Rolling Back the 20th Century
The Right's grand ambition
by William Greider
The Nation magazine, May
I. Back to the Future
George W. Bush, properly understood, represents
the third and most powerful wave in the right's long-running assault
on the governing order created by twentieth-century liberalism.
The first wave was Ronald Reagan, whose election in 1980 allowed
movement conservatives finally to attain governing power (their
flame was first lit by Barry Goldwater back in 1964). Reagan unfurled
many bold ideological banners for rightwing reform and established
the political viability of enacting regressive tax cuts, but he
accomplished very little reordering of government, much less shrinking
of it. The second wave was Newt Gingrich, whose capture of the
House majority in 1994 gave Republicans control of Congress for
the first time in two generations. Despite some landmark victories
like welfare reform, Gingrich flamed out quickly, a zealous revolutionary
ineffective as legislative leader.
George Bush II may be as shallow as he
appears, but his presidency represents a far more formidable challenge
than either Reagan or Gingrich. His potential does not emanate
from an amiable personality (Al Gore, remember, outpolled him
in 2000) or even the sky-high ratings generated by 9/11 and war.
Bush's governing strength is anchored in the long, hard-driving
movement of the right that now owns all three branches of the
federal government. Its unified ranks allow him to govern aggressively,
despite slender GOP majorities in the House and Senate and the
public's general indifference to the right's domestic program.
The movement's grand ambition-one can
no longer say grandiose-is to roll back the twentieth century,
quite literally. That is, defenestrate the federal government
and reduce its scale and powers to a level well below what it
was before the New Deal's centralization. With that accomplished,
movement conservatives envision a restored society in which the
prevailing values and power relationships resemble the America
that existed around 1900, when William McKinley was President.
Governing authority and resources are dispersed from Washington,
returned to local levels and also to individuals and private institutions,
most notably corporations and religious organizations. The primacy
of private property rights is re-established over the shared public
priorities expressed in government regulation. Above all, private
wealth-both enterprises and individuals with higher incomes- are
permanently insulated from the progressive claims of the graduated
These broad objectives may sound reactionary
and destructive (in historical terms they are), but hard-right
conservatives see themselves as liberating reformers, not destroyers,
who are rescuing old American virtues of self-reliance and individual
autonomy from the clutches of collective action and "statist"
left-wingers. They do not expect any of these far-reaching goals
to be fulfilled during Bush's tenure, but they do assume that
history is on their side and that the next wave will come along
soon (not an unreasonable expectation, given their great gains
during the past thirty years). Right-wingers-who once seemed frothy
and fratricidal- now understand that three steps forward, two
steps back still adds up to forward progress. It's a long march,
they say. Stick together, because we are winning.
Many opponents and critics (myself included)
have found the right's historic vision so improbable that we tend
to guffaw and misjudge the political potency of what it has put
together. We might ask ourselves: If these ideas are so self-evidently
cockeyed and reactionary, why do they keep advancing? The right's
unifying idea-get the government out of our lives-has broad popular
appeal, at least on a sentimental level, because it represents
an authentic core value in the American experience ("Don't
tread on me" was a slogan in the Revolution). But the true
source of its strength is the movement's fluid architecture and
durability over time, not the passing personalities of Reagan-Gingrich-Bush
or even the big money from business. The movement has a substantial
base that believes in its ideological vision-people alarmed by
cultural change or injured in some way by government intrusions,
coupled with economic interests that have very strong reasons
to get government off their backs- and the right has created the
political mechanics that allow these disparate elements to pull
together. Cosmopolitan corporate executives hold their noses and
go along with Christian activists trying to stamp out "decadent"
liberal culture. Fed-up working-class conservatives support business's
assaults on their common enemy, liberal government, even though
they may be personally injured when business objectives triumph.
The right's power also feeds off the general
decay in the political system-the widely shared and often justifiable
resentments felt toward big government, which no longer seems
to address the common concerns of ordinary citizens.
