peculiarly vulnerable to the charge that the complete spiritual fulfillment it once promised was neither complete nor fulfilling. History's test was postponed indefinitely, or cancelled rather, because there were no final and true standards by which to judge it. As Obama's own life shows, intelligent and morally sensitive liberals may try to suppress or internalize the problem of relativism but it cannot be forgotten or ignored. Despite his rhetorical investment in "deliberative democracy" and pragmatic progressivism, Obama is willing to throw it all aside at the moment of decision because it doesn't satisfy his love of justice or rather his love of a certain kind of courage or resolute action. "The blood of slaves reminds us that our pragmatism can sometimes be moral cowardice," he writes in a revealing section of The Audacity of Hope (2006). In a moment like that, he argues, a great man must follow his own absolute truth, and the rest of us are left hoping it is Abraham Lincoln and not John Brown, much less Jefferson Davis, whose will is triumphant. The great man doesn't anticipate or follow or approximate history's course then; he creates it, wills it according to his own absolute will, not absolute knowledge.
When combined with liberalism's lust for strong leaders, this openness to Nietzschean creativity looms dangerously over the liberal future. If we are lucky, if liberalism is lucky, no one will ever apply for the position of liberal superman, and the role will remain vacant. But as Lincoln asked in the Lyceum speech,
Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.
Distinction will be his paramount object; and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.
More worrisome even than the danger of an Übermensch able to promise that everything desirable will soon be possible is a people unattached to its constitution and laws; and for that, liberalism has much to answer.
In one crucial respect, our situation would seem more perilous than the future danger Lincoln sketched, insofar as the very definitions of political "good" and "harm" are now uncertain. Richard Rorty, the late postmodern philosopher, specialized in trying to think through this liberal dilemma, which could not be resolved but could be expressed in sharp terms. He called himself a "liberal ironist." Liberals, he said, following the political theorist Judith Shklar, are "people who think cruelty is the worst thing we do"; and an "ironist" faces up to "the contingency of his or her most central beliefs and desires," including the "belief that cruelty is horrible." Unflinching liberals understand that liberalism consists in the revulsion to human cruelty or humiliation, combined with the knowledge that hatred of cruelty is no more moral, or rational, than love of cruelty. (Conservatives are lovers of cruelty, he implies.) In short, thoughtful liberals recognize that liberalism is a value judgment, with no ground in truth or science or Being or anything else supposedly "out there." Its central value judgment is not even a view of justice or of nobility, exactly, or an affirmation of something good; it stands merely for the negation of cruelty. Real liberalism is relativism, colored by a Rousseauian pity for the suffering animal who is sensitive to humiliation.
To Rorty's disappointment, most actual liberals are not relativists, of course, but he thought they may eventually fall in line and at any rate could not refute postmodernism. They cannot even change the subject, though as a practical matter he recommends this, urging liberals to resume fighting for continual political reforms as in the glory days, rather than listening to the siren calls of the academic and cultural Left with its endless criticisms of America and of futile efforts to reform her.
Avant-garde liberalism used to be about progress; now it's about nothingness. You call that progress? Perhaps, paradoxically, that's why Obama prefers to be called a progressive rather than a liberal. It's better to believe in something than in nothing, even if the something, Progress, is not as believable as it used to be. His residual progressivism helps insure him against his instinctual postmodernism. Still, liberalism is in a bad way when it has lost confidence in its own truth, and it's an odd sort of "progress" to go back to a name it surrendered 80 years ago.
