Friday, January 14, 2005

Democrats and the New Liberalism

In the Washington Post today, columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. addressed the need for Democrats to redeem liberalism, to emphasize values most Americans accept and identify with. He wrote:

Democrats typically luxuriate in having a useless debate after every defeat: Should the party "move to the left" to "mobilize the base" or "move to the center" to "appeal to the middle"?

The debate is useless because it is about abstractions that few voters ever use themselves and because it often raises the question of what the words "left" or "center" mean for specific issues.

Polls that show 34 percent of Americans consider themselves to be conservative, while only 21 percent call themselves liberal. Dionne pointed out that even though Kerry won by nine percent among moderates, he couldn't gain enough liberal votes to overcome Bush's impressive support among conservatives.

This brings us back to the discussion of what the labels really mean. For many people, identifying a politician as "liberal" is the kiss of death. Even though it may not be fair, a very large number of Americans associate liberals with disrespect for traditional American values and a pervasive anti-American attitude. The responsibility for correcting this distorted impression rests squarely on the shoulders of liberals themselves. In Dionne's words, "Unless liberalism can refurbish itself, it will continue to be a drag on Democratic [Party] opportunities."

Dionne continued:

Enter Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. It's appropriate that a Massachusetts Democrat named Kennedy would give, every year or so, what amounts to a State of the Union address for liberals. Kennedy's effort this year, delivered at the National Press Club on Wednesday, was interpreted in the first news accounts as a take-no-prisoners, make-no-concessions clarion call for Democrats to oppose President Bush.

Well, yes, Democrats should oppose Bush. As Kennedy noted, it is "deceptive and dangerous" for Bush to claim "a sweeping, or a modest, or even a miniature mandate for reactionary measures like privatizing Social Security, redistributing the tax burden in the wrong direction, or packing the federal courts with reactionary judges." If Democrats can't stand up for Social Security and tax fairness and against Bush's court-packing, they might as well become Republicans.

But Kennedy did more. He suggested that Democrats could prevail not by retreating from their core principles but by demonstrating that those principles were consistent with the values held by many Americans who call themselves conservative. ...

Democrats, even moderate Democrats, will have trouble winning if liberalism does not redeem itself. Liberalism will not redeem itself as long as so many voters associate it with "alien" values. If Ted Kennedy, the avatar of liberalism, knows this, every other liberal should be able to realize it, too.

I agree with Dionne's analysis, and I hope Democrats understand the argument he and other thoughtful liberals are advancing. As I've written before, I believe in the two-party system because it has been and, I hope, will continue to be an indispensable cornerstone of American democracy. The system isn't perfect, of course. Many criticisms of our two-party system are valid, but criticism is only half of the discussion. The other half is, what could replace it? If the discussion is carried to its logical conclusion, including both what would have to be done and the weaknesses of all other alternatives, the inescapable conclusion is that nothing else would work better.

It's time for all of us to take a breath and understand that not only is there room for both liberals and conservatives in America, there is a fundamental need for both. The Democratic Party needs to understand that at this moment in history it needs to redeem itself, and liberalism as its guiding philosophy, among a very large segment of the American people.

That, despite the irony of Teddy Kennedy making the argument.


Blogger The Casual Observer said...

Hmm, very interesting, and yes what delicious irony.

11:05 PM, January 14, 2005  

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