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Liberal Expansionism

A valuable missive re: the recent Goldwater debate just arrived in my inbox from Richard Pearlstein:

I've finally figured out a way to elegantly get at what is missing from the discussion of my Goldwater book, speaking now as a historian--without getting bogged down in the complexities of the story I'll be telling in the sequel, which I hope to finish this fall, for publication in 2006. It comes down to this: In the period I was writing about, "liberalism" was synonymous with the expansion of liberalism's vision and influence, the creation of new programs that no one had even thought of yet. The word had nothing much to do with "preserving" New Deal programs, or even improving and/or strengthening them. If it wasn't about expanding its frontiers to new social realms, it wasn't called "liberalism." And if you weren't into expanding the New Deal's domain, you weren't called a "liberal." Expansion was central to the concept. Now, right here and now, you may or may not yourself belief that the kind of things the New Deal did should be expanded to new frontiers. But the crucial point to grasp--the historical shift--is that if you don't believe that the New Deal project should be expanded, you aren't a "liberal" in the sense the word meant before the forces Goldwater represented began flexing their muscles in the mid 1960s. Though you may still call yourself a liberal. Which may mean that the word itself, "liberal," has changed meaning, and the thing it refers to is not as far to the left as the thing it used to refer to. This is a bedrock shift in the geological narrative I'm laying out, slowly, slowly--but this point is one of its foundations, and one's understand of this point (if not one's opinion about the lessons for Democrats today, which the book leaves intentionally vague) should definitely come out in the text.
That seems right. What I'd like to add is that the march of liberalism in this sense -- which I'll call "Expansionist Liberalism" -- didn't end with the 1964 election. What happened in this country in Lyndon Johnson's second term largely was the fulfillment of Expansionist Liberalism's goals. This is what's known as "the Great Society" and it was kind of a big deal. We got the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. We got Medicare and Medicaid. For the first time, the federal government got involved in providing extra money for public schools in poor districts (through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). We got a large expansion of federal anti-poverty spending. Later, during the Nixon administration, we got federal regulation in the fields of environmental and consumer protection. Some of this was partially rolled back during the Reagan administration. It was then re-rolled during the Clinton administration. Some areas (anti-poverty spending, most notably) haven't been returned to their pre-Reagan highs. Other areas (federal education spending, environmental protection) are now higher than they were before Reagan.

Now let's call "Super-Expansionist Liberalism" the view that we need to further expand upon what's already been done. I would consider myself a Super-Expansionist Liberal. I believe, among other things, that we ought to complete the march toward universal health care, that the federal government ought to play a much larger role in equalizing education funding, and that we ought to restore our commitment to fighting poverty to the sort of scale we saw in the 1970s (though not through the same methods). Super-Expansionist Liberalism isn't in such hot shape at the moment. The Democratic Party, our vehicle of choice, is kind of on the ropes. Even within the Democratic Party, most of its elected officials either aren't Super-Expansionist Liberals or (more likely) won't admit to being Super-Expansionist Liberals for fear of losing office. This is a problem, and it's directly related to our lack of institutional infrastructure compared to the right.

Nevertheless, while Super-Expansionist Liberalism is certainly in the spirit of Expansionist Liberalism (Pearlstein's "liberalism") it isn't the same thing. The Expansionist Liberals were the people who won in 1964 and went on to create the Great Society. The post-Goldwater defense of the Great Society -- which is to say of the Expansionist Liberal program -- has been largely successful. It's been chipped away at the margins in some places and expanded upon in a few other places. But it hasn't been gutted and looks unlikely to be gutted, even though the country is run by people who, in their heart-of-hearts, would unquestionably like to gut it.

So that's what I think about that.

March 2, 2005 | Permalink


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A catchier phrase than "Super Expansionist Liberal" is necessary.

It's also inappropriate in the case of health care, since single-payer would arguably reduce the size and cost of the medical bureaucracy.

Posted by: Greg Abbott | Mar 2, 2005 5:19:29 PM

Here's what's missing: all the good stuff about gender and sexuality, which has proceeded in Grand Historical fashion as if Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and Karl Rove never existed. In the 1970s, expansionist liberalism switched its focus from the condition of the poor to the rights of women and homosexuals, a turn that was both radical and philosphically consistent with the Civil Rights revolution. It may have been a political miscalculation-- don't run against the traditional middle-class white family if you want to maintain your majority-- but it did not represent a total departure from liberalism.

