Liberal. The dreaded word that most elected officials above dogcatcher who subscribe to a left-leaning political philosophy try to avoid at all costs. This has been one of the great victories of the post-conservative movement: pushing the term liberal into the outer fringes of political discourse.
To merely mention the word brings a type of terror to some not seen since the 1950's sci-fi movie trailers.
The contemporary liberal stereotype is a fire-breathing menace who sees tax increases as the sole mechanism by which problems are solved. They are seen as a fiscally undisciplined lot who have no regard for hard-working men and women, lavishly throw other people's money at deadbeats, detest personal responsibility, bow at the altar of out-of-control government spending, advance a
milquetoast brand of foreign policy, are against any form of local government control, and by extension are sworn enemies of federalism.
Recent history indicates, however, that much of the so-called liberal stereotype could fit neatly into a description of contemporary conservatism. The only difference being the conservatives' view of tax cuts as the sole mechanism by which problems are solved. And while conservatives do not throw other people's money at "deadbeats," they certainly throw it at people who are already economically stimulated.
Moreover, conservatives do it in the most fiscally irresponsible manner possible by borrowing so that our children and grandchildren will have to pay the debt. As for their belief in federalism, one need only review Bush v. Gore and the Terri Schiavo matter to understand that too is at best selective.
One would think that possessing such luminaries as John Kennedy,Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone,
Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., along with Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, the term liberal would garner a bit more pride than it does.
Most liberals prefer to self identify as "progressives," which seems more palatable to the American political ear. But a true understanding of the word progressive does not adequately define what a liberal stands for. It is quite possible for one to be progressive and still possess a right-of-center political philosophy.
Again, if history is any indicator, this country has changed for the better when led by liberal/progressive forces. Conservative talk-show blowhards notwithstanding, conservatives have an extremely poor record of betting on the wrong horse during this country's most critical moments.
Conservatives have the dubious historical distinction of being wrong on slavery, women's suffrage, this country's entrance into World War II and the Civil Rights Movement.
It was a conservative, strict constructionist Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott decision in 1856 that stated because Scott was black he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The decision also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which restricted slavery in certain territories, unconstitutional.
Fifty years later, the same conservative notion held true in the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that established the precedent for "separate" facilities for blacks and whites that ultimately provided the legal legs on which the Jim Crow laws allegedly stood. It was not until 1954 that the Supreme Court, engaging in "judicial activism," overturned Plessy.
Given this country's historical legacy and where it finds itself today, we might be well served if it had a few more self-identified liberals involved. In matters foreign and domestic, we desperately need to change course -- which, historically speaking, does not seem possible in conservative hands.
I take my definition of the term liberal from John Kennedy who stated, "If by a 'liberal' they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people -- their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties -- someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a 'liberal,' then I'm proud to say I'm a 'liberal."
Are there any liberals out there? Now would be a good time to speak up.
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at
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