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November 15, 2008

Partisan America (2)

In a New Republic review, I argue that the rise of partisanship in the United States is the result of the regional and ideological realignment of the two major parties. Moreover, as Nancy Rosenblum argues in the book under review, partisanship is by and large a necessary and a good thing in a democracy. It's a good thing, I suggest, in its place. Here is how the essay ends:

Contrary to progressive "antipartisanism," Rosenblum insists, "what is
needed is not more independence but more and better partisanship." And this, I
think, is how we ought to approach the current American political condition. The
philosophers as well as the high-minded sermonizers ought to lose the vestigial
anti-party and anti-partisan impulses. Polarization along party lines may be
uncomfortable, but the parties now actually stand for something, and it makes
more sense than ever to stand with one of them. The voters have a clearer and
better basis for holding parties and party philosophies accountable. Partisan
identity is now a more important aspect of Americans' personal identities, and
we are going to have to live with it. We should not be averse to doing

And yet we must take care not to be too partisan about partisanship. It
ought not to be welcome in every aspect of life--certainly not in arenas such as
the schools, the churches, and the sciences, where concerns for other values
ought to dominate, and under ordinary circumstances completely exclude, the
partisan mentality. Yet in a society in which the parties stand for different
worldviews that encompass education, religion, and science, maintaining those
limits is increasingly difficult. Even in a partisan America, or perhaps
especially there, the ethic of partisanship has to include rules for keeping
partisanship in its place.


October 14, 2008

Partisan America (1)

Here is the first of two articles I've written this fall on the rise of partisan antagonisms in America. This is a column from the October issue of The American Prospect; the second article will be out shortly in The New Republic.

In this column, I emphasize that the 2008 election confronts voters with two presidential candidates who embody two different images of American national identity. And this contrast grows out of the deep sociological as well as philosophical divide between the parties.
The American Collision
By Paul Starr

Earlier in this election cycle, many observers suggested that if Barack Obama and John McCain became their parties' nominees, they would each moderate the polarizing tendencies in American politics. In the wake of the two parties' national conventions, that notion seems like a frail hope. Something is driving polarization, and it isn't the personalities.

It also isn't trends in public opinion. As Morris P. Fiorina argues in his book, Culture War?, public opinion surveys show that on most issues Americans are still bunched in the middle, contrary to the widespread belief that they are more deeply divided than they were a generation ago.

Of course, party differences have sharpened as a result of the ideological sorting out that's come with the defection of white Southerners from the Democrats and the conservative revolution within the GOP. At first glance, it looks like two opposite and equal shifts. The Democrats have become more liberal with the loss of Southern conservatives as the Republicans have become more conservative with the disappearance of liberals and moderates from their party.

But that nicely balanced picture doesn't fully reflect what's happened. Compare an older generation of Republican leaders to their successors--for example, George H.W. Bush to George W., George Romney to Mitt--and the younger ones are distinctly more right-wing. Democrats haven't seen a comparable generational shift. To borrow a term from Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker, what we've had is "asymmetrical polarization": Republicans have moved further right than Democrats have moved left.

This year, McCain was expected to bring the GOP back toward the center, not just because of who he is (or is supposed to be) but because of the dismal condition of the Republican brand. Instead, after locking up the nomination, he veered to the right, turning away, for example, from his earlier positions on the environment that gave him a reputation for independence (he had already changed his stance on immigration, Bush's tax cuts, and other matters). The base demanded concessions, and he made them. And nowhere was that pattern more evident than in McCain's choice of Sarah Palin after he backed down from picking Joe Lieberman.

Was all this inevitable? No, the McCain of Bush's first term might have resurfaced to wage a more centrist campaign, but the pressures to conform--the imperative to rouse the party--were formidable. And those pressures ultimately reflect social realities--the social make-up of the Republican Party, which was on full display at the party's national convention.

What is really at the root of party polarization is social tensions. Sociologically as well as ideologically, the two parties have become a stark contrast. The delegates to the Republican Convention were nearly all white (only 1.5 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic). Their hearts would not have been in a centrist campaign. What got them excited were the old denunciations of the liberal media and "Eastern elites" by speakers who tried to reignite the culture wars. With a more socially and culturally diverse base, the Democrats seek to downplay polarization, while the more homogeneous Republicans cannot resist trying to inflame it.

Despite the changes in its regional support, the GOP occupies the same sociological space today as in the 1920s, when it was a party predominantly of small-town Protestants fighting off a rising urban, immigrant America. At that time, the dominant conception of white Americans excluded recent immigrants, such as Jews and Italians, whereas now it includes them. But structurally the situation was the same: a white, self-consciously Christian party against a more diverse, urban one, with the former inclined to see the election as a contest between the virtues of honor, patriotism, and moral uprightness that its members identify with their own group (and their candidates) and the vices that they project onto the other.

McCain and Obama stand in as proxies for two versions of America. When voters hear Obama, they are responding not just to him but to a new multicultural America that they find attractive or frightening. And when they hear McCain, they are responding to a traditional America--or rather, an idea of that America--that they are determined to preserve or willing to see change.

McCain's America has historically dominated Obama's. White has dominated black, old has dominated young, the appeal of soldierly virtues has dominated those of the peacemaker. If Obama wins the presidency, it will turn the traditional order of things on its head.

