This isn’t an original thought, but the current environment makes the question much more salient—is it possible to have a multicultural society and a robust welfare state? Or will racial resentment always create a barrier to political solidarity?So what's case for liberal optimism? It depends a bit on your expectations. Liberals should not expect all their policy hopes fulfilled any time soon.
I know that a lot of liberals see demographic change as the great hope, but even if the United States becomes a majority-minority country, I’m skeptical that racial resentment will dissipate. Which is to say that if I have a broader question, it’s this: is there room for optimism? Or was the 20th century's period of middle-class prosperity a historical fluke?
But at the same time, conservatives are unlikely to have their policy hopes fulfilled either. And that's the case for liberal optimism. Thirty plus years after Ronald Reagan took office and over fifteen years since the Republicans took control of Congress...the major policy setbacks for liberals are, from one point of view, relatively small. There's welfare reform in the 1990s, which some liberals believe was a major setback but others believe was a reasonable policy innovation -- I think there are few liberals who believe that the current system is any good, but few liberals in the 1980s believed AFDC was anything wonderful, either. But I'd count that.
After that, and sticking to Bouie's focus of domestic politics only...there's really not much in terms of policy. Oh, there are plenty of small-scale liberal losses -- but nothing major, and they're balanced out with liberal wins. even ignoring the historic 111th Congress, is there any conservative victory that's as significant since 1980 as the Americans with Disabilities Act?
Now, that's policy; the story is somewhat different when it comes to outcomes. Income stratification and the continuing atrophy of unions are both big losses for liberals. I don't know how to balance that against cleaner air and water, or the preservation of gains such as keeping the elderly out of poverty. A lot of that may depend on the particular priorities of particular liberals.
Meanwhile, on the public opinion front, I don't see major swings there, either. After all, Social Security and Medicare remain as popular as ever (remember that a major source of the unpopularity of ACA is because of the cuts in Medicare it makes, cuts that were perhaps the centerpiece of GOP attack ads in 2010).
And I don't want to minimize anything; some of the policy wins and losses over the last thirty years may not be significant in terms of an overall balance of policy, but they can still matter enormously to the lives of lots of people. It's just that for each gain for conservatives I can think of, it's not hard to come up with one of a similar magnitude for liberals.
Overall, I think most of this has to do with the inherent frustration -- felt by those with strong believes on all sides of the spectrum -- with the incrementalism that's built into the Constitutional system. And it's that frustrating system, rather than any particular partisan outlook, that's the safest bet to continue into the future. It's not certain! It's easy to imagine a future in which conservatives suddenly, whether through legislation or court rulings, finally succeed in repealing large chunks of the New Deal and Great Society programs that are still around and functioning. But it's the safest bet.