In Defense of the “L” Word

It’s been a frustrating year and a half for liberals. Despite hefty margins in the House and Senate, the Right has seized both the political narrative and substantial leads in most polls. While the Democrats have had some political victories – the stimulus package, health care reform, financial reform, and the appointment of two Supreme Court justices – each of these seems only to benefit the Republicans. On the face of things, it would seem as if these issues were unpopular. Yet that’s not the case – as least before the passage of the finished product, the Democratic bills had broad support.  The bills themselves are not the problem; the problem is that they lack an overarching theme.

Americans love a narrative. FDR pushed his “New Deal” with dramatic and lasting effects on American society; Truman followed in his footsteps with a series of programs known as the “Fair Deal.”  LBJ advocated for his “Great Society” and Reagan seized the metaphor of a “shining city on a hill” to share his vision with America. President Obama has articulated no such vision. His administration, instead, has been reactive, fighting skirmishes to win the daily news cycle when instead they should focus on setting the tone and defining a new, progressive agenda.

By definition, Conservatism is not an idea, but a response to ideas: Conservatives seek, above all else, to preserve the past.  Libertarianism – which has become fashionable with young people who only four years ago would have been staunch Democrats – is similar in that it rejects large government without a clear alternative. Yet the agendas of both movements are dominating at the moment because the President has not made a firm case for liberalism. Instead, the Democratic Party has cowered in fear of being labeled with the “L word,” allowing its meaning to be twisting into some kind of unrealistic, idealistic and vaguely sinister plot synonymous with communists (or fascists if you slept through your history classes).

The time has long past for Obama to explain why government is not the enemy. Instead of a lukewarm defense of apparently unconnected initiatives, America badly needs a positive vision for the future. We cannot allow the agenda to be set by extremists who would honestly like to abolish Medicare, Social Security, Welfare, the Department of Education, the civil rights act, and the 14th and 17th amendments to the Constitution.

“Liberal” and “Progressive” should no longer be shunned as smears.  They are not dirty words, but badges of honor – reminders that in these troubled times, Government by the people must remain for the people.  With one in ten workers unemployed, this is not the time to tell Americans to lift themselves up by their bootstraps; these people are trying their hardest, and they deserve our help.

Liberals believe in the safety net.  We believe that all deserve access to healthcare and to education, regardless of their ability to pay.  We believe that poverty benefits no one – not even the wealthy – and that the eradication of extreme poverty is a reasonable and honorable goal.  We believe in tolerance and acceptance in society; in equal rights and opportunities for all who are willing to work for them. We believe in second chances.  We believe in the basic good of the human race: that almost no one wants to be unemployed, that few people willingly choose a life of crime, and that wars are generally harmful to all parties. We believe in having the option to drink juice in the dining hall with dinner, even if it is marginally more expensive than soda.  Liberalism is not communism; we do not believe that everyone deserves the same wage – they deserve the same chances.  We believe in the freedom to choose and in freedom from fear.  And we firmly believe that this safety net benefits every member of society, from the poor and downtrodden to the rich and highly educated.

President Obama ran on a platform of hope and change.  The change has already begun, and will continue as long as Democrats retain their control in Washington.  What we really need now is some hope.