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VISIONS AND NIGHTMARES: : America After Reagan by Robert Lekachman (Macmillan: $19.95; 291 pp.)

June 21, 1987|Walter Russell Mead

Benjamin Disraeli once observed that his liberal opponents reminded him of "one of those marine landscapes not very unusual on the coasts of South America . . . a range of exhausted volcanoes." American liberals seemed to have sunk into a similar condition early in the Age of Reagan, but now, as that age sinks into the past, the liberal volcanoes are smoking again, and none with more energy than Robert Lekachman, distinguished professor of economics at the City University of New York and author of "Visions and Nightmares: America After Reagan."

Lekachman, one of America's leading interpreters of Keynesian economics and the liberal tradition, writes well; he entertains even when he fails to convince. "Visions and Nightmares" is a sweeping survey of the choices that face the United States in 1988 and beyond. Lekachman looks at alternative futures for America after Reagan: conservative nightmare, the "uneasy sleep" of neoliberalism, and, least likely but dearest to his heart, liberal renaissance. This much has been said before; what makes "Visions and Nightmares" an original contribution to the debate over the future of American politics is Lekachman's attempt to come to terms with the failures of American liberals since the 1960s while identifying the issues and groups that can make liberalism an enduring presence on the national scene.

Lekachman's examination of religious liberalism in the United States is particularly noteworthy. Unlike the secular liberals of the past who ignored or downplayed the role of religious organizations in American politics, Lekachman looks to Catholic, Protestant and Jewish liberals for leadership in any liberal revival. He is almost certainly correct in this view, and his careful, respectful reading of the 1984 pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops, "Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy," deserves wide circulation.

A discussion of health care shows Lekachman at his best. He clarifies one of the murkiest yet most important issues before the American public and argues convincingly that the market orientation of both conservatives and neoliberals leads to chaos in this critical field. Here Lekachman makes a persuasive case that liberal ideas will continue to play a role in American politics because the alternative approaches don't work.

Oddly, he shies away from making this case about the economy in general. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt, liberals have argued that only some form of Keynesian economics can prevent a recurrence of depressions. Lekachman has clearly not apostatized from the Keynesian faith--he refers to the Sage of Bloomsbury as "the prophet who refuses to vanish" and attributes the Reagan recovery to "military Keynesianism."

Yet, despite a growing chorus of warnings from liberal economists like John Kenneth Galbraith and Felix Rohatyn that we are on the brink of major economic disaster, Lekachman does not look to economic trouble to rescue American liberalism. He rests his case for liberalism on its social utility--its superior ability to deliver vital educational, medical and other public services. "Neoliberal, like neoconservative, logic draws upon the wrong social science, economics instead of sociology." This is a startling statement from a distinguished liberal economist.

If this is true, and both neoliberal and neoconservative economics "work"--i.e., they provide a framework for assuring long-term steady economic growth--then the kind of liberalism in which Lekachman believes will be relegated to the sidelines for an indefinite period. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is one of the few rules that consistently guides the American electorate; if the Reagan Revolution ends in economic triumph, then liberals should pack for a long sojourn in the wilderness.

Foreign policy is conspicuous by its absence from this otherwise comprehensive overview. The omission is troubling, given the role foreign policy failures have played in the fortunes of both liberal and conservative administrations in recent history. American liberals are very far from developing a foreign policy that they can sell to the American people, and it is unlikely that liberals will be given the chance to govern until this gap has been filled.

Even so, this is an important book. "Visions and Nightmares" represents a significant advance in American liberal thought and should be read by everyone--liberal, conservative or assorted shades of neo--concerned about American politics.

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