The Liberal Comeback In America


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.


The Liberal Comeback In America

  1. 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.

    I’m sure Vietnam and Nixon had nothing to do with that.

    Can someone at Macleans please hire writers who know history?

  2. my shorter comments with no links get through. but i’m ready to go off on a rant about this martin cauchon offereing federal contracts in exchange for donations story which not a single media outlet is covering, and none of those posts make it through.

    • It seems the msm thinks ‘who cares about pay-to-play stories when we can supply our readers with endless stories on whether Mulroney is a Con or not’. And they wonder why sales are decreasing.

    • “which not a single media outlet is covering”

      Um… how did you hear about it?

    • Evidently the Vancouver Sun isn’t a single media outlet.

    • It’s also so timely, with Wells and others talking about Harper’s moral compass, that another Liberal corruption scandal appears. They just keep on comin’.

  3. Jack nailed it. There is plenty of blame to go around for the global financial crisis, but low-income minorities in the US deserve very little of it. If anything, that demographic tended to be victims of predatory lending practices.

    • Curious use of the word ‘victims’, CR. People who take hundreds of thousands $$$ that they can’t afford to pay back when it all goes pear shaped are not victims. I understand entirely why people would take more money than they could afford, home ownership is a powerful urge and hard to deny, but people who are defaulting now are not victims.

      If there are any victims in the this tale, it is people who did not buy a house because they were financially responsible but are now on the hook for massive amounts of debt bailing out those who were irresponsible.

      • JWL, the thread my comment belonged to was deleted, so you missed some of the context. We were countering the argument that poor minorities in the US were to blame for the subprime mess. I’m all for personal responsibility, and ignorance is no excuse, but I’ve seen too many published examples of poor minorities getting hustled by smooth talking agents and mortgage brokers into signing a toxic subprime mortgages.

  4. CR: I disagree.
    Low income people deserve blame if they bought mortgages they could not afford. The term “predatory” is such a farce. It’s not predatory to give something to someone that asked for it.

  5. Mitchell and Fail are both right.
    1- You can blame the buyers for buying things that they had no ability or intention to pay for.
    And you can blame the bankers for turning a blind eye because they would not be the ones who did not get paid.
    2- And you can blame the rating agencies for failing to do their jobs properly, in part because they were getting paid by the same people they were rating.
    3- And you can blame the investment banks and other institutions for failing to do the due diligence when they bought these securities for severely over-inflated prices because the risks were not properly assessed.
    4- And you can blame high-income home buyers for buying houses at vastly over-inflated prices, who rationalized it by saying that as long as prices go up they could just dump it at a later date if necessary.
    5- And you can blame everyday people like me for buying shares of these banks and investment houses while failing to realize just how incompetent they were.
    6- And you can blame everyone for failing to notice that the housing market was in a giant bubble and failing to do the research required to figure out what would happen when the bubble inevitable crashed.
    7- You can blame the government for putting into place policies that encouraged all of these behaviours, by subsidizing and distorting market forces to encourage people to make sales that did not make financial sense without the government intervention.

  6. The low-income homebuyers didn’t buy homes because the Gommint told them to, they bought largely because of the housing bubble (at least in the markets that collapsed worst, in California and the Southwest). And the housing bubble is its own story. Sure, subprime mortages pumped a lot of money into it, perhaps expanding the bubble more quickly than it would otherwise have expanded, but the main thing driving the bubble was the artificially low interest rates that Alan Greenspan championed. I lived in California from 2001-2006, and I knew a lot of people (not low-income visible minorities, as a rule) who bought in 100% to the idea of an ever-expanding market; so that a 1-bedroom apt. in San Francisco at, God knows, $750 000 in 2005 was a completely logical thing to buy: if you expect it will go to $1-million in three years, it’s easy money (and a place to live in the high-rent Bay Area). If somebody gives you a 25-year mortgage at 5%, you’d be nuts not to take it — or so people assumed. Whence the bubble and lots of defaults not only on subprime mortgages, not only by poor blacks, but by everybody; and with lenders riding high on top of it all. Subprime was one aspect of that but not necessarily the decisive one.

  7. Sorry, sf, posted before I read your long comment. I think you’re right about your 7 points, but I think 7 is the decisive factor in the list. You can have all sorts of craziness going on below but as soon as the Federal Reserve jumps on board you’ve effectively dumped the pilot and you’re sailing blind. Not to mention minimal regulation, which might include (in the long term) getting rid of Mark to Market accounting, for instance. I don’t buy any of this “capitalism is changed forever” stuff, but differentiating between the ass and the elbow would be a good place to start the renewal effort.

  8. “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.”

    John, take off those rose coloured glasses you are wearing because they are clearly affecting your perception and thinking. How you could write that sentence about Obama/Pelosi/Reid is beyond me.

    I don’t believe Obama’s financial plans are going to do what they say on the tin. After a few years of trillion dollar deficits for little effect, the word ‘liberal’ will be avoided like the plague.

Sign in to comment.