Liberals and the Road Ahead

Too many liberals are gloomy these days. True, they have been knocked on their heels by the election of Donald Trump. Also true, since Gallup began such polls in 1992, those who self-identify as liberals have always constituted a smaller share of Americans than those calling themselves conservatives. True as well that they have now lost not only the House, Senate and White House but control of both houses of the legislature in 25 states and governorships in 33. So, rejected and dejected, they have reason to wonder if people no longer resonate with their message. They bemoan the fact that so many people "just don't understand." But they need to get over it - because it is holding them back and they have something important to say to a nation that needs to hear it.

Conservative ascendancy and liberal retreat are neither permanent nor permanently desirable paths for a vibrant America. The same was true in the 1960s, when liberals were celebrating their "permanent majority" and conservatives were fighting not just for the future of the Republican Party but the future of conservatism. This yin and yang of liberalism and conservatism is just another derivative of the federalist vs. anti-federalist argument that dominated the Federal Convention in 1787 and has continued under various labels and parties ever since. America needs this dualism. It is a vaccine against the dangerous extremes of democracy.

Liberals should celebrate their contributions not bemoan their fate - for Americans need to be reminded of what liberalism has given them. In the last half century, the liberal agenda expanded the franchise to eighteen-year-olds and abolished the poll tax. It began the removal of discrimination against blacks with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The civil rights movement reminded America of its founding values, and began the slow, still-unfinished work of redressing the ravages of slavery and segregation. The women's movement began to address disparate treatment based on sex in jobs, pay and education, and the gay rights and marriage equality movements brought millions the civil equality and respect that is their American birthright. Americans with disabilities also gained the dignity and services they need as a result of liberalism, beginning with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975. Liberalism pushed to address the health care needs of the elderly and poor through Medicare and Medicaid and helped launch the environmental movement with the Clean Air Act of 1973, the creation of EPA in 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. These changes are now an accepted part of American life.

Not all liberal reforms have been successful or devoid of negative, unintended consequences, of course. Liberal misjudgments and over-reach (just like conservative ones) are by-products of their values, limited viewpoints, and electoral over-confidence. The balance that conservative values and ideas bring to the public square serves as a set of needed, contrasting views. Just as surely, liberalism will need to serve as a corrective for the excesses of the coming wave of conservative legislation and leadership.

So, the first message to liberals: stop acting as if you are unappreciated and misunderstood. The fact that people take your accomplishments for granted is a sign of success, not ingratitude. Second, communicate better what you have accomplished. Don't be reluctant to remind Americans of how their lives are better. It is not self-evident to them. Third, find an uplifting agenda for the twenty-first century. It will most likely differ from the past, even as the concern for those left out of society's benefits remains the same. The top-down, federal approach to solving social problems, which has characterized liberalism for so long, needs to be rethought. Liberals will still find some areas that require national solutions, including the need to preserve past gains, but they should focus more on state and local efforts. They must listen to and become active and relevant again in rural counties, small towns, and to many who feel abandoned by them.

Forth, liberals must organize better - and vote more. The Tea Party and the Occupy Movement both demanded change, but the former channeled that energy into the electoral process, first at the local and state level, and the latter largely dissipated as a political force. Aiming for turnout in national elections and mostly in urban and traditionally blue-state America is not enough.

Finally, liberals must not shrink from their dedication to social and environmental justice. That commitment is neither outdated nor naive. They are at their best when they are passionate and positive - America does not need a campaign of nastiness and negativity. Liberalism, as conservatism, is central to the American experiment. It provides emotional energy and ideas essential to hope and progress. Without that, America is a poorer place.