In "Let's Not Devalue Ourselves", The Nation's Katha Pollitt urges the left to trumpet its own values, rather than playing on the field as defined by the right:
It is a mistake to give the right a monopoly on values by agreeing with them in a half-baked, yes-but, wishy-washy way. Sure, abortion should be rare--but it should be rare thanks to birth control and support for women and children, not because women guilt-trip themselves into continuing crisis pregnancies. It's not a satisfying answer, either, to change the subject, as when Kerry said that "good-paying jobs" is a Democratic value. People need to hear about those good jobs, but they also need to hear about a social vision that isn't just about their own immediate self-interest.
We liberals and progressives and leftists have our own noble principles, our own beautiful abstract words. We should take our stand on them. Fairness is a liberal value. Equality is a liberal value. Education is a liberal value. Honesty in government, public service for modest remuneration, safeguarding public resources and the land--these are all values we share. Liberty is a liberal value, trusting people to make their own decisions, letting people speak their minds even if their views are unpopular. So is social solidarity, the belief that we should share the nation's enormous wealth so that everyone can live decently. The truth is, most of the good things about this country have been fought for by liberals (indeed, by leftists and, dare one say it, Communists)--women's rights, civil liberties, the end of legal segregation, freedom of religion, the social safety net, unions, workers' rights, consumer protection, international cooperation, resistance to corporate domination--and resisted by conservatives. If conservatives had carried the day, blacks would still be in the back of the bus, women would be barefoot and pregnant, medical care would be on a cash-only basis, there'd be mouse feet in your breakfast cereal and workers would still be sleeping next to their machines.
Setting aside her problematic inclusion of communists in the liberal values big tent, I agree with Pollitt that this is an argument that should be made vigorously on the left, and pitched at mainstream America. Conservatives and liberals do have different values, but the right has done a good job of painting liberal values as decadent, radical and out of touch with the mainstream. But liberals have been on the side of pushing for social change since the New Deal, and are more attuned to the plight of outsiders in our society. While there are policy debates to be had about proposed remedies - fair taxation, wealth redistribution, the proper role of government, the value of individual initiative, freedom vs. equality - over the years liberals have fought against discrimination and abuses of individuals by both the government and corporations. That is the main reason I identified as a liberal for most of my political life.
Less than 30 years ago, liberalism was the political consensus. Even the villified Richard Nixon promoted policies that would be considered liberal by today's standards. Unfortunately, not only have liberals allowed the notion of "values" to be co-opted, they are now afraid of even being identified as liberals, having ceded the field to an ascendant conservative movement that redefined liberalism during the '80s and '90s as a bankrupt and hollow ideology. From this conservative frame of reference, liberalism became identified with high rates of taxation, an out-of-control welfare state, stifling political correctness, overregulation, softness on national defense, complacency about the spread of communism, and an out-of-the-mainstream social agenda enacted through activist judges instead of by elected legislators.
While many of these criticisms of liberalism's more doctrinaire excesses are justified, the genius of the conservative movement was that it tapped into the country's cynicism about the limits and evils of Big Government. It appealed to American individualism, self-reliance and entrepreneurship, even as it championed an economic program that rewarded the wealthiest segment of society. Thomas Frank's new book, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America analyzes this phenomenon.
And it continues to this day. For the past four years liberals have decided to define themselves and their movement by their loathing of George W. Bush - as a reaction against the party in power, ironically a mirror image of the disgruntled conservatives of old. Recall that conservatives were formerly characterized by their opposition to change, rather than being seen as change agents. Conservatism didn't really become a power to be reckoned with until Reagan redefined it as a proactive rather than reactive force. Reagan articulated a package of heartland values: self-reliance, entrepreneurship, family, faith, patriotism, anti-communism and above all, a sunny optimism that contrasted with the relentless self-criticism often heard from the left. This contrasted with the image of conservatives as dour and stuffy, and Reagan was the ideal upbeat, cheerful pitchman for the new forward-looking conservatism -- literally a President out of Central Casting.
Bill Clinton -- The Man from Hope -- took a page from Reagan in terms of his positive personal style, but overall he governed as a centrist, not a liberal. Clinton was famous for co-opting Republican issues such as deregulation, deficit-reduction and welfare reform and putting his own stamp on them. It can therefore be argued that he did not champion a liberal agenda per se, though to be fair he pushed for health care reform, gay rights and a cleaner environment.
In 2004, Kerry is attempting to take a page from the Clinton playbook and run as a centrist. This is not a bad strategy for winning an election, but it requires Kerry to either repudiate or hide from his 20 years in the Senate, and a voting record that is rated more liberal than that of Walter Mondale or Ted Kennedy by the Americans for Democratic Action. I would be more comfortable if instead of doing this, he took the tactic of championing the liberal values consistent with his voting record, and convincing the electorate that the values of the left - economic justice, racial and gender equality, protection for the powerless in society, separation of church and state, safeguarding the environment, freedom of dissent - are every bit as mainstream as those promoted by the right.
George W. Bush, whatever his faults, is not afraid to tout the values of conservatism. It's too bad Kerry and others refuse to promote the values of liberalism.