Posted by: AWC | Mar 2, 2005 5:21:20 PM

Of course words like progressive and liberal change meaning over time. Mr. Pearlstein may be suprised to learn that what was considered avant garde in the art world in 1964, no longer is.

The healthcare debate is so dishonest as to not be worth engaging. I would just point out that the whole system would collapse without the heavy hand of government:
--unfunded mandate for private institutions (hospitals) to give away free care to those who can't (or won't) pay in ERs
--federal price fixing in Medicare and Medicaid which sets the standard for the insurance industry
--the federal government negotiating drug prices for veterans through the VA, something taken to be immoral by conservatives if done for seniors (why do conservatives hate old people?)
--the fact that government in America already pays as much per person for healthcare as in England, only we cover a fraction of the population and have worse infant mortality and longevity.

It is a fraud, and no politician on the right has the guts to say we should return to a free market system. Instead a coalition of libertarian leaning Republicans, too impotent to roll back government involvement, ally with big business Republicans who like the current system with all its subsidies to the drug and insurance industries. For shame.

Sorry, I digress.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 2, 2005 5:35:20 PM

All the Way with LBJ!

(I wish Caro would hurry up with the final installment of the bio. I'll be really annoyed if he dies before he finishes it.)

Posted by: Petey | Mar 2, 2005 5:50:46 PM


Posted by: praktike | Mar 2, 2005 6:16:11 PM

Your super-expansionist liberalism is really just the Canadian status quo (although why you would want to adopt Canadian fiscal federalism arrangements is beyond me).

To be fair, Canada needs to learn something from Bill Clinton about how to help its disproportionately aboriginal underclass.

Posted by: Gareth | Mar 2, 2005 6:23:10 PM

A huge barrier confronts us liberals--Super-Expansionist and otherwise--as we confront the need to build our own Goldwaterrific think tanks and all: Gutting government sounds free. Our good stuff, no matter HOW you frame it, ends up sounding like money is involved.

The Republicans recently gave us a huge gift by reminding America that gutting New Deal/Great Society programs isn't free. They were well on the way to boiling the frog, but they got impatient.

But I doubt that will do us much long-term good. Americans are complacent and selfish (at least enough of them, anyway, to keep Super-Expansionist Liberalism from having a snowball's chance in hell until the next serious economic collapse). Convincing people that society will be so f-ing cool if they just pay a reasonable tax rate? That might fly in a sensible country, but not here.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Mar 2, 2005 6:25:58 PM

Caro is actually much younger than you would think from the amount of time he's spent writing excellent books. I saw him once in person last summer and once introducing Ted Kennedy at the DNC, and there's no danger. The Johnson biography is really the absolute best book about politics that there is, on philosophy more than you would think just knowing the subject.

Posted by: Marshall | Mar 2, 2005 6:33:07 PM

"The Republicans recently gave us a huge gift by reminding America that gutting New Deal/Great Society programs isn't free. They were well on the way to boiling the frog, but they got impatient."

Not only that, but they've given Democrats a hard shove toward uniting and organizing around economic issues instead of social issues, which is the Republicans' greatest nightmare.

Every minute we're talking about Social Security and Universal Health Care is a minute we're not talking about gay marriage and rights for accused terrorists.

There's a majority out there for a Democratic Party united and organized around economics.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 2, 2005 6:34:35 PM

"That might fly in a sensible country, but not here."

It may have simply been a glitch, the Greatest Generation being the most generous. But I like to at least consider the possibility that Americans even now like to think well of themselves and each other, and are susceptible to a more communitarian appeal. Republicans can only offer a very thin, hypocritical, and usually militaristic version of sharing. Their hearts are not in it.

Reading Mr Pearlstein above, I have to wonder if he was hinting the present liberal establishment is far too defensive and protective of previous gains.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 2, 2005 6:36:03 PM

"I saw (Caro) ... introducing Ted Kennedy at the DNC..."

Yeah. I thought it was quite nice for Kennedy, the man of the Senate, to have Caro introduce himself after the amount of Senate detail present in the last volume of the LBJ series.

But young or not, people still get hit by buses, and it would be incredibly annoying to have the story cut off before the Presidential years.

