With conservatives in disarray and floundering for leadership, the pendulum may be swinging back to liberalism. But liberalism today is different from that of its glory days in American politics, the era from Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal to Lyndon Baines Johnson's Great Society.
The old liberals believed in an activist government, one that rights society's wrongs, controls the economy, and rights the wrongs of other societies overseas. They waged wars against poverty. They regulated business and tried to tax and spend their way out of economic downturns. They also waged wars against communism.
The new liberals also believe in an activist domestic government, but they are more open to free market economics than their Keynesian forebears. They do want America to right the wrongs of other countries, but a large and influential faction is essentially pacifist when it comes to waging war.
The old liberals had their base in the American working class, with farmers and factory workers, union members and "the common man." The conservatives, by contrast, were the small business owners and big business owners, the prosperous middle class demonized by the old liberal rhetoric as "the rich."
But because the old liberals were grounded in the culture of "ordinary people," they tended to be culturally conservative, upholding traditional values, sometimes-as in what was then the solidly Democratic South-even reactionary values.
New liberals sometimes still employ "rich against poor" rhetoric, but there has been a huge socioeconomic shift. Today the typical American "working man" has prospered enough to join the middle class. Farmers and blue collar workers with traditional values have-thanks to Ronald Reagan and the Christian right-gone over to the Republicans.
The social base for the new liberals is the New Class knowledge workers. Whereas the old liberalism and the old conservatism grew out of an economy that built or owned tangible things, we now have an "information economy." The highly educated cogs in this machine-high-tech experts, internet entrepreneurs, manufacturers of information such as the news media and the entertainment networks-join with more traditional information conveyers, such as teachers, academics, and artists, to form a new liberal elite.
These new liberals make a lot of money and so support the free markets that make it possible. But they hold to "progressive" ideas, scorning tradition and wanting culture change. Their personal moral values are strongly libertarian, especially in regardsto sex. They are mostly OK with pre-marital sex, homosexuality, and abortion. And yet, they can be very moralistic when it comes to the environment, the war, and other social values.
The old liberalism has its holdovers. People with low incomes are still strongly Democratic. So are blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and recent immigrants. New liberals have a strong political interest in policies such as amnesty for illegal immigrants.
On my Cranach blog (cranach.worldmagblog.com), David of Norcal, a self-described liberal, made a telling comment: "New liberals are motivated less by ideology than by simply wanting the party closest to their ideology to win. [They] are practical and would almost sell their souls to win an election because having the right ideals but no power means all the wrong ideals get implemented." By contrast, he said, "'60s radicals were not practical at all" but "were idealists. . . . We are skeptics, cynical yet savvy."
Postmodernists reject all ideologies. Power is everything. Since truth is relative, there are no overarching truths to guide our actions. The only philosophy that remains is pragmatism. We can act in practical ways to get what we want.
The new liberalism still has remnants of ideology, but the next liberalism may turn politics into a struggle between those who have an ideology and those who have none. Or, worse, between different power seekers who have no beliefs at all.