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Liberalism: Is There Anything Left?

In the past, WILLisms.com has explored the idea of liberalism, noting that even prominent liberals today have no idea how to articulate what they stand for. The American Prospect magazine even resorted to taking suggestions from readers on what "liberalism" means.

If even elite liberals need help defining liberalism, liberalism is in serious trouble.


Martin Peretz, in The New Republic, explores the downfall of liberalism in America.

On how far conservatives have come:

"...it was John Kenneth Galbraith, speaking in the early 1960s, the high point of post-New Deal liberalism, who pronounced conservatism dead. Conservatism, he said, was "bookless," a characteristic Galbraithian, which is to say Olympian, verdict. Without books, there are no ideas. And it is true: American conservatism was, at the time, a congeries of cranky prejudices, a closed church with an archaic doctrine proclaimed by spoiled swells."

For Republicans, it took nominating a true conservative, Barry Goldwater, to ignite what is now the prevailing political philosophy in America. Although Goldwater was demolished at the polls in 1964 by liberal Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson, Goldwater's candidacy paved the way for Ronald Reagan 16 years later, and George W. Bush today. Once liberalism was given its fair shake, once the New Deal and the Great Society programs proved themselves, it became clear that liberalism was, frankly, not so great. In 2005, there is still a long way to go before conservative ideas dominate the policy landscape, as liberalism remains so entrenched in the bureaucracy.

On how far liberals have fallen:

"At this point in history, it is liberalism upon which such judgments are rendered. And understandably so. It is liberalism that is now bookless and dying....

What's left is the laundry list: the catalogue of programs (some dubious, some not) that Republicans aren't funding, and the blogs, with their daily panic dose about how the Bush administration is ruining the country."

Indeed, just look at the comments liberals made following the release of President Bush's new budget, which cuts discretionary spending by 1%. For liberals, Bush was "gutting" programs, hurting the poor, destroying the environment, and otherwise ruining the country. This, from the same folks who complain about deficits, as if they are some kind of right-wing conspiracy, exclusively the fault of the current President. For liberals, cutting spending is never an acceptable way to deal with deficits. Only raising taxes is halal (kosher).

On the obsession of liberals with the 1960s:

"One of the tropes that trips off the tongues of American liberals is the civil rights theme of the '60s. Another is that U.S. power is dangerous to others and dangerous to us. This is also a reprise from the '60s, the late '60s. Virtue returns, it seems, merely by mouthing the words."

President Clinton, for all his political successes, never reinvigorated liberalism during his tenure. His first major political setback in office was his attempt to socialize medicine; he learned quickly that the American people are sick of the failures of liberalism.

On race:

"...in the Democratic Party, among liberals, the usual hustlers are still cheered. Jesse Jackson is still paid off, mostly not to make trouble. The biggest insult to our black fellow citizens was the deference paid to Al Sharpton during the campaign. Early in the race, it was clear that he--like Carol Moseley Braun and Dennis Kucinich--was not a serious candidate. Yet he was treated as if he just might take the oath of office at the Capitol on January 20. In the end, he won only a handful of delegates. But he was there, speaking in near-prime time to the Democratic convention. Sharpton is an inciter of racial conflict. To him can be debited the fraudulent and dehumanizing scandal around Tawana Brawley (conflating scatology and sex), the Crown Heights violence between Jews and blacks, a fire in Harlem, the protests around a Korean grocery store in Brooklyn, and on and on. Yet the liberal press treats Sharpton as a genuine leader, even a moral one, the trickster as party statesman."

In the 1960s, Democrats fought on behalf of African-Americans, because African-Americans largely could not fight on their own. Their cause was noble. Their cause was just. Although more Republicans than Democrats voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act [Republicans voted 27-6 in the Senate (82%); 138-34 in the House (80%). Democrats voted 46-21 in the Senate (69%); 152-96 in the House (61%).], Democrats earned a monopoly on black voters for a generation.

But what has that 90+% support, in election after election, earned African-Americans?

As time passes, less and less.

African-Americans might want to start asking the question, "Democrats, what have you done for us lately."

On the true, Marxist nature of liberalism:

"Pose this question at an Upper West Side dinner party: What was worse, Nazism or Communism? Surely, the answer will be Nazism ... because Communism had an ideal of the good. This, despite the fact that communist revolutions and communist regimes murdered ever so many more millions of innocents and transformed the yearning of many idealists for equality into the brutal assertion of evil, a boot stamping on the human face forever."

Nazism was one of the worst intellectual inventions in the history of the world. But Communism killed far more people. While liberals frequently try to associate conservatives and Republicans with Hitler, or fascism, or Nazism, in 2005, no conservatives espouse anything resembling Nazism. Meanwhile, communism still has its prominent apologists within the liberal movement.

On American power and liberal aversion/hostility to its use on behalf of good against evil:

"Peter Beinart has argued, also in these pages ('A Fighting Faith,' December 13, 2004), the case for a vast national and international mobilization against Islamic fanaticism and Arab terrorism. It is typologically the same people who wanted the United States to let communism triumph--in postwar Italy and Greece, in mid-cold war France and late-cold war Portugal--who object to U.S. efforts right now in the Middle East. You hear the schadenfreude in their voices--you read it in their words--at our troubles in Iraq. For months, liberals have been peddling one disaster scenario after another, one contradictory fact somehow reinforcing another, hoping now against hope that their gloomy visions will come true."

Liberalism, at this point, without shaking itself loose from its current path, can only hope for bad news. For liberals, bad news is good news, while American successes are inimical to political success.

So, is liberalism dead and decaying? Probably not. Liberals will likely return, reinvigorated, repackaged. And liberalism will have to operate under different constraints, with more respect for the free market, less cynicism about American power. Liberals will have to be less Marxist, less pessimistic, and less devoted to decades-old (and even centuries-old), underperforming government programs. Liberals must rethink their orthodoxies, allowing liberalism to be injected with new ideas.

And this is the greatest irony. Look up "liberal" in the dictionary:

"-Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.

-Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded."

In 2005, liberals seem far more limited to established, traditional, orthodox attitudes, views, and dogmas than Republicans in power today. Liberals today are against proposals for reform, closed to most new ideas for progress, and tolerant only of themselves.

Posted by Will Franklin · 21 February 2005 12:25 PM