Liberalism’s unfinished agenda

Obama can't rest on his laurels. He still needs to fix our broken criminal justice and child care systems

Topics: Barack Obama, Progressivism, Liberalism,

Liberalism's unfinished agenda (Credit: AP/Win Mcnamee)

What remains undone by American liberalism after Barack Obama completes his second term? Some commentators have suggested that, with the passage of Obamacare, the basic architecture of America’s system of economic security for citizens is now complete. And the strong support for gay rights expressed by the nation’s first black president is proof that the definition of American community has become far more inclusive. But with respect both to inclusion and economic security, there remain challenges enough to engage the next generation of American reformers.

American liberalism (or “progressivism,” as it is called by those embarrassed to use the L-word) has always been characterized by its commitment to reform in two areas: caste and class. Think about caste as rules restricting those allowed to play the game, and class as the rules of the game itself. The project of American liberalism is to allow everybody to play — and everybody to win, at least at the level of a decent minimum.

In combating the injustices of caste and class, American liberals find what allies they can. On caste issues like nativism, racism and discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, American liberals often find allies among libertarians who do not share their commitment to a fairer and more inclusive economic system. On class issues like generous public retirement and health and unemployment insurance programs, American liberals often find allies among populists who may at the same time be nativist, racist and hostile to gays and lesbians.

Each wave of liberal reform since the 1930s has combined efforts to combat the evils of both caste and class. Although he appeased Southern racists opposed to black rights and West Coast racists who profited from the internment of Japanese-Americans, Franklin Roosevelt broke down barriers to the full acceptance of non-British white Americans both by appointing unprecedented numbers of “ethnic” whites to high office and combating nativist attitudes, as he did when he told the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1941: “Remember, remember always that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” On the “class” side, FDR presided over the creation of federal-state unemployment insurance and Social Security.



The next wave of American reform culminated during the presidency of Roosevelt’s protégé and disciple Lyndon Johnson, the second greatest liberal president in American history. While the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act shattered the structure of racial segregation, Johnson expanded the American social insurance system by pushing for the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid.

Although his achievements are not on the scale of those of FDR and LBJ, Barack Obama has already accomplished more in the way of liberal reform than the two center-right, Reagan-era Southern Democratic governors between him and Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. In the realm of caste, the new consensus in favor of ending discrimination against gays and lesbians matured under Obama, who boldly linked gay rights to women’s rights and the rights of nonwhite Americans in his second inaugural when he spoke of “Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” In the area of class reform, Obamacare is certain to be modified in the years ahead, but it is likely to be as permanent an element of the American middle-class welfare state as Social Security and Medicare.

But liberals should not rest on their laurels. Two great battles remain to be fought, one in the area of caste and the other in the area of class.

A caste system requires a population of “untouchables” with few or limited legal, political and civil rights. They are permanent outsiders, barred from the community. In the past, the victims of caste in America have included slaves and victims of racial segregation as well as women denied legal and voting rights, white men without property, and gays and lesbians whose private lives were criminalized. Today’s American untouchables are criminals — suspects, prisoners and ex-convicts.

Society must be protected against criminals. At the same time, a democratic republic cannot afford a large, permanent population of untouchables or outcastes who lack most or all of the rights of citizenship. Any caste system creates an anomalous, arbitrary zone of tyranny and mobocracy, embedded like a black hole or Bermuda Triangle inside an otherwise law-abiding constitutional state.

Under state laws that mandate permanent or temporary forfeiture of voting rights, millions of Americans, disproportionately poor, are consigned to the status of something less than full citizens and subjected to a criminal justice that is worthy of a backward third-world banana republic rather than a modern, civilized country. The conservative publisher Conrad Black, who was imprisoned after being found guilty of corporate malfeasance, has a useful summary of the arbitrary and tyrannical features of America’s system of criminal justice:

The United States has five per cent of the world’s population, 25 per cent of the world’s incarcerated people, and 50 per cent of the world’s lawyers (who account for nearly 10 per cent of the country’s GDP, an onerous taxation of American society).

