Breakthrough Dialogue 2011: Modernizing Liberalism

Thursday, June 16 through Saturday, June 18, 2011
Cavallo Point

We believe that intense conversation and debate are critical to the creation of a new liberalism, one which is able to compellingly narrate current events and guide public policy. How should we modernize political liberalism for a new century, a new economy, and a new society in the face of new risks? In response to this question, our discussions will take place over four thematic Dialogues focused on risk, the state, ecology, and politics.

Two days of focused conversation in service of a mission larger than anyone in the room: new thought for a new politics for a new century.

Every year Breakthrough's extended tribe of fellows, families, and friends descend on Northern California to have a single, extended conversation about a big topic, from modernizing liberalism to overcoming wicked problems.

New Risks: Uncertainty and Ideology

What should we be afraid of and when is "fear itself" the problem? Are we too worried about high-profile problems like terrorism, global warming, and pollution and not worried enough about obesity, habitat loss, and American economic decline?

The invasion of Iraq, the underinvestment in new nuclear designs, and the lack of regulation of financial transactions are all, in their own ways, consequences of the misperception of national security, environmental, and economic risk.

This Dialogue will address but reach beyond an analysis of "objective" risks. We will consider the ways that our all-too-human limitations often cause us to cognitively misperceive risk. We will consider the role of ideology in shaping how we understand risk. Why do conservatives fear terrorism while liberals fear cilmate change? And we will consider the critical intersections between risk, innovation, and democracy. What kinds of risks can we anticipate and avoid, what kinds of risks should we accept, and how are we, as a society and as individuals, to discern between the two?

The State and Neoliberalism

If the "era of big government is over," why is government bigger than ever? If privatization was supposed to deliver efficiency, why has so much of it been inefficient? If the public is so anti-government, why does it resist entitlement reform? The sociologist Daniel Bell predicted in the early 1970s that rising individuation and narcissm would mean that Americans would increasingly demand more government services while becoming simultaneously less willing to pay for them. A few years later, the tax revolt began that continues to this day. Today both the public and the elites alike largely deny the critical role of the state in promoting economic development, imagining that all growth and innovation comes from the private sector, even as the financialization of the American economy has led to financial crises and economic stagnation. Liberals, for their part, largely concern themselves with stimulating short-term growth through public spending and redistributing its fruits while assuming, like conservatives, that long-term growth will take care of itself.

In this Dialogue, we will consider the role of the state in the economy after the exhaustion of both neoliberal and neo-Keynesian economic thought. What are public goods that the state must provide and what are private goods that it shouldn't? How must we reform the social contract to reflect the demands of a globalized, 21st century economy and increase economic opportunity and social mobility for the poor and working class? What is the role of markets and what is the role of the state in driving technological innovation, productivity, and economic competitiveness?

Modernizing Environmentalism and Conservation

For 40 years, environmentalists have warned that human civilization is unsustainable and nearing collapse, but new research indicates that nature is more resilient than previously thought. What is sometimes called "collapse" is really another word for the human domestication of the earth -- for good or for bad. Humankind's transformation of the earth carries risks, including the loss of beautiful landscapes and seascapes, but with those risks come new possibilities for both the creation of new natures and for the human liberation from nature.

How might we ground conservation and environmentalism in a new political philosophy, one capable of greening, rather than stopping, human development? What are the first principles we might adopt? If we need not worry about collapse, what should we worry about? If we think of humankind as "gardening the earth," what kind of garden should that be? What is the role of science, technology, and innovation? Do we need to choose between conservation for resource management and conservation for aesthetic and spiritual values or must we transcend that dichotomy? What is behind the rise of Malthusianism in rich countries and how can we talk back to it?

Politics, Media, Polarization

America is more polarized today than at any time since the Reconstruction. Liberals and conservatives increasingly live in separate bubbles, both physically and ideologically, each turning to media outlets that narrate current events in ways that reinforce their beliefs and perpetuate extreme partisan perspectives.

Why is this happening and what do we do about it? As individuation increases in a wealthy society, why are we also becoming increasingly tribal? Why is ideological polarization on the rise even as party affiliation is on the decline? What is the relationship between polarization and the economy, if any?

In this Dialogue we will explore what is driving polarization and what we might do about it. Where can we achieve disagreement on first principles and still find common ground where we might collaborate? Where might we redefine American politics along new fault lines that might not end partisan conflict but might end political gridlock? What are the big issues we should be debating and why don't we ever get around to dealing with them? What opportunities are there for a new liberalism to appeal to those disenchanted by both "progressivism" and "conservatism."