Magazine article The American Prospect

When Liberals Must Conserve

Magazine article The American Prospect

When Liberals Must Conserve

Article excerpt

"WE NEED A MESSAGE." "WE NEED A PHILOSOPHY." "We need a simple statement of what we believe, just like the right has." No meeting of progressives lasts long before these sentiments are expressed. Sometimes a committee will be assigned to frame the new message.

The result might be a crisp but banal statement of uncontested values. Or a list of 62 programs that acknowledge all the key constituencies and causes. As a colleague of mine once said, most attempts at this synthesis are no worse than any other, and no better.

Why is this so hard? Why haven't we been able to define what it means to be a progressive (or liberal) in clear, meaningful terms?

Here's one take at an answer: It's because the progressive message for the current moment is essentially, by tragic necessity, that of conservatism. Although we still do Republicans the courtesy of labeling them "far right," the fact is they have gone so far around the bend that they have abandoned all of the conservative tradition, except for a small piece of Randian economic libertarianism. And the empty shell of conservatism has been bequeathed to us.

The defining characteristic of Bushera policies--from tax cuts to the Medicare drug bill and, above all, the Iraq invasion--has been a reckless disregard for consequences. Whether that comes from an idealism comparable to that of the dreamiest liberals--as the president's defenders on Iraq still insist--or simply an "I've got mine, Jack" brand of social Darwinism plus corruption, the task of dealing with the consequences will fall to those who come next.

And so Democrats, before they can do anything big, will need to restore stability, caution, survival, respect for the future, fiscal discipline, and realism in foreign policy: These are conservative values. We will need them not because they represent our vision of how the world should be but because they are life rafts that can take us back to saner shores.

And hence our speechlessness. This is not language we are comfortable with or get excited about. We want the language of Great Society, full employment, man on the moon, global prosperity, democracy around the world, universal human rights, every life lived to its fullest. We can find our way back to that visionary, aspirational language, but the way back takes us through a dozen meliorative tasks like restoring fiscal sanity, preventing the collapse of the employer-provided health-care system, modernizing entitlements, restoring the tax structure of the end of the 20th century, ending the war in Iraq, rescuing our country's international reputation, and dealing with the real consequences of global warming. …

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