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Posted June 3, 2007
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Proclaiming Liberalism, And What It Now Means


THE struggle among conservatives to define their movement in the post-Bush era may be getting more attention these days, but liberal intellectuals and writers are doing some soul-searching of their own. Not only are they trying to figure out what “the L word” now means, but also whether it could become a guiding philosophy in the 2008 presidential campaign by embracing the very ideas that are often seen as its greatest weaknesses: family values and a proactive government.

In several recent and forthcoming books (not to mention in bars and countless blog posts) liberals have been arguing over their past and their future. Al Gore’s new book, “The Assault on Reason,” with its merciless dissection of the Bush presidency, is getting the most attention. Unlike Mr. Gore, however, most of the other liberal authors are focused less on criticizing those in power than in defending and revitalizing their own philosophy.

There is a “new opening for a more robust liberalism,” said Michael Tomasky, editor at large of the liberal magazine The American Prospect. “It’s a very fascinating debate, because it’s also playing out to some extent in the world. Each of the three main Democratic candidates represents a specific and distinct place on the ideological continuum, from center to left, with Hillary Clinton towards the center, John Edwards towards the left, and Barack Obama occupying a still distinct place in between.”


Intellectuals and authors explore shifting philosophies.


While no one in the Democratic presidential field is exactly advertising as the “liberal” candidate, and polls show only 20 percent of Americans are willing to identify themselves as liberal (a number that has remained fairly steady since at least 1992), deep dissatisfaction with the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq, combined with other political developments, is giving liberals who dared not speak their name their voices back. A whiff of an old-fashioned revival meeting, where believers stand up and unabashedly declare their faith, can even be occasionally detected.

Those writing now are “motivated by the same eagerness to see a revival of something other than what we’ve had and could be described as liberalism,” Alan Brinkley, provost at Columbia University, said in an interview. He is one of 13 prominent writers and scholars who contributed to “Liberalism for a New Century,” a collection of essays coming out next week.

And so many of the authors offer an analysis of why liberalism, which once defined America’s political life, lost support, and they identify a list of larger theoretical and policy issues that split the liberal camp, including national security, globalization and immigration, and tension between communal interests and individual rights, as well as liberalism’s recent arms-length relationship with religion and traditional values.

If there is a common thread linking the various books, though, it is an adjustment to President Bill Clinton’s famous campaign mantra: “It’s more than the economy, stupid.” Many aren’t satisfied with talking just about paychecks and changing the subject when values are raised, as some liberal and centrist Democrats have suggested. Indeed, they want to adopt the tactics of the Republican strategist Karl Rove and challenge their opponents’ greatest strengths on their own ground.

Liberals often dismiss or ridicule religious and traditional values, Amy Sullivan writes in the essay collection, but they misunderstand that some Republican voters “are not choosing one moral view over another.”

“They are choosing the political party that talks about morality and religion over the party that doesn’t,” she wrote.

Such silence isn’t necessary. “American liberalism is, at its core, a set of moral commitments rooted in practical reason,” E. J. Dionne Jr. declares in the introduction to “Liberalism for a New Century.” In “Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism,” an unabashedly laudatory history by Paul Starr, a Pulitzer Prize winner and Princeton sociologist, he argues that liberals “cannot allow themselves to become merely defensive and oppositional.”

They need, he writes, to “make the case for liberalism’s first principles, to renew the work of liberal innovation and to convince their fellow citizens to make the American project a liberal project once again.”

Those principles also include the decidedly unfashionable idea that government can be a force for good. Todd Gitlin, whose book “The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals,” is due out this fall, and Eric Alterman, whose “Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America,” is due out this winter, reverse Ronald Reagan’s potent slogan to argue essentially that government is not the problem, it’s the solution.

In “The Conscience of a Liberal” (out in October), Paul Krugman, the Princeton economist and New York Times columnist, makes the case for a new “New Deal.” He and others note that an overwhelming majority of Americans, even those who don’t call themselves liberals, hold liberal views, in the sense that they want the government to take action on providing health insurance, helping the poorest members of society and protecting the environment.

Of course, polls show that what most Americans want at the moment is to bring the Iraq war to a conclusion. While liberals and other Democrats (including centrists and progressives who still wince at the word “liberal”) may agree on that goal, there is a vigorous debate over what kind of overarching vision should govern foreign policy.

To noninterventionists the Iraq war provides sorrowful evidence of the dangers of exercising American power around the globe. The liberal internationalism that guided America through the cold war, however, linked security at home with the promotion of democracy abroad, and relied on international institutions and nonmilitary programs to win hearts and minds.

In his essay Mr. Tomasky (who is also editor of Guardian America, the London newspaper’s Web edition in the United States) offers a six-point program in which liberal hawks admit that the Iraq war was a mistake, and liberal doves acknowledge that their dislike of the Bush administration colored their judgment of the war and affirm that “we are not realists,” in the sense that tough-minded realpolitik should not necessarily override moral and humanitarian concerns.


Getting their voices back, liberals dissect their tenuous past.


Other elements of America’s foreign policy, like globalization, trade and immigration, continue to split liberal free traders from liberal populists and labor unions. In a debate on American Prospect online (, for example, Jeff Faux, a founder of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research group in Washington, argues that free-trade advocates have abandoned American workers, failing to push for strong labor and environmental standards in trade agreements that might help insulate Americans from corporations trolling the globe for the cheapest labor.

James K. Galbraith, a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, counters that despite its many imperfections, globalization is a locomotive that can’t be stopped. There are benefits like lower inflation and cheap imports, he said, and such standards, while worthwhile, won’t have any effect on American jobs, while tariffs will invite retaliation against American exports.

Of course, even broad theoretical agreement won’t mean an end to tactical divides, like how best to protect legalized abortion and gay rights or seek social justice for minorities, without alienating a majority of the electorate.

Yet, as Mr. Tomasky said in an interview, “One good thing about the last six and a half years is everyone’s been united most of the time.”

“I don’t want to oversell it, but people feel engaged in a way that they haven’t in a while,” he said. “It was just so relentlessly depressing, but things have gotten better. These debates — even between the left and center — are done in a more generous spirit because we’re not losing quite so badly.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, TheArts, of Saturday, June 2, 2007., the scholarly journal of democracy and human rights
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