The Best and the Brightest
Adding to liberal self-doubt is that its monopoly on the social sciences, long since broken, has been supplanted by a multiple-front argument with conservative scholars in economics, political science, and other fields. In the beginning, Progressivism commanded all the social sciences because it had invented, or imported, them all. Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson could be confident in the inevitability of progress, despite temporary setbacks, because the social sciences backed them up. An expertise in administering progress existed, and experts in public administration, Keynesian economics, national planning, urban affairs, modernization theory, development studies, and a half-dozen other specialties beavered away at bringing the future to life. What a difference a half century makes. The vogue for national planning disappeared under the pressure of ideas and events. Friedrich Hayek demonstrated why socialist economic planning, lacking free-market pricing information, could not succeed. In a side-by-side experiment, West Germany far outpaced East Germany in economic development, and all the people escaping across the Wall traveled from east to west, leaving their workers' paradise behind. Keynesianism flunked the test of the 1970s' stagflation. The Reagan boom, with its repeated tax cuts, flew in the face of the orthodoxy at the Harvard Department of Economics, but was cheered by the Chicago School. Milton Friedman's advice to Chile proved far sounder than Jeffrey Sachs's to Russia. Monetarism, rational choice economics, supply-side, "government failure," "regulatory capture," "incentive effects"—the intellectual discoveries were predominantly on the Right. Conservative and libertarian think tanks multiplied, carrying the new insights directly into the fray.
The scholarly counterattack proceeded in political science and the law, too. Rational choice and "law and economics" changed the agenda to some degree. Both politics and the law became increasingly "originalist" in bearing, enriched by a new appreciation for 18th-century sources and the original intent of the founders and the framers of the Constitution. Above all, the Progressives' attempt to replace political philosophy with social science foundered. After World War II, an unanticipated and unsung revival of political philosophy began, associated above all with Leo Strauss, questioning historicism and nihilism in the name of a broadly Socratic understanding of nature and natural right. New studies of the tradition yielded some very untraditional results. Though there were left-wing as well as right-wing aspects to this revival, the latter proved more influential and liberating. The unquestionability of both progress and relativism died quietly in classrooms around the country. Economics is an instrumental science, studying means not ends, and so much of the successes of free-market economics could be swallowed, pragmatically, by liberalism's maw. The developments in political philosophy challenged the ends of progressivism, proving far more damaging to it. In sheer numbers the academy remained safely, overwhelmingly in the hands of the Left, whose members in fact grew more radical, with some notable exceptions, in these years. But they gradually lost the unchallenged intellectual ascendancy, though not the prestige, they once had enjoyed.
Thanks to this intellectual rebirth, the case against Progressivism and in favor of the Constitution is stronger and deeper than it has ever been. Progressivism has never been in a fair fight, an equal fight, until now, because its political opponents had largely been educated in the same ideas, had lost touch, like Antaeus, with the ground of the Constitution in natural right, and so tended to offer only Progressivism Lite as an alternative. The sheer superficiality of Progressive scholarship is now evident. They could never take the ideas of the Declaration and Constitution seriously, for many of the same reasons that Obama cannot ultimately take them seriously. Wilson never demonstrated that the Constitution was inadequate to the problems of his age—he asserted it, or rather assumed it. His references to The Federalist are shallow and general, never betraying a close familiarity with any paper or papers, and willfully ignorant of the separation of powers as an instrument to energize and hone, not merely limit, the national government. Like many of his contemporaries, his criticisms of the national government are based on an exaggeratedly negative reading of constitutional theory and practice, as though John C. Calhoun had been right to see it as a weak compact, devoted above all to inaction lest action harm the propertied interests. Though he thought of himself as picking up where Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster, and Lincoln had left off, Wilson never investigated where they left off and why. Neither he nor his main contemporaries asked how far The Federalist's or Lincoln's reading of national powers and duties might take them, because they assumed it would not take them very far, that it reflected the political forces of its age and had to be superseded by new doctrines for a new age. They weren't interested in Lincoln's reasons, only in his results. Not right but historical might was the Progressives' true focus.