(Although the '48 Senate race is worth the price of admission all on its own. I've always thought there was a Hollywood movie to be made of LBJ tooling around in his helicopter in that campaign.)

Posted by: Petey | Mar 2, 2005 6:40:50 PM

I actually disagree about the movie: it just wouldn't be as good as reality. Hollywood can do speeches and idealism and liberalism and it can do corruption, but not both. Johnson is far too complex for them. The man flaunted his machinations in part because he knew the voters wouldn't tolerate him for long if they didn't think he was a badass. He was brilliant at the politics of heaven and of hell. Let Hollywood try to show that--no, reality is just too good for them.

Posted by: Marshall | Mar 2, 2005 6:52:58 PM

Plus, where would they find an actor with the EARS to play LBJ?

Posted by: bobo brooks | Mar 2, 2005 7:05:14 PM

Plus, where would they find an actor with the EARS to play LBJ?

Just ask Leonard Nimoy.

Posted by: modus potus | Mar 2, 2005 7:34:26 PM

Hmmm...much to ponder here. For the most part, I agree with Matt's analysis, although I think he glosses over the truly dismal state of the progressive political movement when he writes:

Super-Expansionist Liberalism isn't in such hot shape at the moment. The Democratic Party, our vehicle of choice, is kind of on the ropes.

Yeah, I'll say.

The thing is, in politics you're either on the offensive or you're retreating. Why, I wonder, did the super-expansionist liberals start retreating? Matt tries to differentiate between the people who were working on the "fulfillment of Expansionist Liberalism's goals" and the people who have been fighting tooth and nail for three decades to hold on to those gains. But they're really the same crew, the same coalition. They're just not as successful as they used to be.

Why is this the case? The usual suspects are Vietnam and/or the oil shocks of the 70s and/or the attendant economic difficulties of that era. But the real reason, I suspect, is that the people who brought us the Great Society simply got intellectually lazy, or perhaps hubristic. Just as today's economic conservatives display precious little of the innovative thinking and boldness they were lionized for in the Regan and Thatcher years (nowadays the simple slashing of marginal rates passes for creative conservative thinking), so too, by the early 70s, political liberalism had simply gotten lazy. Once the tank goes dry, the voting public eventually catches on.

From what I can see, at least in terms of what is politically feasible, there's virtually nothing interesting or innovative coming from the left's political power wielders in terms of policy proposals. But luckily for them, that's now pretty much the case with the right, too. No doubt in a 50-50 society with elections every two years, this is rather inevitable. There's a lot to lose politically by gambling with a big idea and getting it wrong. This political caculus almost guarantees a lack of innovation in domestic politics.

But the left actually has an opportunity at this current juncture, because the first side of the aisle to emerge with actual, concrete legislation (as opposed to mere op/eds and blogospheric fantasies) could well be on the road to political power. And there there are actually a few people on different sides of the spectrum who care about ideas. Personally I'm gunning for a Robert Reich/Newt Gingrich national unity ticket in '08.

Posted by: P. B. Almeida | Mar 2, 2005 9:50:55 PM

I think that referring to national health care as "Super-Expansionist Liberalism" is neither accurate nor politically helpful. Every other industrialized country has it, for God's sake. And it works. It is the absurd patchwork system in the U.S. that is the international exception. Matthew, you should know better than this. Framing is very important.

Posted by: Firebug | Mar 2, 2005 9:53:41 PM

"Why, I wonder, did the super-expansionist liberals start retreating?"

Because the electoral coalition supporting them splintered in 1968.

That's the short answer. The long answer explains why that coalition splintered, and you've touched on some of those reasons in your comment.

Posted by: Petey | Mar 2, 2005 10:04:34 PM

I like to think of myself as some who can be convinced to vote for either party. I've voted for both parties in local and state election, but have resisted national Democrats, though I came close to voting for Clinton in 96, before abstaining entirely. The label "Super-Expansionist" is never going to win me over.

Posted by: Publius Rex | Mar 2, 2005 10:17:15 PM

Yeah... I'm not sure I agree to Pearlstein's terms, let alone the "super-expansionist" model. Off the top of my head, it's that there's lots of things that go into the success of the Great Society (in terms of getting it passed and signed), including Lyndon's personal charisma, the legacy of Kennedy's assasination, and an understanding that the historical moment might never return (Lyndon's famous observation that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 handed the South to Republicans). Those realities make a straight shot assessment of ever-expanding liberalism a little tougher to make as a case, I think, when one doesn't allow for the serendipitous timing of history.