But that has happened before. After the 1920s, FDR assembled a new majority, and in the 1960s LBJ helped to build another one. BHO has a fighting chance to do the same.
I wrote that column in early September. Since that time, the financial crisis has reduced the salience of national identity in the election and raised Obama's chances of victory. As of now, not only does Obama have more than a fighting chance; we may be on the verge of a Democratic victory that could open a new chapter in the history of American liberalism.


July 30, 2008

The Year of Passion

Belatedly, I am posting here my column from the July-August issue of The American Prospect, which was written in June just after Clinton conceded the nomination. Contrary to those who believe the Democrats are guaranteed to sweep in November, I continue to see the election as a toss-up.

Now that Barack Obama has secured his party's presidential nomination, it is a good moment to assess the extraordinary and improbable thing that the Democrats have done. It was not intuitively obvious, particularly to those who saw the party's central task as winning back the Reagan Democrats, that the best way to retake the presidency would be to nominate an African American with an Islamic-sounding name. In the abstract, before Obama emerged, that concept had not suggested itself, and some political insiders may be excused for not immediately grasping its genius.

Let us recall the leading explanations in recent years as to why Democrats were losing and what they had to do to win. To appeal to the Reagan Democrats, some held that the party needed a candidate who was culturally and religiously close to middle America--say, a moderate (white) Southern governor along the lines of Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, the only Democrats to get elected in the past 40 years. Central casting sent over Mark Warner to play this role, but he dropped out before the primaries began.

Others said that the party should wage its fight on economic grounds and nominate a populist. John Edwards used this script, but given his wealth and style, he wasn't the best choice for the part.

The populist strategy also had elements of a related theory. Instead of trying to appeal to voters who had moved right, this approach called for reaching out to millions of nonvoters, many of them minorities, women, and young people, who simply haven't seen any connection between politics and their own lives. This strategy, however, requires something that cannot be planned and that conventional politics rarely provides--inspiration. Obama and Hillary Clinton drew upon these cultural/religious and economic theories in framing their campaigns. But they also stirred Americans at a deeper level than politics ordinarily does, raising the prospect that the Democrats might win the presidency this year by enlarging the electorate. Obama tapped into a repressed memory of what politics can be like when it lifts our aspirations instead of dashing them. His novelty is partly that he is very old-fashioned, a political leader who has risen largely on the strength of his oratory and the eloquence of his writing. In the course of the fight, Clinton became a better candidate, too, and found her own voice, though it was no match for his.

No recent campaign has had the same emotional intensity, and no voter could fail to be conscious of the election's symbolic importance. Once the nomination became a battle between Obama and Clinton, the party was certain to "make history"--it was just a question of which historic breakthrough it would make.

The contest was also riveting because at times it was painful to watch, infuriating, and unjust. The thought crossed my mind more than once: Can't somebody make this stop? The collision between Clinton and Obama at history's doorstep put many Democrats in an agonizing position, the electoral equivalent of "Sophie's choice," as if they were being asked: Which of these two, each embodying a cherished cause, will you turn your back on and sacrifice?

We ought to resist the impulse, however, to give any transcendent meaning to Obama's edging out of Clinton. The popular vote was essentially a tie (you can argue it either way); Obama won more delegates chiefly because his campaign invested in the caucus states and his supporters turned out for caucuses at a higher rate. With different rules (for example, winner-take-all state elections, as it will be in the fall), Clinton could have won.

Nonetheless, Obama did win, and the world stands astonished, awaiting November's verdict. In the fine tradition of American self-congratulation, many people, including some who will vote against Obama, are already declaring that his victory proves how enlightened the country is and that racism is a thing of the past. That inference is premature.

Racism runs deep in American society, and looking at the polling this year, it is hard to miss it in the demographic patterns, particularly in the data on older voters. Some analysts believe that the economy and other underlying factors are so overwhelmingly in the Democrats' favor that they can accept the "cost" of nominating an African American and still prevail this fall. You could say that is the bet that the party is making, except to describe it as a "bet" implies too much calculation. For Democrats, this is the year when passion reawakened--and although passion had its reasons, it paid the voice of calculation no mind.


May 24, 2008

Soft Power, Smart Power, Principled Power

Recently, there's been a debate among some liberal writers about the problems with the term "soft power," which lends itself to misunderstanding as being "soft" in the sense of weak and ineffectual. Others suggest "smart power," which may well be a better term for political leaders to use, and still others prefer "principled power."

If we set aside the question of what's a good slogan and instead consider what's a good conception of power, then I think "principled power" is on the right track. It implies not just that power ought to be used in a principled way, but that the power of a liberal society grows directly out of its principles -- first of all, out of its principles of constitutional constraint (the idea that constitutionally limited power can be more powerful than unlimited power); and second, out of its principles of equality and social inclusion.

The experience of recent years ought to reinforce those convictions. Bush hasn't trespassed constitutional limits with marvelous results; he's degraded American power in both senses of the word "degrade." And a more inclusive conception of our interests (inclusive internationally as well as at home) has a far greater chance to achieve the ends Americans want. This is why I argue in Freedom's Power for a liberalism that takes power (as well as rights and justice) seriously. Among the various conceits of conservatism is that it alone knows power, when it's actually failed on the very ground it sees as its own. There has been no better time to make that case than this election year.

