There was a time, one I can remember from when I was growing up (the 1950s and 60s), when being a liberal meant you wanted certain rights and benefits for everyone, at least ostensibly. We had Social Security because everyone should have a basic pension when they retire, and all disabled people need to be cared for. Freedom of speech was for everyone, even those horrible Nazis in Skokie. Liberals wanted national health insurance so everyone could afford medical care, but settled for Medicare, a universal program for seniors. Protestors like me were not against the rhetoric of universalism but the hypocritical practice, where blacks, Mexican and Filipino farmworkers and poor single moms were denied their share. That was then.
Now, liberals are concerned about minorities and the poor. They are against privilege, which is defined as not being a minority or poor. Public programs are designed to give assistance to the most oppressed and not waste their resources on those who have the privilege to fend for themselves. A poster child for the new politics is higher education. Liberals want bigger subsidies, like more Pell Grants, for the poorest students and those who self-select by enrolling in community college. They were distraught at Bernie Sanders’ call for free public higher ed for all, since that would siphon off scarce resources for the benefit of privileged, nonpoor families. From their perspective, this was proof that Bernie and his ilk were unwoke: unaware of the scourge of privilege, they even wanted public support for it.
In fact, nothing is more important for the future of progressive politics than a return to universalism. If you doubt this, read this powerful reportage in the New York Times on the divisions opened up by Obamacare. It describes two women, one working part-time and living below the poverty line who gets ample, free health coverage, the other working full-time in a middle class job who is stuck with monthly $1000 premiums and a big deductible. That’s not a bug but a feature: the program was set up to focus its support on those at the bottom and charge full freight for everyone else.
The effect is to divide the working class into two groups, poor winners and nonpoor losers. The politics are toxic, as you might expect. (Yes, the reporter found a Democrat to represent women below the poverty line and a Republican for women above it, which gives it an unfortunate air of exaggeration, but the logic of the comparison remains compelling.) It is also bad social policy, since at the margin households making $80,000 a year (the middle class example) can also skimp on care if the financial pinch is too much.
There is an interesting analysis of this phenomenon in “When Exclusion Replaces Exploitation: The Condition of the Surplus-Population under Neoliberalism” by Daniel Zamora. He points out that modern politics has become a contest between a Right that demonizes poor people, minorities and immigrants as living off the hard work of decent folk (the role formerly assigned to the capitalist class by socialists) and a Left that valorizes these same oppressed groups and regards everyone else as privileged. They differ over which side they take, but they both see the cleavage between the bottom and the middle as the essential point of departure. I’m not on board with his solution (explained here), but he is spot on about the problem.
I wish it were enough to just espouse a universalist progressive agenda, but we are so deep in the muck today that we have to go beyond this. We should be as clear and outspoken as possible about the moral and political dead-end to which “targeted” liberalism has taken us.