Everyone knows that the moment in which George H.W. Bush made the word “liberal” a political epithet was an important one. It was the crowning moment of the political project laid out by Bush’s former rival Ronald Reagan. The broad left, even in the guise of mild-mannered and intelligent Michael Dukakis, was effectively marginalized. Being a liberal meant being out of touch with the cultural habits of the average American, and, moreover, it meant being weak, if not subversive, in regards to national security.
Ever since, on the national level, running as a “liberal” is a non-starter. Out on main street, hardly anybody calls themselves “liberal” anymore, even when they agree with liberal policy proposals and share many attitudes with those who wear the “L” proudly. This has allowed the right to scuttle important public policy initiatives with the use of a single word. The “liberal bias” in the news media, popular culture and higher education are regular whipping posts for the right-wing opinion makers, and is used to justify the real attacks on journalistic, artistic and academic freedoms coming from the Bush Administration. Even here in California, intimations that someone is “too liberal” are hugely damaging. It’s as if we have two wings in American politics now: conservative and mushy.
In response, the center left has made two rhetorical moves. The first, which you will see on the pages of magazines like The American Prospect and Harper’s or among more academic circles, is to return to using the L-word unabashedly. “Liberal and proud” has become a bit of a slogan of late- which is a good thing. America has a nasty and parochial habit of drawing red lines around political ideologies which are portrayed as insufficiently “American” or “patriotic”. Elites and the right did an effective job of so proscribing ideologies of the left, an effort made all the easier by some political forces who seemed happy to contribute to their own revolutionary marginalization.
However, the other approach is to leave the word “liberal” on the side of the road. Folks have taken to use the word “progressive”, a term so empty of content that everyone from John Podesta to Howard Zinn use the word to describe themselves. I’ve written before about the strange career of the word “progressive.” As recently as my college days, the word was meant to delineate a politics which was to the left of mainstream liberalism. Progressive politics was characterized by a more rigorous attention to systems of inequality, and a preference for reforms which took these structural fissures seriously. Unlike liberals, progressives took seriously the structuring forces of race, class, gender and sexuality. That distinction has been blurred now that we are all “progressives”, as liberals have taken refuge in a term that hasn’t been destroyed yet.
I understand that all political vocabulary is fuzzy. The way we use the word “liberal” in the United States is not exactly the agreed-to definition in political theory, but American Liberals are liberals nonetheless. Those of us who are not, or, more accurately are not just liberals are caught in a rhetorical and ideological trap. You will hear people say that it doesn’t matter what we call ourselves, “liberal”, “progressive”, even “moderate”, we are all on the same side. That may be true in the electoral arena, but it doesn’t mean that we all are coming from the same place, which is also important.
In that regard, I wish that the “L” word would make a comeback, not only because I’m tired of the dominance of mean conservatism and blithe centrism, but also because I miss being able to understand and explain why our side doesn’t always agree with one another. I have arguments, both theoretical and practical, with fellow “progressive” Democrats, and it is clear that our disagreement stems from the fact that, regardless of what they call themselves, they are liberals. That’s fine, but it would be a hell of a lot easier if we could just be honest about it.
This is most disturbing when it comes to trying to figure out if an action, policy, organization or individual is “progressive.” Locally, I have seen folks who are very defensive of their “progressive” credentials back candidates who were clearly to the right of so-called “centrist” candidates. The only differences were that they took a louder stand on a single, often symbolic, issue and they attended meetings of “progressive” groups. In the absence of a more sophisticated discourse about ideas, labels and single issues emerge as the most important litmus test for organizations, candidates and public figures. In the white left, the issue of the moment is the War. As long as you are sufficiently and loudly anti-War, you are a “progressive”, regardless of your overall world-view. We have to be willing to understand that issues provoke coalitions, not unanimity. Lots of people coming from lots of perspectives are against the War. It doesn’t make you a progressive.
So, I want liberals to start coming clean. I’ll have your back. I may not be a liberal myself, but many of my close friends are. Me and the rest of my pro-liberal friends will be here for you when the barking dogs come after you. After all, when they went after us, you were there…