This beast we call “liberalism”—in its genus Americanus, at least—is a notoriously complicated animal. Its philosophy is rooted in the notion of human beings as autonomous agents. With the realization that formal autonomy meant little without the means to sustain a decent life, its practical definition in this century came to encompass the various kinds of government arrangements democratically devised to share the social burden. What we now mean by the word was summarized with unmatched elegance by Maury Maverick, the Texas congressman who led a caucus in the 1930s that tried to push the New Deal to the left. He called liberalism “freedom plus groceries.” As a definition, it cannot be improved upon—although scholars may prefer John Rawls’s formulation, that for justice to thrive the minimum worth of liberty must be maximized.
The groceries part, the different ways in which liberals devised to vouchsafe enough material resources for everyone (whatever the divergent conceptions of “enough”), makes for a complex history. I won’t get into the technicalities except to note the existence of the commitment as one of liberalism’s constants and to observe that such a commitment almost invariably requires a political imagination geared toward the long term.
Needless to say, the freedom part is literally compromised by decisions to legalize indefinite detention without trial, but for the purposes of this discussion, it's the groceries that are causing the problem --- or rather lack thereof. The Democrats are simply not responding to the immediate concerns of a majority of Americans. Even health care, which is a great anxiety producing issue, is still fraught with confusion (although its early benefits are beginning to register a bit.) The more immediate issues of a foreclosure fraud crisis and all the problems associated with it, unemployment and job insecurity and massive numbers falling into poverty while the wealthy pig out (and whine about it) is what has people up in arms. They need government to deliver some groceries and the government is instead putting them on a diet.
Conservatives don't believe in delivering groceries, of course. When they aren't stealing the milk money and handing it out to their rich friends to pay back their donations, they're indifferent at best. It's liberals who are supposed to deliver at times like this and instead of doing that they are cutting deals to shrink the existing, tattered safety net in the future in order to keep the economy from sinking further in the present. (It's not all their fault, but being ineffectual doesn't rally the troops.)
The populist rhetoric is welcome, of course. At least it's beginning to reframe the argument away from the destructive notion that government deficits caused the economic crisis.(Unfortunately, there's still a lot of work to do on that.) But it's going to be very tough if Democrats keep compromising on the groceries.
We still don't know what deal, if any, is going to emerge on the budget. The Democrats have evidently given up entirely on the millionaire surtax, which I indicated earlier isn't all that surprising. The question now is whether the Republicans will be able to coerce them into accepting their odious cuts to pay for the payroll tax cut and unemployment extensions. That's not delivering groceries, it's eating your seed corn.
If you have a little extra, we'd be grateful for a donation to our Hullabaloo holiday fundraiser:Thank you!