Today liberalism looks increasingly, well, elderly. Hard of hearing, irascible, enamored of past glories, forgetful of mistakes and promises, prone to repeat the same stories over and over—it isn't the youthful voice of tomorrow it once imagined itself to be. Only a rhetorician of Obama's youth and artfulness could breathe life into the old tropes again. Even he can't repeat the performance in 2012. With a track record to defend, he will have to speak more prose and less poetry. With a century-old track record, liberalism will find it harder than ever to paint itself as the disinterested champion of the public good. Long ago it became an establishment, one of the estates of the realm, with its court party of notoriously self-interested constituencies, the public employee unions, the trial lawyers, the feminists, the environmentalists, and the big corporations aching to be public utilities that pay private-sector salaries. Not visions of the future, but visions of plunder come to mind. This is one side of what Mead means when he criticizes the blue state social model as outmoded and heavy-handed. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act could have been written by the faculty of the Rexford G. Tugwell School of Public Administration in 1933. In fact it resembles Roosevelt's NIRA (the National Industrial Recovery Act) in its attempt to control a huge swath of the economy through collusive price-fixing, restraints on production, aversion to competition, and corporatist partnerships between industry and government. It is exhibit A in the case for the intellectual obsolescence of liberalism.
Finally, we come to the fiscal embarrassments confronting contemporary liberals. Again, Obamacare is wonderfully emblematic. President Obama's solution to the problem of two health care entitlement programs quickly going bankrupt—Medicare and Medicaid—is to add a third? Perhaps it is a stratagem. More likely it is simply the reflexive liberal solution to any social problem: spend more. From Karl Marx to John Rawls, if you'll excuse the juxtaposition, left-wing critics of capitalism have often paid it the supreme compliment of presuming it so productive an economic system that it has overcome permanently the problem of scarcity in human life. Capitalism has generated a "plenty." It has distributional problems, which produce intolerable social and economic instability; but eliminate or control those inconveniences and it could produce wealth enough not only to provide for every man's necessities but also to lift him into the realm of freedom. To some liberals, that premise implied that socioeconomic rights could be paid for without severe damage to the economy, and without oppressive taxation at least of the majority. Obama is the first liberal to suggest that even capitalism cannot pay for all the benefits promised by the American welfare state, particularly regarding health care. Granted, his solution is counterintuitive in the extreme, which makes one wonder if he is sincere. To the extent that liberalism is the welfare state, and the welfare state is entitlement spending, and entitlements are mostly spent effecting the right to health care, the insolvency of the health care entitlement programs is rightly regarded as a major part of the economic, and moral, crisis of liberalism. "Simply put," Yuval Levin writes, "we cannot afford to preserve our welfare state in anything like its present form." According to the Congressional Budget Office, by 2025 Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the interest on the federal debt will consume all-all-federal revenues, leaving defense and all other expenditures to be paid for by borrowing; and the debt will be approaching twice the country's annual GDP.
If something can't go on forever, Herbert Stein noted sagely, it won't. It would be possible to increase federal revenues by raising taxes, but the kind of money that's needed could only be raised by taxing the middle class (defined, let us say, as all those families making less than $250,000 a year) very heavily. Like every Democratic candidate since Walter Mondale, who made the mistake of confessing to the American people that he was going to raise their taxes, Obama swore not to do that. Even supporters of Obamacare, like Clive Crook, a commentator for the Atlantic and the Financial Times, regretted the decision.
It is right to provide guaranteed health insurance, but wrong to claim this great prize could be had, in effect, for nothing. Broadly based tax increases and fundamental reform to health care delivery will be needed to balance the books. Denying this was a mistake. What was worse—an insult to one's intelligence, really—was to argue as Obama has...that this reform was, first and foremost, a cost-reducing initiative, and a way to drive down premiums.
