Semantics and Zoology In America's Body Politic

The L word.

In the rhetoric of their opponents, liberals are the horned toads of the American political system, so disreputable that the term "liberal" doesn't need to be defined. Republican television commercials denounce the failed "liberal drug policies" of the Clinton administration. Two weeks ago, GOP presidential candidate Bob Dole used the word "liberal" (pejoratively) 14 times in one speech.

After the election of 1980, Democratic candidates for president and Congress dreaded what came to be known as "the L word." They feared that it suggests to the voters overly aggressive domestic human rights policies and the blunder that was the Vietnam war.

Now liberals see themselves as politically respectable again. "We have to stop letting our opponents define us," says Robert J. Carolla of Americans for Democratic Action, the country's oldest liberal organization.

Contemporary liberalism grew out of a long, tumultuous history of American social conflict and attempts at reform.

Since the second half of the 19th century, there have been activist opponents of the American economic and social status quo. Some of them became political, like the Populist - or People's - Party of the early 1890s. It believed that banks and large industries wielded too much power over the conventional political system. Radical labor unions waged open war in the form of violent strikes against American manufacturing, mining companies, and railroads. Socialists and anarchists made speeches and committed murderous acts - a self-professed anarchist assassinated President McKinley in 1901.

The Progressive era that McKinley's Republican successor, Theodore Roosevelt, brought to national prominence was a nonviolent reform force that aimed to enhance the quality of American life, from cleaning up city governments to strengthening various citizens' rights. Progressivism was a moderate alternative to the violence of the far left.

But radicalism in various forms persisted up to the first term of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. Not since the turn of the century had a new administration wrought such dramatic change. Progressivism was revived - with its believers and activists renamed "liberals."

Roosevelt had become president during one of the worst crises in American history. Capitalist democracy had crashed with the collapse of the stock market in 1929, millions were unemployed, industries went bankrupt or lurched helplessly through the early 1930s. Small businessmen and farmers were ruined.

Clearly, the only power to begin the process of recovery was the government in Washington. Roosevelt launched federal employment projects, and instituted Social Security and bank deposit insurance.

Over the years, big activist federal government became the norm. New Deal policies exemplified the spirit of most social legislation. Then, in the 1960s liberals began quarreling among themselves about priorities. Under two Democratic - and supposedly liberal - administrations, America stumbled into Vietnam.

Richard Nixon was elected in 1968, excoriating his liberal Democratic predecessors. After Jimmy Carter's one term, a wholesale repudiation of the liberal past was inherent in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. When Bill Clinton won in 1992, he and most of his congressional colleagues denied they were liberals.

Contemporary liberals still embrace the doctrine of an activist, if not large federal government. "American liberals," says Anne Lewis, deputy chairman of the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign, "believe in a role for the federal government in ensuring that such opportunities as health care, education, and civil rights will be available."

Adam Meyerson, a vice president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, counters that theoreticians of the right "believe in a strong but limited federal government that tries to do a few things and do them very well. Defense and the administration of justice are its most important responsibilities." Mr. Meyerson says that when the Clinton administration launches crime-prevention or educational programs, it is usurping the responsibilities of local government. Conservatives, he adds, "believe in a strong defense, a market economy, and free enterprise with some limited government regulations. Liberals don't."

Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts sums up the current liberal credo on the roles of private enterprise and the federal government: "Liberalism today understands that a vigorous private sector is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for the good life in America."

What neither contemporary liberals nor conservatives seem to realize is how close they are on fundamental political issues of the 1990s. They may place different emphases on what the federal government ought to be doing. But that's a far cry from the 1930s, when crusty conservatives berated the aristocrat-born Franklin Roosevelt as a "traitor to his class" and when polemically addled liberal orators equated conservatives with fascists.

Horned toads don't evolve much. American political beliefs do.

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