The Liberal Pulse of America

Americans need guidance. There’s too much news, and certainly too much political news, for any of it to make sense – but the cable news channels are populated by preposterous buffoons. It’s not just Fox News. MSNBC once had Keith Olbermann in high dudgeon every weeknight and they still have the hyperactive Chris Matthews, so sure of what he was sure was not so the night before, and he won’t be sure of that tomorrow. Bouncing-off-the-wall enthusiasm isn’t contagious, it’s just irritating. Matthews’ guests, who can’t get a word in edgewise, fidget a bit and wait for him to calm down. He never does. Meanwhile, on Fox, there’s little more than anger and shouting. No one is sorting anything out. For years, anyone who wanted to know what the hell was going on turned to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. When thoughtful commentary fails, satire will have to do – but Colbert is gone now and Stewart is leaving soon. We’re on our own.

Still, there are reliable voices – the guests on cable news, not the hosts – and they work in print. They take the long view, and just before Obama was elected to his first term, one of those, John Meacham, wrote that now-famous column warning Obama that America was really a center-right nation and Obama had better be careful. If Obama won, which Meacham thought might not happen, Obama would have to govern from the center. Forget Obamacare and all the rest. America wouldn’t stand for it – and everyone believed Meacham, or at least cited him. That became the conventional wisdom.

Meacham was wrong, but he was describing the America he saw, one where everyone said they were a conservative, even if they weren’t. The word sounded good. No one had called themselves a liberal in decades, but something was up. Just after the election, in a Washington Post op-ed, Hoover Institution fellow and former informal adviser to the McCain campaign, Tod Lindberg, saw what was happening:

Here’s the stark reality: It is now harder for the Republican presidential candidate to get to 50.1 percent than for the Democrat. My Hoover Institution colleague David Brady and Douglas Rivers of the research firm YouGovPolimetrix have been analyzing data from online interviews with 12,000 people in both 2004 and 2008. It shows an overall shift to the Democrats of six percentage points. As they write in the forthcoming edition of Policy Review, “The decline of Republican strength occurs by having strong Republicans become weak Republicans, weak Republicans becoming independents, and independents leaning more Democratic or even becoming Democrats.” This is a portrait of an electorate moving from center-right to center-left.

Meacham had been unable to separate the signal for the noise. The noise was the word “conservative” – which everyone liked. Make no sudden moves. That keeps you out of trouble. Be conservative, but these people meant the word “careful” of course. They weren’t all that riled up about immigration, or abortion and contraception, or gay marriage, or about making sure corporations and the wealthy paid next to nothing in taxes, to keep the economy strong. None of that had much to do with their day-to-day lives. A government of the people, that used its tax revenue to do useful things for the people, made sense to them. They shrugged at those shouting about how government was always the problem, never the solution. Let them shout. They’d been shouting forever. When the hurricane hits, people want FEMA there. Clean air and clean water are nice too. Maybe there were other things that could be done – carefully – and Obama seemed like a thoughtful, careful guy. Meacham blew that one.

A better guide might have been Michael Lind, a rather formidable fellow who in 2004 had written Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics:

According to Lind (a fifth-generation Texan), the politics of West Texas are steeped in racism, environmental exploitation, jingoistic militarism, crony capitalism, an anti-public education bias and a fundamentalist evangelicalism inconsistent with the separation of church and state. About President Bush’s relation to these beliefs, Lind in part merely implies it by association, saying, “Cultural geography is of little use in analyzing the personalities of politicians-but it is indispensable in understanding their politics.” However, Lind argues, with considerable verve, that the constellation of political beliefs embodying Bush-style politics is designed to exploit the nation’s natural and human resources for the benefit of a powerful oligarchy. According to Lind, Bush’s election translates to the “capture of the vast power of the federal apparatus by Southern reactionaries” and is “a threat to the peace and well-being not only of America but of the world.”

