It’s time for some kick-ass liberalism

by Stephen Tall on January 15, 2005

‘How can 59,054,087 people be so dumb?’ That was the deliberately provocative front page question posed by the Daily Mirror on 3rd November, 2004, the day after the United States’ voters delivered George W. Bush his first Presidential election victory.

I will freely confess to being one of those who thought Senator John Kerry could sneak a win (indeed staked money on him doing so); who viewed with burgeoning hope the high, at least by US standards, poll turn-out (surely a harbinger of Democrat success?); who watched with growing excitement as the first dodgy exit polls were posted on the Internet; and who allowed a smile finally to break forth when the legendary head of MORI declared live on ITV1, “I’m Bob Worcester, it’s 2am, and I am calling it – it’s President Kerry.”

Half an hour later, it was all over: the 43rd President would not be joining his father, the 41st, into one-term oblivion. We were, are, doomed to another four years of the most intellectually bankrupt, morally venal, shamelessly corrupt, casually vindictive administration in American history.

I went to bed tired, disbelieving, gutted. How could it have happened? I am an Americaphile: I have visited New York City twice, loving its cosmopolitan energy, its can-do drive. The American dream – that life is what you make of it, and you can make anything of your life – which to British eyes can seem hokily naïve, is, among the diners and skyscrapers, the laundromats and freeways, a liberating, fulfilling vision of infinite possibility.

So what the hell was this great country thinking of?

James Harding, the Financial Times’s Washington correspondent, devoted a long, and fascinating, article on Saturday to answering just this question by placing Clark County, Ohio, under the microscope. You may remember this was the location for The Guardian’s ill-advised foray into post-imperialist gerry-mandering, inviting liberal-left commentators to exhort the Americans there to lead us not into Republicanism, and deliver us from Dubya. His brilliant, and hopeful, analysis is worth quoting at some length:

“Which brings me to my unexpected conclusion. As things stand, the further people live apart, the more likely they are to vote Republican. That’s true. Democrats live together and the proximity of rich and poor, black and white has underpinned the logic of their politics. The Democrat philosophy in bumper sticker form is: ‘We’re all in this together’. And this means that until the Democrats rethink or repackage their proudest achievements – the welfare state, healthcare, the Voting Rights Act and, by association, Roe v. Wade abortion legislation – suburbia, and with it effective power, could be lost for a generation. Republicans, whether in the suburbs, ex-urbs or smalltown America, think they have earned their individual independence – their bumper sticker would be ‘personal freedom’. In theory, this means the Republican party chimes with the suburban majority.

“But, to my surprise, I left Clark County thinking the Republican hold of suburbia is extremely fragile. While I was there, I read The Right Nation, a book by Economist journalists Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait on the conservative ascendancy, and I happened upon a comment from Ronald Reagan: “Liberals fought poverty and poverty won.” It seemed to me that Republicans have promised to fight modernity and my bet is modernity will win. The case against gay marriage could yet put the Republican party on the losing side of history – this is America, after all, a country where the principle of equality has, time and again, won the bloody fight against reactionary conservatives. Bush’s proposal of a constitutional ban looks like something the Republican party will be apologising for in the years to come. The Republican position on abortion is either meretricious or politically suicidal: if Republicans have power and fail to repeal Roe, they disillusion the pro-life base; if they do overturn the abortion legislation, they would surrender the middle ground and their slender majority. The old Republican reputation for being the responsible housewife of the American family finances is being blown by Bush’s record of running up government debt. And Iraq could yet prove as chastening for the Republicans’ relationship with the armed forces as Vietnam was for the Democrats.

“It all made me wonder whether Bush and Karl Rove, the strategist who has wanted to win not just the 2004 election but also an enduring majority for the Republican party, have won the battle but may yet lose the war. After all, suburbia is not going away, but it can change. The Gipper swung the so-called ‘Reagan Democrats’. George Bush Sr showed what a few tax increases could do to the Republican hold on suburbia. And Bill Clinton knew how to talk to the ‘soccer moms’. Suburbia today is Republican, but tenuously so.”

I hope there is a lesson here too for we Brits.

Liberalism and liberals have, for too long, been on the back foot, apologetically afraid to stick up for our credo – that the individual is best able to find fulfilment through active involvement in society, and that society can best motivate the individual by guaranteeing personal freedom.

Put simplistically (but accurately), the liberal philosophy is a positive one which sees the good in people. Those who are illiberal see the bad: they look only to ways in which they can protect society from freedom’s worst excesses, never to how to entrust the individual with more freedom to encourage greater responsibility.

It is tempting simply to drink in Mr Harding’s historically Whiggish sweep, and content ourselves that tolerant liberalism will (eventually) win, that the public will (gradually) come to understand the societal value of mutual respect and support. Eventually, gradually… Let’s try as liberals to banish this tip-toeing, nicey-nicey, whisper-it-gently moderation from our vocabulary. It is time instead to rise up as one, to start confronting the right-wing nut-jobs who believe they have the monopoly on passionate political polemic.

In the words of Bruno Gianelli, campaign manager of the (sadly) fictional Democratic President, Josiah Bartlet, in ‘The West Wing’:

“I am tired of working for candidates who make me think I should be embarrassed to believe what I believe. I’m tired of getting them elected. We all need some therapy, because somebody came along and said ‘liberal’ means soft on crime, soft on drugs, soft on Communism, soft on defense, and we’re gonna tax you back to the Stone Age because people shouldn’t have to go to work if they don’t want to. And instead of saying, ‘Well, excuse me, you right-wing, reactionary, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-education, anti-choice, pro-gun, ‘Leave it to Beaver’ trip back to the fifties,’ we cowered in the corner and said, ‘Please, don’t hurt me.’ No more.”

No more. Amen to that.

You can read James Harding’s article in full by visiting

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