Restoring the liberal brand

Even in what was a very good election year for us, the voters are still cooler toward liberalism than they are toward conservatism. Time to do something about it?

I tend to excessive optimism about politics. So I shouldn’t be taken too seriously when I say that I’m more convinced by John Judis’s optimistic story about the meaning of this year’s elections than I am by Tom Edsall’s pessimistic account of Democratic fissures.

As to Edsall’s analysis:

The socially liberal set doesn’t want much from the Democrats right now except inaction (e.g., not confirming any more right-wing judicial appointments), and they can easily deliver that without annoying the lunchpail voters. The fact that the various promises don’t add up fiscally hardly matters until/unless we retake the White House; in the meantime, Democrats can cheerfully vote for every appropriation (except Republican pork) and against every tax (except on the very rich).

A higher minimum wage, a better deal on college loans, a somewhat better deal for consumers of Medicare Part D financed by bargaining Big Pharma down over drug prices: that agenda will appeal to every part of the Democratic constituency. Unlike prosperous Republicans, prosperous Democrats are actually in favor of things that help the poor and the working class, so the conflict of material interests isn’t especially painful.

It seems to me that it’s the Republican coalition that was held together by spit, baling wire, victory, hatred, and pork. Take away the victory and the pork, and it may turn out that spit, baling wire, and hatred aren’t enough. In particular, the libertarians and the social conservatives have diametrically opposed interests; in addition to the obvious clash around social issues, not many of the people who attend megachurches leave estates over $3 million, and lots of them would like a better deal on Medicare Part D.

But even in my most Panglossian moments, I can’t deny one fundamental problem: “liberal” is still a dirty word. An election-day poll using the “feelings thermometer” found that the voters had gotten much warmer toward liberalism, but “cool” still won by 49-37; they’d gotten cooler toward conservatism, but conservatives were only net -3 on that measure as opposed to net -12.

I’m not at all in favor of ditching “liberal” for “progressive,” partly because I prefer Locke and Lincoln to TR and Henry Wallace, and partly because I don’t think it would work. It seems to me that, just as the DNC needs to do some fundamental party-building, outfits like People for the American Way and the Center for American Progress need to do some brand-repairing.

Since the opposition to liberalism comes largely from people who identify with tradition, I would propose ads on the theme (which happens to be the truth) that liberalism is the American tradition. Imagine a series of 10-second, or even 5-second, TV spots:

1. Thomas Jefferson saying, “These truths we hold to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” A gruff, unpleasant-sounding voice offscreen says “You must be some kinda librul.”

2. Abraham Lincoln saying, “If anything is wrong, slavery is wrong.” A gruff, unpleasant-sounding voice offscreen says “You must be some kinda librul.”

3. JFK saying “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” A gruff, unpleasant-sounding voice …

4. Someone dressed as a businessman circa 1910 saying to his colleagues in a boardroom, “Maybe we should think about giving workers Saturday and Sunday off.” One of the other board members says, in a gruff, unpleasant-sounding voice …

It seems to me the ads just about write themselves: child labor, minimum wage, pure food and drug standards, clean air, college loans, land-grant universities, public education (using Horace Mann or the Northwest Ordinance), religious freedom, voting rights for women, voting rights for blacks, equal treatment for Catholics and Jews, the Marshall Plan, the Peace Corps, the Test-Ban treaty, national parks. (I wouldn’t use direct election of Senators because I doubt many voters would believe they were ever appointed by the state legislatures. Same goes for imprisonment for debt.)

Then if we just could persuade liberals to take elementary steps toward embracing traditional symbols (e.g., by wearing American-flag lapel pins and putting American-flag bumper stickers on their cars next to the “Visualize World Peace” and “I’m Pro-Choice and I Vote” bumper stickers), we might be on our way toward acquiring warmer feelings from non-liberals.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

7 thoughts on “Restoring the liberal brand”

  1. Excellent suggestion and I hope it's acted, but what we need is politicians willing to say "Yes, I'm a liberal, and here's WHY…" using some of the same examples, and ending with "Maybe you're a liberal too, and just didn't realize it."