That sounds about right, in retrospect. The Tea Party took Bush up on all of that, but by 2008, Lind was saying Relax, Liberals. You’ve Already Won – the four-decades-long conservative counterrevolution is over.

What counterrevolution? That would be this:

For forty years, the radical right tried to destroy the domestic and international order that American liberals created in the central decades of the 20th century. The people who are known today as “conservatives” are better described as “counterrevolutionaries.” The goal of Barry Goldwater and the intellectuals clustered around William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review was not a slightly more conservative version of the New Deal or the U.N. system. They were reactionary radicals who dreamed of a counterrevolution. They didn’t just want to stop the clock. They wanted to turn it back.

And they were serious:

Three great accomplishments defined midcentury American liberalism: liberal internationalism, middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and liberal individualism in civil rights and the culture at large. For four decades, from 1968 to 2008, the counterrevolutionaries of the right waged war against the New Deal, liberal internationalism, and moral and cultural liberalism. They sought to abolish middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, to replace treaties and collective security with scorn for international law and U.S. global hegemony, and to reverse the trends toward individualism, secularism and pluralism in American culture.

And they failed. On every front conservatives have failed, completely, undeniably and irreversibly.

His argument that the Republican Revolution and the long reign of conservatism was really a counterrevolution, against what everyone really wanted, was somewhat convincing. Then, two days after Obama won the election, Lind came up with Obama and the Dawn of the Fourth Republic – suggesting that we have a new era on our hands. Imagine this like the various French republics since Napoleon, and it all makes sense:

As I see it, to date there have been three American republics, each lasting 72 years (give or take a few years). The First Republic of the United States, assembled following the American Revolution, lasted from 1788 to 1860. The Second Republic, assembled following the Civil War and Reconstruction (that is, the Second American Revolution) lasted from 1860 to 1932. And the Third American Republic, assembled during the New Deal and the civil rights eras (the Third American Revolution), lasted from 1932 until 2004.

Yes, you read that correctly – 2004, not 2008. A case can be made that the new era actually began four years ago. True, Bush, a relic of the waning years of the previous era, was reelected. But immediately after his reelection, the American people repudiated his foreign policy and his domestic policy, including Social Security privatization. In 2006 the Democrats swept the Republicans out of Congress, and in 2008 they have recaptured the White House.

Bush was just part of the pattern of the old Third Republic:

The final president of a republic tends to be a failed, despised figure. The First Republic, which began with George Washington, ended with James Buchanan, a hapless president who refused to act as the South seceded after Lincoln’s election. The Second Republic, which began with Abraham Lincoln, ended with the well-meaning but reviled and ineffectual Herbert Hoover. The Third Republic, founded by Franklin Roosevelt, came to a miserable end under the pathetic George W. Bush.

That actually makes sense, even if Lind admits he has little idea what the Fourth Republic will look like. It was early – but still, it was a relief to have someone who stepped back and considered what we’re really talking about here. This election was historic, but in more ways than is commonly acknowledged. That’s why he argued that it’s time to re-launch the old, tarnished L-word – “Come out of the closet, liberals.”

No, he doesn’t mean THAT – just that it’s time to stop using the fashionable euphemism “progressive.” That’s crap:

In the last two decades, Democratic politicians, including Barack Obama, have abandoned the term “liberal” for “progressive.” The theory was that Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush – and Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Pat Buchanan – had succeeded in equating “liberal” in the public mind with weakness on defense, softness on crime, and “redistribution” of Joe the Plumber’s hard-earned money to the collective bogey evoked by a former Texas rock band’s clever name: Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers on Dope.

There’s no point in playing that game:

It’s not the name of the center-left that the right objects to, but the policies and values. Suppose the defeated Republican minority decided that it needed to rebrand itself by replacing “conservatism” with “traditionalism.” Would anybody on the left or center be fooled, if traditionalism was defined by exactly the same synthesis of free-market radicalism, anti-Darwinism and support for a neoconservative foreign policy?