As epistemology notes above, definitions change over time. I am to some degree a Democrat because, simply, I am not a Republican, expansionist whatnot or whatever, you're not going to get me to give up the terms that I use to define myself - liberal, and Democrat. Am I liberal like my Mom's liberal? Well, no, occasionally to her chagrin. But we agree far more than we disagree, and I find I share, generally, the values of other liberals (now, that whole nationalized health care thing, we need to seriously talk, but otherwise you usually have me at hello).

So, while I do need to ruminate a bit more on my own, in general, no - I think Pearlstein is mistaken on his terms, his theory and his conclusion. Also, that whole "slowly" thing plucks my little nerve. Speed the heck up already, or you'll get left behind.

Posted by: weboy | Mar 2, 2005 11:54:10 PM

I think what really happened is that liberals learned too much economics, while conservatives forgot economics entirely. Consider Matthew's love of free trade. By economic logic, an impeccable idea, but political death. Come up with a visionary new social program, and the first thing liberals will start worrying about how much it costs. Conservatives used to be the ones who worried about balancing the budget. Now, no price tag is too high for a tax cut, or for any attempt to remake society in their preferred image. The lesson of American politics: nobody ever won an election by worrying about arithmetic.

Posted by: Walt Pohl | Mar 2, 2005 11:57:33 PM

Let's assume that "Super-expansionist liberals" eventually enact all of the things that you mentioned. Do we then get some breed of "Super-super expansionist liberals?"

I basically supportive of the goals you've mentioned, but I have a feeling that if SE Liberals such as yourself have their way, there's nothing but an unending parade of federal regulation that eventually has the US joining the EU.

Basically, at what point are liberals willing to say, "This is enough government unless an entirely new problem arises?"

Posted by: TW. Andrews | Mar 3, 2005 3:38:53 AM

"The label "Super-Expansionist" is never going to win me over."

What about Super-Expansionism as relates to foreign policy? Is that going to win anyone over? Nah! Never!

Posted by: DDoD | Mar 3, 2005 3:42:58 AM

hey, isn't it spelled Perlstein?

Posted by: Phil | Mar 3, 2005 3:45:12 AM

Mr. Yglesias et. al.:

It is not foreign policy weakness or a lack of Jesus-talk that has hurt modern liberals (though these have not helped). It's not a "lack of institutional infrastructure" either. (Whether you want to admit it or not, you've got the media, the creative class, and academia almost totally on your side.) It is precisely this love of "expansionism" as an end in itself. Expansion--to what? What are you after? When/where does it end?

I was ambivalent about my vote in the last election, but I ended up supporting Bush precisely because I know what he wants. It has limits. It can be defined. I don't like all of it, but at least I know what it is. With modern liberals, I fear that what you all want is "expansion" of government ad infinitum, in which almost all aspects of life (with the possible exception of sexuality and reproduction) are heavily regulated. The end of that path seems to be a dictatorship of "wise" and "benevolent" folks like yourselves. Pardon me if I am not enthusiastic.

Here's an article that sums up how some of us on the right, including classical liberals like myself who have no love for the religious right, feel about you:


I'd put it differently: can you be more specific than "expansion" or "super-expansion"? Can you describe the kind of country you envision and define in general terms what (if anything) will check the power of your ever-expanding state? Or are you glad to accept the title "illiberal liberals" that many of us think you deserve?

Posted by: Mark | Mar 3, 2005 7:50:46 AM

Mark - read Matt's comment. He never spoke of expansionism as an end, and he laid out three expansions/reforms of goverment programs:

I believe, among other things, that we ought to complete the march toward universal health care, that the federal government ought to play a much larger role in equalizing education funding, and that we ought to restore our commitment to fighting poverty to the sort of scale we saw in the 1970s (though not through the same methods).

Guaranteed health care, better education for disadvantaged children, more effective fight against poverty. Is that a vision you like, or is it just "illiberal"?

Posted by: Mikael | Mar 3, 2005 8:49:43 AM

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