I am not predicting that the right will
win the governing majority that could enact the whole program,
in a kind of rightwing New Deal-and I will get to some reasons
why I expect their cause to fail eventually. The farther they
advance, however, the less inevitable is their failure.
II. The McKinley Blueprint
In the months after last November's elections,
the Bush Administration rattled progressive sensibilities with
shock and awe on the home front-a barrage of audacious policy
initiatives: Allow churches to include sanctuaries of worship
in buildings financed by federal housing grants. Slash hundreds
of billions in domestic programs, especially spending for the
poor, even as the Bush tax cuts kick in for the well-to-do. At
the behest of Big Pharma, begin prosecuting those who help the
elderly buy cheaper prescription drugs in Canada. Compel the District
of Columbia to conduct federally financed school voucher experiments
(even though DC residents are overwhelmingly opposed). Reform
Medicaid by handing it over to state governments, which will be
free to make their own rules, much like welfare reform. Do the
same for housing aid, food stamps and other long established programs.
Redefine "wetlands" and "wilderness" so that
millions of protected acres are opened for development.
Liberal activists gasped at the variety
and dangerous implications (the public might have been upset too
but was preoccupied with war), while conservatives understood
that Bush was laying the foundations, step by step, toward their
grand transformation of American life. These are the concrete
elements of their vision:
* Eliminate federal taxation of private
capital, as the essential predicate for dismantling the progressive
income tax. This will require a series of reform measures (one
of them, repeal of the estate tax, already accomplished). Bush
has proposed several others: elimination of the tax on stock dividends
and establishment of new tax-sheltered personal savings accounts
for the growing "investor class." Congress appears unwilling
to swallow these, at least this year, but their introduction advances
the education agitation process. Future revenue would be harvested
from a single-rate flat tax on wages or, better still, a stiff
sales tax on consumption. Either way, labor gets taxed, but not
capital. The 2003 Economic Report of the President, prepared by
the Council of Economic Advisers, offers a primer on the advantages
of a consumption tax and how it might work. Narrowing the tax
base naturally encourages smaller government.
* Gradually phase out the pension-fund
retirement system as we know it, starting with Social Security
privatization but moving eventually to breaking up the other large
pools of retirement savings, even huge public-employee funds,
and converting them into individualized accounts. Individuals
will be rewarded for taking personal responsibility for their
retirement with proposed "lifetime savings" accounts
where capital is stored, forever tax-exempt. Unlike IRAs, which
provide a tax deduction for contributions, wages are taxed up
front but permanently tax-sheltered when deposited as "lifetime"
capital savings, including when the money is withdrawn and spent.
Thus this new format inevitably threatens the present system,
in which employers get a tax deduction for financing pension funds
for their workers. The new alternative should eventually lead
to repeal of the corporate tax deduction and thus relieve business
enterprise of any incentive to finance pensions for employees.
Everyone takes care of himself.
* Withdraw the federal government from
a direct role in housing, healthcare, assistance to the poor and
many other long-established social priorities, first by dispersing
program management to local and state governments or private operators,
then by steadily paring down the federal government's financial
commitment. If states choose to kill an aid program rather than
pay for it themselves, that confirms that the program will not
be missed. Any slack can be taken up by the private sector, philanthropy
and especially religious institutions that teach social values
grounded in faith.
* Restore churches, families and private
education to a more influential role in the nation's cultural
life by giving them a significant new base of income-public money.
When "school choice" tuitions are fully available to
families, all taxpayers will be compelled to help pay for private
school systems, both secular and religious, including Catholic
parochial schools. As a result, public schools will likely lose
some of their financial support, but their enrollments are expected
to shrink anyway, as some families opt out. Although the core
of Bush's "faith-based initiative" stalled in Congress,
he is advancing it through new administrative rules. The voucher
strategy faces many political hurdles, but the Supreme Court is
out ahead, clearing away the constitutional objections.
