Once upon a time, liberals were the folks who wanted to change society. They thought existing institutions were unjust and that individuals needed protection against the workings of the market. They looked forward to a society that would be different.
To a considerable extent, 20th century liberals achieved many of their goals. Racial segregation was abolished. An economic safety net was constructed. Government issued regulations were set up to protect the environment. Few Americans want to undo these changes. But they may want others.
Looking back on election year 2004, I am struck by how many of the constituencies supporting Democratic candidates oppose, rather than seek, change -- how they are motivated not by ideas about how to change the future, but by something like nostalgia for the past.
Take black Americans, the most heavily Democratic constituency -- 88 percent to 11 percent for John Kerry in the 2004 NEP exit poll. Blacks have been voting for Democratic presidential candidates by similar margins since 1964, when Republican Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act.
That was a big issue, then. And never mind that a higher proportion of Republicans than Democrats voted for the bill in Congress -- Goldwater did oppose it. But the Civil Rights Act has long since become uncontroversial, racial discrimination disapproved and integration of schools, workplaces and public accommodations widely accepted. Yet 40 years later, the image of the Republican Party as unsympathetic to equal rights for blacks seems to persist. Black voters seem still focused on a moment in history 40 years ago.
Or look at the antiwar constituency, an important part of the Democratic coalition in 2004. These voters denounce the war in Iraq in much the same terms, with much the same arguments, that they denounced, or have heard that their elders denounced, the American military effort in Vietnam. We're in a quagmire, committing atrocities, doomed to failure.
Right down to the signs and slogans, antiwar rallies seem a re-enactment of the tie-dyed past. In the waning days of the campaign, John Kerry and John Edwards slyly suggested that George W. Bush would bring back the military draft.
The war in Iraq is different from the war in Vietnam in so many respects that it is hard to know where to start listing the ways. But for some large portion of Democratic voters, it will forever be 1968.
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