Column: The Public Eye: The Liberal Response to the Failure of Conservatism

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday August 08, 2006

History will record that the Bush administration was the high-water mark of conservatism, note that during Dubya’s reign conservatives had their chance and failed. What remains to be seen is how liberals will respond: will they continue to be “conservative lite” or will they reformulate liberalism? 

Conservative domestic policy rests upon a single tenet: the federal government must be drastically reduced because it impedes “the market.” Accordingly, the Bush administration and an obedient Republican Congress slashed taxes. They assured the American people that, as a “natural” result of these cuts the economy would flourish and the federal government would wither. But neither prediction proved accurate. The economy showed modest growth, which benefited only corporations and wealthy individuals; meanwhile, the real income of the average American family went down. And, the federal government didn’t shrink; it grew. The linchpin of conservatism ideology didn’t work. 

Corresponding to their naïve disregard for the federal government, conservatives advocated their brand of Social Darwinism: “You’re on your own.” They insisted government has no responsibility to protect the rights or well-being of citizens; claimed that the market will take care of everyone. 

Contemporary conservatism actually has two faces. On Fox News and Sunday morning talk shows, conservatives pontificate as if their ideology makes sense. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, having failed at their primary objective of shrinking government, the Bush administration proceeded to loot it. Five years of Dubya has shown America the true conservative morality: it’s not personal responsibility, but rather self-aggrandizement. Bush-era conservatism produced a tsunami of venality: a corrupt political-business partnership that abandons any notion of the common good and, instead, substitutes: “What’s in it for me?” 

Liberalism’s response to the conservative failure might be simply to say: liberals care about all the people, not just the rich and powerful. The problem with this approach is that after five years of non-stop Bush administration lies Americans are deeply skeptical of any political message. Many see no difference between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats; they regard them all as thieves and scoundrels. There is no simple way to address this cynicism other than to preach a message of morality, pragmatism, and hope; and then to follow through on this. Liberals must show Americans that they have integrity; that they mean what they say. 

A new liberalism should begin with a restatement of the ethic of working for the common good. Barack Obama’s speech to the 2004 Democratic convention contained a model formulation, “alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people… it is that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper—that makes this country work.” 

Five and a half years of the Bush administration finds the United States in crisis. We’re besieged by domestic problems that aren’t going to go away and don’t lend themselves to simple solutions: national competitiveness, healthcare, and global climate change, not to mention the omnipresent threat of terrorist attack. A new liberal ideology must acknowledge these problems and assert that we can solve them by working together. Liberals should restate what most Americans instinctively believe: the people of the United States are our greatest resource; when we join in common purpose we can solve any problem. 

From this foundation, the new liberalism needs to state the obvious: Americans need a responsible federal government and it’s our common responsibility to pay for it. Liberals should reassert their belief that government can be a force for good, so long as it is well run. Not only must liberals be persons of integrity, they must provide the leadership that America desperately needs. 

Finally, a new liberal ideology must address two other conservative beliefs: The first is that government should not regulate business; that this is the exclusive responsibility of the market. This is wrong, because an equitable American society requires the active intervention of the federal government to protect the rights and well-being of our citizens. A cornerstone of the new liberalism must be the primacy of individual rights over those of corporations and CEOs. 

The second conservative belief that must be challenged is that the U.S. defense budget is sacrosanct. Americans have been brainwashed to believe that having the largest defense establishment in the world-spending $550 million per year on the Department of Defense-keeps us safe. Citizens must be taught to distinguish between big and smart. America can be protected even though DOD is drastically reduced. Money must be redirected from our military budget and used for vital needs such as the funding of our “first responders.” 

The vacuum left by the failure of conservatism must be filled by an articulate and relevant liberal ideology. The problem won’t be in preparing this—it’s a reformulation of the liberal vision and values of the Founders; basic ideas that last saw a cogent reformulation in the New Deal. The problem is finding a liberal spokesperson that Americans trust.  

There are actually two crises in American politics: the dominant conservative ideology has failed and, at the moment, the country has no leadership. This dire situation should be a golden opportunity for liberals.  


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at