* Strengthen the hand of business enterprise
against burdensome regulatory obligations, especially environmental
protection, by introducing voluntary goals and "market-driven"
solutions. These will locate the decision-making on how much progress
is achievable within corporate managements rather than enforcement
agencies (an approach also championed in this year's Economic
Report). Down the road, when a more aggressive rightwing majority
is secured for the Supreme Court, conservatives expect to throw
a permanent collar around the regulatory state by enshrining a
radical new constitutional doctrine. It would require government
to compensate private property owners, including businesses, for
new regulations that impose costs on them or injure their profitability,
a formulation sure to guarantee far fewer regulations.
* Smash organized labor. Though unions
have lost considerable influence, they remain a major obstacle
to achieving the right's vision. Public-employee unions are formidable
opponents on issues like privatization and school vouchers. Even
the declining industrial unions still have the resources to mobilize
a meaningful counterforce in politics. Above all, the labor movement
embodies the progressives' instrument of power: collective action.
The mobilizations of citizens in behalf of broad social demands
are inimical to the right's vision of autonomous individuals,
in charge of their own affairs and acting alone. Unions may be
taken down by a thousand small cuts, like stripping "homeland
security" workers of union protection. They will be more
gravely weakened if pension funds, an enduring locus of labor
power, are privatized.
Looking back over this list, one sees
many of the old peevish conservative resentments-Social Security,
the income tax, regulation of business, labor unions, big government
centralized in Washington-that represent the great battles that
conservatives lost during early decades of the twentieth century.
That is why the McKinley era represents a lost Eden the right
has set out to restore. Grover Norquist, president of Americans
for Tax Reform and a pivotal leader in the movement's inside-outside
politics, confirms this observation. "Yes, the McKinley era,
absent the protectionism," he agrees, is the goal. "You're
looking at the history of the country for the first 120 years,
up until Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over. The income
tax, the death tax, regulation, all that." (In foreign policy,
at least, the Bush Administration could fairly be said to have
already restored the spirit of that earlier age. Justifying the
annexation of the Philippines, McKinley famously explained America's
purpose in the world: "There was nothing left for us to do
but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift
and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the
very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ
But the right employs a highly selective
memory. McKinley Republicans, aligned with the newly emergent
industrial titans, did indeed hold off the Progressive advocates
of a federal income tax and other reforms, while its high tariffs
were the equivalent of a stiff consumption tax. And its conservative
Supreme Court blocked regulatory laws designed to protect society
and worked as unconstitutional intrusions on private property
But the truth is that McKinley's conservatism
broke down n' because of socialists but because a deeply troubled
nation w, awash in social and economic conflicts, inequities generated
industrialization and the awesome power consolidating in the behemoth
industrial corporations (struggles not resolved until economic
crisis spawned the New Deal). Reacting to popular demands, Teddy
Roosevelt enacted landmark Progressive reforms like the first
federal regulations protecting public heal and safety and a ban
on corporate campaign contributions. Both Roosevelt and his successor,
Republican William Howard Taft endorsed the concept of e progressive
income tax an other un-Republican measures later enacted under
George W. Bush does no of course ever
speak of the glories of the McKinley era or L acknowledge his
party's retrograde objectives (Ari Fleischer would bat down any
suggestions to the contrary). Conservatives _ learned, especially
from Gingrich's implosion, to avoid flamboyant ideological proclamations.
Instead, the broader outlines are only hinted at in various official
texts. But there's nothing really secretive about their intentions.
Right-wing activists and think tanks have been openly articulating
the goals for years. Some of _ their ideas that once sounded loopy
are now law.
III. The Ecumenical Right
The movement "is moving with the
speed of a glacier," explain Martin Anderson, a senior fellow
at Stanford's Hoover Institution who served as Reagan's house
intellectual, the keeper of the flame, and was among the early
academics counseling George W. Bush. "It moves very slowly,
stops sometimes, even retreats, but then it moves forward again.
