The Death and Life of American Liberalism

“I can't believe I'm losing to this guy.”

-- Jon Lovitz playing Michael Dukakis,
Saturday Night Live, October 1988

Why are we losing to these guys? On nearly every major issue, public-opinion polls show that the Bush administration and the Republican Congress are well to the right of the country. Yet George W. Bush got himself re-elected, with an enlarged majority in both chambers of Congress.

Let's cut to the chase. The big reason is that the right is a movement, 30 years in the making. And a movement culture is a habitat that allows grass-roots activists, party professionals, and conviction politicians to function strategically as a smooth machine joined by a common ideology. “I knocked on a lot of doors in 2004,” says Steve Rosenthal, who headed America Coming Together, the largest liberal voter-mobilization group. “If I heard it once, I heard it a thousand times: ‘You may not agree with George Bush, but you know where he stands.'” Conviction evidently trumps vacillation, even when voters are skeptical of particular convictions. One of John Kerry's pollsters says, “People looked at Bush and concluded that he'd shoot first and ask questions later. They concluded that Kerry would ask questions first. They voted for Bush.”

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The conservative movement is rooted in a coherent, easy-to-summarize ideology: Government doesn't work, except to protect you from terrorists; you deserve to keep more of your own money; cherished American family values, including national security, are under assault from liberals. The right has fine-tuned and segmented its rhetorical symphony so that the bass notes rock its political primitives while a softer timbre appeals to the moderate ear.

The right's famed echo chamber now can “narrowcast” complementary messages to every major demographic group. “For conservative voters in Peoria,” says Rob Stein of the Democracy Alliance, “there's something for everyone. The businessman gets it from The Wall Street Journal editorial page. The soccer mom has FOX News. The 24-year-old beer-drinking guy has Rush [Limbaugh]. The religious right can get the word from Pat Robertson.”

A movement ideology also produces unity. Despite schisms, the right is simply more disciplined. The discipline is reinforced by new forms of patronage -- tax breaks for the elite, godliness for the base. Worldly sinners among Wall Street Republicans may smirk at the fundamentalists in their governing coalition, but are happy to share the bounty. They may privately oppose the immense budget deficits, but the heavily Republican Concord Coalition, so publicly alarmed at the (Republican legacy) deficits of the 1990s, is today prudently silent. Conversely, social conservatives may wince at the antics and views of Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the coalition holds. Genuine Republican moderates, meanwhile, have been coerced or co-opted into near silence. The resulting legislative unity is also unprecedented.

Finally, there's a war on, a conveniently permanent one. The right manipulates fear of terrorism into public and media acquiescence for a politics that would never prevail in normal times.

And yet, this overpowering structural tilt conceals some surprisingly good news. Despite its immense advantages, the right barely prevailed in the last two presidential elections, even against feckless Democratic campaigns. The superior infrastructure just offset the extremism. The country remains skeptical about most Republican policies, from Social Security privatization to the assault on the courts. As John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira have documented, potentially liberal groups are demographically ascendant. There is a latent liberal majority, if liberals can once again learn to do politics.

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Can they? The three big challenges have to do with mechanics, ideology, and leadership.

It is universally accepted that the progressive side needs more strategic infrastructure. This process is already well along, with the flagship Center for American Progress in its second year. Stein has spent the past two years mapping the right and presenting a sophisticated PowerPoint to prospective donors. Stein's goal is to funnel hundreds of millions of patient dollars to progressive think tanks, media organizations, and training operations. His Democracy Alliance recently had its founding meeting and will audition potential grantees this summer.

Stein identifies 80 national right-wing think tanks now spending a total of $400 million to $600 million a year as developers and marketers of conservative ideology on economics and foreign policy. Nearly half the money goes to media, message, and strategy. These think tanks are a milieu to mentor thousands of movement conservatives and hone ideas. The progressive counterparts, Stein calculates, are 19 national groups, with a total budget of about $75 million a year. The right, says Stein, now has 14 nationally syndicated columnists with 250 or more newspaper outlets. The left has three. One, Molly Ivins, is frankly ideological. The second, my Boston Globe colleague Ellen Goodman, is a warmhearted liberal with a genius for translating an essentially feminist perspective into kitchen-table common sense. The third is the octogenarian humorist Art Buchwald. In addition, the national conservative/Republican movement is linked to a cultural right with a genuinely grass-roots base in groups like the National Rifle Association, right-to-life organizations, and fundamentalist churches. “The coordination isn't perfect,” says Stein, “but in places like Florida or Ohio it can make a huge difference.”

