7.11. The Current Status of Liberalism

7.11. The Current Status of Liberalism

The biggest challenge for liberals today is to be careful not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

I think the growing hostility between liberals and conservatives is the biggest problem of our time.

Until we fix it, it’s going to keep us constantly divided, constantly sabotaging each other, unable to deal with the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Ultimately, I think we’re going to have to do something about this two-party system that dominates our politics, and has institutionalized this ideological divide. But that’s a topic for another day.

In the meantime, in my professional opinion, I think the biggest challenge for liberals today is to be careful not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

We’re so divided that no matter who’s president, half the country feels like they’re living in an illegitimate dictatorship.

Ideals are important. Ideals should drive us. And we should hold our politicians accountable to those ideals.

But there’s a difference between betraying those ideals and making reasonable concessions to reality.

There’s a difference between wishing it was possible to do more—and insisting that only the impossible is acceptable.

Lincoln wasn’t the most fervent abolitionist—not even in his own Cabinet. But he was the one who successfully ended slavery.

President Obama wasn’t the most fervent liberal. But he was the one who successfully made the breakthrough on universal health care.

And even though most liberals would’ve preferred a single-payer, Medicare-for-all system, and Obama was criticized at the time for not getting that outcome, I think it’s increasingly clear—given the razor-thin margin with which it passed, and the innumerable times over the past eight years it was nearly overturned but ultimately wasn’t—that Obamacare ended up being the best that could’ve possibly been done.

Of course, we don’t want to sell ourselves short—especially when the lives and well-being of millions are on the line.

Of course, we don’t want to roll over or reward obstructionism.

Of course, marginalized people have been told for hundreds of years to wait their turn, to stop demanding what they should already have, and have had to fight every step of the way to get what they do have.

All of those are good reasons to do as much as we can—but none of them are reasons to turn a blind eye to our limits and our realities.

None of them are reasons to reject a small step forward, on the grounds that it isn’t big enough.

Because until we figure out how to bridge this widening ideological divide, small steps are largely what we’re going to have to be content with.

Big steps like Obamacare are going to be rare, because rightly or wrongly, they’re going to be seen as tyrannical.

And the more we have to rely on small steps to nudge this country in the right direction, the more political skill—not ideological purity—is going to be the most important factor.

If we want more big steps forward, the answer isn’t to keep perpetuating this two-party tug-of-war that’s split the American people in half, and swallows up our desire for social justice like a black hole.

It’s to figure out how to unite us, and work together with a broader consensus.


This is the 119th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.