By TIMOTHY EGAN
- ORIGINAL PUBLISHED IN NEW YORK TIMES on Nov. 29th, 2012
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.
Abraham 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.
Women’s 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.
Which brings 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 greats.
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.
For 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.
Liberalism, 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.
The 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: Prohibition.
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.
Conservatives 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.
All 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.