Conventional wisdom in America would have you believe that identifying oneself as liberal is politically risky. After all, when was the last time a serious political contender for the presidency embraced the liberal label? Outside of Teddy Kennedy, Democratic politicians have preferred the term ‘progressive’ to ‘liberal’ for the past three decades. The epic Obama-Clinton battle of last year rarely featured the word ‘liberal.’ President Clinton, a liberal president in a conservative era, preferred the term centrist to identify his brand of politics. He therefore drifted even further from the ‘liberal’ label. Obama seems hesitant to use the word, but when you look at his policies and listen to his rhetoric, you get the distinct impression identifying as a liberal may no longer be a liability for a mainstream politician. In fact, I believe the word ‘liberal’ is on the verge of a resurgence and a comeback. As well it should.
The U.S. political cycle is once again working its magic. After close to three decades of conservative dominance (which was not all bad), Americans seem to be responding to a new brand of liberalism—one in which the government is no longer the problem Ronald Reagan so memorably insisted it was. Government can now offer solutions. The credit for this goes to the financial crisis and the appalling greed of Wall Street for the resurgence. But we should not ignore the role the recent failings of the American conservative movement have played reviving liberalism. Conservatism is in dire need of redefinition, rethinking and purpose. Years of out-of-control deficits, inconclusive and ill-managed wars, mean-spirited and divisive politics, and compassionate conservatives that are neither conservative nor compassionate have harmed the brand.
However, today’s liberals should be careful to avoid getting nostalgic about the FDR years or the 30 years of liberalism that followed. By the end of the sixties, that brand of liberalism had run its course. In fact, liberals then were seen as free-spending, bureaucracy-building elitists with a strong interventionist streak. And eventually, they became associated with a breakdown of law and order, and a widespread sense of permissiveness that led to the rebirth of the conservative movement in the 1970’s. The Vietnam War did not help as it was seen as liberal war.
Liberals today seem to have learned that government must work with market forces and that sensible fiscal policies are fundamental to a sound and effective government. Here, Clinton deserves much credit for modernizing today’s liberalism, as he left the country with balanced budgets and reduced debt. The challenge for the Obama administration will be to harness the traditional liberal values of fairness, justice and opportunity, and mesh them with an approach to government that emphasizes responsibility, that creates the conditions for prosperity, and that acts to redistribute wealth in ways that reduce inequalities within society without punishing success. Obama has already articulated this ‘progressive’ vision for government. His near-100 days in power reflect this. Now, if he could only start using the word ‘liberal,’ then the comeback will be complete.