A New Social Contract

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By Michael Kazin and Julian E. Zelizer
Sunday, June 22, 2008

For the first time since 1964, Democrats have a good chance not just to win the White House and a majority in Congress but to enact a sweeping new liberal agenda. Conservative ideas are widely discredited, as is the Republican Party that the right has controlled since Ronald Reagan was elected. The war in Iraq has undermined the conservative case for unilateral military intervention and U.S. omnipotence. Economic insecurity has led Americans to question the rhetoric about "big" government, while President Bush's embrace of new federal programs has undermined GOP promises to cut spending.

The long Democratic primary battle masks the fact that the party faithful agree on the basic outlines of a new social contract. It fits a post-industrial society that was barely visible when Lyndon B. Johnson was ramming a series of landmark measures through Congress.

The new agenda focuses on protecting middle-class families from the insecurities of the global economy. In their primary campaigns, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton advocated proposals to help citizens whose economic welfare has been threatened by the rising costs of health care and education, the slide in the housing and stock markets, the challenges of retirement, and global warming.

Obama speaks of strengthening families by putting "the rungs back on that ladder to the middle class," giving "every family the chance that so many of our parents and grandparents had." He calls for a tax credit to offset the Social Security tax and expanding the earned-income tax credit and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Obama also favors two big programs that no Democrat before him could realize: a national health plan that would cut costs and cover every citizen; and a sizable tuition grant to college students who sign up for national service.

The emphasis on protecting middle-class families reflects a major historical shift. During the 1930s and '40s, liberals struggled to create a vibrant middle class out of the industrial wage-earners who had immigrated to the United States and rural people of all races who lacked electricity and jobs. New Deal programs focused on workingmen and depressed regions. The National Labor Relations Act legitimized unions and boosted the purchasing power of the working class. The Rural Electrification Administration and the Tennessee Valley Authority enabled Southern communities to participate fully in the modern manufacturing economy. Social Security gave support to the elderly, lessening the burden on their children. The GI Bill gave a generation the ability to purchase a home and get a college education.

In the 1960s, Democrats turned to expanding the middle class. John F. Kennedy and LBJ sought to increase the number of Americans who could enjoy the economic and social benefits of a booming economy. The rights revolution made it possible for African Americans, Latinos and women from all backgrounds to compete for most of the same jobs as white men. Medicare and Medicaid provided new health benefits for the elderly and the poor.

Now, Democrats are grappling with insecurities faced by entire families, that institution conservatives always claim to represent. The past three decades have produced growing economic inequality and a shrinking middle class. Younger Americans no longer expect to enjoy as good a life as their parents did. Wage-earners fear for the future of their jobs and incomes. No family is secure.

This is the reality of a global, nonunion economy that the new agenda attempts to address. But before the reunited Democratic Party can start to make a forceful case to the nation, it will have to address its great weakness. Democrats have not yet been able to equal what was perhaps Franklin Roosevelt's greatest political success: to offer a bold foreign policy to match his domestic ambitions. FDR had an internationalist vision: that the United States should use military force only against clearly defined threats and with the aid of international, democratic institutions. This vision, with some exceptions, defined America's stance in the world until Vietnam.

That debacle destroyed LBJ's presidency, and the question of how America should act in the world has haunted his party ever since. Democrats have no coherent view about foreign policy that differs from that of conservatives. They agree on finding a way out of Iraq and halting nuclear proliferation. But Democrats are vague about how to combat terrorists (and how to evaluate the threat itself), don't have a clear strategy for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and are fearful of questioning the size and substance of the military budget. This weakness gives John McCain his best chance to delay or defeat a new liberal awakening.

Yet if Democrats find a way to address Americans' insecurities about their economic futures as well as the future security of their nation, they may be able to emulate the only liberal president who ever managed that difficult feat. And for that achievement, FDR became one of the greatest and most beloved leaders in our history.

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University. Julian E. Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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