On being a liberal

Tavis Smiley had the Heritage Foundation's Tim Kane on this morning, the dulcet voiced hack infamous for his specious op-eds about how the whole unemployment "thing" is really just due to a misunderstanding about federal survey numbers, which have somehow managed to slip by the editors of almost every major newspaper. Listening to Kane's facile and decptive logic ("But we do have a solution to structural unemployment among black males, it's called economic growth and you get it through supply side economics...") it struck me how truly uninterested are the current crop of conservatives in actually addressing the business of running the government. The conservative movement is so dependent on several intoxicating discursive frames, that little room is left for the sort of self-examination and "courage to choose the best solution" invaluable to real government reform.

Which got me thinking about an important but forgotten aspect of the liberal appellation debate: the importance of a strong liberal tradition in creating better government. The conservative ascendancy of the past three decades has been remarkably successful at diverting and stifling real debate about the purpose and character of government. They pit the overwhelming popularity of most government programs against a PR campaign of smearing anything with the word government attached (except the military) and reap the benefits.

But the ensuing gridlock has shown its cracks in recent years. Bowing to political pressures, Bush has all but abandoned "starve the feds" rhetoric (regardless of his backers' true intent). The increasingly frequent omission of true believer anti-government rhetoric in American politics points to a time when we can again have substantive debates about how government should be shaped.

Bill Clinton was able to achieve this to an extent, but he had to reframe the entire debate in the terms palatable to conservatives. That his triangulation was (briefly) successful only goes to show that the country is yearning for such a debate.

By virtue of its goals, the anti-government 'movement' doesn't have much interest in stemming the tide of venality and favoritism which has come into sharp relief in the past four years of government. But Americans have repeatedly demonstrated that they appreciate smart, accountable government. When they are convinced that government is reasonable, efficient, and responsive, they will rally to more inspiring visions of what they might accomplish through it.

In this sense, George W. Bush has done a favor for liberalism. He has thrown into sharp contrast how government operates without taking liberal principles seriously, leaving us to hope for a time when they are.


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