A new golden age of liberalism? Not right soon! Conservatism's obituary: Authors' yearning for a new New Deal won't make it happen.


February 25, 1996|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN STAFF

"WE WIN," gloated a recent issue of the conservative Weekly Standard, the hottest new magazine in Washington. Liberalism had surrendered, memorably, in Bill Clinton's line that "the era of big government is over."

Some of the nation's most important liberal writers beg to differ. In a stack of new books dumped into the maw of this down-and-dirty election year, they offer a startling prediction:

Liberalism isn't defunct. Not at all. Instead, it is about to come roaring back. Gingrichism went too far, the theory goes, and a chastened nation soon will put the party of government back into power. They've even given this latest neo-liberal incarnation a name: the New Progressivism.

There's one flaw, however, in the vision of a liberal comeback. Based on evidence from the real world, there's no solid reason to believe it will occur, and plenty of reasons to think it won't. At the moment, in fact, prospects for a new golden age of liberalism look about as likely as the odds that a folk music revival will supplant rock.

The soon-to-be-fashionable idea of a liberal resurgence will surely lift the hearts of dispirited progressives. They've been down in the depths of a seemingly endless political winter. It began with Nixon, worsened with Reagan and hit absolute zero with Gingrich. Today, the profound silence on the left is a poignant, if seldom remarked upon, fact of political life.

The prophets of a liberal comeback say that is about to change. And in at least one way, there's a certain logic to the notion. Contrarians make good prophets, and what shrewder time to forecast the left's rebirth than now, when liberalism has sunk to its lowest level.

The political pendulum, after all, is more than a cliche. Historian .. Arthur Schlessinger believes the history of American government moves in cycles, in a never-ending tug of war between the forces of public (read liberal) purpose and private (conservative) interests. Surely, by this logic, we're overdue for a reversal of the conservative trend that began more than 30-years-ago with Barry Goldwater and reached a new peak with the election of a Republican Congress in 1994.

Historical parallels are an important part of thesis put forward by E.J. Dionne Jr., a leading promoter of liberalism's rebirth, in "They Only Look Dead: Why Progressives Will Dominate the Next Political Era" (Simon and Schuster. 352 pages. $24), What's about to happen, he contends, is a lot like what took place during the first Progressive era, which grew out of the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism in the Gilded Age, exactly a century ago.

Mr. Dionne's book is a brilliant

intellectual history of the early years of the Clinton presidency. In it, he illuminates many of the ideas that form the foundation of both the Clinton agenda and the Republican "revolution." And he argues that the extremism surrounding the Republican revolution has turned off many members of the "anxious middle," who control the balance of power in America.

The country's ear

Now is the moment, he says, for liberals to grab the country's ear and remind everyone of the good that government has done - protecting the environment, ending segregated schools, making workplaces safer, providing security for seniors in their final years, and much more.

"Democrats and liberals have been too timid in defending government's legitimate role," writes Mr. Dionne, a columnist for the Washington Post. A similar line is followed by Jacob Weisberg in "In Defense of Government: The Fall and Rise of Public Trust" (Scribner. 208 pages. $22, scheduled for publication in May) and former Clinton campaign manager James Carville in "We're Right, They're Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives" (Random House. 183 pages. $10/paper).

Oddly enough, a writer who some call a conservative, Robert J. Samuelson, makes one of the strongest arguments about the triumph of liberal government -the notion that things are not nearly as bad as they seem. In his "The Good Life and Its Discontents: How the American Dream Became a Fantasy, 1945-1995" (Times Books. 293 pages. $25), he writes persuasively that Americans today are better off than at any time our history, and government deserves credit for many of the most important changes that have taken place.

Our discontent, he concludes, arises from unrealistic expectations about our ability to create a perfect society. Government is partly to blame, for promising more than it could possibly deliver. "Government has become a misunderstood, mistrusted, and unpredictable neighbor, even while it was trying to become almost everyone's friend," he writes.

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