How Liberals Can Attack From the Left — and Win
Mr. Nader and his allies were right about the dangers of a government captured by industry and labor and unchecked from the outside. In their time, the government was testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, encouraging the spraying of millions of tons of pesticides across the land and plowing highways through urban neighborhoods. The government was allowing strip mines to ravage the Appalachian Mountains and leaving coal miners to suffer from black lung disease with little compensation. Government policies were letting oil refineries, factories and power plants discharge toxic emissions into low-income communities and communities of color.
But as the liberal coalition that supported — and relied on — a strong and active federal government broke down, it became harder for the government to do big things. The liberal attack on “big government, big business, and big labor — all combined into one giant coalition,” as the 1972 best seller “Who Runs Congress” phrased it — left the administrative state vulnerable to challenges from the right.
When Ronald Reagan announced his first presidential campaign in 1975, he mirrored this liberal critique by framing his candidacy as an attack on “Congress, the bureaucracy, the lobbyist, big business and big labor.” The survival and progress of the American people, Mr. Reagan declared, depended on “a leadership that listens to them, relies on them and seeks to return government to them.”
Mr. Reagan and the conservatives broke with the liberal critics, however, in questioning whether the federal government had any productive role to play in so-called free markets. When former President Donald Trump chose appointees who were actively hostile to the missions of their own agencies, his administration embodied this decades-long conservative attack on government.
Now, liberals want to do big things again, including remaking American energy and transportation systems to address climate change. The lessons of the 1970s show why the “better” is so vital in President Biden’s “Build Back Better” slogan. Some parts of the new bipartisan infrastructure bill would still lock us into old errors, like the highway network that traps us in a petroleum-centered landscape. Other provisions would do more, by fixing the messes of the past: reconnecting communities divided by those very same highways, for example, and replacing lead pipes that can poison drinking water.
That’s welcome, but the best parts of the proposed new spending and regulating would actively move the country forward. They would create new systems, like an energy grid that could better distribute wind and solar power and a clean energy standard that slashes air pollution and improves public health. That’s how liberalism responds to its own critique of government and propels itself into the future.
Paul Sabin is a history professor at Yale. He is the author of the book “Public Citizens: The Attack on Big Government and the Remaking of American Liberalism,” which will be published this month.
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