The fanfare around Ted Kennedy's death is linked to the demise of U.S. political liberalism, even though liberalism died between the presidential elections of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Liberalism could be declared dead by 1973, when the doubling of worker incomes since 1946 turned into a wage stagnation that has yet to end. On Saturday, August 29, 2009, liberalism was merely given its long overdue burial.
"Liberalism" was an American weasel term to avoid being called -- the salts! -- Red. In Europe, "liberalism" was understood as the ideology of the wealthy class spawned by the industrial revolution. They believed free markets should be unfettered, or liberated (hence "liberal"), from government intervention. We in the United States call that view "conservatism."
U.S. liberalism was originally an unorthodox alliance between the political machine of a New York governor from a patrician family of extremely deep pockets and the unions, the Catholic sons of immigrants and even "the Negroes" (where allowed to vote). I'm talking, of course, of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man praiseworthy -- as Ted Kennedy is not -- for having transcended his upbringing and class destiny. His New Deal wove a threadbare safety net for the average citizen, without risk to a single mansion or trust fund.
President Kennedy drew on that coalition, which mistrusted him for good reason, to win election in 1960. Accidental President Lyndon Johnson, himself from a background close to those lifted from poverty by the New Deal but still without an upward socioeconomic ladder by the 1960s, expanded the New Deal into some, but not all, of its logical consequences.
The War on Poverty was a resounding success: poverty dropped in Johnson's one term from 19.0 percent to 12.1 percent -- nearly 7 percentage points down between 1964 and 1968, a record never equalled since (the 2007 poverty rate was 12.5 percent).
All the political battles since 1929 have been about whether to distribute the fruits of labor among the many who work or among the few who live off the profits. Liberalism had been moderately on the side of the many, while conservatism remains quite rabidly for the few.
Conservatism, of course, has successfully cultivated smokescreen "social issues" such as identity politics (whites vs. blacks vs. gays vs. women, etc.) and fundamentalist-leaning morality (abortion, family values, heterosexual marriage, etc.) to hide the elite's real economic agenda. But that's a whole other post.
The problem with U.S. liberalism is that it ultimately amounted to little more than noblesse oblige, political charity dispensed from limousines. The unions were co-opted -- and forcibly purged of "Reds" -- by the pressure and deals of the big oligopolies of the 1940s and 50s, which turned union leaders into domesticated members of the American managerial class.
The liberals purportedly believed that workers could get their fair share under their moderate reforms of the rapacious system we know as capitalism. But their gradualism led to gradual deterioration. In 2006 the average workers' inflation-adjusted wages were 22 percent below that of their peers in 1973. As noted at the outset, in 1973, they had been 200 percent (or double) what they were in 1946 -- same wages, same inflation adjustments.
The debacle occurred on the watch of Ted Kennedy and Chris Dodd and all the old liberal dinosaurs who still think it's 1965 and thought it was 1965 when Reagan won and still thought it was 1965 when the Republicans took Congress, thanks to liberal spinelessness, in 1994.
Liberalism is dead. Is the new, still unveiling, Obama paradigm up to the task the dying liberal elders flubbed? Or is it merely the same old liberal Kool-Aid with different food colors?