Many progressives and other lefties believed the Great Recession of 2008 was going to finally discredit the free-market fundamentalism that had dominated debate over the political economy for three decades.
This was especially true after Wall Street bosses asked for and received a massive bailout and then awarded themselves massive bonuses. While ordinary Americans were losing their homes and jobs and life savings, the richest of the rich were making a mockery of the social contract. Surely, progressives thought, there is no clearer expression of how the game is rigged and there is no better moment for a resurgence of a populist left.
We got populism, but the wrong kind. What we saw instead was a resurgence of a very old, very paranoid strain of right-wing populism that, as Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1964, regards a "'gigantic' conspiracy as the motive force in historical events... What is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take but an all-out crusade."
Instead of regulatory reform, we got "birthers". Instead of tax reform, we got "anchor babies" (don't ask). Instead of infrastructure development, we got hysterics over "death panels". And instead of progressives sweeping the 2010 midterms, we got the Tea Party and its billionaire backers.
Liberalism has been a success, Alterman quipped, as long as it "doesn't cost money.
Since then, progressive voices have been quiet but not silent. In response to US congressman Paul Ryan's plan to strip $4tn out of the federal budget over 10 years, mostly from popular social programmes like Medicare, the Congressional Progressive Caucus released a plan called Budget for All that is unapologetic about raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and on spending to create good jobs in order to boost aggregate demand.
The most prominent among these voices must be Elizabeth Warren's. A professor at Harvard Law School and bankruptcy expert, she went to Washington to oversee President Obama's oversight committee on the bank bailouts. She counselled the drafting of financial reform legislation that included the creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which she was poised to head until she was deemed too radical to lead the agency. Now she is running for the US Senate, and in her bid to unseat Scott Brown, a Republican, she is proudly wearing the mantle of Roosevelt's New Deal.
'As healthy as it's ever been'
The historical moment might be right.
If now is the zenith of the political right (the Tea Party, libertarians, social conservatives, neocons, et cetera), it is the nadir of liberalism. Or, at least, a certain kind of liberalism, as Eric Alterman, a historian and author of The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, explained on Bill Moyers' public affairs programme on PBS. The first thing Moyers asked was if he'd written liberalism's eulogy.
He said: "For a certain kind of liberalism, for an economics-based liberalism, for a liberalism that uses a strong central government on behalf of people who need some force in the world to protect them from corporations and economic forces that are beyond their control."
We got populism, but the wrong kind. What we saw instead was a resurgence of a very old, very paranoid strain of right-wing populism.
Cultural liberalism, to the contrary, "is as healthy as it's ever been". Few believed gay marriage would have made the inroads it has made, all the way up to President Barack Obama, who himself embodies another liberal achievement as the first African American President of the United States.
In Alterman's view, liberalism has a kind of doubleness that over the last three decades, the same period that saw the rise of free-market fundamentalism, has led to enormous gains for "women's rights, civil rights, gay rights, other kinds of rights for people", he said - but that has also led to enormous disparities in income, wealth and political power.
This is why, as recent events suggest, it is politically easier to achieve gay marriage in New York State than it is to raise the minimum wage, and this is why a proposed ban on jumbo-sized soft drinks in New York City is more credible than a debate over establishing a living wage. Liberalism has been a success, Alterman quipped, as long as it "doesn't cost money".
Liberalism used to be a majoritarian politics in which every economic policy was seen as a benefit to all Americans. The social contract was the heart of a liberal ideology that would "lift all boats", Alterman said. "By doing so, you would help the people who needed help the most."
The 1970s was a turning point. Inflation decimated working-class wages, the Vietnam War divided the Old Left from the New, and civil rights drove a stake into the heart of the Democratic Party. And then "liberals turned on one another", Alterman said. "Feminists turned on blacks turned on gays turned on white working-class people and so forth. And they ended up being their own worst enemies, because they couldn't agree on a common goal for government to lift up people in a majoritarian sense."
Meanwhile, conservative Republicans' vision of government has been fundamentally consistent since the Reagan era: small government, low taxes, deregulation, and the glorification of free markets. And to stay in power, they deployed ingenious methods of hobbling any liberal voting bloc usually with wedge issues like gay marriage, abortion or evolution.
The social contract
Perhaps we are approaching another turning point. Social issues don't matter this year the way economic issues do, according to an April survey by the Pew Research Center. Only 39 per cent of more than 3,000 respondents said abortion was very important. The same with birth control (34 per cent) and gay marriage (28 per cent). Issues they care about the most: the economy (86 per cent), jobs (84 per cent), the budget deficit (74 per cent), health care (74 per cent) and education (72 per cent).
In this context, Republican Scott Brown should be worried. Thus far, he has cultivated an image as a moderate on gay marriage, abortion and the military's Don't Ask Don't Tell policy. In other words, on social issues.
Warren's "us" isn't that of Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. It is anyone who works for a living.
This is why Warren is attempting to cast him in politically fruitful economic terms. During a speech at the Massachusetts Democratic Convention, she said: “Whoever he once was, I can tell you who he is now. Scott Brown is a Wall Street Republican. A big oil Republican. A Mitt Romney Republican."
Indeed, she seems to be re-framing the debate over government itself. Instead of one that governs best when it governs least, as Reagan famously said, Warren is asking voters to ask themselves if government is fighting for you. Implicit in this is that government is good for you as long as you have the right people in it. As she said in April, the real question is "whether or not the government in Washington belongs to us".
"Us versus them" is a basic unit of populist rhetoric - this time on the left. Warren's "us" isn't that of Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum. It is anyone who works for a living. And "them" isn't immigrants, women, minorities, the poor, homosexuals, "communists", or Volvo-loving, Chardonnay-drinking pointy-headed liberals. "Them" is the rich and powerful.
Warren takes every opportunity to tie Brown to the Wall Street oligarchy that savaged the lives of the people she hopes to represent in the Senate. After Congressional testimony recently by the head of JPMorgan Chase to explain why his lost a staggering $2bn, she said: "Wall Street banks get their way with Congress... The big banks that broke the economy have not been held accountable. Scott Brown held the financial reforms hostage until they were weakened and then he worked after the laws were passed to weaken them further. That’s what people understand.”
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Warren has called for resuscitating a New Deal-era law that separates commercial banks from investment banks, thus removing the government's implicit guarantee to cover all bad bets. She believes the effective corporate tax rate should be higher, and that the rich should pay more. She wants to see more spending on infrastructure, research, and energy, measures widely viewed as beneficial to the middle class.
A Warren victory won't mean liberalism has sprung out of its nadir, but it might encourage a renewed populist left and the recognition of the need for government to play an active role in our lives in order to protect us from economic and corporate forces beyond our control. Indeed, if Warren can convince voters to see themselves as a class against an oppressive plutocracy, then we may see a liberalism again that costs money.
Follow him on Twitter: @johnastoehr
John Stoehr's writing has appeared in American Prospect, Reuters, the Guardian, Dissent, the New York Daily News and The Forward. He is a frequent contributor to the New Statesman and a columnist for the Mint Press News.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.