The conservatives may look to be imploding at the moment, but liberals have a serious long-term problem that won’t go away. Despite an almost perfectly evenly divided electorate, virtually the entire government and most of the opinion media are controlled by extremist right-wing reactionaries. Their advantages, moreover, can only grow as a stacked system of representation favoring rural areas and red-state strongholds, coupled with a traditional but increasing advantage in fundraising, offer the ruling right wing further opportunities to cement their gains and pursue new ones.
To New Democrat academics (and former Clinton Administration officials) Elaine Kamarck and William Galston, authors of the study The Politics of Polarization, the answer is for Democrats to jettison their liberal base and embrace a series of conservative and centrist policy proposals. To New Republic editor Peter Beinart, it is to expunge everyone and everything associated with the 3 million-member MoveOn.org, which coincidentally happens to be the most effective organizing and fundraising tool liberals have come up with in the past two decades. Both solutions are not merely misguided but counterproductive. (Beinart’s, moreover, is altogether impossible. Just how would liberals expunge MoveOn members? Loyalty oaths? Lie detector tests? What candidate is going to refuse their support? And is this really a moment when so-called “liberal hawks” ought to be lecturing those of us who were right about George Bush’s catastrophic war?)
Kamarck and Galston’s argument, on the other hand, seems to rest heavily on a simple misunderstanding. Just because voters refused to call themselves “liberal” doesn’t mean they reject liberal policy solutions. As I pointed out in my last column, in fact the opposite is true. Kamarck and Galston counsel surrender on exactly the ground where liberals are strongest: public policy arguments where modern–admittedly chastened–liberals share a broad agreement with the majority of Americans on matters of health policy, taxation, environmental protection, regulation, freedom of choice and even most foreign policy issues. No less significant, American voters often care more about whether a given candidate truly believes what he or she says than about whatever this or that policy detail might be. Caving in to conservatives across the board would appear to confirm Robert Frost’s devastating quip: A “liberal” is someone so broadminded he won’t take his own side in an argument.
Moreover, as any Democratic candidate can tell you, you may not want to call yourself a “liberal,” but that’s what you will be called, both by Republicans and a compliant media. It’s no coincidence that polls show more than twice as many voters considered John Kerry to be a “liberal” than described themselves that way.
What’s needed is not for liberals to eschew passion–or worse, to turn their guns on their own troops–but to fight back smartly and strategically. There is no simple way to do this, given the structural impediments, but surely the beginning of wisdom is accepting and naming the problem. Liberals need to find a means to bridge the gap between Americans’ belief in liberal solutions and their willingness to trust liberals to enact them. It will be a multifaceted task, but its foundation lies in finding a language that speaks both to Americans’ values and their self-interest while inspiring people to move beyond the toxicity of our O’Reilly/Limbaugh/Scarborough-style political “discourse.” At the same time, it must be a language that transcends the identity politics and competing victimizations of the past few decades, which have weakened liberalism from within and tarnished its good name among the white working class.
In many ways this task is the same one faced by the antiwar movement. A significant majority of the public believes the war was a grave error, dishonestly undertaken. But this is not the same thing as trusting its opponents to take over. To earn that trust, war opponents have to articulate both a critique and a vision that resonates with a broad majority of patriotic Americans and with liberals’ own values and beliefs. When movement leaders share a stage with a bunch of Stalinist androids from International ANSWER and the like who support not peace but Saddamite dictatorships, without disassociating themselves, then liberals are truly strengthening their enemies and sowing the seeds of their own impotence.
On the other hand, purity of purpose can lead just as easily to a paucity of results. It can be self-defeating to demand 100 percent fealty to our goals and objectives, regardless of calculations of pragmatism or even efficacy. In response to attacks on Democratic senators supporting John Roberts’s Supreme Court nomination, Senator Barack Obama–who opposed it–nevertheless engaged the readers of the popular weblog Daily Kos with an eloquent admonition that the “tone of much of our rhetoric is an impediment to creating a workable progressive majority in this country.” If liberals are to approach this goal and take advantage of Americans’ rejection of the far right’s reactionary agenda, they must first find a way to establish a basis for common understanding through respectful discourse. On that score Obama bravely explained to the sometimes overheated liberal blogosphere, “When we lash out at those who share our fundamental values because they have not met the criteria of every single item on our progressive ‘checklist,’ then we are essentially preventing them from thinking in new ways about problems. We are tying them up in a straitjacket and forcing them into a conversation only with the converted. Beyond that, by applying such tests, we are hamstringing our ability to build a majority.”
As it happens, Senator Obama–the walking, talking embodiment of Dr. King’s dream and an early and eloquent opponent of Bush’s war–is also pointing the way toward finding language that offers liberals a chance to engage Americans on the terrain of their hopes and dreams rather than their fears and insecurities. Space does not permit a detailed explication here, but read his much circulated June 4 Knox College commencement address (www.knox.edu/x9803.xml) and see if you agree.