This article was originally published by Salon on July 27, 1998.
In the political landscape, seismic shifts first occur below the surface. Only after accumulating a critical social mass do they become visible. Until then, one can track their movement in the growing incoherence of the political language, and in the terms we use to describe our political choices, like “liberal” and “conservative.”
But, as even the most casual observer knows, these terms no longer identify a consistent set of political positions. Instead, they increasingly refer to policies that are almost the opposite of what the terms themselves imply.
Take the late, unlamented tobacco bill, the most passionate liberal cause of Clinton’s second term. Why should this qualify as a liberal bill except in the trivial sense that a coalition of self-identified “liberals” spawned the campaign to (in effect) outlaw the noxious weed?
What is liberal, for example, about a bill that would use the power of the state to crush an industry that is otherwise legal, and whose customers voluntarily pay billions a year to purchase its product in full knowledge of its medical consequences? What is liberal about a strategy that would achieve such social agendas by regulating what people can see and hear, and by imposing a regressive tax whose burdens would fall principally on working people and the poor?
But then, what is liberal about liberals at all anymore, except their attitudes toward drugs and sex?
What the obsolescence of the political language reveals, in fact, is how profoundly the parties themselves have changed; how much they have in effect traded places. The opponents of the tobacco legislation — the “conservative” party in contemporary political discourse — is in practice the party of liberal values (deregulatory and individualistic) and of social reform.
It is Republicans who want to shrink the power of the federal bureaucracies and devolve it through the states to the people. It is the liberal party that is dominated by a faction of political reactionaries and puritan busybodies fighting tooth and nail to obstruct this process, and to reinstitute the kind of moral prohibitionism that was proven bankrupt more than a half century ago.
The reactionary character of the “progressive” left in American politics extends well beyond the tobacco follies. In the area of so-called civil rights legislation, it is liberals who have turned back the clock to the segregationist era by instituting governmental race preferences.
It is liberals who have promoted cultural separatism to the point that our most “progressive” and elite academic institutions have become the centers of segregated life right down to separate (but equal?) graduation ceremonies. It is liberals who are fighting a rear-guard action to defend these political anachronisms even after they have been declared unconstitutional by the courts and rejected by electoral majorities at the polls.
Nor is it only civil rights issues that bring out the troglodytes and Neanderthals of the left. It is liberals and progressives who have had to be dragged over the bridge to the 21st century while clinging to a welfare leviathan that in 30 years has only deepened and broadened the ranks of the poor, while destroying the family and community support systems for minorities trapped in the inner city.
It is liberals who, like deranged Energizer bunnies, seem only able to repeat the past — the endless demands for money to fund systems that are obviously bankrupt; the resistance to reforms that would break up the educational bureaucracies that exploit minorities and the poor, whose children are the only ones still trapped in the public schools. It is liberals who fight to preserve bankrupt bilingual education programs that prevent children of immigrants from learning English — their best hope of unlocking the door to economic opportunity and the American dream.
By contrast, it is increasingly apparent that the conservative and Republican opponents of liberalism compose the new party of social reform. It is conservatives whose self-conceived mission is to return power usurped by government to the American people, and to chip away at a cultural and political status quo that has not worked, and that has been rejected by the American public.