President Obama’s embrace of same-sex marriage last week underscored an imbalance in American politics so profound and enduring that it has almost disappeared from view, like scenery too familiar to notice. Yet that imbalance explains why legalization of gay marriage, although still fiercely contested, seems inevitable, while pillars of Obama’s economic agenda such as health care reform face a much more uncertain future.
Throughout the nation’s history, as historian Michael Kazin of Georgetown University argued in his perceptive 2011 book, American Dreamers, the Left in American politics (whatever its name at the time) has pursued two broad goals, one social and one economic. Liberals would define their twin priorities as expanding individual rights to an ever-broadening circle of Americans and promoting greater economic opportunity and equality. Conservatives would describe the Left’s goals as unraveling traditional morality and redistributing income.
But whether the agenda is celebrated or damned, the same long-term verdict applies: The Left has succeeded far more at reshaping the culture than remaking the structure of the economy. Generation after generation, reformers have secured greater legal rights and social acceptance for previously marginalized groups—a process that seems irrevocably under way for gays and lesbians. But the Left has succeeded only intermittently and provisionally at using government to challenge the free market’s excesses, as the continued public skepticism about health care reform and other Obama priorities demonstrates. “In a political culture which valued liberty above all,” as Kazin wrote, “the Left [has] had more difficulty arguing for the collective good than for an expansion of individual rights.”
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The growth of both personal liberty and the circle of tolerance is a steady, if meandering, current in American history. The extension of rights to new groups invariably has been resisted, delayed, and won only after extended—sometimes bloody—struggle. But almost all the walls of resistance eventually have fallen. From the abolition of slavery to women’s right to vote, from the civil-rights laws of the 1960s to the legal and social changes that provided heterosexual couples unprecedented sexual freedom (on issues ranging from access to contraception to abortion) on to expanded workplace opportunities for women and minorities, the trajectory of American life has moved irreversibly toward providing more people greater autonomy to pursue happiness as they see fit.
Equality for gays and lesbians seems destined to join this roster. In Gallup surveys even in the late 1990s, a plurality of Americans said that gay relationships should be illegal. Now, most national polls show that slightly more Americans support than oppose same-sex marriage. The success of so many state-ballot measures nonetheless banning it hints that those numbers may somewhat overstate current attitudes, and Obama’s advocacy may cost him as many votes as it wins him this year. But young people now support recognition for same-sex marriages so overwhelmingly that it seems more a question of when, than whether, this barrier falls.
This unstinting process of personal liberation has produced not only benefits but costs (such as more single-parent families). But while the direction of change sometimes has stalled, it has never fully reversed; over time, the arrow has always moved toward greater equality for more people. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of American attitudes toward personal liberty may be long, but it always bends toward inclusion.
The story diverges on the Left’s other great priority: using government to soften the free market’s rough edges. On that front, the debate has ebbed and flowed in distinct cycles. Only in brief windows have liberals succeeded in expanding government’s influence over the market, whether to police corporate behavior or to try to expand security and opportunity: the Civil War years, the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society (which spilled into Richard Nixon’s regulatory advances). President Obama’s first two years, capped by health care reform’s passage, produced the broadest expansion of government’s authority in more than three decades. For the long stretches in between, the Left has struggled to defend its breakthroughs.
In 2012, Democrats seem clearly on the defensive again. In contrast to the steady warming toward gay marriage, Obama faces wintry skepticism about his health care law specifically and federal activism broadly—even amid hard times that have shattered faith in the private sector. “The Republicans are running more on repealing Obama’s agenda than Obama is running on the defense of [it],” notes Pete Wehner, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.
On both cultural and economic issues, the nation remains closely divided and dubious of extremes. In their ardor to reverse Obama’s advances, Republicans from Mitt Romney on down risk overreaching: Polls also show most Americans willing to raise taxes on the rich and reluctant to retrench government programs such as Medicare as much as conservatives prefer. But the same inclination toward personal liberty that narrowly tilts most social debates like gay marriage to the left also usually tilts arguments about government’s economic role slightly to the right. That’s one of many reasons why neither party is likely to win a decisive advantage this November—or anytime soon after.
This article appears in the May 16, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.