The center-left is going to be trashed by the right, whether the right adopts one term or another.

And he cites John F. Kennedy accepting the endorsement of his presidential candidacy by New York’s Liberal Party on Sept. 14, 1960:

What do our opponents mean when they apply to us the label “Liberal?” If by “Liberal” they mean, as they want people to believe, someone who is soft in his policies abroad, who is against local government, and who is unconcerned with the taxpayer’s dollar, then the record of this party and its members demonstrate that we are not that kind of “Liberal.” But if by a “Liberal” they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people – their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties – someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a “Liberal,” then I’m proud to say I’m a “Liberal.”

You could do worse – and for the first time since Gallup began tracking it in 1999, as many Americans say they’re liberal as say they’re conservative:

It’s been a long and slow crawl, but Americans have steadily become more liberal on social issues without much interruption – except for a brief dip when President Obama first took office in 2009. Today, it’s tied at 31 percent. Back in 1999, it was about two-to-one conservative over liberal…

That shift toward social liberalism has been accompanied by an uptick in overall liberalism too. Gallup earlier this year showed a new high in self-described “liberals” in the United States — even as it still trailed significantly behind the “conservative” label. In 2014, 24 percent of people used the L-word to describe themselves – up from a low of 16 percent in the mid-1990s.

Then there was the follow-up poll:

Americans are more likely now than in the early 2000s to find a variety of behaviors morally acceptable, including gay and lesbian relations, having a baby outside of marriage and sex between an unmarried man and woman. Moral acceptability of many of these issues is now at a record-high level. …

This latest update on Americans’ views of the moral acceptability of various issues and behaviors is from Gallup’s May 6-10 Values and Beliefs survey. The complete results for each of the 19 issues tested in this year’s survey appear at the end of the article. Gallup has tracked these moral issues in this format since the early 2000s.

The upward progression in the percentage of Americans seeing these issues as morally acceptable has varied from year to year, but the overall trend clearly points toward a higher level of acceptance of a number of behaviors. In fact, the moral acceptability ratings for 10 of the issues measured since the early 2000s are at record highs.

Americans have become less likely to say that two issues are morally acceptable: the death penalty and medical testing on animals. But Americans’ decreased acceptance of these practices actually moves them in a more liberal direction.

The implications:

Americans are becoming more liberal on social issues, as evidenced not only by the uptick in the percentage describing themselves as socially liberal, but also by their increasing willingness to say that a number of previously frowned-upon behaviors are morally acceptable. The biggest leftward shift over the past 14 years has been in attitudes toward gay and lesbian relations, from only a minority of Americans finding it morally acceptable to a clear majority finding it acceptable.

The moral acceptability of issues related to sexual relations has also increased, including having a baby outside of wedlock – something that in previous eras was a social taboo. Americans are more likely to find divorce morally acceptable, and have also loosened up on their views of polygamy, although this latter behavior is still seen as acceptable by only a small minority.

This liberalization of attitudes toward moral issues is part of a complex set of factors affecting the social and cultural fabric of the U.S. Regardless of the factors causing the shifts, the trend toward a more liberal view on moral behaviors will certainly have implications for such fundamental social institutions as marriage, the environment in which children are raised and the economy. The shifts could also have a significant effect on politics, with candidates whose positioning is based on holding firm views on certain issues having to grapple with a voting population that, as a whole, is significantly less likely to agree with conservative positions than it might have been in the past.

At Salon, Jim Newell sees the implications:

This is a positive development, and yet it seems sort of … late, doesn’t it? The conventional wisdom about national trends toward social liberalism, and how the GOP’s reliance on social conservatives dooms its ability to expand, has been around for a number of years. And yet only in 2015 does the term “socially liberal” meet “socially conservative” in overall support.

There’s still the reluctance by people who generally support “liberal” or left-of-center views to actually use the dreaded L-word. Those Reagan-era taboos, in which the term “liberal” was wielded to connote endless streams of welfare and decaying inner cities and general irresponsibility, haven’t fully been erased.

