Where has liberalism gone wrong? Douglas Massey says it veered off course with a broad emphasis on symbolic politics—rather than what is needed: concrete reasons why it is in American’s economic as well as moral interest to support the liberal cause. According to Massey, what liberals have long suffered from is the lack of a consistent ideology. So back in 2005 when he published Return of the “L” Word, his call for a liberal realignment, he set forth a clear set of liberal principles to explain how markets work in society, and applied them to liberal policies. Recently I caught up with him to find out to what extent he thinks the Obama administration has offered the public the consistent liberal vision that was needed. Read on…
Douglas S. Massey
When I published Return of the L-Word in 2005, I argued that the time was ripe for a liberal realignment and that what was lacking was a clear explanation to voters of the key role played by government in producing a healthier, more equitable, and less divided society. I was impressed by what Obama accomplished in the 2008 campaign and thought someone in his campaign must have been channeling my book, or may even have read it!
The electoral campaign he put together in 2008 constructed exactly the coalition that Democrats need to build for the future, creating high turnouts among blacks, Latinos, Asians, young voters, and progressive whites. The three minority groups by themselves together comprise a third of the population, liberals make up another 20%, and persons aged 18-29 another 17%.
Despite some overlap between these various components, it is clear that a working majority of the electorate is easily achievable by firing the passions of minorities, liberal whites, and young people while drawing in as many independents as practical. More importantly, given current demographic trends, size of the ruling majority will only become ever larger over time. By 2050, minorities by themselves are projected to comprise 54% of the U.S. population. Older, conservative white people are a withering demographic.
Obama demonstrated the feasability of this political strategy by putting together a coalition that captured 53% of the popular vote, 28 states, and 68% of the electoral college. The obvious strategy upon assuming office was for him to play to the base that elected him by fulfilling campaign promises to reform wall street, enact immigration reform, spend to create jobs, end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and generally move forward on a progressive agenda of fairness and redistribution.
Instead, to my growing amazement as President Obama did the opposite. Once in office he bent over backwards to appease older, conservative white voters—a segment of the population that would never support him under any circumstances—by cutting taxes, limiting the size of the stimulus, accelerating deportations, increasing border enforcement, inviting Goldman Sachs into his administration, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and continuing to support a highly racialized criminal justice system. Even on his signature achievement—health care reform—he caved into health insurance monopolists and big pharma before legislative negotiations had even begun.
It is all well and good to reach across the aisle and make a big show of bipartisanship. It was a nice gesture right after the inauguration; but once his hand was slapped away and the Republicans had proclaimed their policy of opposition at all costs, he should have doubled down on principle and fought tenaciously for the causes he believed in. The winning strategy was to send up proposal after proposal and have the Republicans shoot them down and then run on the moral vision behind the defeated proposals and against Republican obstructionism.
Alas, that was not the path President Obama chose, with predictable and inevitable political consequences. Of course, older white voters were not placated, Republicans never found it within themselves to compromise, the economic recovery proved anemic, and Obama now faces reelection with a demoralized and unenthusiastic base. The young voters and eager activists that flooded into his campaign and fueled his victory in 2008 are nowhere to be seen, Latinos are furious over his failure to pursue immigration reform, liberals are disgusted with the condition-free bailout of Wall Street, and Americans everywhere are still waiting for any financier to be brought to justice for causing the collapse of 2008. At this point, even African Americans are beginning to ask what they got and how they benefitted from electing the nation’s first black president.
Obama’s only saving grace at this point is the disarray and delusion in the Republican ranks; but he cannot count on Republicans’ tenuous grasp on reality or their internecine squabbling to guarantee victory in November. If President Obama is going to win, he needs to articulate and vigorously defend a principled program that will, first and foremost, appeal to his political base. Despite his impressive victory in 2008, he will find it difficult to win if Hispanics sit on their hands, young people stay at home, African Americans barely drag themselves to the polls, and liberal whites vote without spirit election day. Although Obama faces a weak and divided Republican opposition, he still has his work cut out for him. Although he campaigned as a visionary in 2008, he has governed as a technocrat. He has lost the enthusiastic backing of his base and failed to connect emotionally with the American public. In order to win he needs to articulate his values clearly and forcefully and defend them with passion and conviction to voters.
Douglas S. Massey is Henry G. Bryant Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University.