At last the idea of shared sacrifice has returned to the American mindset.
When in college, I flirted a bit with conservatism. I was mostly doing it to shock my father, and I quickly discovered that my heart really wasn’t in it. But it was a useful experience, because it spurred dear dad to initiate some conversations with me. In essence, what he impressed upon me was the need to see the world through eyes other than my own. Try to examine events from the perspectives of poor people or striking workers or what have you. If you emerge a conservative, he suggested, that’s life. But at least understand that politics is a competition of interests, and that your self-interest as a relatively privileged young man may sometimes be outweighed by other interests.
Later, I understood that my father’s lesson was in fact a profound one of political philosophy, considered by thinkers from Rousseau to Mill to the American founding fathers, among others. At what point did one’s conception of a good society require a person to sublimate his own interests in support of a larger common interest? I was mulling all these matters during the age of Ronald Reagan’s ascendance, when they were decidedly unpopular. And I can see why. By 1980, many middle-class Americans had come to feel that liberal governance was demanding far too much sacrifice of them.
The part of the social compact that had broken down was this. Since the 1930s, Americans had been asked to pay higher taxes, submit to greater regulation and so on. But for three or four decades most felt it was worth the trade-off. The middle-class (mostly white) was getting something out of it: an enviable standard of living, and a fundamentally stable society. By the 1970s, it was getting stagnant wages, high crime and myriad other maladies. At the same time, liberalism kept up the fight for rights for various aggrieved groups: a noble battle, but, shorn of its connection to any larger common interest, an uphill one.
It was easy for Reagan, Newt Gingrich and, eventually, the cretins on Fox News to caricature this. And this is the short version of the long story of U.S. liberalism’s 40-year demise: from a creed that many Americans embraced because they saw that it served both their interests and a larger common good, to an ideology that many Americans rejected because it seemed to stand only for “regular” people paying ever higher taxes so that fornicators could have more rights and artists could insult America with taxpayer-funded grants.
Now we are in the age of Barack Obama. Now it’s conservatism that has broken down and contracted into a narrow ideology. And Mr. Obama’s project is nothing less than to revive this pre-1970s conception of liberalism as an ongoing civic project to which all contribute and from which all benefit. It was there in his inaugural speech when he spoke of “the price and the promise of citizenship,” and it is present in his early proposals. The stimulus package that he began negotiating with Congressional leaders last week is an audacious experiment along these lines. Let us invest these billions together, he is saying, and in time the investments will bear fruit and benefit everyone.
The gamble is clear. The stimulus has to work. Whatever healthcare proposal he advances will have to be broadly seen as an improvement over what we have now. The energy proposals will entail new costs for businesses. There is no avoiding that, and there is no avoiding that some of those costs will be passed on to ratepayers. But if they produce good jobs, green jobs, a more modern policy in which most Americans see that slightly higher rates are worth it in terms of producing both a stronger economy and a healthier planet, they will be broadly endorsed.
The same is true of foreign policy. For 28 years, the American right has said: America first. The appeal to average citizens was clear, especially when set against liberal arguments of the 1960s and 1970s that America should restrain its hegemonic urges. But in the last eight years, people have seen that “America first” doesn’t always leave America in first place. Mr. Obama’s calls for a new multilateralism and a new relationship to the Muslim world will take a long time to show themselves and will be highly contentious here. But if they make us stronger and the world safer, most Americans will come to see the wisdom of sacrificing some power upfront.
The remarkable thing is that according to the polls, large majorities understand all this. We are not a nation of amateur political philosophers debating Locke down at the bowling alley. What we are is a practical people, and after the wreckage left by George Bush, the above seems practical. And if it works, Mr. Obama will make us a liberal country again, in which a mostly forgotten tradition of shared sacrifice for the common good will be reasserted. Dad would have been 84 if he’d lived to see Mr. Obama take the oath of office last week. He’d have been moved to tears at the sight.
(Note: Michael Tomasky is editor of Guardian America; read his blog at guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/michaeltomasky)