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March 24, 2008

Candidate vs. Circumstances: Which Will Decide the Election?

The 2008 election may prove to be a test of an old question: How much do individual candidates matter in determining who gets elected president? At this point, the underlying economic circumstances and trends in party identification favor the Democrats, but John McCain has gained in the polls and enjoys higher favorability ratings than either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

The economic models predict a Democratic victory. In a Bloomberg article today, Alison Fitzgerald writes:
Recessions shaped four presidential elections in the past half-century -- in 1960, 1976, 1980 and 1992. Each time, the candidate from the party trying to retake the White House won. A model that uses economic data to predict presidential race outcomes has the Democrats getting 52 percent of the votes cast for the two major party candidates, says Ray Fair, the Yale University professor who developed it.

The economy may be a factor in the shifting balance of party identification among the electorate. This past week, based on 5,566 interviews during the first two months of 2008, the Pew Research Center reported that Democrats enjoy a significant advantage, with 36 percent of registered voters identified as Democrats and only 27 percent as Republicans. The Republican share has dropped by six points in the past four years and represents "the lowest percentage of self-identified Republican voters in 16 years of polling by the Center." What is especially striking is the change in swing states:
Four years ago there were about as many Democrats (35%) as Republicans (33%) in the 12 states where the voting was closest in 2004, and the balance was similar in the 2000 election cycle. But so far in 2008, Democrats hold a substantial 38% to 27% identification advantage in these states.

Looks good for Democrats. But McCain's image may enable him to avoid the burden that Republicans would normally carry into the election. And Clinton and Obama each carry burdens of their own that have no historical precedent and that models based on past elections can't possibly incorporate.

Given the trends, this ought to be a good Democratic year. But for months (and even more strongly in recent weeks), my sense has been that the presidential race is at best a toss-up. Just as in 2000 the Republicans benefited from the misperception of their candidate (who campaigned that year as a "compassionate conservative"), so they seem likely again to benefit from public misperception of their candidate as a moderate centrist, when on the crucial issues of the day--the war and the economy--McCain's positions are indistinguishable from the incumbent president who's got a 30 percent approval rating. It's going to be the Democratic candidate's job to make that clear.


March 21, 2008

A New Deal of Their Own

The March issue of The American Prospect carries a special report, "Mobilizing Millennials: Will Their Economic Raw Deal Fuel the Next New Deal?" in which I have an article, "A New Deal of Their Own." Here I pursue a theme that I have raised in Freedom's Power and in a series of articles (see my earlier post on "The Idea of a Young America Program").

The persistent problems among America's children are well known. What's less widely appreciated is that during the past 35 years these problems have increasingly extended into young adulthood. But not all age groups have seen their fortunes sink; the economic situation of the elderly has improved markedly, thanks in large measure to public policy. I argue:
As this contrast suggests, the difficulties facing the young generally -- both children and young adults -- are the result of long-standing limitations in social policy whose effects have been aggravated by recent changes in the economy and the family. The three great waves of social reform since the 1930s -- the New Deal, the post-World War II GI Bill, and the Great Society -- failed to establish durable policies in support of the young.
It's this historical point that is the key contribution of this piece. Each of these previous eras of reform in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1960s originally included a substantial component targeted to young adults. But unlike the programs for the elderly, the programs for the young were never successfully institutionalized, and those that have remained have been supported by discretionary spending and proved far more vulnerable to cutbacks during recessions.

How to remedy that problem? I've offered several proposals. The first step, however, may be recognition by the young themselves that America hasn't done right by them and that they need a new deal of their own.

Young people interested in these issues should consider attending a conference of the Roosevelt Institution April 9 in Washington D.C.: "Toward a New New Deal: FDR's Liberalism and the Future of American Democracy."

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January 19, 2008

The Democrats' Lost Advantage

Here's my reassessment of the Democrats' chances in the presidential race after the first round of primaries and caucuses: "Watch It, Democrats. You Could Still Slip Up," Washington Post, Sunday, January 20, 2008.

Updated version: "The Democrats Could Blow It Again," Prospect Online, January 21, 2008.


December 20, 2007

A Road Map to the Start of a New America

In a new article in the January-February 2008 American Prospect, “The Democrats’ Strategic Challenge,” I try to set out what the Democrats could accomplish if they win the election and take control of the White House and Congress. The way forward, I suggest, will be “difficult, if not positively treacherous” because of the legacy of the Bush years both abroad and at home. Much will depend on whether Democrats can increase their currently tiny majorities in Congress, especially in the Senate.

But, despite these difficulties, there are practical steps that the Democrats could take in the first two years of a new administration to begin addressing some of the daunting problems that America and the world face. My two examples are policies concerned with restoring an economy of shared prosperity and meeting the threat of global warming.

None of the measures that I discuss is original. Just the opposite: They are now virtually all matters of substantial agreement among the major Democratic presidential candidates and Democratic congressional leaders.

And this is precisely why a new Democratic government could get some important things done. The intellectual ground has been prepared, many of the details have been fleshed out, and in some areas legislation has already been written and debated. Yet, amidst the usual political back-biting of the primary season, there is very little awareness about this emerging programmatic consensus.

Other articles in the same issue of the Prospect also address what “the Democrats could--and should--do to change the country and save the planet.”

