Tuesday, October 18, 2005

What Is A Moderate?

Paul Waldman has written an excellent article on the American political moderate. He hits on all the important points, starting with poll results which appear to show that the conservative base is fairly large while the liberal/progressive one is smaller, which leaves moderates the people for the Democrats to court if they want to win. He then shows that the moderates are in fact a lot more like the liberals than the conservatives and that the Democratic strategy of courting the "center" is an error.

To explain this apparent paradox Waldman points out something that many of us liberals have been saying a long time: the very word "liberal" has been so successfully smeared by the wingnuts that most people are afraid to call themselves liberals:

if most "moderates" are Democrats who hold liberal policy positions, why don't they call themselves liberals? One answer is that these words have meanings outside the political realm that affect what kind of labels we are willing to place on ourselves. Many people are attracted to the ideas of "moderation" and "independence" even if their beliefs actually align fairly closely with one of the two parties. If you ask survey respondents whether they're Democrats, Republicans, or independents, between 30 and 40 percent will call themselves independents. But if you then ask the independents whether they lean toward one party or the other, most will say yes, to the point where the number of "true" independents falls to around 10 percent of the population.

But even if lots of people like thinking of themselves as "moderate," why should it follow that more people choose to call themselves "conservative" than "liberal?" The answer lies in a decades-long campaign to make the word an epithet -- from Ronald Reagan taunting Michael Dukakis as "liberal, liberal, liberal" to a host of Senate candidates who faced television ads calling them "embarrassingly liberal" or "shockingly liberal." Through endless repetition, conservatives succeeded in associating "liberal" with a series of traits that stand apart from specific issues: weakness, vacillation, moral uncertainty, and lack of patriotism, to name a few.

That is a familiar tale, but it is only half the story. Like so much else in our recent political history, conservative success in the area of political nomenclature was made possible only by liberal bumbling.

There was a time when a "liberal" was something most people -- even some conservatives -- wanted to be. On the stump in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower said "we need in Washington liberal and experienced members of Congress." Eight years later, Richard Nixon quoted FDR's definition of a liberal as "a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life," and said, "It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him."

But when Republicans began to go after liberalism, Democrats cowered in fear, not only trying to distance themselves from the term but embracing the idea that a "conservative" is a great thing to be. Few Republicans would claim to be "social liberals" -- even if they are -- but Democrats are always claiming to be "fiscal conservatives," saying they have "conservative values" or chiding Republicans for not holding to the principles of conservatism on issues like the deficit. The message this sends to Americans who don't know much about politics is that, regardless of the details of policy, it's good to be conservative and bad to be liberal.
Waldman's article goes on to explain why it is important for the left to create a solid and unified attack against conservatism as an ideology, just as the conservatives have done the same to liberalism. It's a good read.