In nominating Joe Biden, Democrats aren’t choosing a “moderate.” They’re choosing liberalism over revolution. Bernie Sanders said ... “Joe and I have a very different vision for the future of this country.” That is not quite right. The idea that Mr. Biden has a “vision for the future” is preposterous. He has a vision for the past, and even that is cloudy.
Mr. Sanders is a radical, not a liberal. The liberal worldview seeks a more equitable and open polity by means of piecemeal political reform. The radical outlook envisions a new world, not an incrementally better one.
With Mr. Biden’s ascension and Mr. Sanders’s decision this week to suspend his campaign, Democrats are again choosing liberalism.
The modern American liberal is the product of what’s commonly called liberal democracy—the social and political order obtaining in North America and postwar Europe. Liberal democracies value divided governmental institutions, a regulated market economy, a generous welfare state, personal autonomy and the expansion of political rights to formerly excluded classes. Conservatives and liberals alike are “liberals” in this broader sense, but American liberals believe more fervently than conservatives in the power of governmental means to achieve human betterment, and liberals tend to scorn habit and tradition as impediments to righteous goals.
American liberalism’s last great triumphs came during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Food Stamp Act of 1964 and the Social Security Amendments of 1965, which created Medicaid and Medicare. Since then it has accomplished no original reforms, only refined or expanded old ones.
The point here is not to disparage liberalism. It is to point out that liberalism in America achieved the last of its great aims a half-century ago. Since then, liberal successes have steadily diminished in importance. The Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972 empowered state and federal governments to alleviate pollution. In 1979 Jimmy Carter signed legislation creating the Education Department, but its function has never been clear. In 1996 Bill Clinton signed a monumental welfare-reform law, but its purpose was to curb liberalism’s excesses, not to further its aims. Then there was the Affordable Care Act of 2010, a nonradical version of a radical idea that managed to make an expensive and confusing system even more expensive and confusing.
Whatever the merits of these laws, none compares, in sheer transformative effect, with the great reforms of the first half of the last century: the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933, the Social Security Act of 1935.
It is a measure of liberalism’s lethargy that Democratic primary voters in 2020 have fixated so exclusively on Donald Trump’s badness. Mr. Trump has inspired liberals in a way that nothing else has in many years. But soon he will be gone, and what then?
A sizable portion of the Democratic electorate, especially its younger members, has wearied of this state of affairs. They want something more to do than tinker and emote.