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August 06, 2004
That Liberal Thing

Recently, Eric Alterman was talking about liberals and extremists.

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label "Liberal?" If by "Liberal" they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer's dollar, then … we are not that kind of "Liberal." But if by a "Liberal" they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties -- someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a "Liberal," then I'm proud to say I'm a "Liberal."

That's as good a description today as it was in 1960, when Kennedy offered it.

If all you knew about the word "liberal" is what came up when you plugged the word into Amazon's search engine on any given day in January 2004, you'd think it was among the worst insults one human being could hurl at another.

Looking at that list (read the article, I'm not mentioning those names on my blog), I can safely say there are few things I want more than to be a liberal, if they're the alternative. (Add Harris to the list, along with this guy. If any Democrat stood up and told outright lies that way, they'd get crucified by the press. Where is the outcry over the Right doing it?)

On the other hand, Hightower and Moore don't entirely thrill me. I think any objective analysis would prove that at least two of the names in Alterman's list are so unreliable that anything they publish should be labeled "fiction" and I think it's easily arguable that there are more (media-related) wingnuts speaking for the Right than the Left these days, but that should not be taken to mean that I think the Left should adopt similar tactics.

Of course these titles represent a kind of consensus on the right and in much of America.

If that's true, it's only because the Left let it happen, but somehow I doubt it's true. Once again, I think, we have to go back and consider to what extent the Right has been defining the terms of the debate. While the number of people who listen to L*mb**gh is truly frightening, I don't think that can actually be translated into proof that there's a majority of Right-wing lunatics in this country. I don't think there are. I think they're just louder than the Left. The majority of the people accept "liberal" issues as their own. They're just rejecting the label.

Liberalism, according to much of the coverage of the recent convention in Boston, is something from which savvy politicians must run—or perhaps hide under the bed at least until the guests have gone home.

And that's just wrong. We're in this mess because when the Right decided to start re-defining "Liberal" as "spawn of satan," taking advantage of the reactionary backlash against the social movements of the 60s and 70s, the Left didn't step up to the plate with any defense of "liberalism" as something worthwhile, in spite of middle-America's freak-out over how long their son was wearing his hair. (I'm not qualified to discuss what went wrong with the Democratic leadership*.)

I find myself wondering if the Right is going to find itself in this same position in 20 years. Yelling helplessly that they weren't all racist warmongers intent on remaking this country into a martial state where corporate interests reigned supreme and that surely people who care enough to look will agree that the principles they were fighting for were sound. Somehow I doubt it.

History is likely to exonerate any effort toward greater freedom and equality and more government responsiveness to the demands of the voters. I find it hard to picture history equally exonerating a doctrine of "pre-emptive war" based on "because I said so."

(* I'm not qualified to discuss any of this, as far as that goes. We all understand, that, right? If you had any sense, you'd be somewhere else, reading a good book.)

Anyhow, as Alterman goes on to explain, he's not talking about "liberalism," not really. His column is about a portrayal of "extremism versus moderation." In the media, the comparisons are between the "extremists" on the Left and the sanity of conservatism. In reality, on the contrary, the Democrats are (have been forced to become) the soul of moderation and today's Republican party is all about extremism.

The opinion that the Democrats need to foreswear McGovernism and prove their commitment to moderation is one of the very safest in all of punditry." Yet Republicans, Kinsley notes, receive the equivalent of a free ideological pass regardless of the fact that they are led by two men whose political extremism has no analogy in power circles in the other party.

This is what I mean by letting the Right define the debate. They've made it about McGovern's loss to Nixon and the Left has failed to make a decent defense. "Liberalism" is not one person, and it's not one election.

(After thinking about it for thirty seconds, the first think I decide is that the current Republican Party should stop calling itself "conservative." Because it's clearly not, not if you're speaking in terms of the "Republicans" in power today. After Reagan, Bush I, and now Bush II, I'm thinking that if I were a conservative, I'd want to put as much distance as I could between myself and the "neo-cons.")

(Or, you know, throw them out. Most of you will still be on the planet in 20 years. It's a little late to be thinking about the "legacy" the Republican party of the last twenty years is leaving, but you could make your mark on the future by grabbing your party leadership by the collar and dragging it back to where it belongs.)

So, what else am I thinking about, after reading Alterman's column?

As Princeton professor Paul Starr notes, "The use of the vocabulary of treason is a measure of how thoroughly conservatives have transferred the passions of anticommunism into an internal war against those whom they think of as the enemies of American culture and values.

"Groups" or "movements" require a unified "cause" and an enemy is the obvious choice. It's a lot easier to get people to be against something than for it. (I mean, look how many people today are, "for anyone but Bush." That's not being "for." That's just being "against."*)

Lacking a single external entity to rally support against, as they had in the Cold War, the Right has settled on attacking the other half of their own country. Since "American culture and values" are actually liberal, they're pretty much guaranteed never to lose this enemy unless they manage to actually destroy the country.

It's just a pity that we've let them take the best part of this country and turn it into a dirty word.

* The Civil Rights movement of the 60s was "against" segregation and racism. It was "against" war. It was "against" the subjection of women.

Yes, it was for equal rights and peace but to be "for" something means you're "against" something else, because every coin has two sides. The problem (as I see it) with the current (neo-con) conservatives is that they're pretty much just against.

I know what they say. They're 'for' this, that, and the other, but when you look at legislation, when you look at what the White House actually supports when it comes up for a vote, when you look at what they actually ask for funding for and what they don't, when you look at what they do instead of what they say, they're mostly against.

With the Bush Administration's habit of under-funding pretty much everything except the actual money needed for more bullets, it does seem to actually be for one things. It has at least tried to implement the conservative rallying cry of "small government." Regardless of the economic and social damage it would do to this country to dismantle the federal bureaucracy; they're certainly making a game attempt to do so.

It's a move that's doomed to failure, of course. Too many politicians are feeding from the lobbyist trough. If you could dismantle much of the regulatory function of the current government, you'd get bonuses from the lobbyists today but in two years, when they have no legislation to object to, no pet protectionist bills to get passed, and they don't need a politician, and you're up for re-election? Sorry, Charlie.)

I'm told that some people spend their lunch breaks eating. I should give that a try one of these days.

Posted by AnneZook at 02:15 PM


The word "liberal" may be doomed. The Right did such a fantastic job of convincing people who are feminists to reject the label, of course they will use the same tactic on "liberal".

Posted by: Amanda at August 9, 2004 09:27 AM

That's quite possible. If so, I'd like to see the same thing happen to the word, "conservative" in this country.

Especially since my position is that the Republican Party's current leadership has about as much to do with real conservative values as I do with mulch (i.e., vaguely aware of its existence but not sure what it's made of).

It's also possible, of course, that the words "liberal" and "conservative" have outlived their usefulness as identifiers of the two main political wings in this country. As issues and beliefs shift, it may be that we need to redefine what it means to be "Democrat" or "Republican."

Posted by: Anne at August 9, 2004 10:52 AM