The Disappearing Liberal
Yesterday Steve Burns posted a disturbing article on Oped News (my new venue, by the way) that called for the execution of liberalism, one that seems to conflate liberalism with progressivism.
He used as his jumping off point a recent Gallup poll that seems to suggest that American voters are already losing faith in a progressive agenda of which we’ve hardly seen a trace of evidence since perhaps the Carter administration.
Here’s how Burns sums it up:
A recent Gallup Poll showed widespread uncertainty about the "progressive" political label, with the majority of those responding (54%) saying they are unsure what "progressive" means. 31% felt they knew enough about "Progressive" to say that it doesn't describe their views, while 12% said that they were themselves progressive.
The reason why so many of us can’t seem to distinguish “liberal” from “progressive”, and I count Burns in with this confused majority, is that we’ve seen so little evidence of anything even remotely resembling either a liberal or progressive agenda. As Burns himself admits, our nation’s youth have never known an America that hasn’t been ruled by corporations just as surely as all children about to go into the 4th grade this September have never known an America that hasn’t been at war.
A July 9-12 Bloomberg poll released just yesterday gives some news that should make a lot of Democratic lawmakers and the President pace the floor at night: 6 in 10 Americans in their national poll say that Afghanistan is a lost cause and about as many people feel our nation’s headed in the wrong direction. Now, we’re hearing ominous rumblings that, in spite of the huge gains made by Democrats in the last two elections, control of Congress is at stake. As we all know, this November 36 Senate seats and, of course, all 435 House seats are up for grabs. Our once-infallible president’s approval ratings, while still much higher than that of most Democratic lawmakers, are at an alltime low.
It isn’t just teabaggers and mainstream conservative voters skewing these numbers. Many of those people still accuse Obama of being a Socialist, fascist, Muslim, illegal alien who wants to take away all their guns and money. Many Democratic voters, including the aforementioned 12% of us who supposedly align ourselves with the so-called progressive “movement”, are similarly disenfranchised, albeit for completely different reasons.
This disenfranchisement was no better exemplified than during the 14-15 month-long debate on health care “reform” that was doomed from the start. Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus made it plain from the gitgo that single payer advocates would not have a voice in the national discourse and Obama was hardly any more sympathetic toward them. The health “reform” bill, really just a thinly disguised corporate bailout for Big Pharma and HMOs designed to create a mandated, built-in customer base, outraged many liberals and progressives as it did ignorant teabaggers and their misspelled signs who construed it as a Socialist government takeover of our health care industry.
But what’s a progressive and what’s a liberal and do the classic definitions apply today in a world that’s virtually unrecognizable from the one in which I grew up 30 years ago? From the time I first came up as a liberal blogger in early 2005 midway through the Bush administration, I saw progressivism as some genteel palimpsest of what used to pass for liberalism. The very word “liberal’ had become a four-letter word starting with the Reagan days and was immediately associated by the national kneejerk consciousness with the phrase “bleeding heart”, someone who wanted to keep welfare people on welfare and would’ve done anything to the detriment of national defense.
Of course, liberalism is much more pragmatic than that. FDR proved it and Kennedy proved it again in the early 60’s. Liberal thought gave us the New Deal that eventually pulled us out of the Depression. Liberalism gave us the Peace Corps, the Clean Air and Water Acts, OSHA, the labor movement and virtually any progressive legislation in the last 75+ years.
But the liberal movement’s been dead since about 1968 when Dr. King and then Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The first signs were the wind that was taken out of the sails of both the Civil Rights and the antiwar movements.
The Overton window constantly shifting incrementally to the rights has certainly done its part to move liberalism out of the public consciousness so that even the more pragmatic Progressive movement looks positively Socialist and radical by conspicuous relief. Before we knew it, by the past decade we were ferociously debating, and still are, the merits or faults of spying on US citizens, torture, invading foreign countries that had never threatened us, the stripping away of our Constitutional protections and civil liberties and whether or not gay couples in love should legally get married.
By 2005, we were conditioned to believe that virtually anything to the left of the neocon agenda was treasonous, radically and dangerously Socialist and as far from pragmatic as one could get. Only those of us with any sensibility toward history will realize with a start that the 90% tax rate on the wealthiest Americans and the EPA, which would be considered radical by today’s standards, were in place during the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations, respectively. In fact, the late Hunter S. Thompson reminded us in 2004 that if Nixon were running for president, he’d be branded a wild-eyed liberal.
Burns and I differ on what ought to get a thumb up or a thumb down. What’s commonly referred to today as “progressive” is actually a pale, timid pretender of what liberalism used to be and can be again. Progressivism as a noun, by the strictest interpretation of its root word, means “progressing” toward a certain liberal goal. In other words, progressing with slow, incremental change. Which is the very cautious, flinching policies of Barack Obama that have disserved us so well.
We need to remember that liberalism, not progressivism and certainly not conservatism,, is what gave America many of its greatest and proudest moments. Progressives sit with business leaders in climate controlled rooms in order to extract watery concessions and compromises. Liberals will take to the streets and demand change like the feminists, antiwar student protesters and the Black Panthers. Speaking just for myself, I know of no other distinction.