Face it. The Republicans got the better word:

All Republicans absolutely love to call themselves conservative. It is their favorite word. It has a sort of hard, let’s-get-real ring to it. But you will very rarely hear a prominent mainstream Democrat describe him- or herself forthrightly as a proud “liberal.” The project to resuscitate the word “liberal” from its thrashing in the ’80s was more or less abandoned in the last 10-15 years, with erstwhile “liberals” instead trying to breathe life into the word “progressive.” Democrats may have abandoned the word as a self-description, but Republicans certainly didn’t stop using it as a weapon.

And the Gallup polling shows how that works on economic issues:

By a 39 to 19 percent margin, more Americans recognize themselves as “conservative” than “liberal” on economic issues. This wide disparity has been intact consistently since 1999. Among Democrats, too, only 33 percent will recognize their positions as “liberal,” compared to 45 percent who prefer “moderate.” Republicans, meanwhile, just can’t wait to let everyone know how conservative they are. Sixty-four percent of Republicans label themselves economic “conservatives,” compared to only 27 percent who go with “moderate.” You can understand the ring to it on a personal level. Describing yourself as “economically conservative” makes the pollster think that you’re an upstanding financial manager who dutifully balances your checkbook every month.

That, however, is nonsense:

Liberal doesn’t need to be a naughty word when it comes to economic issues. Americans lopsidedly support quintessential “economically liberal” positions like protecting Social Security and Medicare, raising taxes on the wealthy, and maintaining discretionary spending programs for education, medical research, infrastructure, etc. People may conceive of these as “moderate” positions, and they may have once been. But now they are positions that are under withering assault from “economic conservatives.”

You would never, ever, catch President Obama – at least before he was a lame duck – going out there and describing the aforementioned positions as “liberal” ones, or himself as a “liberal.” He would describe his economics as “common sense,” “middle class,” or some other milquetoast phrase. He would go to great lengths, in fact, when accused of being a “liberal.”

As long as Democratic standard-bearers refuse to describe these economically liberal positions as such, though, Republicans will continue using “liberal” as a caricature – and an effective one.

That may be so, but there’s a reason that Steve Kornacki says don’t count Bernie Sanders out:

There’s his message, for one thing, a frontal assault on the political system and a pledge to directly combat the “billionaire class.” This is hardly new talk from Sanders, who has been on Capitol Hill for 24 years now, but the climate has shifted since the 2008 economic meltdown and income inequality, wealth concentration and corporate power are unusually prominent in the national debate. And with economic anxiety still high and rampant frustration with Washington’s paralysis, there’s a potentially wide opening for a damn-the-system crusade like Sanders is leading.

And that guy goes beyond calling himself a liberal. He says he’s a democratic socialist, and folks love him. But they’ll probably say they love him because they’re fiscal conservatives. They want our money spent wisely, but on different things than the Republicans and maybe Hillary Clinton have in mind – higher taxes on the wealthy, a fifteen-dollar national minimum wage and one-trillion-dollar federal jobs and infrastructure program, and free universal college education and universal Medicare. That’s simply a different kind of careful spending.

Still, for the first time, as many Americans say they’re liberal as say they’re conservative, and the new second poll shows that on all the social issues the conservatives support, America shrugs. If we ever were a center-right nation, we’re not one now. America does have a liberal pulse. Gallup is fairly reliable.

That can only mean one thing. Enter, stage right, the preposterous buffoon:

In his Talking Points Memo tonight, Bill O’Reilly said that “America is in for a big shock” and that “the country is going in the wrong direction.” …

“So why is it happening?” he asked. … “As Talking Points has often pointed out the rise of the net has taken people away from the real world and put them in a fantasy world.”

O’Reilly said that he thinks only about 50 percent of Americans actually take time to understand important issues.