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September 15, 2007

The New Liberal Opportunity

In its September 7 issue, The Chronicle of Higher Education features a review essay by E. J. Dionne Jr. on "The Liberal Moment," to which Todd Gitlin, Alan Wolfe, and I each offer our responses. I detect very little difference among us, which is another gift of the conservative implosion. As the Bush years come to a close, we are all clearer about liberal principles and the political realities that need to be reckoned with if America is to come closer to those ideals.

The core paragraphs of my piece, "The Liberal Opportunity," (also available here) are as follows:

What liberals now have is not a mandate but an opportunity -- actually, three kinds of opportunity. The first is an immediate political opportunity to help Democrats win the next election and reverse the current administration's policies abroad, assaults on constitutional liberties, and weakening of regulatory protections of health, safety, labor, and the environment.

The second is a strategic opportunity to address long-term problems such as rising economic inequality and global warming that conservatives have downplayed or denied and neglected.

And the third is an opportunity -- call it an intellectual or ideological opportunity -- to rebuild a base of popular support for liberal ideas by reopening a conversation with people who believe that liberals have not shown them any concern or respect and by redefining what liberalism means in the minds of a new generation.

The first of these opportunities naturally absorbs most of the immediate attention. But if Democrats win in 2008, the historical significance of that victory will depend on whether they can seize the strategic and ideological opportunities to deal with the nation's long-run problems and create the basis for a durable political majority.

And that is where ideas can potentially make the biggest difference.

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June 24, 2007

Why Immigration Reform Matters

"While a small number of illegal residents or temporary workers may raise ethical questions, a large population with no rights or security undermines the rule of law, the rights of citizens, and the working of democracy. The law cannot offer equal protection to all when there are millions of people for whom it offers no protection whatsoever." From a new column of mine in the July-August issue of The American Prospect.

Paul Starr

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April 29, 2007

Liberalism Versus Populism

In today’s New York Times, Michael Lind has a generous and thoughtful review of Freedom’s Power. He takes me to task, however, on one issue in particular: my treatment of the Populist movement of the late nineteenth century. He is entirely right that in discussing the formative influences on modern liberalism, I give the Populists little attention and regard the Progressives of the early twentieth century as more crucial.

Here is what I just wrote in an email in response to a reader who agrees with Lind’s review and thinks I should be more sympathetic to populism:

Many people use the term “populist” these days as a synonym for popular, egalitarian, and democratic. The liberalism I favor is all of those things. But as a distinctive movement in the U.S. and elsewhere, populism has other characteristics that are not so attractive—a penchant for ill-will toward minorities and immigrants and a suspicious, resentful, and sometimes downright paranoid view of education, culture, and finance. It is entirely possible, for example, to favor progressive taxation and oppose special privileges for corporations without adopting a populist worldview. That is why, in my mind, populism is not part of the history of liberalism. It was one of the alternatives liberalism had to overcome. And in much of the world, it still is. You can see this especially clearly in Latin America and other developing regions where populist leaders throw red meat to the crowds and do very little to advance long-term economic growth and social improvement.
My distaste for populism has been a long-running point of disagreement that I have had with many other liberals, including some of my fellow editors at The American Prospect. Here are some excerpts from “Why I’m Not a Populist,” an article I wrote seven years ago in the Prospect to explain my position:

It was just about 100 years ago, after the defeat of William Jennings Bryan in 1896, that the original, agrarian Populist movement collapsed and gave way to the more broadly based Progressivism of the early 1900s that permanently altered American government and society. But Populism, despite its short and checkered history, survives in our political vocabulary, and there are a fair number of people who brighten up at the thought of a populist revival. I am, however, not among them.

From the outset, the populist impulse has been to play upon one public emotion above all: anger. That anger has typically been directed at a diffuse enemy at the top—the monopolies, the interests, or elites of various kinds. The populist mind suspects conspiracies in high places, often in league with foreign influences, and appeals to a kind of insular Americanism that is suspicious of both immigrants and other countries. The grievances that populism taps are no doubt genuine. Its rhetoric and remedies are oversimplified and dangerous.
In the article, I went on to discuss three candidates for president in 2000 who at the time were being described as “populist”: Patrick Buchanan, Ralph Nader, and Al Gore. After noting that Buchanan had become an “asterisk” in public-opinion surveys (albeit a “major-league asterisk”), I had the following to say about Nader and Gore:

As of early September, Ralph Nader was doing better, pulling as much as 4 to 5 percent in the polls, which could be enough to tip the election. Nader's populism is the left-wing variety directed at corporate elites; it starts with legitimate criticism of corporate abuses but fails to provide a persuasive understanding of the economy as a whole. Nearly 30 years ago, as one of "Nader's raiders," I worked for Ralph on a study of Vietnam veterans and the Veterans Administration. Those were the days when Nader was a “consumer advocate” and swore that he had no ambitions for elected office, which was a good idea since he certainly didn't have the temper for it. The irony of Nader's presidential campaign is that if it succeeds, it may enable Bush (and his likely nominees to the Supreme Court) to dismantle the very agencies and policies that Nader himself helped to create in the early years of his public career. This would be success only if you count self-cancellation as an achievement.

