Progressive Revival

I suppose we can blame Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Sean
Hannity and the other hit-and-run talk-show hosts on the far right – hey, why
not? – for the denigration of the term “liberal.” You can hear the sneer in
their voices whenever they invoke the word. Liberals, in their warped and myopic view of
the world, are responsible for everything that’s wrong.

This patter has been going on for so long now – Limbaugh
celebrated his twentieth anniversary on the air just last week – that many
Americans now believe that anyone who calls himself a liberal is either
deranged or akin somehow to a mass murderer or a pedophile. (Savage, if memory
serves, even wrote a book whose title asserted that liberalism was a species of
mental illness.)

The ritual castigation of liberalism obviously is good
business for people like Hannity, Savage and Limbaugh. In some peculiar alchemy
of hatred, they’ve transformed their venom into fortunes. That’s their business
– literally! But what’s even more distressing is that liberals themselves now
run from the term and take refuge in synonyms like “progressive” or “moderate.”

“Moderate” is a comforting word, I suppose, and surely, by
the standards of Limbaugh, Hannity and Savage, liberals are indeed “moderate.”
But the word always reminds me of Jim Hightower’s famous maxim that the only
things you’ll find in the middle of the road are yellow stripes and dead

Similarly, “progressive” is pretty inoffensive. But it
really refers to a particular movement in American history that was allied with
the Social Gospel against the ravages of unbridled capitalism at the turn of
the twentieth century.

It’s time to reclaim the terms “liberal” and “liberalism”
from the distortions of the right. Liberalism is responsible for some pretty
noble achievements in American life – and, arguably, for the very existence of
the nation itself. Most Americans think that slavery was a pretty bad system
and that equality for women is a reasonably good idea. Both the antislavery
movement and the women’s movement were animated by liberalism. In addition,
liberals pushed for the formation of common schools in the nineteenth century,
and public education (for all of its current faults and inadequacies) remains
one of the bedrock institutions in our democratic society. Social Security was
a liberal idea, as was Medicare. All but a tiny slice of Americans believe that
a society has an obligation to help provide for its elderly. The G.I. Bill of
Rights, pushed through Congress by liberals in 1944, allowed veterans, including the
sons of immigrants, the opportunity to attend college and thereby to toe the
bottom rung on the ladder of upward mobility. The civil rights movement,
populated overwhelmingly by liberals, called on Americans to live up to the
liberal ideals of our charter documents.

Have there been excesses associated with liberalism? Of
course. That’s part of the nature of political life and discourse, the back and
forth of debate leading to synthesis. But to assert that liberalism is bad or
somehow shameful belies any responsible reading of American history. Besides,
are the denizens of the hard right really prepared to extol the salutary
effects of conservatism over the past eight years?

Mark me down as a liberal, and proudly so.

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