“Half the country does not,” he stated. “They are simpletons. Unwilling and unable to discipline themselves into formulating a philosophy of life.”

O’Reilly explained that the second factor that’s driving Americans to the left is the entertainment industry and social media.

He said that combined, the two are putting forth “a more libertine lifestyle.”

“Going forward, Talking Points believes America is in for a big shock,” O’Reilly stated. “I don’t know how that shock is going to be delivered, but I do know that we are heading in the wrong direction on just about every important issue.”

It’s too late. We’re already there, and the sky didn’t fall, and perhaps America doesn’t need guidance after all. We were liberals all along.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to The Liberal Pulse of America

  1. Rick says:

    I realized just now that I’ve always called myself a “liberal”, and never called myself anything else.

    Okay, yes, I’ve called myself a Democrat. And until the very early 1960s, I called myself a Republican — but that’s when many Democrats were “Dixiecrats” who battled for “segregation forever” — so I think my ideology has always been more important than my party label. The party of Lincoln may have freed the slaves, but that’s only because Lincoln himself was a liberal. (And so was Jesus, for that matter — but that’s another story.)

    But even back when I was a Republican, I never called myself a “conservative”. Yes, there was a time a few years back when I started thinking I was a centrist, but that was largely a relative term, since most of my very liberal friends were pretty much way to the far left of me. I started thinking I was pretty much on the center-left, but eventually went back to being a liberal, since everything I believed in was what people who didn’t believe in that stuff called “liberal”, even if they did it with a sneer.

    And no, I never called myself a “moderate”. That word is a modifier of the other two, it’s not an alternative. You can be a “moderate conservative” instead of a fire-breathing one, or a “moderate liberal” instead of a bomb-throwing SDSer — and even a “moderate Republican” or “moderate Democrat” — but you can’t just be just a “moderate”. To me, that’s meaningless as a label, used by unthinking people who like to pretend they’re apolitical or independent or something.

    Although I always sort-of liked the connotation of the word “progressive” — that is, “forward”, instead of the “backward” thinking of those “regressive” conservatives — it seemed like a fussy word from history, used mostly now as a weasel word by present-day liberals trying to escape the toxicity of what conservatives have succeeded in painting them with. Besides, the progressive label from the early 20th century didn’t exclude you from being a racist, or at least someone who wasn’t absolutely repulsed by lynching and Jim Crow, and didn’t excuse you from thinking it was okay to talk softly and carry a big stick around the world.

    No, I never could call myself a “progressive”, and thought the word “liberal” needed people of courage to fight back and defend it from the ilk of Newt Gingrich, who, with help from that Frank Luntz focus-group character, launched a 1984-like campaign to use language as a weapon. They even introduced it in a cover letter called “Language, a Key Mechanism of Control”, to get fellow Republicans to “speak like Newt”.

    But I totally agree that too many people call themselves “fiscal conservative” when they aren’t, apparently thinking it means they at least try to balance their checkbooks and not spend more than they should. Hell, I do balance my checkbook every month, but I sure as hell ain’t no “fiscal conservative” who believes government “taxes and spends” too much.

    In fact, I specifically think if we have a spending problem in this country, it’s that we don’t spend enough. Even as the economy has improved, I’m convinced it would improve faster and better if we started borrowing money (at our ridiculously low cost of borrowing right now) and spend it on everything in sight, especially on things that need to hire people. If we want a healthy economy, we need to find a way to increase spending, on every goddam infrastructure and public works project in sight, both local and national. And for sure, we should raise the minimum wage, sooner rather than later; it gets people spending money that they presently don’t have to spend.

    In other words, the last thing we need, especially right now, is “fiscal conservatism”. People have to be told what that term means — and also taught that it’s a bad thing, not a good one.

    Maybe we liberals are ready for our own campaign of using language as a weapon, but instead of learning to “speak like Newt”, we could teach folks to “speak like Elizabeth” or “speak like Bernie”.


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