12/31/2010 11:29 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and the New Liberalism

What a year. From the earthquake in Haiti to the rescue of the Chilean miners, 2010 certainly wasn't lacking for compelling human drama.

Nor was it lacking for politically transformative events. Indeed, given three stories in particular -- the passage of Obamacare, the extra-judicial authorization to assassinate an American citizen, and the WikiLeaks controversy -- this year may well go down as the year 21st century liberalism, with all its attendant complexity, fully came into its own.

Significantly, although this new liberalism is similar to its 20th century variant in many respects, it is fundamentally different in one regard: its understanding of risk.

* * *

In the last century, American liberalism confined risk -- or at least the risks that the government ought to attenuate -- to the economic sphere. The idea, at least initially, was that the complexity of a modern, industrial economy -- and particularly the disruptions caused by its cyclical downturns -- produced financial risks that exceeded the capacity of any given individual to manage. As the Great Depression illustrated, an American could work hard, save responsibly and invest wisely, yet still be financially crippled by forces far beyond their control.

What was needed, liberals argued, was a government that could help buffer individuals from those forces. Sure enough, that argument proved persuasive: in the 1930s it propelled FDR's New Deal legislation through Congress, while in the 1960s it pushed through many of LBJ's "Great Society" initiatives.

Crucially, although the concern with economic exposure still informs liberalism today, it doesn't do so with the same intensity. Increased competition abroad, coupled with the ascendancy of neoliberal thinking at home, has shifted the scope and focus of liberal economic policies. In effect, the rhetoric of 20th century liberalism has met the reality of a post-industrial, globalized economy -- and the ambitions of Great Society liberalism have been reigned in accordingly. The American safety net will continue to exist, but only so long as its cost does not undermine America's economic competitiveness.

Even more, though, the 21st century has witnessed a newfound concern with physical security. For a variety of reasons -- some economic, others political, many technological -- the risks that matter most in domestic politics today are physical: think about the risk of contracting and treating cancer on the one hand, or of suffering violence on the other. In each case the immediate stakes are the same -- namely, the security and well-being of our individual bodies.

Liberal politicians have adapted to this concern accordingly. Just consider two of the stories mentioned above: the passage of universal health care, and the authorization to target and kill an American citizen. In terms of 20th century liberalism, the two stories are at odds: how could the same president simultaneously pass the most progressive piece of legislation in a generation, and also put into place what is, arguably, the most illiberal program in the history of the American Presidency?

The answer has to do with how liberalism as a whole has been reframed. For Obama, health care and targeted killings reflect a coherent, if precarious, agenda: namely, a liberalism rooted in the proposition that the government's primary responsibility is to assume those risks to our bodily integrity that we cannot reasonably be expected to manage on our own. All other liberal policies, such as the promotion and preservation of civil rights, are now secondary to this.

Which brings us to the third story above: WikiLeaks.

From the salacious intrigue surrounding its founder to the potency of its more damning revelations, there are a lot reasons why WikiLeaks exploded as it did into the public consciousness.

Ultimately, though, I would argue that WikiLeaks' enduring resonance owes most of all to its singular ability to foreground the paradoxes inherent to contemporary liberalism.

Every time the organization announces a new round of disclosures, it forces debate on the central question confronting liberals today: namely, if liberalism's primary commitment is now to attenuate physical risk, how is it also supposed to pursue its longstanding commitments to human rights, civil liberties, and institutional accountability? What kind of government should liberalism be shooting for -- what kind of institutions should it have, and how much secrecy should they enjoy?

For many American liberals, such questions are unsettling precisely because they no longer afford ready-made, unambiguous answers. On the one hand there is a fear of siding with the knee-jerk condemnation of conservatives, for whom the unlicensed disclosure of classified materials is necessarily treasonous. But on the other there is also both an inability and unwillingness to defend WikiLeaks' actions; in a post-9/11 world American liberalism can't quite bring itself to defend freedom of expression as an absolute good.

As we head into 2011, how this ambiguity is resolved is anyone's guess. But the fact that it exists at all belies my underlying point: American liberalism is not what it used to be.

If nothing else, 2010 certainly made that clear.

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