The third candidate the media have dubbed "populist" is the surprise of the campaign: Al Gore. Gore earned the label by claiming at the Democratic convention to stand for "the people, not the powerful," and criticizing "big tobacco, big oil, the big polluters, the pharmaceutical companies, the HMOs." It was a critical turn for Gore, helping to reassure the base of the party about his Democratic bona fides. Nader reacted indignantly that Gore wasn't really a populist, and of course Gore isn't. He has no general antipathy to business, much less to the establishment.

So was his appeal at the Democratic convention fraudulent? Not at all. On a variety of issues, such as prescription drug benefits for the elderly, a patients' bill of rights,
environmental protection, and the regulation of tobacco, Democrats face fierce, heavily financed opposition from business interests. Setting aside "big oil" (obviously singled out because of the makeup of the Republican ticket), Gore's list underlined a determination to prevail over business opposition on issues that are central to the campaign. In a survey question that quoted Gore's list of specific industries, a Business Week/Harris poll in late August found that Americans agree with the vice president by a margin of 74 percent to 22 percent, but they don't necessarily harbor any deep anger against corporations: 68 percent also agree that American business should be given "most of the credit" for the current prosperity.

The Democrats are not an anticorporate party, but they are more willing than the Republicans to take on business interests to pursue goals that have broad public support. It was important for Gore to make clear that he would do that, not only to consolidate support for November, but also to establish a basis for a mandate afterward if he wins.

As a general approach to politics, populism long ago fizzled. Prosperity today makes an appeal to public anger and suspicion particularly implausible as a winning strategy. But there is still room for a politics that pushes back against corporate influence and seeks to assert the primacy of a public interest. The recent scandal involving Firestone tires is a reminder of the kind of corporate malfeasance that genuinely arouses public support for strong regulation of business. You don't have to be a populist to want political leaders who know when to put business in its place.

Notwithstanding Gore’s efforts to make clear that he would be an effective advocate of popular interests, Nader did tip the election, as I feared. We all know what happened as a result. Liberals ought to be clear: an egalitarian politics, certainly. But populism, no.

Paul Starr

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April 23, 2007

The idea of a Young America program

A new column of mine proposing a Young America program appears today in Campus Progress, the online student magazine of the Center for American Progress. The column draws on material from the last chapter of Freedom’s Power and argues that social policy ought to focus resources on the young. As the GI bill provided a tremendous boost to American society after World War II by enabling young veterans and their families to obtain higher education, job training, health care, and mortgages, so we ought today to help the young invest in their own—and thereby the nation’s—future.

The proposal for a Young America program builds on ideas that have been circulating for a while calling for new policies benefiting children. The difference here is more of an emphasis on young adults.

Fifteen years ago, in January 1992, I gave a speech to the National Academy of Social Insurance called “A New Deal for the Young” (a phrase I’ve continued to use). The speech was buried in the academy’s annual conference proceedings, and I didn’t do anything further with it because I was soon preoccupied with health policy in the Clinton administration.

But I’ve now posted “A New Deal for the Young” on my Princeton web site because nearly all of it continues to be relevant.

The key historical point is that the original New Deal and other programs of that era assumed that the traditional family would continue to be the predominant form and did not anticipate the radically different social world we inhabit today. Moreover, the primary legacy of the New Deal, particularly in a fiscal sense, has been the old-age pension system of Social Security as well as the Medicare program added to it in 1965.

After the mid-1960s, federal social spending shifted markedly toward the aged. Children and young adults have been relatively ill-served. As I point out in the column:

A variety of social indicators show the results. Just this past month, UNICEF brought together data on poverty rates, health, social behavior, families, and peer relationships in a study of the well-being of children and adolescents in 21 rich countries. In the overall ranking, the United States came in next to last.

To remedy these failings, we should be doing more to improve early childhood education and other policies affecting young children. But we should also be thinking about their parents—and the young people who will be parents not long from now.

As I did 15 years ago, I continue to argue for basing at least some elements of such a policy in a “norm of reciprocity.” Rather than simply hand out benefits, we ought to make them contingent on one or another form of national service. Where benefits are earned, they have far more chance of being thought legitimate.

This analysis ties in with the general ideas of Freedom’s Power:

The premise of a Young America program would be the inclusive conception of freedom and power that are at the core of modern liberalism. An increasingly unequal America that exposes so many of its young to poverty and insecurity cannot be the strong and prosperous nation all Americans want it to be. Government can be the means for expanding the horizon of freedom, creating opportunity, and making a society both more powerful and more just. The world used to think of America as a country where the young had possibilities unmatched anywhere else. The United States could be that country again.

P.S. For reaction to the proposal, check out what Ganesh Sitaraman has to say at TPM Cafe: "This is a bold idea – and one that could do a lot for the next generation of Americans." There are also more comments there, pro and con.

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March 12, 2007

A Democratic Tide?

Oh, it looks bad for the GOP. According to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, Republicans are despairing: 40 percent of them say they expect the Democrats to win the next election, while just 12 percent of Democrats say the GOP will win.

