The L Word
Are Obama, Clinton, or Edwards liberals?
Democratic candidates from Carter to Dukakis and Bill Clinton have shunned ideological "labels", preferring to offer themselves as capable managers, elevating "competence" over "ideology", or trying to recast the Democratic Party as "moderate", "centrist", or as New Democrats.
As we sit on the eve of the primary selection process, let's ask: How has this worked out?
When I started blogging three years ago I was convinced the Democratic Party needed to remake itself into a long-term focused, progressively-identified movement, from top to bottom, from economics to culture, in an effort to combat what I perceived to be a similarly established and entrenched conservative movement with a firmer identity of itself. I was a progressive purist of sorts, attracted by the candicacy of Howard Dean--interestingly, not a progressive purist--who nonetheless demonstrated a willingness to speak in stark terms about the nature of the political conflict liberals faced and the desire to begin the work of realigning the Democratic Party to fight that sort of battle.
I'm not sure I believe this now, that such a thing as a progressive or liberal movement can be created, at least in the sense in which I envisioned it. As one of the contributors to Rick Perlstein's little post-election book, The Stock Ticker and the Superjumbo, put it, elections are largely random things whose outcomes are most frequently the result of economic conditions, the popularity of the incumbent party, and the personalities of the leading candidates.
But while my expectations of the Democratic Party and America's future--or at least the Party's ability to control that future--have diminished, I still think it is short-sighted for Democrats to avoid the ideological underpinnings of American politics. And I sense that most Democrats are still approaching the problems of winning over a majority of voters and solving the nation's problems in this way.
For instance, all the leading contenders have expressed their disapproval of the Iraq war, but not necessarily of the mind-set that made the invasion possible in the first place. Now, as in years past, the contenders are emphasizing the need to make the economy work for middle class families, to ensure good jobs at good wages, a world-class education for everyone, more affordable and more accessible health care, etc. But these ideals are typically spoken of in terms of being problems requiring solutions--bipartisan solutions as it usually turns out--that are compartmentalized from the more essential question of ideology; that is, what is the proper role of government, what should government do or not do? More to the point, are some perspectives of the role of government more right or wrong than others? And is it meaningful to elaborate on, or to at least summarize in some concise way so voters can make some connections between policies and candidates, just what it means to aim for a more just and equal economic system, a more diplomatic foreign policy, and more tolerant, pluralistic society?
I think there is such a term, such a word, such a label, that concisely captures this set of ideals--it is modern political liberalism. And I don't think it's erroneous for political candidates supportive of such views to shrink from identifying themselves as such. If it's true that more people in America self-identify as conservatives compared to liberals, yet express support for essentially liberal economic and social policies, than one question that could be asked is how the Democratic Party might do a better job of giving this philosophy, liberalism, a better name more suited to its true nature and standing, and thereby making more liberals of the American public.
Whatever shortcomings the present crop of Republican candidates have, the conservative movement over the past three to four decades has bequeathed to them a label, a brand name, conservative, that they can feel confident in trying to claim. Democrats lack a similar foundation.
Of the main three, it's John Edwards who comes the closest to making his appeal on ideological grounds. But even he seems just as wary as candidates in prior years of calling this appeal by its right name, of outing himself as it were for what he is or at least aims to be--a liberal.
Beyond the policy wonkishness of which candidate has the best health care plan or who will get as many of our troops out of Mesopotamia as soon as possible is a need to evaluate how candidates see themselves as ideological standard-bearers.
The last Democratic candidate to win a majority of the nation's votes was Jimmy Carter, over three decades ago. I can't help concluding that not contructing a competing, ideological narrative for voters to consider is at least part of its failure to do so.
For now, Democrats seem content to identify themselves as non-ideological candidates and as a non-ideological party. I don't think this is accurate and I don't think it's ultimately helpful.