Surely I’ve misplaced the political alignment of those two “r” words. Left-of-center politicians are the reformers, while those on the right are the reactionaries attempting to block “change” (and “hope,” too, for that matter).

Well, no.

In examining the reactions to reforms proposed in Madison and other state capitals, Daniel DiSalvo’s latest Commentary cover story challenges that popular notions of progressive reformers and reactionary right-wingers:

For the first time in more than a century, the left, normally preoccupied with imagining a better future, appears bereft of a major policy project and is stuck defending its past achievements, even those of extraordinarily recent vintage, like the passage of the health-care bill. The Great Recession and the underlying fiscal disaster it helped reveal has caused a crisis in what Walter Russell Mead has called the “blue social model.”

According to this model,

“both blue collar and white collar workers hold stable jobs, a professional career civil service administers a growing state, with living standards for all social classes steadily rising while the gaps between the classes remain fairly stable, and with an increasing “social dividend” . . . longer vacations, more and cheaper state-supported education, earlier retirement, shorter work weeks and so on.”

The “blue social model” suggested that incremental improvements engineered by government would proceed apace, but fundamental changes would be unnecessary. This was how a modern society should be run. It was logical, practical, and fair.

Myriad factors—from mass migration to technological innovation to global competition—has rendered the “blue state model” obsolete. Now the nations of the West face two intractable problems. One is the exploding cost of health-care entitlements and old-age pensions, which are straining budgets. Another is that government work is expensive but not very efficient: every year, taxpayers spend more for less. Addressing these problems will require complex and innovative solutions. Those solutions are already meeting resistance from those most immediately affected—and they just happen to be the backbone of the left. As the principal architect of the social safety net, the left is resistant to changing its composition. Paul Starr, editor of the American Prospect, has noted that liberalism has become largely “defensive” and “oppositional.” It must not only defend policies put in place a half-century ago, like Wisconsin’s collective bargaining rules, but also the signature piece of legislation of the Democratic political and electoral wave that rolled over the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 before it was engulfed in turn by an anti-Democratic wave in 2010.