Almost everything about the American system is wrong. Grand juries are a rubber stamp for the prosecutors; assets are routinely frozen or seized in ex parte actions on the basis of false government affidavits, so targets don’t have the resources to pay avaricious American counsel and are thrust into the hands of public defenders, who are usually just Judas goats for the prosecutors…The plea bargain system, for which prosecutors would be disbarred in most other serious countries, enables prosecutors to threaten everyone around the target with indictment if they don’t miraculously recall, under careful government coaching, inculpatory evidence. Prosecutors win 95 per cent of their cases, 90 per cent of those without a trial, and people who exercise their constitutionally guaranteed right to go to trial receive more than three times the sentence they receive if they cop a plea, as a penalty for exercising their rights.

The right to life is the most basic of all, so the abolition of the death penalty at the federal and state levels should be at the top of a new agenda of criminal justice reform. According to Amnesty International, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty. The U.S. is consistently among the countries with the greatest number of executions — joined by those paragons of liberty and democracy, Iran and China.

Second only to the abolition of the death penalty in the United States should be an end to the permanent forfeiture of voting rights. People who have served out their punishment should be allowed to return to society as fully functioning citizens, not permanently relegated to a legal and political underclass. And tyrannical majorities should not be allowed to disenfranchise specific populations indirectly, as white majorities have sometimes sought to do, by connecting the forfeiture of voting rights to minor offenses like drug possession committed disproportionately by minorities and the poor. According to the Sentencing Project, one in 13 African-Americans is disenfranchised as a result of a prior conviction; the numbers are even higher in Virginia (20 percent), Kentucky (22 percent) and Florida (23 percent).

On some issues of criminal justice reform, progressives may find common cause with conservatives. Newt Gingrich has supported the NAACP’s call for imprisoning fewer Americans for minor offenses, a crusade also taken up by a conservative group titled Right on Crime, which has published this statement:

One out of every one hundred adults in America is incarcerated, a total population of approximately 2.3 million. By contrast, according to a report published in The Economist, the number of imprisoned adults in America in 1970 was only one out of every 400. The United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 23% of the world’s reported prisoners. It is not clear, however, that these high rates of imprisonment are leading to safer communities. One study by two professors at Purdue University and Rutgers University has estimated that were we to increase incarceration by another ten percent, the subsequent reduction in crime would be only 0.5%. The state of Florida provides a useful example. Over the past thirteen years, the proportion of prisoners who were incarcerated for committing non-violent crimes rose by 189%. By contrast, the proportion of inmates who committed violent crimes dropped by 28%.

Former Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia is right — fixing America’s criminal justice system is a central challenge for reformers in the generation to come.

If criminal justice reform is the next step in the crusade against caste in America, the class reform agenda does not end with the guarantee of healthcare coverage for all citizens that the Affordable Care Act seeks to provide. Paid family leave and childcare are the still-missing components of the American system of economic security.

In all OECD countries except the U.S., there is mandatory paid maternity or parental leave for the parents of newborn infants. The only other countries that join the U.S. in not having paid parental leave are Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. How paid parental leave in the U.S. should be designed can be debated. The simplest and most business-friendly method is to run it through the payroll-tax-based unemployment insurance system, as states like California and New Jersey already do.

In addition to lacking paid leave for parents of newborns, the U.S. lags behind other democracies in lacking an adequate system of childcare, a necessity now that most American children have two working parents or a single working parent. Here again, there can be debate about how universal childcare should be structured. The simplest and most cost-effective method might be universal preschool and day care centers, run out of the existing K-12 system, with state and federal funding equalizing local school district budgets.

Barack Obama has secured his place in American liberal history, in the tradition of the two Roosevelts and Johnson. By the time he leaves office, America’s caste system will have shrunk and its safety net will have expanded. But plenty of work will remain to be done by American liberals, in opportunistic alliances with libertarians, populists and enlightened conservatives.

Michael Lind is the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States and co-founder of the New America Foundation.

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