Sometimes, it comes up against a tree and seems stuck, then the
tree snaps and people say, 'My gosh, it's a revolution."
'To continue the metaphor, Anderson thinks this glacier will run
up against some big boulders the do not yield, that the right
will eventually be stopped short o grand objectives like small
government or elimination of the income tax. But they've made
impressive progress so far.
For the first time since the 1 920s, Congress,
the White House and the Supreme Court are all singing from same
hymnal and generally reinforcing one another. The Court's right-wing
majority acts to shrink federal authority, block citizen challenges
o important institutions and hack away at the liberal precedents
on civil rights, regulatory law and many other matters (it even
decide an election for its side, when necessary).
Bush, meanwhile, has what Reagan lacked-a
Reaganite majority in Congress. When the Gipper won in 1980, most
Republicans in Congress were still traditional conservatives,
not radical reformers. The majority of House Republicans tipped
over to the Reaganite identity in 1984, a majority of GOP senators
not until 1994. The ranks of the unconverted-Republicans who refuse
sign Norquist's pledge not to raise taxes-are now, by his count
down to 5 percent in the House caucus, 15 percent in the Senate.
This ideological solidarity is a central
element in Bush's governing strength. So long as he can manage
the flow of issues in accord with the big blueprint, the right
doesn't shoot at him when he makes politically sensitive deviations
(import quotas for steel or the lavish new farm-subsidy bill).
It also helps that, especially in the House, the GOP leaders impose
Stalinist discipline on their troops. Bush also reassures the
far right by making it clear that he is one of them. Reagan used
to stroke the Christian right with strong rhetoric on social issues
but gave them very little else (the man was from Hollywood, after
all). Bush is a true believer, a devout Christian and exceedingly
public about it. Bush's principal innovation-a page taken from
Bill Clinton's playbook-is to confuse the opposition's issues
by offering his own compassion-lite alternatives, co-opting or
smothering Democratic initiatives. Unlike Clinton, Bush does not
mollify his political base with empty gestures. Their program
is his program.
"Reagan talked a good game on the
domestic side but he actually didn't push for much," says
Paul Weyrich, leader of the Free Congress Foundation and a movement
pioneer. "Likewise, the Gingrich era was a lot of rhetoric.
This Administration is far more serious and disciplined.... they
have better outreach than any with which I have dealt. These people
have figured out how to communicate regularly with their base,
make sure it understands what they're doing. When they have to
go against their base, they know how to inoculate themselves against
what might happen."
Norquist's ambition is that building on
its current strength, the right can cut government by half over
the next twenty-five years to "get it down to the size where
we can drown it in the bathtub" [see Robert Dreyfuss, "Grover
Norquist: 'Field Marshal' of the Bush Tax Plan," May 14,
2001]. The federal government would shrink from 20 percent of
GDP to 10 percent, state and local government from 12 to 6 percent.
When vouchers become universally available, he expects public
schools to shrink from 6 to 3 percent of GDP. "And we'll
have better schools," he assures. People like Norquist play
the role of constantly pushing the boundaries of the possible.
"I'm lining up support to abolish the alternative minimum
tax," he says. "Has Bush spoken to this? No. I want
to run ahead, put our guys on the record for it. So I will be
out in front of the Bush Administration, not attacking the Bush
Administration. Will he do everything we want? No, but you know
what? I don't care."
Americans for Tax Reform serves as a kind
of "action central" for a galaxy of conservative interests,
with support from corporate names like Microsoft, Pfizer, AOL
Time Warner, R.J. Reynolds and the liquor industry. "The
issue that brings people to politics is what they want from government,"
Norquist explains. "All our people want to be left alone
by government. To be in this coalition, you only need to have
your foot in the circle on one issue. You don't need a Weltanschauang,
you don't have to agree with every other issue, so long as the
coalition is right on yours. That's why we don't have the expected
war within the center-right coalition. That's why we can win."
