Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
29Dec/122

The Once and Future Liberalism

Congratulations to my colleague and Arendt Center stalwart Walter Russell Mead, whose article “The Once and Future Liberalism” just won a Sidney Award, “designed to encourage people to step back at this time of the year and look at the big picture.” Mead’s article is indeed bracing, and the thinking behind it has informed many of the posts on the Arendt Center blog this year. At its core, the essay establishes as fact what most commentators on the left and the right see as an opinion: namely, that the 20th century model of liberalism is dead and is not coming back.

In the old system, most blue-collar and white-collar workers held stable, lifetime jobs with defined benefit pensions, and a career civil service administered a growing state as living standards for all social classes steadily rose. Gaps between the classes remained fairly consistent in an industrial economy characterized by strong unions in stable, government-brokered arrangements with large corporations—what Galbraith and others referred to as the Iron Triangle. High school graduates were pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment in a job that provided a comfortable lower middle-class lifestyle; college graduates could expect a better paid and equally secure future. An increasing “social dividend”, meanwhile, accrued in various forms: longer vacations, more and cheaper state-supported education, earlier retirement, shorter work weeks, more social and literal mobility, and more diverse forms of affordable entertainment. Call all this, taken together, the blue model.

 Mead calls this the “blue model” of American liberalism. It thrived in American from the 1940s through the 1970s, and America thrived with it. It is the blue model that created the great American middle class, and it is the blue model that has sought eventually to bring excluded groups and minorities into the American dream. Many American liberals want to preserve this model. Conservatives argue for a return to an earlier time where government was small and people who failed lived in pain and poverty. The point of Mead’s article is that both sides miss the basic fact: The blue model is dying and its death is unavoidable, a consequence of demographic and technological changes that make it unsustainable. We cannot continue with the blue model. But neither can we simply dismantle government and go back to the 19th century version of government and society that some conservatives yearn for. The result is a debate between liberals and conservatives that refuses to address the facts of our current situation.

But even as the red-blue division grows more entrenched and bitter, it is becoming less relevant. The blue model is breaking down so fast and so far that not even its supporters can ignore the disintegration and disaster it now presages. Liberal Democrats in states like Rhode Island and cities like Chicago are cutting pensions and benefits and laying off workers out of financial necessity rather than ideological zeal. The blue model can no longer pay its bills, and not even its friends can keep it alive.

Our real choice, however, is not between blue or pre-blue. We can’t get back to the 1890s or 1920s any more than we can go back to the 1950s and 1960s. We may not yet be able to imagine what a post-blue future looks like, but that is what we will have to build. Until we remove the scales from our eyes and launch our discourse toward the future, our politics will remain sterile, and our economy will fail to provide the growth and higher living standards Americans continue to seek. That neither we nor the world can afford.

Mead’s essay is long and it is bracing and provocative, precisely in the spirit of Hannah Arendt. As you celebrate the new year, I hope you also find time to read “The Once and Future Liberalism.”