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That Which Must Not Be Said

Barack Obama is a liberal. Hillary Clinton wants you to know this now; if Obama gets the nomination, John McCain assuredly will, too. “Liberal” has had bad connotations ever since the Vietnam era, when conservatives successfully branded their opponents with the “amnesty, abortion, and acid” label. Now, the word “liberal”--or librul, in its nastiest form--has been cast to the bottom of the linguistic heap, to be avoided at all costs. Just two weeks ago, The New York Times picked up on this theme by running an article about Obama’s candidacy entitled, “Can a Liberal be a Unifier?” To the Times I'd say: Yes, one can. If Obama continues to draw on the deep history of American liberalism, which has mostly been kept alive in the black community, he is capable of appealing well beyond it.

For the middle part of the 20th century, American liberalism had a relatively good reputation: Each new president--even the Republican ones--seemed willing to build on the New Deal, American liberalism’s first and greatest achievement. Liberals constructed a story of American politics that looked back to the unfulfilled promises of equality in the Declaration of Independence, extended through the effort to end slavery and the progressive period, reached a climax with the Franklin Roosevelt era, and bore fruit in the Great Society, including its civil rights measures.

Then some very bad things--Vietnam, urban unrest, the organized post-Goldwater conservative movement--happened to liberalism. Those were followed by stagflation, Jimmy Carter’s declaration that “we ought to get the government’s nose out of private enterprise in this country,” the New Democrats of the '80s, and Bill Clinton’s search for a Third Way in the '90s. Now even the Democratic Party, in the form principally of the Democratic Leadership Council, hosts a well-understood critique of liberalism. The Progressive Policy Institute, an arm of the DLC, identifies liberalism with an "impulse to defend the bureaucratic status quo." And, not surprisingly, this shame translates into dangerous poll results. When the National Election Study asks Americans to categorize their political views, they’re much more likely to call themselves conservative than liberal, and have been for decades. Americans say this even though, when Pew asks Americans to say where they stand on individual policies or attitudes, they sound not only more liberal than conservative, but also more liberal than the median elected Democrat. But the term “liberal” is so tainted by various slanders and misrepresentations, even people who support government assistance to the poor and federal funding for health care, who back civil liberties and think gays ought to be able to get on with the business of their own lives, and who are more likely to call themselves Democrat than Republican, are unlikely to call themselves liberal.

With the tarnishing of the term “liberal,” a long narrative of liberal history has faded, too. In The Presence of the Past, a 1998 study of how Americans view their history, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen found that Americans see “national events as disconnected incidents not linked to a larger narrative, and about national figures and events in distant and attenuated terms, rather than the rich terms they used for describing moments in their personal and family histories.” We like to talk about how we got here, if that means talking about how our grandparents came to this country, or this town; we don’t have much interest--we don’t “see ourselves,” Rosenzweig and Thelen write--in a national narrative of progress. Mainly because we don’t believe in it. We see the 1960s (not entirely unreasonably) as a decade when hopeful leaders got murdered, when the great liberal government lied us into a hopeless war, when so much that seemed so promising burned to ash. And it taught us not to raise false hopes.

Or rather, we see our national history that way unless we’re black. Rosenzweig and Thelen found that black Americans “have a stronger sense of a public … past than white Americans.” They tend to tell their community story in terms of a national narrative of progressive fulfillment from slavery to segregation to civil rights, in which the government met, after struggle and insistence, the demands of its citizens for justice.

When Obama gave his “speech on race,” opening with the American framers’ pledge of progress--”a more perfect union”--he homed in on this same national narrative that’s alive in the black community. And when he refers to his experience as a community organizer, invoking hope for American cities still struggling to recover from the political and economic blows of the past few decades, he also draws on this same national narrative, in which patient struggle can effect great changes.

One could warn that glorifying such a tradition will only marginalize Obama further. One could look at the Pew surveys and National Election Studies and conclude that Americans may be piecemeal liberals, but they are unready for a fully joined-up story of liberalism, let alone an ideology. And this is clearly what the Clinton campaign has decided.

Yet even if we don't recover the word "liberal"--Obama himself is much fonder of “progressive”--there's no question that the old liberal history still fires the imaginations of Americans of all classes, creeds, and colors, even perhaps those jaded and scarred by disappointment. Each day new headlines show us how zealously our government opens the public purse to bankers in need, while piously keeping the general public from suffering the sins that come with public assistance. “Moral hazard,” they cry. “Culture of dependency,” they crow. Each day we’re reminded why we needed a New Deal in the first place--to extend to ordinary citizens the same consideration the powerful have long been able to extract. Each day, we come a bit closer to remembering that the makers of our revolution and the framers of our constitution promised us freedom, equality, and protection of the general welfare. And those promises, so self-evidently unfulfilled at the start, inspired subsequent generations to fight for them. And the example of those strugglers, both living and dead, imposes an obligation on us to be worthy of their sacrifices.

Obama's record on prisoner rights and government transparency, to name just two, attests to his liberal impulses. But more importantly, by reviving that old national narrative and asking us to fulfill the nation's original promises, he is challenging us to live up to the nation's liberal legacy--and he’s pulling in a lot of voters beyond the Democratic base, maybe even some conservatives, in the process. As the primary election transitions into the general, we should not underestimate the power of the liberal narrative. It very plainly appeals beyond the African-American community, which gave it a home all these years; its promise stretches now, as it has for years, into other American communities, unexpected ones even, and offers hope there, too.

Eric Rauchway is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis, and the author of The Great Depression and the New Deal: A Very Short Introduction, Blessed Among Nations: How the World Made America and Murdering McKinley: The Making of Theodore Roosevelt's America. He also blogs for The Edge of the American West.

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