One of the right's political accomplishments
is bringing together diverse, once-hostile sectarians. "The
Republican Party used to be based in the Protestant mainline and
aggressively kept its distance from other religions," Norquist
observes. "Now we've got observant Catholics, the people
who go to mass every Sunday, evangelical Christians, Mormons,
orthodox Jews, Muslims." How did it happen? "The secular
left has created an ecumenical right," he says. This new
tolerance, including on race, may represent meaningful social
change, but of course the right also still feeds on intolerance
too, demonizing those whose values or lifestyle or place of birth
does not conform to their idea of "American."
This tendency, Norquist acknowledges,
is a vulnerability. The swelling ranks of Latino and Asian immigrants
could become a transforming force in American politics, once these
millions of new citizens become confident enough to participate
in election politics (just as European immigrants became a vital
force for liberal reform in the early twentieth century). So Bush
labors to change the party's anti-immigrant profile (and had some
success with Mexican-Americans in Texas).
Norquist prefers to focus on other demographic
trends that he believes insure the right's eventual triumph: As
the children of the New Deal die off, he asserts, they will be
replaced by young "leave me alone" conservatives. Anderson,
the former Reagan adviser, is less certain. "Most of the
people like what government is doing," he observes. "So
long as it isn't overintrusive and so forth, they're happy with
IV Show Me the Money
Ideology may provide the unifying umbrella,
but the real glue of this movement is its iron rule for practical
politics: Every measure it enacts, every half-step it takes toward
the grand vision, must deliver concrete rewards to one constituency
or another, often several-and right now, not in the distant future.
Usually the reward is money. There is nothing unusual or illegitimate
about that, but it sounds like raw hypocrisy considering that
the right devotes enormous energy to denouncing "special-interest
politics" on the left (schoolteachers, labor unions, bureaucrats,
Hollywood). The right's interest groups, issue by issue, bring
their muscle to the cause. Bush's "lifetime savings"
accounts constitute a vast new product line for the securities
industry, which is naturally enthused about marketing and managing
these accounts. The terms especially benefit the well-to-do, since
a family of four will be able to shelter up to $45,000 annually
(that's more than most families earn in a year). The White House
has enlisted Fortune 500 companies to spread the good news to
the investor class in their regular mailings to shareholders.
Bush's "market-friendly" reforms
for healthcare would reward two business sectors that many consumers
regard as the problem-drug companies and HMOs. Big Pharma would
get the best of all worlds: a federal subsidy for prescription
drug purchases by the elderly, but without any limits on the prices.
The insurance industry is invited to set up a privatized version
of Medicare that would compete with the government-run system
(assuming there are enough senior citizens willing to take that
Some rewards are not about money. Bush
has already provided a victory for "pro-lifers" with
the ban on late-term abortions. The antiabortionists are realists
now and no longer badger the GOP for a constitutional amendment,
but perhaps a future Supreme Court, top-heavy with right-wing
appointees, will deliver for them. Republicans are spoiling for
a fight over guns in 2004, when the federal ban on assault rifles
is due to expire. Liberals, they hope, will try to renew the law
so the GOP can deliver a visible election-year reward by blocking
it. (Gun-control advocates are thinking of forcing Bush to choose
between the gun lobby and public opinion.)
