Published by the Breakthrough Generation.

Did you know that FDR and Eisenhower used market-based approaches to implement policies that advanced America? Well, at least this is case in a series of thought experiments Michael Lind presents in ‘Obama’s Timid Liberalism’. In the piece, Lind discusses how the Obama Administration’s approach to key policy areas like climate change/energy and health care constitutes a ‘timid liberalism’. ‘Rather than fight back,’ Lind argues, ‘most Democrats in the last generation adapted to this hostile conservative political climate by jettisoning “big government” liberalism for “market-friendly” neo-liberalism.’

I’m interested in exploring this point. What will it take for progressives to transcend the ‘timid liberalism’ that we have seen over the last thirty years—a politics that constrains progressive governance? What will it take to ‘fight back’?

Lind identifies the framing practices used by both Democrats and Republicans as ‘the fundamental barrier’ to overcoming ‘timid’ politics and the conservative consensus. I think Lind is correct to a certain extent. Fortunately, many of the challenges facing America at this time benefit progressivism and there are great opportunities for successful progressive framing of these issues. Progressives have an advantage with responses to climate change, energy independence, high-tech innovation, and economic development because they demand large-scale public investment—schemes that have been successfully implemented by progressives in the past and by Republicans during periods when progressive values were widely supported by the public.

Think about it. Nation-building programs like those of FDR, Eisenhower (building the interstate freeway system), and JFK (the Apollo Project) all require large-scale public investment—something conservatives cannot commit to because it’s contrary to the market fundamentalism that pervades their political philosophy. Nation-building initiatives like this built America’s wealth, fostered innovation, encouraged entrepreneurship, and importantly, they illustrated the positive role that government can play in our lives.

Reshaping the landscape of American politics and creating a new progressive consensus will involve effective framing and political communication, but it will require more than this alone.

When we look to the rise of other influential political movements we can gain an insight into additional requirements to influence the politics of a nation. In his book, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservatives, Francis Fukuyama details the development and rise of neoconservatism in America. This reveals the time-span and steps necessary to achieve desired political outcomes.

The roots of neoconservatism can be traced to 1930s and 40s where a loose band of intellectuals began critiquing the prevailing political consensus. The movement took years to develop its philosophical coherence and influence. Over the decades the movement built intellectual capacity and disseminated its critique and policy prescriptions through various publications. These ideas gained support of elites, politicians, and the public and were translated into government policy.

The key lessons for progressives are clear: Building a new political movement takes time. It involves building intellectual capacity and developing a political philosophy. Eventually, with the right ideas and effective framing, policy prescriptions will become concrete policies.

It’s hard to say whether progressives are now engaged in a similar type of project as the neoconservatives. I for one hope that such a project is under way so we can replace this ‘timid liberalism’ with a new progressivism in the foreseeable future. If we haven’t already started, we should start now.