Today, those strategies are failing—and for a number of reasons. First, the right can no longer claim outsider status, attacking the powers-that-be. Today, they have to defend an administration whose policies have failed and continue to fail, and whose minions are showing up as corrupt on an almost weekly basis. Forced to take responsibility, they cannot frame the debate so adroitly as they once did, for their hands are tied by the ‘facts on the ground.’ Second, people on the left have learned by example, and are now framing the national debates as skillfully as the right once did (just look at Jeffrey Feldman and his Frameshop if you need an example). And, third, the right, by 2004, had pushed the left too far—and we’ve started to effectively push back.
I’ve been thinking about this a great deal recently—we all have, for what the right has been doing to us is one of the sparks behind the success of dKos (a base for pushing back if there ever was one)—particularly about the second and third points, thinking about them in response to Michael Bérubé’s book What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? which I reviewed the other day for ePluribus Media. Bérubé has made me think about how we managed to let the very word “liberal” turn into an insult—and about how the right has abused the very sort of debate liberals crave and of the unwillingness of liberals to enforce the limits and rules that must surround effective discussion.
In the 1970s, the right saw a divide within the left that it could use for a number of purposes, a divide that was the result of a hideous war promulgated by a “liberal” administration. The left developed a scathing attitude toward traditional liberals, with Hubert Humphrey taking the brunt of that disdain in 1968. The liberals were seen as do-gooders who would not put themselves on the line, who were, ultimately, more concerned with comfort that morality.
Phil Ochs wrote a song about them, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”:
I vote for the democtratic party:
They want the U.N. to be strong.
I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts;
He sure gets me singing those songs.
I'll send all the money you ask for,
But don't ask me to come on along.
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal.
The low stature of liberals by the end of the Vietnam War provided a perfect opening for the right—they started hitting when the liberals were down, and have kept on hitting ever since.
Liberals, in dealing with both the far left and the new right, never responded in kind. That doesn’t fit into liberal philosophy. Liberals believe in debate and in respect for opponents, so have tried to respond to rightwing attacks in the same way they did (unsuccessfully) to those from the left—they tried to engage their attackers in discussion.
Thing is, there are rules for discussion that liberals, much more than people on either extreme, have tried to adhere to. One of those is keeping one’s mind open enough to consider the possibility of changing it. Unfortunately, in discussion, this is only valuable if the opponent has the same attitude. A ‘true believer’—on the right or on the left—doesn’t. All they care about is scoring points and making their opponents look bad to whomever might be watching.
Let me give an example, one from the last few days. Someone did a search on the word “liberal” just when I put up a teaser for the Bérubé review on my own blog—a rightwinger who wanted to “engage” liberals on his own blog.
As a good liberal, I decided to take a look. I didn’t have to look far before seeing a typical rightwing strawman, an attempt to denigrate liberals and frame the debate in such a way as only the right can win. The blogger wrote something like ‘liberals want us to be nice to terrorists’ (I don’t really want to go back to the blog to get the exact words—but these are close). In a comment, I challenged the blogger to find any example of a liberal who had ever said that.
When I rejected all examples—they were all of liberals saying we shouldn’t torture, something else completely—the blogger said (and this is a quote from an email from him) “Calling to an end of the 'torture' is the same as demanding us to be nice to terrorists.” Well, it is not. That’s about as sensible as saying that calling for an end to the death penalty is the same as letting murderers off. These are stupid statements used not to move discussion forward but to put the opponents (the liberals) on the defensive and, eventually, to paint them into a corner through continued untruths of this sort. It’s not even worth responding to—the person who made the statement knows that it is untrue but doesn’t care. It’s only use is for making liberals look bad.
Thing about us liberals is that we tend to want to keep on talking, hoping that the other side will eventually listen to reason—when the purpose of the other side isn’t even to convince us—but to destroy us as effective political actors.
The right has long been secure in their belief that it can keep pushing on us in this way. It has been a long time since liberals have said (seriously, and meaning it), as Special Counsel for the Army Joseph N. Welch said to Joe McCarthy:
Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
Yes, it does take a lot to make a liberal angry—it took an attack on Pearl Harbor for the liberal Roosevelt administration to go to war—but we can only be pushed so far.
No longer am I willing to be set up by people in ways like that blogger was trying—and I will no longer participate in the charade debates and discussions the right tries to entice us into. I’m going to say, “No, you’ve got that wrong—and if you can’t figure out why, I’m not going to bother to tell you”—and walk away.
We lose by debating people who have no interest in coming to agreement or understanding. We lose by trying to work our ways out of the stupid traps they set for us (calling themselves, for example, ‘pro-life’ so leaving us with… ‘pro-death’ or ‘pro-choice,’ one devastating in its inaccuracy and the other needing too much explanation). We have no need of continuing this—other than our good liberal desire to respect the view of others and to try to understand them.
For too long, the right (and the extreme left) has been using our respect for our own liberal tradition against us. Our willingness to continue to discuss only makes us look weak, when the other side lacks that willingness.
If the right wants to debate us, then, it has to be on our terms:
• No more “liberals believe.” Try to define us, and we walk away. Let us define ourselves. Defend your own rightwing beliefs. We won’t debate if you continue to mischaracterize us.
• No more “it’s been proven.” If you want to make an argument, make it. Don’t expect us to do it for you in attempting to rebut.
• No more appealing to history. We liberals understand that situations are always complex and that none is really comparable. Simplistic comparisons are only an attempt to draw us down into complexities that you won’t bother with—that you only want to mire us in. Stick to what is going on now or we won’t talk to you.
• No more unwillingness to change. Unless you are honestly seeking to learn through the discussion, there is no sense in continuing, for either of us.
We are not going to apologize any more for what we are. We liberals are part of the greatest tradition this world has ever seen, the one that made this modern world, especially what is best of it. The United States is the result of liberal philosophies, its successes those of liberal ideals.
The strategy of constantly pushing at liberals began to backfire in 2004, during the election. We have been pushed too far and are finally starting to push back. As I said, it started a couple of years ago, but only now are we really starting to verbalize this as a group.
We’re proud of who we are. If you don’t like that, you’d better stay away from us. We created the greatest country this world has ever seen and fought—and defeated—the greatest evils brought upon it. You on the right are starting to seriously damage what we created—and we will stand for it no longer.
(Oddly enough, as I write this, David Bender is interviewing former Senator Gary Hart—and they are talking about this very thing, the theft of the word “liberal”—and they are making my point that we are starting to push back. Go Gary! Go David!)