"Liberalism is at a crossroads. It will either evolve to meet the issues of the 1980s or it will be reduced to an interesting topic for Ph. D.-writing historians," Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts told the Americans for Democratic Action national convention in a widely quoted keynote speech.
Others, including Harvard economist Otto Eckstein, have expressed deep concern that conventional liberal approaches wil not provide adequate answers to the severe economic problems of the '80s, problems spawned by the energy shortage and double-digit inflation.
Senator Tsongas sharply criticized liberals for failing to address the fundamental cause of the energy crisis, namely "that oil is a finite and diminishing resource." While attacks on the oil companies are easy and emotionally satisfying, they ignore the basic problem of high and excessive US energy-consumption levels.
Colorado's liberal Democratic Sen. Gary Hart, George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign manager, argues that the liberal formulas of the past are almost irrelevant to the political challenges of the '80s.
Liberals generally view gasoline rationing as a fairer means of restraining consumption than a high gas tax, which would hit hard the low- and middle-income people who must drive to work. Liberals led the fight against the 10 -cent-a-gallon gasoline tax in order to protect the consumer, as Mr. Tsongas points out, but "ni the long term to protect the consumer from the reality of the energy crisis is toe destroy him." John Anderson calls for a 50 -cents-a-gallon gasoline tax and draws thousands of young people to his campaign.
Routine denunciation of nuclear power is an article of faith among many liberals, environmentalists, and others. Yet all too often opponents of nuclear power show little concern about where the additional power that the nation needs is going to come from. No nuclear power means massive reliance on coal, Senator Tsongas contends, adding that "any environmentalist who can accept the severe problems caused by massive coal burning is not an environmentalist by my standards."
The technology for mass production of electricity via solar power of nuclear fusion remains at best a promise for the early or mid-21st century. As a result , coal and nuclear power remain the only major alternatives to increasingly short oil and natural gas. While coal is very versatile, it is dirty and the costs of cleaning it up continue to be high. In addition, a coal-fired electricity generating plant can emit more radiation than a properly functioning nuclear plant.
Worker productivity and the need for tax incentives for business during times of recession are priorities that liberals tend either to neglect or reject outright. The auto industry is a classic example of an industry with wonderful wage settlements, no talk until recently of productivity or fuel efficient cars, and 300,000 union people out of work as a result.
Liberals traditionally view business tax incentives as an inherent rip-off for business. In fact, such incentives are often a ligitimate and necessary means of stimulating business activity and reducing unemployment in a time of recession.
If liberalism is to survive, it must have relevant answers to the critical problems of the '80s and must appeal to a whole new generation of Americans, who have never known the abuses and injustices that inspired the great liberal achievements of the New Deal, the Great Society, the civil rights movement.
Energy, double-digit inflation, skyrocketing health costs will ultimately require greater government intervention in the economy than ever befre. Liberalism is therefore far from passe, but it must adapt itself to these problems and be prepared to answer them with imaginative solutions.