Contemporary liberalism runs the risk of becoming isolated. But this threat does not solely come from the likes of Michele Bachmann or Glenn Beck. It also comes from some self-described liberals whose behavior feeds into the right's caricature of who we are. We risk becoming a group that restricts membership to a certain kind of liberal, one that is educated, not merely nonreligious but anti-religious, and one that is simultaneously smug and self-righteous.
One of the dark risks in an open society is the ascendancy of the enemy/friend dichotomy: one helps only those seen as having similar goals, customs, and beliefs and opposes those who don't. Just observe the poisoning of American political discourse over the past few decades. Discussion and engagement have given way to rants and demonization. In his September 2, 2009 edition of The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby identified a good example of how the right uses this to its advantage -- and how liberals enable its use:
It's simple-minded - but it works. On our side, we stand in line to help. For decades, almost all conservative spin has derived from two simple messages. When you get to work with such clear messaging, being a conservative pundit is the easiest job in the world:
Big government never did anything right. Liberal elites think they're better than you are.
Almost all Republican spin derives from those two messages. The conservative movement has been actively pushing those messages at least since the time of Nixon. No matter what happens in the real world, the conservative pundit simply dreams up a response which derives from one of those notions.
What was Somerby talking about? With regard to the charge of elitism, part of the answer could be found in a Washington Post column by conservative commentator George Will. Writing in April 2008 shortly after then-candidate Obama's comment about working-class voters who “cling” to God and guns, Will noted:
What had been under FDR a celebration of America and the values of its working people has become a doctrine of condescension toward those people and the supposedly coarse and vulgar country that pleases them.
When a supporter told Adlai Stevenson, the losing Democratic presidential nominee in 1952 and 1956, that thinking people supported him, Stevenson said, "Yes, but I need to win a majority." When another supporter told Stevenson, "You educated the people through your campaign," Stevenson replied, "But a lot of people flunked the course."
Does President Obama despise working-class folks? Of course not. His economic policies, though far from sufficient from a Keynesian standpoint, are more beneficial to these very folks than anything put forth by today's movement conservatism.
But his comments on guns and faith clearly display something of a disconnect that, three years later, still exists with many of our liberal talkers. Public faces of progressivism Ed Shultz, Rachel Maddow, and Bill Maher would rather play in the mud, demonizing the other side, than explain how contemporary liberalism is the best means available to create a prosperous capitalist economy for all, including those in the working-class.
Instead of broadening the liberal base, the aforementioned public faces of the left act as though our philosophy were a restricted community. Too many of us howl with delight when Bill Maher derides poor working people as “one-toothers” or those who believe in God as delusional. During any give broadcast of Real Time, the host's constant drumbeat of proclaiming "American dumbness" is ever-present. If anything, he risks turning himself into the poster boy for what movement conservatism says is wrong with liberals. Would FDR, Harry Truman, or Robert F. Kennedy have engaged in such self-defeating, elitist behavior?
What these public figures could be doing instead is rebutting the conservative mantra that Reagan's tax cuts drastically increased revenue (they didn't). Better yet, how about pulling the rug out from under the GOP myth that big government doesn't do anything right? Projects put forth by economic liberals have led to generations of local wealth creation, such as the TVA or the Lower Colorado River Authority. They brought electrical power -- and production -- to whole sections of the South, areas “the invisible hand” of laissez-faire didn't want to touch. More importantly, such a discussion would be a very powerful tool in explaining how an activist government does indeed create private sector jobs.
Maddow and Shultz could take a cue from Thom Hartmann and use their programs to explain how administrations that based their domestic policies upon Keynesian economics were also examples of “big government” getting things very right. (In fairness, Maher does this with Real Time.) For the 30 years after World War II, an activist government ensured increased wealth for a greater number of citizens in a manner far more disciplined than those based upon laissez-faire dogma. Instead, Maddow wasted precious airtime on a June 15 segment with Samuel L. Jackson narrating "Go the F**k to Sleep," a bedtime story for adults.
Such silliness is an ongoing wasted opportunity; it is snarky entertainment that plays to a crowd of cynics instead of engaging those beyond the base. More than that, it is smart alec behavior that can cause some independent folks to feel empathy for liberalism's adversaries.
“When men are once enlisted on opposite sides," Enlightenment thinker David Hume observed, "they contract an affection to the persons with whom they are united, and an animosity against their antagonists: And these passions they often transmit to their posterity." Movement conservatism has taken Hume's observation and honed it into a potent weapon, all while some self-described liberals insist on telling the world how clever they are.
Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh can shape the public perception of liberals because we too often choose to disassociate ourselves from blue-collar folks. Whether it be the public or private faces of liberalism, we constantly fail to refute the myth that “government doesn't work.” That, too, illustrates the “liberal elites think they're better than you are” meme Somerby warned us about. The right's talking heads know full well that it is easier to hate a stranger and his ideas than the beliefs of a real-life friend. And to that end, when we segregate ourselves from the very folks contemporary liberalism was intended to help, we make it easier for movement conservatives to beat them down a bit more. It tends to make those who empathize with some, but not all of the of the political right defensive and protective of their own, creating greater identity with "whom they are united." Ranks close and camps become further polarized. Then we all retreat into our restricted communities and the discourse sinks deeper into the mud. And that plays right into the right's hands.
It doesn't have to be this way. One of my favorite photographs is of FDR shaking hands with a soot-covered coal miner during the 1932 Presidential campaign. That photograph of the patrician politician locking grips with a hard-bitten but proud everyday man speaks of common dreams. And it reminds us that contemporary liberalism should never be an exclusive club for the well-educated. As FDR knew, it should be a true pathway to mutual prosperity, one that is equitable and inclusive for all Americans.
Frank L. Cocozzelli writes a weekly column on Roman Catholic neoconservatism at Talk2Action.org and is contributor to Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America. A director of the Institute for Progressive Christianity, he is working on a book on American liberalism.