To Stein, the right's movement ideology was able to mature into a strategic political force precisely because it had plenty of well-financed institutions that could work through a common agenda rather than differentiating themselves for donors. Still, if it is easy to agree on the need for more strategic resources, the quest for a common ideology is daunting.

There are basically two stories on what liberals and Democrats need to espouse. Either might conceivably produce a majority movement and party. Both cannot; the competing messages simply cancel each other out. We saw the effects in 2000 and 2004 of Al Gore and John Kerry trying to take a dollop of each.

In one story line, liberal interest groups have disproportionate influence, leaving the Democratic Party with a message too left wing for the country on both social issues and national defense. On economics, New Democrats want a modernizing party committed to fiscal responsibility, globalism, and market-like strategies for social problems such as health care and education. This is said to be “pro-growth,” though its detractors view that as a code for pro-business. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), initially cheering Gore-Lieberman as just the ticket, became progressively disillusioned the more populist Gore sounded. In a DLC postmortem, Joe Lieberman declared that Gore's “economic populism stuff was not the pro-growth approach. It made it more difficult for us to gain the support of middle-class independent voters who don't see America as … us versus them.”

The opposite view -- whose exponents include Tom Frank, Robert Borosage, and David J. Sirota -- holds that by failing to run as progressives, Democrats allow Republicans to use cultural issues as a proxy for class issues. Frank, sifting through the ashes of the Democrats' 2004 defeat, wrote recently in The New York Review of Books: “Conservatives generally regard class as an unacceptable topic when the subject is economics -- trade, deregulation, shifting the tax burden … . But define class as culture, and class instantly becomes the blood and bone of public discourse … . Workerist in its rhetoric but royalist in its economic effects, this backlash is in no way embarrassed by its contradictions.”

Kerry unfortunately played into this trap, both via his persona and his program. “Kerry's pallid strategy offered little to motivate the party's traditional liberal and working-class base,” Frank wrote. In the backlash narrative, Republicans could use Kerry's personal “elitist” traits -- his windsurfing, fluency in French, and multiple mansions -- to fill the vacuum left by the absence of a muscular economic appeal.

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Ideological muddle on the Democratic side is reinforced by the lingering trauma of a governing party finding itself in opposition, but not quite accepting it. Despite the recent outbreak of party unity on Social Security, the Republican message machine keeps taunting Nancy Pelosi because upward of 40 House Democrats defected on the estate-tax repeal, the bankruptcy bill, and the assault on the right to sue. This faithlessness is reinforced by the temptation to throw the business lobbyists of K Street an occasional tasty bone; by the premise that Democrats should work responsibly with the president, either to make a bad bill slightly less awful or to share credit for legislation Bush can claim as popular; and by the urge to be “for” something legislative, even though they plainly lack the votes to do more than block.

Some of this also reflects the continuing and disabling legacy of Bill Clinton's triangluation at the expense of his own party. Just imagine George W. Bush cobbling together a winning legislative coalition working with Pelosi over the objections of Tom DeLay and a majority of the Republican House caucus, the way Clinton did on NAFTA and on welfare reform. It would be far better just to be the opposition party, oppose the Bush program frontally as Newt Gingrich did with Clinton, and then propose a broad and coherent Democratic program.

Clinton remains the great role model for a centrist governing party built on social, economic, and foreign-policy moderation. But Clinton may have been a unique specimen. As Borosage points out, “Clinton ran as a populist but governed as a centrist, and he left his own party in a shambles.” Despite his reputation for political genius, Clinton had the fortune to win (with just 43 percent) in the three-way election of 1992, and to narrowly win re-election over the weakest Republican candidate in memory, Bob Dole, in 1996. The Third Wayers are also tarnished as faithless Democrats. With the congressional Democratic Party belatedly discovering the power of unity, New Democrats are the first to defect and vote with Bush.

