Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Paul Waldman over at the American Prospect has a great article up on the status of Liberalism in America today. I think it is a very important piece, it captures several very important truths.

For example
But when Republicans began to go after liberalism, Democrats cowered in fear, not only trying to distance themselves from the term but embracing the idea that a "conservative" is a great thing to be. Few Republicans would claim to be "social liberals" -- even if they are -- but Democrats are always claiming to be "fiscal conservatives," saying they have "conservative values" or chiding Republicans for not holding to the principles of conservatism on issues like the deficit. The message this sends to Americans who don't know much about politics is that, regardless of the details of policy, it's good to be conservative and bad to be liberal.
This is very true of the liberal response to conservative attacks and is very damaging to our position. Democrats are regularly seen as less attractive on national security, it was, by many accounts the deciding factor in the last election. Indeed Kerry, the war hero, got trounced on this measure by Bush, who at the very best avoided hazard to himself. Kerry was damaged for opposing weapons systems which Cheney also called for cutting, yet Cheney kept his status of being strong on national defense. But if what Paul Waldman is saying is true, and I believe that it is, then this is hardly surprising. If liberals will at the first sign of attack on the political playing field abandon their positions and concede ground to conservatives, is it any surprise that conservatives are seen as stronger on security? Liberals need to stand on their positions in the national debate and not give ground. As I've written elsewhere conceding points like we do is fine in an academic debate, but a political debate is more like a trial, where we are convinced that our client, liberalism, is in the right. Any criticism of a liberal position needs to come only from conservatives, and liberals need to be determined only to disagree with that criticism. Such a position, I'm convinced, will go a long way to improving our stature on issues of national defense.

The next few paragraphs also deserve some comment:
Which brings us to what may be the most important feature of ideological competition in America today: Unlike liberals, conservatives don't simply criticize specific candidates or pieces of legislation, they attack their opponents' entire ideological world view. Tune into Rush Limbaugh or any of his imitators, and what you'll hear is little more than an extended discourse on the evils of liberalism, in which specific events are merely evidence that the real problem is liberal ideology. Liberals may write best-selling books about why George W. Bush is a terrible president, but conservatives write best-selling books about why liberalism is a pox on our nation (talk radio hate-monger Michael Savage, for instance, titled his latest book Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder).

Indeed, large portions of the conservative movement can be understood as an effort to crush liberalism in all its manifestations. Conservatives understand that their main enemy is not a law, government program, or social condition they don't like. Their main enemy is a competing ideology, and that is what they spend their time fighting.

In contrast, liberals spend very little time talking about conservatism. They talk about their opposition to President Bush or the policies proposed by the Republican Congress, but they don't offer a critique of conservatism itself. When was the last time you saw a book-length polemic against conservatism? Liberals have failed to understand that a sustained critique of the other side's ideology not only defines your opponents, it helps to define you by what you are against.
Following this advice does not mean, however, that we need to become like the Republican attack machine of Karl Rove and abandon civility and fair play. Rather it is a matter of first using reason and critical review to develop a set of policies that we as liberals believe in. Then we need to present those ideas with complete conviction and an unwillingness to compromise except as a kind of last and extreme resort. Part of the nature of liberalism is the scientists recognition of the tentativeness of all conclusions. However, when we present our policies to the electorate we need to forget that tentativeness and present them with complete confidence. This is not a form of deceit. The electorate is aware of the tentativeness of conclusions, they just don't want to hear it from the advocates of those conclusions. Again, the analogy is to a trial lawyer. Don't indicate to the jury any doubts about your clients case, that is the job of opposing council.

Kevin Drum has some further comment on this same article along the same lines. Check him out.

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