Still hard to believe, I told a friend the other day while trying to fathom the election results, that pot is legal in my state, gays are free to marry, and a black man who vowed to raise taxes on the rich won a majority of the popular vote for president, back to back — the first time any Democrat has done that since Franklin Roosevelt’s second election in 1936.
And yet only one in four voters identified
themselves as “liberal” in national exit polls. Conservatives were 35
percent, and moderates the plurality, at 41 percent. The number of
voters who agreed to the “l” tag was up by three percentage points, for
what it’s worth, from 22 percent in 2008.
What’s going on here,
demography and democracy seem to be saying at the same time, is the
advance of progressive political ideas by a majority that spurns an
obvious label. Liberals have long been a distinct minority; liberalism,
in its better forms, has been triumphant at key times since the founding
of the Republic.
Lincoln’s push for the 13th Amendment, erasing the original sin of
slavery from the land, was a liberal moment, as dramatized in Steven
Spielberg’s new film. Teddy Roosevelt’s embrace of the income tax,
eventually written into the Constitution after he left office, was a
liberal moment. “No single device has done so much to secure the future
of capitalism as this tax,” said John Kenneth Galbraith.
suffrage in 1920, Social Security in 1935, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 —
all liberal moments. Ditto the creation of national parks, and laws
against child labor and poisoning the environment, and for giving most
Americans access to health care.
Democrats were the
knuckle-draggers on race and populist economic reform in the 19th
century, Republicans in the latter half of the 20th. The party
identities change; the arc of enlightenment does not.
us to the fascinating self-portrait of the United States at the start
of the second half of the Obama era. A tenuous center-left majority
wants to restore some equality to the outsize imbalance between the very
rich and the rest of us. If a tenuous president can lead that
coalition, without overreaching, he might be remembered among the
In its simplest form, this will involve raising taxes at
the high end and reforming entitlements enough to ensure their continued
success and sustainability. Much of that, an accountant could do. But
it takes a gifted politician for the heavier lifting. That leader will
have to make his still-fledgling health care act work and earn his
premature Nobel Peace Prize on an issue like climate change. In the
process, he could restore the good name to traditional liberalism.
at least a generation’s time, liberals in this country have been afraid
to call themselves liberal. Was it the excesses of their creed, from
race-based preferential programs that went on far too long to crude
speech censorship by the politically correct and humorless (one and the
same) that soiled the brand? In blindly embracing, say, the teachers’
union in the face of overwhelming evidence that public education needs a
jolt or in never questioning the efficacy of government programs, the
left earned its years in exile.
Or was it the relentless campaign
by the broadcasting and publishing empires of the far right, associating
liberals with tyranny, spiritual vacuity and baby killing, that drove
people from the label that could not speak its name? “Godless,”
“Treason” and “Demonic” are actual Ann Coulter book titles, and a
representative sample of the profitable cartooning of liberals.
in the broadest sense, is about expanding human rights and opportunity,
while embracing science and reason. What do they call the secularists
in Egypt today pushing for democracy over a theocracy? Liberals.
Progressives of the early 20th had an amazing run — direct elections of
senators, regulation of monopolistic trusts, modernization of public
schools, cleaning up the food supply — with only one major blooper:
The New Deal’s lasting legacy, Social Security, and
its counterpart of the 1960s, Medicare, allowed millions of American to
live out their lives in dignity. Those programs, attacked as
socialistic abominations by the Fox News shills of their day, are now
considered near sacrosanct by Americans of all political stripes.
of the last decade lost their way by rejecting science, immigration
reform and personal freedom, particularly in regard to choices made by
women and gays. If you believe in climate change, finding a path to
citizenship for millions of hard-working Hispanics and the right to
marry the person you love, there is no place in the Republican Party of
2012 for you.
Their neo-con wing started a pair of disastrous wars
that all but bankrupted the country. And for leaders, at least on
television, the party put forth crackpots like Rick Santorum, Sarah
Palin, Michele Bachmann and the morally elastic Newt Gingrich. This
chorus promoted an orthodoxy that forced this year’s standard-bearer,
Mitt Romney, to sound even more out of touch than he already was.
political moments are ephemeral. This one could vanish in the blink of a
donkey’s eye. But here it is: a chance to shore up a battered middle
class, make the promise of health care expansion work and do something
about a planet in peril. Huge tasks, of course, and fraught with risk.
For now, the majority of Americans have Obama’s back. But should he
fail, the same majority could become something much worse — a
confederacy of cynics.
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