Those nasty Bushies. The second that my fellow Raleighan John Edwards was added to the Democratic presidential ticket, the Republican attack machine was on him like white on rice (as we apparently say here in the South). Their horrific attacks included the use of that all-purpose insult, that withering assault intended to destroy any chance a Democrat ever had at winning. They used the dreaded L-word: "liberal."
Now it may not seem to you, dear readers, that being called "liberal" is such a horrible fate. I know I call myself "liberal" at least ten times a day. But to a politician running for national office, it is a fate worse than death. It is a knife in the heart of any candidate. It is the most intimidating and disturbing attack an opponent could launch. And however reasonable it may be - I find it difficult to believe that George Will could call moderate Kerry "the most liberal Senator" with a straight face - it has an effect.
"Liberal," to too many people, conjures up the image of some weak-willed effete quasi-Communist member of something called the "intellectual elite" (and if anyone can tell me what that is, they win a prize). The Club for Growth summed it up best when they ran an anti-Vermont ad portraying "latte-drinkers" and "sushi-eaters" as out of touch with mainstream Americans. This is an unfair portrayal - while I am an admitted sushi eater, I know several libertarians and conservatives who are guilty of the same gastronomic transgression. And it is distinctly unfair to describe the values of liberals, whether or not they indulge in caffeine and raw fish, as out of touch with mainstream America.
Mainstream liberalism is about bringing the opportunity to succeed to all Americans regardless of race, religion, or economic standing. Seems to me that when most people speak of "the American Dream," this is what they're referring to. Furthermore, liberalism is about keeping the government out of people's personal lives. I've lived in the South long enough to know that people want government messing around in their business as little as possible. Liberalism is about freedom - freedom of opportunity, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom to love, freedom to live life as you choose. You can't get more American than that.
The problem, as I see it, is twofold. First, conservatives, in their zeal for victory, have waged an extensive and largely successful campaign to paint liberalism as evil, treacherous, un-American. This was the essence of the Reagan Revolution - to associate liberalism with the perceived excesses of the 1960s and the hard economic times of the 1970s. But you can't blame conservatives for that. Any politician wants to win, and the best way to win is to discredit the other guy, whether fairly or unfairly.
The real culprit is the Democrats who collectively failed to stand up for liberalism throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of enthusiastically embracing liberalism as an absolutely American ideology, liberals caved to the conservatives' attacks. They began distancing themselves from the term, attempting to cozy up to the new conservative fad. Thus, the idea that liberalism was a deviant philosophy practiced only by a select few was able to foment.
The only solution here, my fellow liberals, is to follow the advice in the title of E.J. Dionne's recent book: stand up, fight back. When conservatives call you a liberal, don't be apologetic. Say "you're damn right I'm a liberal. What's wrong with that?" When we begin to say the dreaded L-word with pride, America will begin to follow.