The Corner

When Liberals Pretend to Embrace Limits and Respect Democracy

Last month I joined three other Breakthrough Journal readers in assessing Steven Hayward’s essay on “Modernizing Conservatism.” That discussion later overflowed the banks of the Breakthrough website when the Roosevelt Institute’s Mark Schmitt elaborated his original critique of Hayward’s argument on the Roosevelt blog. Schmitt’s central point is that conservatives are completely wrong to insist that “liberalism’s aspirations for the welfare state are limitless.” To the contrary: “Liberalism is always about finding the right boundary between market and state, public and private, fairness and liberty.”


Schmitt contrasts liberals’ pragmatic moderation with conservatives’ stridency by reproaching Hayward for getting bent out of shape over “comparable worth.” That’s the idea that federal enforcement of employment discrimination should extend to prohibiting different levels of compensation for work usually done by women, such as nursing, from compensations levels for work usually performed by men, such as driving trucks. The government would do so by requiring equal pay not just for equal work, but for work of comparable worth, as determined — somehow — by government standards that calibrate the value, training, difficulty, and importance of various jobs throughout the economy.


Comparable worth, Schmitt assures us, has about as much to do with 21st-century politics as William Jennings Bryan’s crusade for free coinage of silver. It “died such a quick death” in the 1980s that “most people under 40 have probably never heard of the idea.” Most liberals concluded that comparable worth “would be a solution worse than the problem” of pay differentials, Schmitt says.


Moreover, liberals concluded that trying to get comparable worth enacted was politically futile. Internalizing the limits of practical politics is central to the liberal’s never-ending work of finding the right boundaries for government activism. Thus, Schmitt opposes a single-payer system of financing health care, despite believing it would be “fairer, more efficient, and would lift the burden of health insurance costs from employers.” Why oppose it, then? Because single-payer is “never going to happen and so I don’t waste much time or energy on it. That’s a limitation on my aspirations imposed by practical politics, but it’s no less real a limit.”


Some observations:


#more#1) If comparable worth is really such a political anachronism, Schmitt should rescue Iowa’s Democratic senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, from his Flock of Seagulls time warp. Harkin is sponsor of the Fair Pay Act, which would “ensure that employers provide equal pay for jobs that are equivalent in skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions.” His co-sponsors of the bill in 2007 included then-senator Barack Obama.


2) Schmitt thinks Hayward is wrong to criticize liberals for not constraining their ambitions according to “any discernible principle.” A limit is a limit is a limit. Schmitt argues that conservatives should be satisfied that liberals won’t pursue radical projects that are political non-starters, and urges “conservatives to rejoin the democratic process, to get over the all-or-nothing impulse that led them to opt out of the health-care debate entirely.”


His incentive structure does everything to discourage that outcome, however. If liberals are going to set aside, for the time being at least, a policy they consider fair and efficient, like single-payer, only because it’s politically unpopular, conservatives have every reason to go on Fox News and rant about socialized medicine, but zero reason to sit down for an edifying, collegial seminar that hammers out the details of the next incremental expansion of federal authority and spending.


3) Schmitt does not recognize the liberals conservatives denounce, the ones committed to “protecting and expanding ‘the welfare state’ at all times and at all costs.” The liberals Schmitt knows are, rather, meek and earnest in ways that make St. Francis seem like Hulk Hogan. But their sincere overtures are spurned again and again by conservatives seeking “total political victory,” because of a “culture-war model of politics, with its semi-secessionist attitude toward democratic negotiation.”


It would be easier to believe Schmitt’s reassurances about items on the liberal wish-list that are never going to happen, if some of them didn’t have a way of happening. And it would be easier to accept his invitation to join the democratic process if his political allies weren’t so committed to rigging or nullifying that process. Gay marriage is one far-fetched agenda item that recently and suddenly became near-fetched. Three years ago Californians opposed to it thought they were joining the democratic process in a way common in their state for many years. They gathered signatures on petitions, got an initiative on the ballot, and voted on it. Two years later a federal judge ruled not that those Californians had made a wrong decision in voting to prohibit gay marriage, but that they had presumed to decide a question they had no right even to address.


Similarly, in 2006 the people of Michigan believed that the democratic process encompassed the process of approving or rejecting affirmative action at the ballot box. Federal judges set them straight, too, on the basis of an inspired interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of the equal protection of the laws. It turns out that equal protection includes the equal right to seek unequal protection. By incorporating a prohibition on affirmative action into the Michigan state constitution, the court ruled, the people of Michigan had made it impermissibly difficult for minority groups in favor of affirmative action to re-legalize it. Like those in California, the voters of Michigan had addressed a political question in good faith, according to civics-class precepts, only to find out that the question was not within the purview of mere citizens. If Mr. Schmitt, the Roosevelt Institute, or the magazine he used to edit, The American Prospect, has denounced these transgressions against the democratic process, and the all-or-nothing impulse of anti-democratic judges and advocacy groups to nullify political decisions with court rulings, it’s an extraordinarily well-kept secret.


Schmitt belittles Hayward’s complaint that the liberal project has no limiting principle. Schmitt’s argument suggests there is such a principle, however: “Whatever we can get away with.” Liberalism, in Schmitt’s view, is always about finding the right boundaries to government activism. But it is also always about repudiating any attempt to explicate what makes this boundary right and that one wrong. There is nothing to this boundary-setting business other than making it up as we go along, and going along means the liberals out-last, out-fox, or over-rule conservatives who refuse to get with the program.


— William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books, author of Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State, and a visiting scholar at Claremont McKenna College’s Salvatori Center.


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