The biggest rewards, of course, are about
taxation, and the internal self-discipline is impressive. When
Reagan proposed his huge tax-rate cuts in 1981, the K Street corporate
lobbyists piled on with their own list of goodies and the White
House lost control; Reagan's tax cuts wound up much larger than
he intended. This time around, business behaved itself when Bush
proposed a tax package in 2001 in which its wish list was left
out. "They supported the 2001 tax cuts because they knew
there was going to be another tax cut every year and, if you don't
support this year's, you go to the end of the line next time,"
Norquist says. Their patience has already been rewarded. The antitax
movement follows a well-defined script for advancing step by step
to the ultimate goal. Norquist has organized five caucuses to
agitate and sign up Congressional supporters on five separate
issues: estate-tax repeal (already enacted but still vulnerable
to reversal); retirement-savings reforms; elimination of the alternative
minimum tax; immediate business deductions for capital investment
expenses (instead of a multiyear depreciation schedule); and zero
taxation of capital gains. "If we do all of these things,
there is no tax on capital and we are very close to a flat tax,"
The road ahead is far more difficult than
he makes it sound, because along the way a lot of people will
discover that they are to be the losers. In fact, the McKinley
vision requires vast sectors of society to pay dearly, and from
their own pockets. Martin Anderson has worked through the flat-tax
arithmetic many times, and it always comes out a political loser.
"The conservatives all want to revolutionize the tax system,
frankly because they haven't thought it through," Anderson
says. "It means people from zero to $35,000 income pay no
tax and anyone over $150,000 is going to get a tax cut. The people
in between get a tax increase, unless you cut federal spending.
That's not going to happen."
Likewise, any substantial consumption
tax does severe injury to another broad class of Americans-the
elderly. They were already taxed when they were young and earning
and saving their money, but a new consumption tax would now tax
their money again as they spend it. Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's former
economic adviser, has advocated a consumption-based flat tax that
would probably require a rate of 21 percent on consumer purchases
(like a draconian sales tax). He concedes, "It would be hitting
the current generation of elderly twice. So it would be a hard
"School choice" is also essentially
a money issue, though this fact has been obscured by the years
of Republican rhetoric demonizing the public schools and their
teachers. Under tuition vouchers, the redistribution of income
will flow from all taxpayers to the minority of American families
who send their children to private schools, religious and secular.
Those children are less than 10 percent of the 52 million children
enrolled in K-12. You wouldn't know it from reading about the
voucher debate, but the market share of private schools actually
declined slightly during the past decade. The Catholic parochial
system stands to gain the most from public financing, because
its enrollment has declined by half since the 1960s (to 2.6 million).
Though there was some growth during the 1990s, it was in the suburbs,
not cities. Other private schools, especially religious schools
in the South, grew more during the past decade (by about 400,000),
but public schools expanded far faster, by 6 million. The point
is, the right's constituency for "school choice" remains
a small though fervent minority.
Conservatives have cleverly transformed
the voucher question into an issue of racial equality-arguing
that they are the best way to liberate impoverished black children
from bad schools in slum surroundings. But educational quality
notwithstanding, it is not self-evident that private schools,
including the Catholic parochial system, are disposed to solve
the problem of minority education, since they are highly segregated
themselves. Catholic schools enroll only 2.5 percent of black
students nationwide and, more telling, only 3.8 percent of Hispanic
children, most of whom are Catholic. In the South hundreds of
private schools originated to escape integration and were supported
at first by state tuition grants (later ruled unconstitutional).
"School choice," in short, might very well finance greater
racial separation-the choice of whites to stick with their own
kind-and at public expense.
The right's assault on environmental regulation
has a similar profile. Taking the lead are small landowners or
Western farmers who make appealing pleas to be left alone to enjoy
their property and take care of it conscientiously. Riding alongside
are developers and major industrial sectors (and polluters) eager
to win the same rights, if not from Congress then the Supreme
Court. But there's one problem: The overwhelming majority of Americans
want stronger environmental standards and more vigorous enforcement.
V. Are They Right About America?
"Leave me alone" is an appealing
slogan, but the right regularly violates its own guiding principle.