In theory, either recipe could produce a governing coalition. But a resurgent Democratic Party built on progressivism would be more worth having. Economic progressives such as the late Paul Wellstone have won working- and middle-class support, often in improbable places. The hugely popular Bernie Sanders, very likely the next senator from Vermont, got elected and re-elected more by rallying the locals than the Birkenstock set. He is forgiven his lefty social views because he is seen as a champion of the economic interests of ordinary people. Like Bush, Sanders gets the respect that comes from people respecting his convictions even when they sometimes disagree. Conviction suggests character. Sherrod Brown, who represents a northern Ohio district that is partly blue collar and partly affluent suburb, found himself last fall with a friendly group of autoworkers that included both Kerry and Bush supporters. “Why are you backing Bush?” a Kerry man asked a Bush partisan. “Kerry wants to take away my gun,” came the reply. “Well, Sherrod wants to take away your gun,” gibed the first. “Yeah,” said the second, “but Sherrod fights for me.”

In the House, a few dozen Democrats such as Brown get elected and re-elected as economic populists. Why not more? On the Republican side, campaign professionals are part of the same movement culture. Many Democratic operatives, who frequently advise corporate clients in the off-season, think of their job as using polls to divine what the message is -- or worse, to temper the candidate's own progressive gut impulses. Democratic consultants, says New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey, who wins as a populist in a conservative Hudson Valley district, often advise Democratic candidates to move right because they think that the country has moved right.

Another reason for the uncertain trumpet is the dynamics of candidate recruitment. When a prospective candidate comes before the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to seek possible help, the first request is to show financial viability -- come back when you've raised a few hundred thousand dollars. A Democrat with business backing has a huge head start. The New Democratic Network raises several millions of dollars every election cycle to help centrist candidates. One heartening new development is a progressive countermovement, the Progressive Majority, a coalition launched by labor, environmentalist, civil-rights, pro-choice, and other grass-roots groups to recruit progressive candidates for office and offer help with money, media, message, and training.

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Where does all this leave the liberal project? Actually, with a great deal of potential. Despite a quarter-century of ever more sophisticated and coordinated right-wing propaganda (lately abetted by the White House), most Americans are not religious absolutists or government-haters. Most are far more tolerant of racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities than their grandparents were. Most accept the coming of age of women as equal citizens and economic beings. Most are skeptical of corporate excesses. Most actually want more from government -- to ensure health insurance that can never be taken away, to give ordinary people a fair shake in the workplace, and to keep large corporations from pillaging the environment. Most still value traditional Social Security. All this reflects the residual strength, enduring values, and recent gains of liberalism, even if the liberal label is in disfavor.

Notwithstanding the caricature of an America hardened into implacable red and blue states with vanishing swing voters, easily a fifth of the electorate will consider voting for either party, given the right candidate. In 2004, dozens of Democratic members of the House and Senate ran 20 and even 25 points ahead of Kerry, and not just because they were incumbents. Democrats win in red states more often by being progressives than by being social conservatives or economic centrists. For every Evan Bayh there are two or three Byron Dorgans.

The Mountain West was the home of the pseudo-populist “sagebrush rebellion” of the 1980s, orchestrated by agribusiness and extractive industries. The West supposedly epitomizes an exurban exodus of socially conservative, swashbuckling voters who will guarantee perennial Republican majorities. But today the West is the center of a Democratic resurgence. Democratic governors in purple-state America -- like Brian Schweitzer, Janet Napolitano, Bill Richardson, and Christine Gregoire -- ran, won, and are governing as progressives. They may accommodate to their regional culture on some social issues, but they win by championing the economic struggles of ordinary citizens. Schweitzer assembled a coalition of environmentalists and farmers to win an ethanol bill, making extractive industries the enemy. Gregoire, despite a paper-thin victory, made retention of an estate tax a top priority. Elsewhere, the most likely next governors of the most populous states, Eliot Spitzer in New York and Phil Angelides of California, are flat-out progressives. Interestingly, both came to prominence -- Spitzer as attorney general, Angelides as state treasurer -- resisting corporate excess and fighting for ordinary people.

The Democratic National Committee, long dormant and broke between elections and a personalista arm of the presidential candidate in election years, is today doing serious politics and raising serious money. The election of Howard Dean as party chairman, with improbably strong support from red-state Democrats, again demonstrates how conviction beats waffling. The new funding for independent, progressive infrastructure will not match the resources of liberals' right-wing counterparts, but will allow more strategic development of progressivism as a politics and a progressive message to win a hearing.

