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What is the meaning of the L-word?

The editors of The American Prospect, a magazine "founded in 1990 as an authoritative magazine of liberal ideas, committed to a just society, an enriched democracy, and effective liberal politics," are apparently not even sure what liberal ideas are, so they are having a contest, taking suggestions from readers on what liberalism stands for.

WILLisms.com judges The American Prospect to be an abject failure in its stated mission. Since 1990, the country has become more ideologically conservative and more politically Republican; right-of-center publications like National Review and The Weekly Standard have helped conservatives win ideological battles, as well as battles at the polls. Blame it on bad timing, but since its inception, The American Prospect has witnessed a realignment of party politics in America entirely unfavorable to its aims.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of a realignment, it is essentially a relatively rapid shift in the dominance of one political party over another that endures for roughly a generation or two. There is quite a bit of political science literature on the subject, and the authority on the subject is Walter Dean Burnham, of The University of Texas at Austin.

Fred Barnes explains the realignment concept rather succinctly in an editorial for The Wall Street Journal:

"The Republican surge in recent years should not have been a shock. The 200-plus years of American political history have seen a series of realignments that shift power from one party to another (1800, 1828, 1860, 1896, 1932, now). The chief theorist of realignment, political scientist Walter Dean Burnham, says they occur when the dominant party is unable to cope with new demands from frustrated voters. That prompts a breakthrough election, the latest in 1994. If the new political arrangement 'turns out to be permanent,' it's a realignment that's likely to endure for decades. The 2004 election 'consolidated' the realignment, Burnham says."

The American Prospect editors realize that a party can rise from the ashes, that an ideology can come back from the grave. Sometimes a party must purge itself, cleanse itself, purify its philosophy, and suffer lopsided losses, like Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, before it can eventually become dominant. But it takes time, it takes a clear articulation of both ideals and specifics, and it takes a lot of persuasion; circumstances, such as economic depressions and booms, wars and other geopolitical shifts, and other outside events play a role in realignments. Furthermore, demographic trends, such as older generations dying, as well as changing birthrates and immigration rates, can contribute to realignments.

First, though, the resurgence of a failing party (Democrats), and the reemergence of an out-of-favor ideology (liberalism), requires those who call themselves Democrats and liberals to know what they stand for.

WILLisms.com's advice: Know thy self. Then try to persuade others. The American Prospect is trying, at least, to take that first step:

"Anybody who's ever had to raise money knows the meaning of the phrase 'elevator pitch': You're in an elevator with a potential moneybags, and you have, say, seven floors to tell him why he should write you a check.

Well, we all know the basic outline of conservatism's elevator pitch: 'We believe in freedom and liberty, and we're for low taxes, less government, traditional values, and a strong national defense.' But what is liberalism's? We at the Prospect have, among us, attended or sat on about eleventy hundred panels since the election at which someone invariably says something like the following: 'We know what conservatives stand for. But what do we stand for?'

No one in Washington seems to know. So we turn to you. Give us liberalism's elevator pitch."

The contest requires a single sentence of no more than 30 words. You can email your suggestion to the editors of The American Prospect by clicking here, or you can post your suggestion in the comments section below.

The American Prospect is posting its favorite entries as they come in, and some of them are pretty decent, but some are not really very illustrative of "liberalism," while some are just plain atrocious as a 30-word sales pitch. For example:

"Equality for all, privilege for none. -- Mark O’Connor"

Equality over liberty? Equality at the expense of efficiency, at the expense of progress, at the expense of market forces? Equality of opportunity, or of results? Is equality code for Marxism?

What is privilege? Is affirmative action privilege? Is working harder, being smarter, or being more talented than others privilege? Is making a lot of money privilege?

A good 30-word pitch should not provoke so many questions, and it certainly should not be so vague as to lead one to believe that liberalism is synonymous with utopian and/or heavy-handed socialism.

The WILLisms.com staff has many ideas on liberalism, and we plan to blog on them quite a bit in the future, but first, a crack at the 30 word sentence:

Liberals are skeptical of market forces, disapprove of American power, love higher taxes, obsess over Vietnam/the 1960s, and are hostile toward any faith that isn't their preferred orthodoxy, Marxism.

Unfortunately for the word liberal, which has a proud history, especially outside of the United States (Australia's Liberal Party, for example), it has become a pejorative in the American political arena. The dictionary definitions of liberal and liberalism certainly do not match the political philosophies of the leaders or rank-and-file of the Democrats.

Thus, WILLisms.com supports The American Prospect in its effort to understand just what the heck liberalism even means. It is just mildly humorous that a magazine with 15 years devoted to advancing liberalism doesn't even know what liberalism is, or at least that it can't effectively articulate it.

Posted by Will Franklin · 23 January 2005 06:56 AM