The antiabortion folks intend to use government power to force
their own moral values on the private lives of others. Free-market
right-wingers fall silent when Bush and Congress intrude to bail
out airlines, insurance companies, banks-whatever sector finds
itself in desperate need. The hard-right conservatives are downright
enthusiastic when the Supreme Court and Bush's Justice Department
hack away at our civil liberties. The "school choice"
movement seeks not smaller government but a vast expansion of
taxpayer obligations. Maybe what the right is really seeking is
not so much to be left alone by government but to use government
to reorganize society in its own right-wing image.
All in all, the right's agenda promises
a reordering that will drive the country toward greater separation
and segmentation of its many social elements-higher walls and
more distance for those who wish to protect themselves from messy
diversity. The trend of social disintegration, including the slow
breakup of the broad middle class, has been under way for several
decades-fissures generated by growing inequalities of status and
well-being. The right proposes to legitimize and encourage these
deep social changes in the name of greater autonomy. Dismantle
the common assets of society, give people back their tax money
and let everyone fend for himself.
Is this the country Americans want for
their grandchildren or great-grandchildren? If one puts aside
Republican nostalgia for McKinley's gaslight era, it was actually
a dark and troubled time for many Americans and society as a whole,
riven as it was by harsh economic conflict and social neglect
of everyday brutalities.
Autonomy can be lonely and chilly, as
millions of Americans have learned in recent years when the company
canceled their pensions or the stock market swallowed their savings
or industrial interests destroyed their surroundings. For most
Americans, there is no redress without common action, collective
efforts based on mutual trust and shared responsibilities. In
other words, I do not believe that most Americans want what the
right wants. But I also think many cannot see the choices clearly
or grasp the long-term implications for the country.
This is a failure of left-liberal politics.
Constructing an effective response requires a politics that goes
right at the ideology, translates the meaning of Bush's governing
agenda, lays out the implications for society and argues unabashedly
for a more positive, inclusive, forward-looking vision. No need
for scaremongering attacks; stick to the well-known facts. Pose
some big questions: Do Americans want to get rid of the income
tax altogether and its long-standing premise that the affluent
should pay higher rates than the humble? For that matter, do Americans
think capital incomes should be excused completely from taxation
while labor incomes are taxed more heavily, perhaps through a
stiff national sales tax? Do people want to give up on the concept
of the "common school"-one of America's distinctive
achievements? Should property rights be given precedence over
human rights or society's need to protect nature? The recent battles
over Social Security privatization are instructive: When the labor-left
mounted a serious ideological rebuttal, well documented in fact
and reason, Republicans scurried away from the issue (though they
will doubtless try again).
To make this case convincing, however,
the opposition must first have a coherent vision of its own. The
Democratic Party, alas, is accustomed to playing defense and has
become wary of "the vision thing," as Dubya's father
called it. Most elected Democrats, I think, now see their role
as managerial rather than big reform, and fear that even talking
about ideology will stick them with the right's demon label: "liberal."
If a new understanding of progressive purpose does get formed,
one that connects to social reality and describes a more promising
future, the vision will not originate in Washington but among
those who see realities up close and are struggling now to change
things on the ground. We are a very wealthy (and brutally powerful)
nation, so why do people experience so much stress and confinement
in their lives, a sense of loss and failure? The answers, I suggest,
will lead to a new formulation of what progressives want.
The first place to inquire is not the
failures of government but the malformed power relationships of
American capitalism-the terms of employment that reduce many workers
to powerless digits, the closely held decisions of finance capital
that shape our society, the waste and destruction embedded in
our system of mass consumption and production. The goal is, like
the right's, to create greater self-fulfillment but as broadly
as possible. Self-reliance and individualism can be made meaningful
for all only by first reviving the power of collective action.
My own conviction is that a lot of Americans
are ready to take up these questions and many others. Some are
actually old questions-issues of power that were not resolved
in the great reform eras of the past. They await a new generation
bold enough to ask if our prosperous society is really as free
and satisfied as it claims to be. When conscientious people find
ideas and remedies that resonate with the real experiences of
Americans, then they will have their vision, and perhaps the true
answer to the right wing.
William Greider page