To understand the answers to these questions, we must understand that this election is only the latest battle in what I have called the Fifty Years’ War between progressives and conservatives for possession of America’s political soul. One can understand the president’s words and deeds only if we understand both what the war is about and how Democrats themselves differ about how to fight the war. So it is to that issue that I now turn.
THE FIFTY YEARS’ WAR
At the political level, the Fifty Years’ War is about what defines American freedom. Is the promise of America that everyone enjoys the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness best kept when government is minimally involved, either through regulation or taxation, in individual decision making? Or is it best kept when government removes material and immaterial obstacles to some individuals’ ability to make the decisions they would prefer to make, even if removing those obstacles places obstacles in the paths of other Americans?
Conservatives have a tendency to agree with the first proposition, while progressives have a tendency to agree with the second. But for progressives there is a second, pragmatic question to answer: Should necessity — in the form of voter opinion and economic factors — significantly constrain the pursuit of justice? Progressives differ among themselves on this question, and it is this difference that forms the heart of the battle between the “moderates” and “liberals” within the Democratic party.
Liberal progressives say necessity should have a minimal role in constraining the pursuit of progressive justice. If voters don’t agree with a progressive view of rights, recourse to the courts to overrule them is proper. Voters’ desire, and especially well-off voters’ desire, to keep taxes low and the economy growing ought not to be a significant factor in bringing medical care to poor people or saving the planet from greenhouse gasses.
Moderate progressives take the contrary view. Justice can be secure only if it is secure in the hearts and minds of the people, they believe. They place more faith in, and pay more deference to, voters’ desires, not because they don’t believe in progressive aspirations, but because they believe those goals can best be achieved through incremental measures that receive broad popular support.
We can see this clash most clearly in the reactions of both camps to the Clinton presidency and to Hillary Clinton’s once and future candidacy. To liberal progressives, the Clinton presidency is anathema. It was too timid when it had power in 1993–94, and too conciliatory when it shared power with a Republican Congress thereafter. This belief fueled the challenges to Al Gore in 2000 by Bill Bradley in the primaries and Ralph Nader in the general election. It fueled Howard Dean’s 2004 bid, and was the impetus behind much of the support for Barack Obama’s challenge to frontrunner Hillary Clinton in 2008.
To moderate progressives, the Clinton presidency is the model of progressive action in the modern world. Clinton’s go-slow approach, coupled with his continued pursuit of progressive spending and social policies where possible, meant that progressive policies became imbedded in the middle-class mindset, making them impervious to conservative counterattack.
These differences did not arise with Bill Clinton, though. The seeds for this Democratic division extend much further back in our political history, to the start of the current political era in the 1960s. Each side in this progressive civil war draws different lessons from what happened in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, lessons that carried through into their different paths in the 1990s and remain to the present day.
THE LEGACY OF THE SIXTIES
Today’s liberal progressives are directly descended from the “New Left” of the 1960s. By this I do not mean student radicals, SDS members, Yippies, and others of the radical fringe of this movement. Instead, I define the “New Left” as those Americans — largely bearers of college and postgraduate degrees — who sought not merely to ameliorate some of the hardest edges of American life, as FDR did with the New Deal, but rather to transform American life now. They sought to eliminate, not ameliorate, poverty now. They saw Americans’ pursuit of ever-increasing wealth as an impediment to these goals; why should already well-off families have more when some people had little? And they saw American defense spending as a crucial obstacle to these goals; if no one was attacking us directly, why shouldn’t we spend on butter rather than bombs?