But Samuel L. Popkin and Henry A. Kim have a bracing historical reminder for Democrats in Sunday’s Washington Post:
The last time either party captured the White House two years after wresting
control of both House and Senate in midterm elections was in 1920. Democrats who
think that it is their turn to expand their pet programs and please their core
constituencies have forgotten how quickly congressional heavy-handedness can
revive the president’s party.
As Popkin and Kim point out, there have been four times since 1920 when the opposition party picked up one or both houses of Congress at the mid-terms but then lost the presidency two years later. These were in 1946, 1954, 1986, and 1994. In three of those four instances (all but 1986), the opposition candidate lost to an incumbent president—Truman, Eisenhower, and Clinton—and, in the fourth case, to the vice president, George H.W. Bush. Of course, 2008 will be entirely different. The Republican candidate for president will not come from the Bush White House, though that may well be to the GOP’s advantage given the fiasco in Iraq.

The swing toward the Democrats in recent public-opinion polls is substantial. At first, the numbers may not look that impressive. Charlie Cook recently pointed out in National Journal that, according to Gallup’s aggregated surveys for 2006, Democrats enjoyed a 3.9 percent edge in party ID (34.3 percent Democratic; 30.4 percent Republican; and 33.9 independents); that’s roughly a 5-point swing toward the Democrats from 2002. But when independents were asked which way they leaned, the Democrats’ edge rose to 10.2 percentage points. Says Cook: “That’s the biggest advantage either party has enjoyed since Gallup began pushing leaners in 1991—and it is significant. Leaners tend to end up voting for the party they tilt toward almost as consistently as do voters who say they belong to that party.”

Popkin and Kim are absolutely right, however, that the GOP could still hold the presidency in 2008, even in the face of Democratic gains in public opinion. I have the greatest respect for the two front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, but I am not yet convinced that they can overcome the obvious obstacles to their election. According to the New York Times/CBS poll, if the election were held now, Americans would choose an unnamed Democrat over an unnamed Republican by a 20-point margin. Nonetheless, both Clinton and Obama have run behind in polls first to John McCain and now to Rudy Giuliani. Are Democrats so sure the country has put sexism and racism to rest that they want to bet the future of the country on that proposition? I wish I felt confident that was true. Perhaps as we get closer to next February I will.

Paul Starr


March 9, 2007

The Pullout Deadline Debate

From a new column at Prospect Online:

The strange thing about the debate in Congress over a deadline for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq is that the objective political interests of the two parties are the reverse of their stated positions.

Republicans are facing a disaster in the 2008 election if the Iraq War continues unabated. But if the Democratic Congress ties the president's hands and forces a pullout, the Republicans would have an excuse for the war's failure, and their party could move on to focus the 2008 election on other issues. If GOP leaders could act on pure political self-interest, they would be secretly encouraging just enough defections by their own members of Congress to pass legislation requiring a pullout.

Conversely, if Democrats succeed in setting a deadline, they would be taking some responsibility upon themselves for what happens in the wake of a pullout, and they would lose the advantage of focusing the 2008 election on the war. The Democrats' political interest lies in demonstrating a determination to end the war without actually passing legislation to require a pullout.

For the time being, the Republicans are nearly united in playing their appointed roles as lemmings on a fatal march to the '08 precipice. They have sufficient votes in the Senate to stop any pullout requirement, and there is always the backup of a presidential veto. All the major Republican presidential candidates have lined up in support of the war and even of the "surge." But what will they call for after that? Like chess players caught in a trap, they seem to have no good options for their next moves.

The Democrats, in contrast, are in the fortunate position of doing both what they believe is right and what serves their political interest—trying to end the war, but at this point without the votes in Congress that could actually cut off the requisite funds and authority.

For Democrats, the big danger in this situation is the illusion that a pullout from Iraq could end our troubles in the region. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. Al-Qaeda grows in strength in nearby provinces of Pakistan. Iran has become more powerful and belligerent, and there is a risk of a larger regional Shia-Sunni war. Public opinion polls are registering high levels of approval for Democratic proposals in Congress partly on the basis of a mistaken impression that if we leave Iraq, we can put the whole mess behind us.

But that won't be possible. One of the reasons against invading Iraq was that the war would divert resources from the fight against al-Qaeda and perversely increase the risks of terrorism. One of the reasons for disentangling ourselves from Iraq is to pursue the fight against al-Qaeda more effectively. That is why a pullout has to be part of a more comprehensive diplomatic and military plan—which, barring a miraculous turnaround before then, only a new president elected in 2008 will be able to carry out.

Paul Starr

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March 8, 2007

He’s Already Feeling the Heat

In an article written on February 11 for the March issue of The American Prospect, I remarked, “If the Democratic tide in 2008 threatens to reach tsunami-like proportions, even a Republican thought to have a safe seat, such as Pete Domenici of New Mexico, could feel the heat.”

At the time, I had no particular reason to focus on Domenici, and few observers thought his seat would be in play. But the heat is already on. With the disclosure of his pre-election telephone call to federal prosecutor David Iglesias about pending corruption cases, the Democrats’ chances for taking the New Mexico seat have increased dramatically. The immediate effect will be to encourage a strong Democratic candidate (Bill Richardson? Tom Udall?) to get into the race. Look for Senator Domenici, who will be 76 in 2008, to decide it’s time to retire.

Paul Starr


March 4, 2007

Arthur Schlesinger’s Gift

I plan to have more to say about the legacy of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., but just a note about some of the commentary that has appeared in the week since his death at the age of 89.

