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Progressive Prerequisite: Making Government Work

David Callahan

David Brooks writes today in the Times about how few Americans identify as "liberal" -- noting that twice as many Americans now identify as conservatives -- and concludes that over the last forty years, "liberalism has been astonishingly incapable at expanding its market share."

Brooks makes a common mistake here, which is to confuse the labels people attach to themselves with their actual ideology. "Liberal" has been a sullied word for a long time now -- to the point that even most liberals no longer call themselves liberal. What actually matters is what people believe, and there is a large body of polling data to suggest that the United States is far more evenly divided than Brooks suggests -- with strong support for many progressive policies. See, for instance, the State of American Political Ideology report released by the Center for American Progress in 2009, or Pew's big study last year on the country's political typology. Among other things, Americans vigorously support big social insurance programs like Social Security, believe inequality has grown too great, favor higher taxes on the rich, support a higher minimum wage, and so on.

Brooks should know to dig deeper into the public opinion data before writing off liberalism so casually.

That said, Brooks makes a good point in his column, which is that liberalism has a huge problem in that most American don't trust the principal delivery vehicle for liberal policies: government. Trust in the pubic sector is now at its lowest level ever recorded, as we have written here before, and it's hard to see how a liberal agenda that entails greatly expanding government can get very far in this climate.

Of course, though, there are many nuances in public opinion here, too. Americans may distrust government in the abstract, but actually favor many of the most ambitious and expensive government programs we have - - again, with Social Security and Medicare as prime examples. Americans also favor many more recent government interventions, such as stopping health insurance companies from denying insurance to people with pre-existing conditions and better regulation of Wall Street and banks.

So here, too, David Brooks should have offered a more complete and nuanced analysis.

But where Brooks gets it right is with his point that liberals don't seem particularly interested in the all-important task of fixing government, which tends to become calcified over time by rent-seeking behavior as more and more interest groups capture and defend their slice of the pie. The political scientist Mancur Olson wrote brilliantly about this problem in his book, The Rise and Decline of Nations, and Jonathan Rauch has offered a more contemporary version on Olson's critique in his book Government's End. Quite apart from the interest group problem, government has a host of of serious dysfunctionalities related to bureaucracies, accountability, and personnel. Also, there are significant problems with corruption (See: Rod Blagojevich.)

You'd think that the progressive community would be intently focused on making sure that government was as dynamic and flexible a delivery vehicle as it could possibly be for big liberal ideas. Strangely, though, this hasn't been much of a priority. Unless it becomes one, my guess is that the left will keep facing an uphill battle.