Here is the liberals’ problem in a nutshell: More than 30 percent of Americans happily answer to the appellation “conservative,” while 18 percent call themselves “liberal.” And yet when questioned by pollsters, a super-majority of more than 60 percent take positions liberal in everything but name. Indeed, on many if not most issues, Americans hold views well to the left of those espoused by almost any national Democratic politician.
In a May survey published by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 65 percent of respondents said they favor providing health insurance to all Americans, even if it means raising taxes, and 86 percent said they favor raising the minimum wage. Seventy-seven percent said they believe the country “should do whatever it takes to protect the environment.” A September Gallup Poll finds that 59 percent consider the Iraq War a mistake and 63 percent agree that US forces should be partially or completely withdrawn.
Nevertheless, extremist right-wingers, including a few apparent criminals, enjoy a stranglehold on our political system and media discourse. And so the majority views of the American people are treated with contempt by pundits and politicians alike. To give just a minor example, New York Times columnist David Brooks–the writer who best understands the dynamics of the contemporary Democratic Party, according to the smart boys at ABC’s The Note–began a recent screed with the proclamation: “After a while, you get sick of the DeLays of the right and the Deans of the left.” Note the implied equivalence between the corrupt and extreme Tom DeLay–who regularly compares the Environmental Protection Agency to the Nazis–and Howard Dean, a balanced-budget fiscal conservative and ally of the NRA whose “radical” position on Iraq now puts him to the right of most Americans. Or how about the treatment meted out by smarty-pants pundits to Al Gore, one of the few politicians who have given voice to majority American positions on the war, the environment and the dishonesty and ideological obsessions of the Bush Administration. Brooks termed him “unhinged.” Fred Barnes said he was “nutty.” Charles Krauthammer, speaking, he said, in his capacity as a psychiatrist, called him on “the edge of looniness.”
Because right-wingers have been so adept at controlling the political discourse, they have succeeded in moving the Democrats rightward too. Brooks himself has pointed out that the conservative media have “cohered to form a dazzlingly efficient ideology delivery system that swamps liberal efforts to get their ideas out.” In fact, all that’s necessary to discredit an individual or an idea in the present poisoned atmosphere is to apply the label “liberal,” which conservatives equate with “treason,” “slander” and “treachery” (Ann Coulter); “idiocy” (Mona Charen); “Communism” (David Horowitz); inspiration for child murder (Newt Gingrich); Islamic terrorism (Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, Horowitz again); and priestly pedophilia (Rick Santorum).
Even allowing for the possibility of mental and emotional unbalance on the part of some of those quoted above, the ground for these attacks has undoubtedly been seeded by liberals’ mistakes. Back in 1991 Thomas and Mary Edsall published their revelatory work Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics, in which they illustrated the cost of liberal hubris and political miscalculation. The combination of rising tax rates, judicially imposed integration, affirmative action and abortion laws, the redistribution programs of the Great Society and the occasionally violent excesses of leftist social movements–coupled with the brilliant exploitation of these disparate phenomena by a well-funded, well-disciplined conservative movement–laid the groundwork for the takeover of American politics by the right.
Now, fourteen years later, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have published an equally illuminating investigation into the underlying dynamics of our present political predicament. Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy demonstrates just how badly Americans are served by media that accept the fundamental frame put forth by far-right Republicans. Did you know, for instance, that according to all available evidence, Americans have not grown more conservative in recent decades? (Lesley Stahl just stated that myth as a “fact” on The Colbert Report.) And what about the fact that in the 2004 election “moral issues” like gay marriage actually benefited Kerry, not Bush, by producing turnout? (In “What’s the Matter With What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Princeton professor Larry Bartels draws similar conclusions.)
Hacker and Pierson shine a light on the methods employed by the governing right-wing clique to maintain and expand their power without paying the price for their unpopular policies and base-focused system of rewards. Examining the 2001 tax cuts, the Bush energy plan, the Medicare drug bill and the deregulation of almost every industry that has a lobbying team and campaign-contribution budget, they expose tactics like “tailored disinformation,” designed to confuse a poorly informed public; Mafia-like manipulation of the levers of power in the House, Senate and White House that not only defenestrates the Democratic opposition but cuts off their sources of financial support; and a network of “New Power Brokers,” like the aforementioned DeLay, Grover Norquist and countless think tanks, media moguls, funders and lobbyists who work together to game the system at a level that is either too complicated or too boring to attract intelligent scrutiny. (If our leading political reporters were forced to address these authors’ evidence or to stop mouthing the nonsense dominating their own stories, our politics would be transformed overnight.)
With leading Republicans looking at potential slammer time and Bush’s approval rating in a tailspin, providence has given liberals an opportunity pregnant with possibility. Americans already share our values and no longer remain in thrall to the linguistic terror tactics of right-wing propagandists. What we need now is a liberal language to help people connect needs and desires to liberals’ vision. I’ll take up that challenge in my next column.