In today’s New York Times, Sam Tanenhaus hails Schlesinger as the “last great public historian.” Like Russell Jacoby’s 1987 lament The Last Intellectuals, such praise of a departed generation implicitly disparages those who now practice the craft. I didn’t agree with Jacoby then, and 20 years later I don’t accept what Tanenhaus says. The public intellectual and public historian are not figures who have disappeared from our midst.

Schlesinger’s death takes from us a man with singular gifts, but he left us a gift too—his example. As E.J. Dionne writes in the Washington Post, it is a mistake to think that Schlesinger’s liberalism is being buried with him. And it is a mistake to believe that the seats that he and other historians ably filled in the public arena lie vacant.

Tanenhaus mentions two others besides Schlesinger—Richard Hofstadter and C. Vann Woodward—who qualified as great public historians. All three were important in defining the liberalism of the post-World War II era, though neither Hofstadter nor Woodward came close to matching Schlesinger in political prominence or sheer output.

If we take Hofstadter and Woodward as reasonable standards of comparison, I don’t think we lack for public historians who measure up to those of the mid-twentieth century. By public historians, I mean historians who engage the great public issues of their time and write about the past for the general public with authority and literary skill. Alan Brinkley, Sean Wilentz, and Garry Wills do this today, and there are others.

We no longer have Arthur Schlesinger, but the work goes on, not least of all because he showed us how to do it.

Paul Starr


February 21, 2007

Congressional battleground

I have a new column just out, "Congressional Battleground," from the March issue of The American Prospect, arguing that to get the additional votes in the Senate needed to change policy in Iraq, Democrats and opponents of the war ought to focus on states with vulnerable GOP senators up for reelection in 2008. I wrote this piece on February 11, before the Senate vote on the 17th that fell three votes short of the margin needed to close off debate.

In arguing that this winter's debate on the war is just a rehearsal for a major confrontation with the president to come later this year or early next, I was assuming that Democrats would not be able to get the support in the next several weeks or months to limit the war through an appropriations bill, which would need only 51 votes in the Senate. We'll see whether that expectation turns out to be right.

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January 21, 2007

Obama the Anti-Boomer

Advice to Barack Obama: There is a right way to take advantage of your youth, and there is a wrong way—and you seem close to taking the wrong way.

It’s silly to argue that the baby-boomers as a generation are responsible for America’s polarized politics and that you can overcome the nation’s divisions because you came of age after the 1960s.

Polarization is the result of two distinct but related developments—neither of which is generational in origin.

The first is a polarization of the two major parties resulting the realignment of the south. The Democrats used to have more southern conservatives, and the Republicans used to have more northern liberals and moderates. But as the south has flipped to the GOP, the two parties have become more ideologically consistent and farther apart from each other. As a result, there are fewer members of Congress who cross over in their voting from one party to the other. This aspect of polarization is likely to be a long-term change.

The second development is the shift to the right of the Republican Party, partly resulting from the influx of southern conservatives. Polarization has not been symmetrical. The Republicans have moved much farther to the right than the Democrats have moved to the left; indeed, the Democrats continue to occupy much of the center: That was why Democrats were able to capture independent voters in 2006. This may or may not last.

Before the last election, Republicans seemed to benefit from the deliberate strategy of polarization promoted by Karl Rove: playing to their base rather than reaching into the middle. If Republicans shift to a less polarizing politics, it will be because the Rovian strategy has stopped working for them—not because of any generational turnover.

Of course, John F. Kennedy touted his age and presented himself as the leader of a new generation. So I can see, Barack, what example you may have in mind. But Kennedy didn’t make his case by criticizing the generation that preceded him.

In today’s New York Times, writing about your appeal (“Shushing the Baby Boomers”), John M. Broder quotes Eric Liu as saying to the baby-boom generation: “Thank you, here’s your gold watch, it’s time for the personal style and political framework of the 1960’s to get out of the way.”

Liu is identified as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House “who now runs a mentoring program in Seattle.” I take it he is not mentoring political candidates.

The baby boomers remain a large voting bloc. Insulting them by suggesting they share a dysfunctional “personal style and political framework” is just plain dumb.

But, Barack, there is a way for you to make a progressive generational appeal.

Many of the problems that Americans face today hit young people especially hard. I’m referring not only to the high rate of child poverty, but also to the difficulties faced by young adults in their twenties: high college costs; lack of access to jobs with good health benefits; the high costs of buying into the housing market. We need a Young America program to help create the kind of opportunities that the World War II generation enjoyed under the GI Bill.

Now that’s a generational appeal that not just the young, but their parents could go for.

Paul Starr


January 16, 2007

Reclaiming the idea of American greatness

What is liberalism’s relationship to America--to its traditions and to the vision of the United States as a great nation that can be a force for good in the world? For the past several years, these questions have been at the heart of a debate among American liberals about how they see themselves and what they stand for.

In a recent article in the Nation arguing that liberals need not just intelligent policies but a compelling story of America, Bill Moyers calls my forthcoming book Freedom’s Power “a profound and stirring call for liberals to reclaim the idea of America’s greatness as their own.”