If the bankruptcy of the entitlement programs were handled just the right way, with world-class cynicism and opportunism, in an emergency demanding quick, painful action lest grandma descend into an irreversible diabetic coma, then liberalism might succeed in maneuvering America into a Scandinavia-style überwelfare state, fueled by massive and regressive taxes cheerfully accepted by the citizenry. But odds are we stand, instead, at the twilight of the liberal welfare state. As it sinks, a new, more conservative system will likely rise that will feature some combination of more means-testing of benefits, a switch from defined-benefit to defined-contribution programs, greater devolution of authority to the states and localities, a new budget process that will force welfare expenditures to compete with other national priorities, and the redefinition of the welfare function away from fulfilling socioeconomic "rights" and toward charitably taking care of the truly needy as best the community can afford, when private efforts have failed or proved inadequate. Currently, the aptly named "welfare state" operates almost independently alongside the general government. Taken together, these reforms will reintegrate the welfare state into the government, curtailing its state-within-a-state status, and even more important, integrating it back into the constitutional system that stands on inalienable rights and consent.
The End of Liberalism?
Is it just wishful thinking to imagine the end of liberalism? Few things in politics are permanent. Conservatism versus liberalism didn't become the central division in our politics until the middle of the 20th century. Before that American politics revolved around such issues as states' rights, wars, slavery, the tariff, and suffrage. Parties have come and gone in our history. You won't find many Federalists, Whigs, or Populists lining up at the polls these days. Britain's Liberal Party faded from power in the 1920s. The Canadian Liberal Party collapsed in 2011. Recently, within a decade of its maximum empire at home and abroad, a combined intellectual movement, political party, and form of government crumbled away, to be swept up and consigned to the dustbin of history. Communism, which in a very different way from American liberalism traced its roots to Hegelianism, Social Darwinism, and leadership by a vanguard group of intellectuals, vanished before our eyes, though not without an abortive coup or two. If Communism, armed with millions of troops and thousands of megatons of nuclear weapons, could collapse of its own deadweight and implausibility, why not American liberalism? The parallel is imperfect, of course, because liberalism and its vehicle, the Democratic Party, remain profoundly popular, resilient, and changeable. Elections matter to them. What's more, the egalitarian impulse, centralized government (though not centralized administration), and the Democratic Party have deep roots in the American political tradition—and reflect permanent aspects of modern democracy itself, as Tocqueville testifies.
Some elements of liberalism are inherent to American democracy, but the compound, the peculiar combination that is contemporary liberalism, is not. Compounded of the philosophy of history, Social Darwinism, the living constitution, leadership, the cult of the State, the rule of administrative experts, entitlements and group rights, and moral creativity, modern liberalism is something new and distinctive, despite the presence in it, too, of certain American constants like the love of equality and democratic individualism. Under the pressure of ideas and events, that compound could come apart. Liberals' confidence in being on the right, the winning side of history could crumble, perhaps has already begun to crumble. Trust in government, which really means in the State, is at all-time lows. A majority of Americans opposes a new entitlement program—in part because they want to keep the old programs unimpaired, but also because the economic and moral sustainability of the whole welfare state grows more and more doubtful. The goodwill and even the presumptive expertise of many government experts command less and less respect. Obama's speeches no longer send the old thrill up the leg, and his leadership, whether for one or two terms, may yet help to discredit the respectability of following the Leader.
The Democratic Party is unlikely to go poof, but it's possible that modern liberalism will. A series of nasty political defeats and painful repudiations of its impossible dreams might do the trick. At the least, it will have to downsize its ambitions and get back in touch with political, moral, and fiscal reality. It will have to—all together now—turn back the clock. But it is much more likely to fight than switch, certainly at first, and therefore much will depend, too, on what conservatives say and do in the coming years. Will they have the prudence and guile to elevate the fight to the level of constitutional principle, to expose the undemocratic presumptions of their opponents? President Obama's decision to double down aggressively on the reach and cost of big government, just as the European model of social democracy is hitting the skids, provides the perfect opportunity for conservatives to exploit. Sooner or later, the crisis will come. If the people remain attached to their government and laws, and American statesmen do their part, the country may yet take the path leading up from liberalism.