Another piece of good news is that Democrats' schisms can be overstated. At the height of Iraq War fever, foreign policy seemed the most divisive issue. Yet during the Clinton presidency, there was no serious foreign-policy split between the Democratic center and left. In October 2003, the Prospect co-sponsored a conference and special issue (November 2003) on New American Strategies for Security and Peace. From Zbigniew Brzezinski to John Shattuck, Democratic foreign-policy experts agree on a program of security rooted in multilateralism and a far more competent defense of the homeland without wrecking civil liberty. Democratic hawks like Peter Beinart have called for a tough foreign-policy liberalism in the spirit of Harry Truman. But in truth, Clinton and Jimmy Carter were better friends of the prudent use of American power to expand democracy than Bush is, and no Democratic candidate or president would repeat Bush's brand of unilateralism. On economics, a broad program of social investment to help ordinary Americans thrive in a global economy, and give America energy independence and technological mastery, could unite progressives and Third Wayers [see “Starving for Your Job”].

The cultural issues are admittedly harder. But the consensus position on reproductive rights emphasizes keeping abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” as reflected in the rhetoric of Hillary Clinton and the strategy of Planned Parenthood to take the fight to the other side by challenging right-to-lifers to get real about sex education, birth control, and science. As the Terri Schiavo case showed, demonstrating respect for religious faith but resisting official government proselytizing, much less government takeover of bedside vigils, is definitely a majority position. Gay marriage may be the toughest issue of all. A consensus for mainstream America and most Democrats is likely to be domestic partnership for some time to come. Again, these issues loom smaller precisely to the extent that the Democrats have a persuasive pocketbook story.

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But can Democrats lead? Can they move beyond a reflexive and disabling caution reinforced by ideological schisms and back-to-back election defeats? In the Schiavo affair, most Democrats waited days for polls to confirm their gut instinct that Americans rejected politicians who hear celestial voices meddling in intimate family matters. It is emblematic that Gore began giving eloquent, cogent speeches once he decided that he was not a candidate.

In both the 2000 and 2004 elections, the Gore and Kerry machines made sure that the candidate offered only relatively small-bore proposals and rejected populist rhetoric in favor of largely empty invocations of the middle class, as if those words were a politics or a program. It recalled that same Saturday Night Live parody of first George Bush Senior, who kept falling back on talking points from the briefing book (“Message: I care.”). Kerry's advisers also made sure that John Edwards, who was added to the ticket partly because of his populist appeal, sandpapered off any progressive edge that might compete with the campaign's more cautious (and losing) tone.

By 1994, when movement conservatism was barely two decades old, Gingrich could dip into the armory of conservative ideas and fashion a 10-point “Contract with America.” The contract not only signaled that the right had a coherent national program but that House Republican incumbents and candidates had a contract with Gingrich. Today, it's doubtful that the Democrats in Congress could agree on a 10-point program beyond platitudes. This is not the fault of Pelosi, who is as liberal and effective a Democratic leader as the House has seen. It reflects the fact that the caution is reflexive and that work still needs to be done to bridge the schisms.

These habits, however, are beginning to give way to greater gumption in the era of Pelosi, Dean, and Harry Reid, and the emerging unity for the most part is liberal unity. There is also new Republican vulnerability. If the conservative movement has given the modern Republican Party its strategic coherence, it has also created a tendency for the party to overreach and forget that the most activist base isn't the whole electorate. A movement of fundamentalists who want government to impose religion, in coalition with free-market zealots who detest government and foreign-policy radicals who want a huge and militarist government, is not a majority movement. By contrast, in their own heyday as something like a movement party, Democrats really did speak for a majority of ordinary people. A party built on Social Security is a more reliable rock than one built on evangelism and Enron.

The resurgence of liberalism and the Democratic Party, when it comes, will necessarily be grass roots as well as intellectual or professional. A new generation of think tanks and message machines can help, but in a democracy, the ultimate test is whether a program animates voters. Democratic candidates will shed their temporizing not when a linguistic expert gives them better packaging but when voters demonstrate that a muscular progressivism that addresses the plight of the common American is a winning politics.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.

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