Liberalism has a long, proud, and extraordinarily accomplished history in America. For nearly 250 years it has been the engine of progress in our nation. In a very real sense, liberalism1 has made this country what it is today: a freer, fairer, and more equal society for everyone.
Virtually every important social change in America has been championed first by progressive thinkers (see the essay “The Case for Liberalism”). The American Revolution itself was a profoundly liberal enterprise, instigated by not just progressive but radical thinkers. The Founding Fathers were decidedly not the conservatives of their day. Since then, it is liberals who have fought in every era to bring new ideas to the nation and to extend the American values of freedom, equality, and fairness to more and more citizens. The abolition of slavery, women’s right to vote, labor laws and collective bargaining, Social Security, Medicare, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights—all of them, and many more, were considered liberal or even radical ideas when they were first proposed. (And every one of them, pretty much by definition, was vehemently and sometimes violently opposed by conservatives.)
The Decline of Liberalism
And yet for all of its tremendous, life-changing, liberating accomplishments, liberalism has been in hard decline in America at least since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In political circles today, the word liberal has become an epithet. The label is a favorite taunt of Republicans and a millstone for Democratic candidates in moderate to conservative districts. Even liberals in safe districts seem loath to call themselves liberals. The elections of avowedly centrist Democrats like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have done little to restore its good name.
The humiliating loss of the Senate in the 2014 midterms should be a profound slap in the face to Democrats and liberals. It is not enough to soothe our psychic wounds by repeating the mantra of losers: “Wait till next time.” Or the even more pathetic, “In a few years the demographics will be in our favor.”
There is no rationalizing away the reality that the party has lost both houses of Congress. Even if Democratic prospects seem more favorable in 2016, nothing is guaranteed. In fact, if Republicans field a strong, middle-of-the-road presidential candidate, a Republican clean sweep of government is a horrifying possibility. The picture is even bleaker at the state level, where Republicans now control 31 governorships and 68 of 98 legislative houses, according to the Washington Post. Clearly, the Democratic message is not connecting with great swaths of Americans, including the independents and moderates we desperately need to win elections.
The question must be raised: If liberalism has accomplished so much for average Americans, why does it seem so anemic today?
Conservatives would gleefully argue that it is Democratic policies that are being rejected, not just the party’s message. But polls show that strong majorities of Americans agree with Democrats on a wide range of issues, including raising the minimum wage, immigration, environmental issues, raising taxes on the wealthy, gay marriage, and maintaining the Affordable Care Act.
The hard truth is that Democrats—and liberals in particular—have done a piss-poor job of making their case to the public. They have a fatal habit of debating issues instead of values. They talk to Americans intellectually, while their opponents talk to them viscerally. They bring policy statements to prayer meetings and wonder why they’re not connecting with regular Americans.
Conservatives, by contrast, have mastered the art of populism. Shown the way by Ronald Reagan, they have latched on to hot-button issues that appeal to voters’ self-interest or massage their worst fears: lower taxes, invading hordes of illegal aliens, government waste and bureaucracy, the dangers of a “weak” military, welfare cheats, and so on.
Just as important, they have learned to relentlessly connect those issues (however falsely) with deeply held American values and icons: freedom, liberty, Christianity, the Constitution, and the Founding Fathers. They also speak in plain language, in stark, black-and-white terms unencumbered by nuance, and they speak with unwavering conviction (however misplaced). As a corollary, conservatives have also mastered the art of demonizing their opponents, painting Democrats as ineffectual, weak-kneed, tax-and-spend, anti-Christian, anti-Constitution, treasonous, socialist … liberals. And it doesn’t hurt that they shout all this through the powerful media bullhorns of Fox News and talk radio.
New Life for Liberalism
How, then, can liberals compete? How can we reclaim our rightful place as the leaders of progress and champions of the average American? How can we make the case to independent and even conservative voters that our political philosophy is right for America?
Democrats and liberals will not win the day by simply debating policies. We can and must find a populist message that resonates with American voters. That doesn’t mean abandoning our core beliefs or reducing our rhetoric to the lowest common denominator. It means finding the best way to communicate our core beliefs to the average American in a way that appeals to them emotionally as well as intellectually. Democrats must find a way to talk with their hearts and not just their heads. In coming posts, the Liberal Message will show you how.
1 The definition of liberal has changed over time, but in the contemporary sense of American politics it means someone who believes in progress, is an early adopter of new ideas, takes an expansive view of civil rights, and believes that all of us, acting through our government, can create a more just and fair society. (If you disagree with that definition, you also disagree with Webster’s.)