  2. Re potentially winning Democratic strategies, here is a piece of my argument from the first pages of my book:
    "It is the argument of this book that unless the Democratic party finds a
    way to defeat Republican 'wedge issue' strategies; radically improves its
    organizational foundations; resolves its internal divisions on national
    security; formulates a compelling position on the use of force; addresses
    the schisms generated by its stands on moral, racial and cultural issues;
    develops the capacity to turn Republican positions on social-cultural
    matters into a liability; devises an economic program capable of generating
    — and generating belief in — wealth; broadens its voter base; recruits
    candidates who sufficiently embody (or can be portrayed to embody) credible
    military leadership and mainstream populist values; develops a strategy to
    hold together a biracial, multiethnic coalition — or unless the population
    of the disadvantaged swells — the odds are that the Republican party will
    continue to maintain, over the long-term, a thin but durable margin of
    In order to reverse the rightward drift of the electorate, Democrats will
    have to grapple with voters who hold 'illiberal' views — expressed by a
    Republican voter from Memphis, Tennessee:
    "Gun activists are sick of having to get a license, and a
    stamp on that license, there are people who want government to stop forcing
    integration down their throats, there are people who want government to stop
    pushing the sameness of men and women that defies common sense, there are
    people who want the government to keep its hands off their wallets and off
    of their land, who are sick of getting a surly bureaucrat on the other end
    of the phone, sick of getting a busy signal at Social Security, sick of
    getting wrong answers from the IRS, sick of waiting in line at the Post
    Office, sick of wasting a day at the DMV, sick of vagrants in the public
    library, sick of incompetent school administrators, overcrowded classrooms,
    dirty lavatories, and teachers who can't spell, sick of police who are more
    like criminals than law enforcement officers, sick of waiting on hold when
    they call 911, sick of their garbage being spilled and their barrels being
    bashed, sick of burned-out streetlights, potholes, road work that goes on
    for months, traffic jams that double their commute time, paychecks going to
    taxes for services like Social Security and Medicare they don't believe will
    be there when they need them – sick of the whole damn thing.'
    It is this kind of worldview that Grover Norquist, president of Americans
    for Tax Reform, has capitalized upon in building his "leave us alone
    coalition" which has successfully demonized government and forged an
    alliance of economic conservatives, libertarians , and social conservatives
    in support of the Republican party."
    Building Red America, Basic Books, 2006, pp. 2-3

  3. I like Mark's thinking, but I doubt that the ads would get at the core problem. We are so ahistorical as a nation that voters don't see any real connection between FDR, say, and any current Democrat. Many have only a vague notion of who FDR was.
    I think the core problem has to do with hypocrisy. In the late 1960s in New York, the term "limousine liberal" came into common use, to mean wealthy liberals imposing policies that affect the middle and working class but not themselves. A prime example was the plan to build housing for poor people in Forest Hills, Queens, a middle-class area. This aroused strong, and successful, neighborhood opposition. The people on both sides of the issue were liberals, but those in Forest Hills were not in the elite and felt that the neighborhood they'd worked hard to get into would be damaged by policies conceived on Park Avenue.
    This assumption has gone national, I think. Nominating Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and, especially, John Kerry has made it worse. Too many people who would benefit from liberal policies feel that liberals are an elite who would toy with their lives. In this, at least, Thomas Frank was right in What's the Matter With Kansas.
    Maybe liberals need to accept some unpalatable aspects of mainstream opinion, such as gun ownership in the south and west, and the desire to live among people at a similar economic level as oneself. Maybe gay marriage falls in this category, much to my regret.
    One more thing: instead of a history lesson, which unfortunately won't register with the public, how about Maimonides two questions (correct me if I get it wrong):
    "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
    If I am for myself alone, what am I?"

  4. Well, that's big-hearted of you Mark–how surprisingly generous you are to favor additional subsidies for higher education.
    It seems to me that's what's needed on some of your ideas is simply some proof-of-concept. Let's really try to help kids go to college, instead of these lame attempts we've seen so far. I envision a single purchaser–a federal program–with the power to negotiate prices on behalf of recipients of federal student financial aid. The Feds can use that power to negotiate for the best price from the universities that spend so much without being accountable to the middle class. After all, the cost of education goes up and up every year, much faster than inflation.
    If it works like we expect it would, we can even try it on Medicare Part D.
    As for your statements: It's my understanding that modern liberals sue to keep No. 1 out of public schools. If you could find a way to knock of that kind of nonsense you might win. Suffice it to say that the real effects of modern liberalism have more salience–and will, fortunately and unfortunately–than an ad campaign.

  5. Did we actually have imprisonment for debt here? I guess my main reference here is literature – I remember reading about it especially in Dickens, but also in Thackeray and Trollope. But I can't recall any references in the 19th century American lit I've read, and I've seen quite a bit.

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