Liberalism is gone – don't let tolerance pass with it

It may be a lifeless ideology, but even conservatives enjoy better lives because of the programs it spawned.

Few dare to say it, but it's time we acknowledged a sad truth about American politics: liberalism is dead – and it has been for 40 years.

Of course, America's conservative talk-show hosts can't admit this without facing the embarrassing fact that they have been beating a dead horse all this time. One can imagine their fervent prayer: "Dear God, we don't have Soviet Communists anymore. Please keep a few liberals for us to kick around."

As a political ideology, liberalism has been so discredited that few people even dare to call themselves liberal.

A half-century ago, the opposite was true: liberalism was the dominant, almost exclusive force in American politics.

How did this reversal happen?

As an intellectual force, political liberalism went out of office with Lyndon Johnson. Public disenchantment with LBJ's Great Society programs during the Vietnam era, muddling it together with permissive sex, drugs, and rock "n" roll, was liberalism's death knell.

America has tilted right ever since. It twice elected Republican Richard Nixon, who was then succeeded by a Midwest conservative, Gerald Ford. Though saddled with scandals, he nearly beat Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976. But President Carter was no liberal. Recall that Ted Kennedy tried – and failed – to dethrone him in 1980.

Then, two terms of Ronald Reagan plus another term of George H.W. Bush gave Americans what they wanted: 12 years of conservatism. Mr. Bush was denied a second term mostly because Ross Perot siphoned off his votes. Without Perot, there would have been no Clinton ascendancy.

But even President Clinton's two terms did little to halt liberalism's demise. Indeed, he was complicitous in the conservative effort to peel away the last layers of the New Deal and the Great Society.

In 2000, the Supreme Court anointed right-wing Republican George W. Bush as president. His two terms have driven a stake through liberalism's heart.

Today, some take hope in the popularity of Democratic contender Barack Obama. He is, after all, the most liberal member of the Senate, according to a National Journal ranking.

But today, that distinction seems as quaint as an Amish buggy poking down a Pennsylvania country road.

Any reported wave of liberalism simply cannot buck the conservative tide. Regardless of who is elected president in 2008, there seems to be little enthusiasm for liberalism.

More important, there is little or no money to fund new social programs. Costs for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are running into the trillions of dollars. Presidents often raise taxes to pay for war. Bush didn't (he accelerated tax cuts in 2003), which has made the fiscal cupboard even barer. The war on terror called for a tax increase, a kind of Osama bin Laden tithe. But that had no support.

Even if a Democratic president were to push through a liberal national health insurance program, it could hardly be called forward-looking. Such an enactment would merely be catching up with the rest of the civilized world.

There is, however, something deeply troubling in the new conservative triumphalism. It is an uncritical, unthinking damnation of anything liberal. When I suggest to conservative friends that if they really loathe liberalism, they should forfeit their access to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, I am met with stony silence. There's no denying that tens of millions of conservative Americans live better lives because of the liberal initiatives of an earlier generation.

Liberalism may indeed be a political spent force, but we should fervently hope that the human decency and concern for our fellow man that spawned programs such as food stamps, Head Start, Aid for Dependent Children, and the Peace Corps, still speaks to the inherent and unselfish goodness that used to be America.

Today, it remains indisputable that the political climate that allows an African American and a woman to viably seek the presidency is yet another testimony to a political process driven by the best of the previous centuries' liberal traditions. Liberalism may be a dead ideology, but like benefactors of a wealthy relative's estate, Americans are still living on its inheritance.

When I was a young reporter covering the House of Representatives in 1968, a very decent California congressman, a liberal named Jeff Cohelan, sat me down in his office late one evening and gave me a tutorial on American politics. "Young man," he asked, "Do you know what liberalism is?" I had no ready answer. "The essence of true liberalism," he said, "is tolerance." And he repeated it, "tolerance."

It will be especially tragic this election year, as American conservatives renew their dance on the grave of liberalism, if they also revel in an illiberal intolerance that increasingly grips this country.

Walter Rodgers is a former senior international correspondent for CNN.

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