Sun, Jul

A Turning Point: The Week That Liberalism Began a Comeback


GELFAND’S WORLD--Some years ago, a political consultant speaking to the local Democratic Party mentioned a watershed moment in the history of social reform. It was Ronald Reagan, he pointed out, who turned liberalism into a dirty word. 

It's a historical curiosity that during the Viet Nam War era, liberals were castigated for not being liberal enough -- in this case, not being anti-war enough, or anti-racist enough. The song lyrics love me love me love me, I'm a liberal by Phil Ochs were a slightly bitter, slightly sarcastic attack on people who accepted liberal principles in theory, but weren't willing to put up with desegregation in their own lives. 

But liberalism won enormous victories, even if they were partial victories, in the form of ending de jure segregation, legalized voter suppression, and the wholesale campaign of terror against African Americans in the south. 

The more serious attack on liberalism came from the other direction. Richard Nixon took advantage of white resentment in what became known as the southern strategy. Ronald Reagan continued the strategy, although he applied a more sunny disposition in selling his negative message. But most of all, Reagan attacked liberalism itself, making it the enemy. The word has been a whipping boy of the right wing ever since. 

Any hour of the day, you can go on the internet and find some comment suggesting that liberals don't use logic, or are hypocrites, or don't support the red white and blue. This hateful campaign has been picked up by talk-radio hosts, politicians, and millions of their followers. Reagan gets the credit for making this big lie into a seeming truism. 

At first, liberals engaged in a strategy of duck and cover. They stopped referring to liberalism, or calling themselves liberals. Instead, we got that in-between term progressive. It stuck. The liberals now called themselves progressives. The word liberal is more meaningful to me, but progressive will have to do for now. 

The thing is, the word progressive is starting to resonate, not because it's such a great description of what is, after all, the classic liberal vision of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It's working because the Democratic Party suddenly figured out that the sky wouldn't fall if politicians espoused liberal positions. We can thank Bernie Sanders for attacking the southern strategy head on. 

It's particularly interesting that Hillary Clinton adopted a strongly progressive message in her acceptance speech. Speaking out for universal health care and for free college education are the sorts of ideas that would have been considered major political mistakes just a few years ago. Socialism is what they would have been called. In fact, the Republicans have been pounding on Obamacare, surely a less complete product than universal care, and they have been insisting that it's a terrible affront to our principles. 

Suddenly, the Democratic Party has adopted a full-bore attack on the status quo. I think that most of us understand that the stated goals are unlikely to be attained anytime soon, but we recognize the new Democratic Party platform as a blueprint for 21st century America. We understand Hillary Clinton's speech to be the opening shot in what promises to be a long battle. It is a battle that is worth waging because it's goals are laudable and it can be won. 

Hillary Clinton took it a step further, calling for a path to citizenship for the undocumented. The Republicans will surely call it amnesty, another word that is considered to be a profanity on the conservative side of the political divide. Amnesty is exactly what it is, and it is now Democratic Party policy. 

I think we owe a lot to Hillary Clinton for stating clearly the words "path to citizenship" rather than engaging in some polite subterfuge designed with plausible deniability in mind. We owe thanks to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for developing a serious debate over several major issues over the course of the spring so that the platform could come to fruition in July. Whatever you call it, liberalism is back as a political position, overtly and clearly. 

And it's about time. I spent a few years attending Democratic Party meetings in California back in the 1990s, right up to the state convention level and even a couple of steps higher. What I remember was the timidity that characterized a lot of the planning and its resultant positioning. It's not wrong to be careful in your thinking, it's not wrong to be prudent in your political messaging, but I think that you have to consider whether you are being so careful not to offend that you don't really stand for anything. 

Stated differently, what's the point of seeking political power if you don't aim for something useful? 

The Republicans have followed this principle of seeking power and making use of it. It's just that they have a different idea of what is useful than us liberals. They think that holding back liberal progress is righteous. They have been somewhat successful in this, largely through reducing the influence of unions, engaging in voter suppression, and reducing government services. 

Liberals -- excuse me, progressives -- haven't been willing to be as aggressive as the right wing of the Republican Party. This is a curious thing, because the right wing of the Republican Party has never exceeded 40 percent of the electorate. By taking a transparently liberal stand, Hillary Clinton is challenging the minority which currently rules the congress of the United States. She will probably win the presidency more by belittling Donald Trump than because of her policies, but she can claim a mandate for her own platform after the election. 

Follow-up: The Republicans used to accuse Democrats of appeasement 

Is Donald Trump becoming another Neville Chamberlain? Trump is now quoted as being willing to give up on Crimea, leaving it in Putin's hands. This used to be called appeasement. Had a Democrat taken this position, conservative pundits would already be talking about the Munich Pact, and how this kind of conduct leads to weakness and then war. Trump's position is a little different than 1950s era calls for unilateral disarmament, but it's of the same ilk.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected].) 


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