The Word “Liberal”

 

 

Eric Alterman
Eric Alterman

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 … 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."

– John F. Kennedy, September 14, 1960

If all you knew about the word "liberal" is what came up when you plugged the word into Amazon’s search engine on any given day in January 2004, you’d think it was among the worst insults one human being could hurl at another. There’s Ann Coulter, "Slander: Liberal Lies about the American Right" and "Treason: Liberal Treachery from the Cold War to the War on Terrorism;" Michael Savage: "The Savage Nation: Saving America from the Liberal Assault on Our Borders, Languages and Culture;" Mona Charen, "Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got it Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First;" David Limbaugh, "Persecution: How Liberals are Waging War Against Christianity;" and Sean Hannity, "Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism." Of course these titles represent a kind of consensus on the right and in much of America. When Rush Limbaugh returned to the airwaves on November 17, 2003, he admitted to his 15-20 million listeners that while he may be "powerless" to overcome his drug addiction without professional help, he would not, he promised, turn into "a linguini-spined liberal." The national media, alleged by all to be infested by closet liberals, reported these insults verbatim, as if to be so obvious that they were undeserving of refutation or even reply.

At first blush is this odd. After all, 52 percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters that they "didn’t respect Limbaugh now and never did," putting them, no doubt, in the "linguini-spined" category. In recent times, much of the mainstream media have incorporated many of these same attitudes, if not their occasionally obscene terminology. Liberalism, according to much of the coverage of the recent convention in Boston, is something from which savvy politicians must run—or perhaps hide under the bed at least until the guests have gone home.

Ever since George McGovern was defeated in 1972 with the help of the criminal conspiracy that was Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, the media have made a sport of bashing liberals come election time. As Michael Kinsley pointed out recently, "It’s true enough that this is a moment when the Democrats are called upon to reject extreme liberalism (whatever that might be) and to embrace moderation. But that is only because every moment is such a moment. The opinion that the Democrats need to foreswear McGovernism and prove their commitment to moderation is one of the very safest in all of punditry." Yet Republicans, Kinsley notes, receive the equivalent of a free ideological pass regardless of the fact that they are led by two men whose political extremism has no analogy in power circles in the other party.

Extremism versus moderation is a beloved media leitmotif at the Republican convention as well. But there’s a difference, at least in tone. It is generally considered enough if the Republicans prevent their nuttier element from actually taking over the convention. The GOP is rarely threatened with oblivion if it fails to stage a public festival of contrition. And the Republicans are under no pressure to avoid the word "conservative."

The demonization of the word "liberal" has been an ongoing project of the well-funded right and draws its fire from intellectuals who should really know better. Shelby Steele, for instance, has provided useful and interesting challenges to conventional wisdom on race and affirmative action but look what he wrote on the Wall Street Journal editorial page about John Walker Lindh and liberals. Speaking of the allegedly liberal values of Marin County, California, where Lindh was raised, and taking a page from the playbook of former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Steele charged, sans evidence that "This liberalism thrives as a subversive, winking, countercultural hipness…Cultural liberalism serves up American self-hate to the young as idealism. It’s too much to say that treason is a rite of passage in this context. But that is exactly how it turned out for Walker. In radical Islam he found both the victim’s authority and the hatred of America that had been held out to him as marks of authenticity…And when he turned on his country to be secure in his new faith, he followed a logic that was a part of his country’s culture." This begs the question, why does Shelby Steele hate America? An interesting line of reasoning, this, considering that conservatives normally reject victimization in favor of personal responsibility. Apparently, liberalism trumps free will in Steele’s sociological methodology.

Ann Coulter, whom fellow right-winger Jonah Goldberg once called "barely coherent," adding that in one National Review column (which the magazine refused to publish and ultimately led to her departure) she was guilty of "emoting rather than thinking, and badly needing editing and some self-censorship, or what is commonly referred to as ‘judgment.’" Her book, "Treason" took liberalism to task for just about everything, from "undermining victory in the Cold War," by "Betraying the manifest national defense objectives of the country…[liberals] aim to destroy America from the inside with their relentless attacks on morality and the truth." The problem with her "reasoning, "of course, stems from the fact that without the Democratically-controlled Congress of the Cold War years, none of those large defense appropriation bills would have been passed. But no matter. She continues that "Whether they are defending the Soviet Union or bleating for Saddam Hussein, liberals are always against America." And yet despite all of the above—as well as her joking about how lovely it would be if terrorists blew up the New York Times—she was rewarded with a convention column by USA Today until she turned in her unreadable personal attacks on the physical appearances of the delegates and USA Today suddenly decided that hiring her was not such a brilliant idea after all.

Even so, it works. As Princeton professor Paul Starr notes, "The use of the vocabulary of treason is a measure of how thoroughly conservatives have transferred the passions of anticommunism into an internal war against those whom they think of as the enemies of American culture and values. And these were, as I recall from the 1960s, the same people who decried the loss of civility."

Given the rhetorical dominance of conservatives over the past several decades, one might be surprised to learn from a June Wall Street Journal analysis that "[The] proportion of Americans calling themselves "liberal" edged up to 21 percent in [ pollster Stan] Greenberg’s May poll from 16 percent a month earlier. Self-identified "conservatives" dropped to 37 percent from 41 percent. And why not? One of the most honored guests here in Boston this week turns out to be none other than George McGovern. As he told a reporter from National Journal when queried about his apparently alien ideological affiliation "Every program that ever helped working people — from rural electrification to Medicare — was enacted by liberals over the opposition of conservatives. When people tell me they don’t like liberals, I ask, ‘Do you like Social Security? If so, then shut up!’ "

Eric Alterman, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress, is the author of six books including "What Liberal Media? The Truth about Bias and the News." Research Assistance was provided by Paul McLeary.