Paul Waldman is a senior fellow at Media Matters for America and the author of the new book, Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, just released by John Wiley & Sons. The views expressed here are his own.
Ask a conservative what the biggest problem in America is today, and you’ll get answers like overtaxation, a sexualized culture, lack of respect for authority, insufficient church-going or big government running amok. But if you then asked the conservative what the real source of the problem was—the beating heart pumping blood to each and all of these socio-politico-cultural wounds—you’d get the same answer: liberalism.
On the other hand, you could ask a liberal a hundred questions about the problems facing our country before you’d get to an answer that placed conservatism at the heart of the nation’s ills.
And conservatives learn these messages when still young. What does a “campus liberal” do? Well, it depends what his or her issue is: fighting sweatshop labor, or environmental degradation, or the Iraq war, or any of a dozen other problems about which liberals are concerned. What, on the other hand, does a “campus conservative” do? Fight liberals and liberalism.
You can hear it in the media as well. As any fan of Limbaugh, Hannity or O’Reilly hears every day, whatever the issue is, the problem is liberals. Conservatives write books saying liberals are The Party of Death , who are Trashing Democracy, Waging War Against Christianity , ,Screwing Up America, Corrupting Our Future—and on top of it all, our whole ideology is A Mental Disorder. Liberals, on the other hand, write books about why George W. Bush is a terrible president. (I plead guilty.)
What we haven’t yet seen from the left is a sustained critique, not just of a particular politician or a particular policy, but of the entire ideology and worldview of conservatism.
As everyone knows, conservatives have succeeded in making “liberal” an epithet, something they throw at their opponents—who try desperately to dodge the label. The demonization of “liberal” has been successful in part because conservatives have effectively created what social psychologists call a “schema” with decidedly negative features around the term. A schema is a set of ideas that are connected in people’s minds, such that activating one idea—“liberal”—activates a whole set of related ideas, like lights on a Christmas tree. We assemble schemas as a way of storing and categorizing related information in memory. In this case, the related ideas are things like “soft on crime,” “weak on defense,” “sexually permissive,” and so on. The ideas liberals would like to pop right up in people’s heads when they hear the term liberal—“wants prosperity for everyone,” “supports universal health care” or “stands up to powerful interests”—are farther away from the schema’s center.
This didn’t happen by accident. It is the result of a relentless campaign against liberalism by conservatives. And liberals need to do the same thing to conservatism.
A good first step would be to never, ever again use the word with a positive connotation. How many times has a Democrat, in order to score a debating point, said, “A true conservative wouldn’t tolerate these Republican deficits?” How many times have solidly liberal Democrats described themselves as “fiscally conservative?” Those formulations accept that true conservatives are principled people with noble goals. They are not, and should not be talked about as though they were. When was the last time you heard a Republican call himself a “social liberal,” even if he is one? They don’t, because they understand that liberalism is an opposing ideology to which they will give no aid or comfort.
So allow me to offer a few points of attack on conservatism, ones that will resonate with the public and accrue both short-term and long-term gains to the liberals who use them.
1. Conservatism has failed. The overwhelming majority of the American public now sees the Bush administration as a failure. They failed in Iraq, they failed after Hurricane Katrina, they failed on health care, they failed to deliver rising wages, they failed on the deficit, they failed, they failed, they failed. Why? Liberals need to argue that it wasn’t a product of incompetence, it was a failure of conservative governance. As Alan Wolfe put it in a recent Washington Monthly article, “Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well.”
Conservatives had their chance: a Republican president, a Republican Congress, Republican-appointed courts—in short, the perfect environment for enacting their vision with little to stand in their way—and they failed. Should we be surprised at the level of corruption? Of course not; they don’t think government is there to serve the people, so why shouldn’t they raid it for whatever they can grab?
In short, progressives should start talking about the Bush administration’s failures not as those of a president, but of an ideology.
2. Conservatism is the ideology of the past—a past we don’t want to return to. Liberals need to embrace the culture war, because we’re winning. The story of American history is that of conservative ideas and prejudices falling away as our society grows more progressive and thus more true to our nation’s founding ideals. Conservatives supported slavery, conservatives opposed women’s suffrage, conservatives supported Jim Crow, conservatives opposed the 40-hour work week and the abolishment of child labor, and conservatives supported McCarthyism. In short, all the major advancements of freedom and justice in our history were pushed by liberals and opposed by conservatives, no matter the party they inhabited at the time.
Conservatism is Bill Bennett lecturing you about self-denial, then rushing off to feed his slot habit at the casino. It’s James Dobson telling you that children need regular beatings to stay in line. It’s a superannuated nun rapping you on the knuckles so you won’t think about your dirty parts. It’s Jerry Falwell watching “Teletubbies” frame by frame to see if Tinky Winky is trying to turn him gay. Conservatism is everyone you never wanted to grow up to be.
3. Conservatives are cowards, and they hope you are, too. We’re afraid, they shout. We’re so afraid of terrorists, we have to become more like the things we hate. We’re so afraid, we have to let our government sanction torture. We’re so afraid, we have to let the government spy on us. We’re so afraid, we have to give the president dictatorial powers. We’re so afraid, we just want to rush to the arms of politicians who say they’ll protect us.
Progressives need to frame their rejection of the fear campaign as an act of courage: Al-Qaida does not scare us, and we will not dismantle our democratic system because we are afraid. The America we love does not cower in fear, as the conservatives want it to.
These are just a few ways progressives can begin to talk about contemporary issues in the context of the larger ideological conflict that shapes our political history. As an added bonus, when we make clear just what it is we are against at its fundamental, philosophical level, we define for the public who we are and what we stand for.
One of the troubling contradictions in contemporary public opinion is that while on nearly every issue the progressive position is more popular, the number of people willing to tell a pollster they consider themselves “conservative” still far outnumbers the number willing to say they’re “liberal.” It wasn’t always that way, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Winning converts isn’t just about convincing people you’re right on the merits of issues, it’s also about showing them that your side is one they want to join, and the other side is one they want to avoid.
The key challenge facing progressives right now is how—once George W. Bush decamps for Crawford in January of 2009—to maintain the increased energy motivating the political left in recent years . They will be able to do so if they come to understand that George W. Bush is not what they need to fight. What they need to fight is conservatism.