Were we to live in a perfect political world, Walter Russell Mead would have been my speechwriter when I was a national candidate in 1984. He would have come in especially handy when Walter Mondale asked that March about my campaign: “Where’s the beef?” I would have responded, as Mead has in this important essay, regarding the future liberal project:
America’s job is to boldly go where none have gone before, not to consume our energies in vain attempts to recreate the glories of an unattainable past. We need to do for our times and circumstances what other Americans have done before us; recast classic Anglo-American liberal thought, still the cultural and moral foundation of American life and the source of commonsense reasoning that guides most Americans as they evaluate policy ideas and party programs, in ways that address the challenges before us.There’s the beef.
That’s what I, representing a few other recently elected Democrats and millions of American voters, was trying to do a quarter century ago. A few of us who were elected in the mid-1970s saw a tidal wave coming in the form of two historic revolutions: globalization and information. In our view at the time, we would either ride those waves into the onrushing 21st century, or we would miss the rising tide by clinging to old policies, institutions and political arrangements. As Mead cogently points out, the spirit of liberalism is not necessarily, or automatically, progressive. When liberals fail to respond to dramatic new realities and instead cling to past formulas and successes, they can become as reactionary as much of the conservatism they reject.
What America needed at the beginning of that emerging 1970s tidal wave was a national policy to manage the shift of our economic base from traditional manufacturing industry to the new information technologies. That was, or should have been, the task of progressive liberals. Instead, the Democratic Party and many of its constituent groups sought security in protectionist measures that would have stimulated trading wars and defeated any chance of U.S. global economic and political leadership.
But that is all history, and Mead argues that it’s not too late to create what he calls liberalism 5.0. Several simultaneous train wrecks to which Mead alludes give us little choice. These include: an expanding retirement generation and lengthening life expectancies; rising health care costs; unsustainable pension and retirement systems; anti-tax constituencies; an aging and underfinanced infrastructure; and of course increasing foreign competition from emerging regional economic powers led by China and India. These 21st-century realities neither emerged nor converged overnight; nor are they all of the same character. Some are demographic and thus unavoidable. Others are the product of conscious political choices and experimentation with theories such as supply-side economics that, even after years of trial, still have not proved their worth. Underlying the age of drift since the 1970s was, as Mead points out repeatedly, a rather dreamy assumption that somehow consumption (and its accompanying debt) could replace production.
All this, he argues, makes maintenance of the “blue model”, the post-Depression, post-World War II world without limits that we used to inhabit, unsustainable. He might well have added yet another major factor in our threatened decline: military overreach. We are still deployed around the world, and struggling to liquidate two major “regime change” wars, while our economic base required to finance this benign empire erodes beneath us. Indeed, the limits attributable to all the forces he identifies should have occurred to us several years ago when aggressive interventionists were contemplating what insiders casually refer to as “power projection.”
Military power as a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy is not only based on an assumption of economic expansion that can pay for it, but also the continuation of the Westphalian world built upon the nation-state and its monopoly on violence. As the Council of Vienna in 1647–48 introduced the Westphalian era, so September 11, 2001 marked its end. Hence the third major revolution with which we are struggling, even as we cope with the intersection of globalization and the information revolution: the changing nature of conflict and the rise of unconventional warfare carried on by stateless nations. The Cold War military superstructures, built around the big Army division, the Navy carrier task group and Air Force long-range bombers are of little effect in this environment. Thus, another pillar of the old “blue model” is crumbling.
Central to Mead’s very important argument is the failure of our two-party political system. As he describes it, one party seeks a return to a nostalgic past that probably never existed as it is fondly imagined, while the other seeks refuge in a New Deal cathedral that the highly experimental Franklin Roosevelt would have been the first to escape. Mead is right to believe that the only way forward is through a re-imagined liberalism—whether called 5.0 or something else (a prize for naming rights)—that will open a time of “adventure, innovation, and creativity” and “capture the best energies of a rising generation.”
Even without the benefit of Mead’s essay as a point of reference, there was little doubt in 2008 that several million American voters cast their ballots for Barack Obama in the hope that he would undertake the reformation of liberalism as defined in this essay. Though diminished, that hope lingers. Franklin Roosevelt himself is perhaps the best evidence for the proposition that great leaders can repair the considerable damage of burst bubbles while launching the great ship of state in a bold new direction.
Economic, political and military power are not the only assets underlying America’s global stature. Despite some inexplicable behavior in times past, we are looked to as a social and constitutional model for new generations of citizens around the world who still find the revolutionary ideals from our Founding era a source of attraction and admiration—especially when we live up to them. Liberalism 5.0 must seek to provide a new framework for American domestic policy; in the process it will restore to us the mantle of democracy’s highest global ideals.