A liberal by any other name...

Yesterday I saw Bob Reich give a short talk about his new book Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle For America. "Liberal" is in the title for a reason, Reich said: the time is ripe for a revival of that much maligned term.

I couldn't agree more. Certainly the oft-quoted statistics that 41 percent of the country identify as conservative while only 19 percent identify as liberal gives one room for pause. But Reich's argument is compelling. He says that conservatives, specifically, radical conservatives, have been allowed to monopolize the language of values for too long. Liberals must reclaim the language of values, but not in the narrow, personal and intrusive ways the conservatives have. We must begin to talk about the virtues of a 'public morality'.

That's where the reclaimed liberal comes in. Before the term was associated with various substantive positions: redistributions of wealth, narrow cultural politics, etc., liberalism referred first and foremost to a philosophy of governance. The term denoted a respect for rigorous devotion to the facts, a willingness to shun partisan loyalties in the interest of the greater good, a rejection of venality and cronyism in government, and a smart rugged individualism against forces that would use the state to guard their power. A central tenet of this liberalism is a belief in the importance of the state - that politics is the only means of balancing the leverage of wealth - but also a clear-eyed understanding that the exercise of state power is an imperfect tool and must be endlessly accountable to the public which authorizes it.

This notion of liberalism would seem to dovetail advantageously with the conclusion most Democrats and many independent conservatives have come to about the current state of the Republican party. The secrecy, the relentless cronyism, the refusal to admit any mistake whatsoever, not to mention the shoddy, partisan-driven lawmaking - if your greatest fear is government unmoored from democratic oversight and uncowed by procedure or principle, a second Bush term is not where you want to be.

But easier said than done. Reich also spoke of informal conversations he had held throughout the "red" states on a cross country trip. When he asked people he met why they supported George W. Bush, the most common answer he received was "his honesty". When he asked them why they disliked Democrats, he got three main responses: "Abortion, Gay Marriage, and Monica Lewinsky."

On a related note, Reich had an interesting angle on why liberals have lost the ability to speak about the moral certitude of their agenda: the total acceptance of Keynesianism coincident with the Democratic triumphalism. Keynesianism dictated that an expansionary public sector was necessary to balance the aggregate demand. And thus Democrats no longer needed to fundamentally justify massive spending programs.

The truth in this can be seen in the Republican opposition as well. While Republicans have never been serious about actually starving the federal government and the like, they have done a remarkable job of filling the void left by Democrats with the rhetoric of resentment, distrust, and disengagement.


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