Selling Liberalism Short
Matt Taibbi is one of my favorite writers, but I agree with Ross Douthat
about this piece
. What a peculiar moment in history to be so pessimistic about the American left!
Taibbi arrives at a declaration that he prefers to call himself a "progressive" as opposed to a "liberal." The tension -- if there is one -- between the two terms has served to launch a thousand intra-left debates, when no more than a few dozen probably would have sufficed. But what's particularly odd about how Taibbi raises the issue is that he comes to it by way of a complaint about the aesthetic radical
left, which he confusingly calls "liberal." I mean, I get his complaints - the guys on stilts wearing Cat-in-the-Hat hats at anti-war rallies, "Academics in Priuses using the word 'Amerika,'" the paranoid obsession with the CIA as opposed to, say, practical focus on broad policies for the real benefit of ordinary Americans... etc etc. To me, that's noisy, but it's fringe.
Back in the 90's, it seemed like that was
the left. The liberal establishment was deep asleep in Washington, dreaming Clinton dreams and never really waking up to the reality of the conservative movement that had taken control of American politics. The stilts-and-"Amerika" folks looked like the only people inhabiting the territory to the left of that rightwardly-sleepwalking consensus, but there weren't very many of them. Of us
, I should say, because I was one of them. And not one of us would have sullied ourselves with the term "liberal." We were radicals
We were not a real left; we were the night watchmen waiting for the real left to return from hibernation. And during the George W. Bush era, the real left has
returned. We 90s radicals rejected the term "liberal" because we associated it with weakness. The current left, which is so much broader, smarter, healthier, and more effective than anything that was around during the 90s, seems to embrace the term "progressive" for much the same reason. I'll admit, I do it. But let's not discount the historical honor of the word "liberal." Wacky giant puppet costumes are not liberalism. Nor is desperate triangulation.
As Douthat points out, these are pretty good times for liberals:
America's liberal political party just scored an enormous political victory, taking back both houses of Congress from what was supposed to be an invincible GOP machine, and there are plenty of reasons - from electoral math to fundraising numbers to, well, the polls - to think that 2008 is going to be a banner year for liberals/progressives/whatever. The right had the left on the ropes for a long time, but for now, at least, it's the other way around. Public opinion is going liberalism's way on everything from gay marriage to taxes to health care to poverty to global warming, and the Iraq War has temporarily undone conservatism's long-running advantage on foreign policy. There's more money flowing into liberal coffers than ever before; the left is well ahead of the right in internet organizing; the rising generation is having its political views forged in the crucible of the Bush years, with predictable consequences - and for once, the right-wing coalition's intellectual contradictions are more pronounced than liberalism's divisions.
The upshot of all this, though, is that we have a lot more responsibility now to concentrate on developing good ideas, promoting them, and getting them passed into law. You want to call yourself a "liberal" or a "progressive" -- whatever. But ignore the stilts. They have nothing to do with anything.
Labels: Mat Taibbi, progressives, Ross Douthat