Can the liberals do as much for America as before?

It's not popular these days to be a liberal. Every narrow, special interest in Washington is building and attacking our caricature. Liberals, supposedly, are the dreamers -- ideologues making Rube Goldberg-type contraptions to regulate the citizen.

The facts refute this cartoon. In the last two decades, which shaped my own set of values, liberals have seen this nation and the world as it was. We have made practical, realistic changes to make it work better.

* Look at the civil rights movement -- the great moral challenge of the 1960 s.

* Look at the Great Society -- which aimed to share growing US prosperity among all our citizens.

* Look at the Peace Corps -- an international expression of our commitment to human dignity.

* Look at the antiwar movement -- a powerful rejection of the traditional cold-war view that we would support repressive and corrupt regimes with our guns and our lives if only they would spout the necessary anticommunist rhetoric.

The world of the 1960s was well suited to the rationale of liberalism. At home, we marched to achieve a just society, then voted to build a great society. Abroad, we volunteered to serve peacefully, then marched against a war. To someone choosing a personal set of values in the 1960s, liberals were raising the important issues and working toward practical solutions.

Our case seems less compelling now. We must look at the world with fresh eyes, and understand why.

The fact is that liberalism is at a crossroads. It will either evolve to meet the issues of the 1980s or it will be reduced to an interesting topic for Ph.D.-writing historians.

In part, liberalism's difficulties reflect a natural cycle of resentment and retrenchment against the gains of the 1960s and, yes, there were some in the 1970s, too. There is an anti- political, anti-Washington element that conservatives are exploiting. Many Americans are discouraged and confused about current problems in the economy and society. Conservative rhetoric is raising their hopes for a 20-mule-team march into the past.

If we are to mobilize a new generation to move forward with liberal leadership, we just understand that the average young American is just that -- part of a new generation. A generation that never experienced the abuses and injustices that molded us. A generation that takes for granted the social equities that we had to fight for. In short, they have never known the anger that fed the liberal cause.

For example:

* They have not grown up reading about hungry poor people; they have grown up reading about abuses in the food stamp program.

* They have not grown up reading about US military adventurism in Vietnam; they have grown up reading about Soviet military adventurism in Afghanistan.

* They have not grown up reading about the abuse of factory workers by management; they have grown up reading about union rules that place security over productivity.

* They have not grown up reading about the ever-expanding American economic pie; they have grown up reading about America's balance of payments problem and the demise of the auto industry's capacity to compete internationally.

If we don't speak to this generation in its terms, liberalism will decline. And if we don't meet these needs, liberalism should decline.

Energy and the economy are the center stage -- they are about survival. They also share a fundamental complexity that contradicts the political wisdom: "Never adopt a program or philosophy that you can't put on a bumper sticker." But I believe that a growing number of citizens are aching to be treated as adults. They are ready for straight talk -- a lot of it negative -- on energy and the economy.

The energy crisis involves one basic fact -- that oil is a finite and diminishing resource. Many liberals attack this issue by attacking the oil companies. Emotionally satisfying -- yes. An answer to the problem -- . . . no.

The problem is US consumption. Who led the fight against the 10-cent gasoline tax? The liberals. Why? To protect the consumer. That's fine for today. In the long term, to protect the consumer from the reality of the energy crisis is to destroy him. John Anderson talks about a 50-cent gasoline tax, and the young flock to his campaign.

The pressing need of our economy is productivity. When was the last time you heard a union demand productivity gains as part of its contract? Look at the auto industry. Wonderful wage settlements -- no talk about productivity and fuel-efficient cars. And now what? Three hundred thousand union people out of work.

It it is necessary to revive our economy to provide credit to industry as opposed to individuals -- how will liberals respond? Probably against it. We will vote for short-term relief and not long-term employment viability.

We denounce nuclear power. No nuclear power means one certain result -- massive reliance on coal. Any environmentalist who can accept the severe problems caused by massive coal burning is not an environmentalist by my standards.

Afghanistan is crushed by a raw exercise of Soviet military power. Where is the concern? Where is the outrage? Why should it be left to the conservatives to champion the cause of the Afghan freedom fighters?

I believe that there will be a desperate and crying need for the values of liberalism in the '80s.

This country is eagerly searching for solutions. And many are looking to Ronald Reagan for leadership. And Congress is increasingly sounding like Ronald Reagan.

This potential return to a cold-war mentality is unacceptable. Do we have to learn the lesson of Vietnam all over again?

This potential return to totally unfettered private enterprise is unacceptable. How many Love Canals are enough?

This potential return to racial benign neglect is unacceptable. How many times must a city burn before we reawaken to the needs of our people?

We must respond. Because if we don't, we will leave the field to the champions of darkness and fear.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.