Moyers is alluding to a theme that runs literally from the opening to the close of the book. In the first paragraph of the Introduction, I write: “The proposition that each of us has a right to ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ remains as good a definition as anyone has ever come up with of liberalism’s first principle and America’s historic promise.” And the final paragraph ends:
The story of America is of a nation that has grown greater and stronger by becoming more diverse and inclusive and extending the fruits of liberty more widely among its people. American liberals do not have to invent something new or import a philosophical tradition from abroad. They have only to reclaim the idea of America’s greatness as their own.

The idea that liberal purposes are closely tied to “the promise of American life” has been a recurring theme through American history. The leaders of the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the New Frontier—TR and Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and John F. Kennedy, as well as many other public figures—conceived and framed their ideas about the future with a keen sense of how to ground them in America’s traditions and build on its achievements. And not all of our politicians have forgotten how to do this: Barack Obama’s June 4, 2005 speech at Knox College is a brilliant and inspiring contemporary example.

But for a long time American liberalism has seemed to distance itself from a vision of America as a great nation. In the opening salvo of his effort to formulate a national greatness conservatism—a speech at the Library of Congress, published in The Weekly Standard in March 1997 as “A Return to National Greatness: A Manifesto for a Lost Creed”—David Brooks implicitly threw down a challenge to liberals.

“For much of this century,” Brooks wrote, “liberals possessed high aspirations and a spirit of historical purpose. Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, the New Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier—these were efforts to aim high, to accomplish some grand national endeavor. Liberals tried to use American preeminence as a way to shape the world, fight communism, put a man on the moon. But then came the 1970s, and suddenly liberalism became a creed emphasizing limits. Small became beautiful. A radical egalitarianism transformed liberalism, destroying hierarchies and discrediting elitist aspirations. An easygoing nihilism swept through academia, carrying away any sense of a transcendent order.”

Brooks was so dismissive of contemporary liberalism that he said that it should not even be expected to propose any vision of national greatness. And he criticized conservatives too for being so hostile to the federal government that they were unable to conceive of it as an instrument to carry out important national missions, which historically had included “settling the West, building the highway system, creating the post-war science faculties, exploring space, waging the Cold War, and disseminating American culture throughout the world.”

There was nothing in Brooks’s article, nor in a September 1997 Wall Street Journal op-ed with William Kristol, that pointed to foreign affairs, much less war, as the avenue for reasserting American greatness. Indeed, Brooks was a little vague about the mission he had in mind: “It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself,” he wrote, “as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation.”

The fate of national greatness conservatism shows that, in fact, it does matter “what great task government sets for itself.” With Brooks and especially Kristol cheering him on, George W. Bush has certainly set a great task for America: promoting democracy in Iraq and throughout the world. Rather than inspiring “confidence and vigor,” however, the Iraq War has backfired against the nation, his own presidency, and the Republican Party.

Originally, national greatness conservatism was identified with John McCain and his campaign for the 2000 presidential nomination. But the very notion of a national greatness conservatism—like McCain’s own political career—has now become inextricably linked with Bush’s disastrous, missionary foreign policy.

In using the phrase “national greatness,” I am not suggesting that liberals ought to adopt a belligerent nationalism or the aggressive promotion of democracy favored by neoconservatives and some liberal hawks. In a 2005 TNR article, “The Case for National Greatness Liberalism,” Noam Scheiber writes that Democrats have to “convince voters to trust them on national security,” which I agree with. But Scheiber then goes on to say, “We’re not just talking about calling for a larger military, but something dramatic to signify the shift—like a plan to strike an Iranian or North Korean nuclear facility if need be.” The last thing Democrats ought to do, however, is to show that they can be just as reckless as the Republicans have been in starting wars.

Other liberals have responded more sensibly to the intellectual challenge of restoring greater energy and ambition to American liberalism. In a short 2005 book, Return to Greatness: How America Lost Its Sense of Purpose and What It Needs to Do to Recover It (Princeton University Press), Alan Wolfe distinguishes between two ways of thinking about common purposes. On the one hand have been those who have been deeply distrustful of national power and conceived of a good society primarily in local and voluntary terms. On the other are those who have embraced the nation as a positive force and conceived of America as capable of advancing freedom and equality both at home and in the world.

My view of liberalism falls into the second category. I believe that liberals ought to aim high: to set ambitious goals in reforming our society and in seeking to uphold liberal values internationally. That requires a strong and capable national government, bearing in mind, however, that America achieves its strength partly through the protection of our liberties.

Conservative leadership has not only recklessly plunged us into a failed war but weakened those liberties at home and done incalculable damage to America’s good name in the world. And it has utterly defaulted on the problems of climate change, rising inequality, stagnant or declining incomes for the middle class and the poor, increased health costs, and a long-term fiscal crisis threatening programs Americans want to preserve and seeming to rule out new measures in their common interest.

A new leadership will need to confront those problems instead of denying them. At home its program ought to concentrate on creating a shared prosperity and restoring the respect for our freedoms, the integrity of our democracy, and the competence of our government that the Republicans have abused or neglected. Internationally, it ought to rebuild a broad democratic partnership with other nations based on mutual recognition of our shared fate and common interests in prosperity, security, and survival. The Republicans have had their shot at a “return to greatness,” and they have blown it. But it would be a mistake for Democrats to settle for a politics of small ambitions. Liberalism has provided the high aspirations that have galvanized America in the past. America needs that leadership again, and the rest of the world needs that leadership from America.

Paul Starr

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