“[Conservatives have] eliminated the need to actually argue the issues,” said Eric Alterman, author of Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event yesterday. “All they have to do is associate these things with the term liberal and it’s off the table.”
Alterman joined Thomas Edsall, author of the 2006 book Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power, to discuss problems with and misconceptions about the liberal agenda. Moderated by John Halpin, Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the two authors debated the presence of a liberal-conservative divide in politics as well as the perceived issues in liberalism.
Halpin asked the participants why they thought both major presidential candidates this year have distanced themselves from prevailing party ideology. Alterman focused on the media’s role in reinforcing misperceptions. In polls, while only some 20 percent of people have defined themselves as liberal, some 55 to 70 percent have expressed the liberal consensus on most national issues, he said.
“It’s not just a majority,” he said. “It’s a super majority on issue after issue after issue after issue.” According to Alterman, it is the term “liberal,” rather than the policies liberals endorse, with which the American public has problems. Conservatives have capitalized on mistakes and errors made in the past to pigeonhole liberals as elitist and antifamily, Alterman said.
“They have made a boogeyman of the term ‘liberal,’” he said. Alterman argued that the word should be accepted once more because public perception does not line up with the policy and politics.
Edsall disagreed with this explanation of liberals’ problems. Instead, he pointed to structural problems within the liberal coalition. Liberals have always been on one side of every revolution and civil rights movement, and the other side has had to pay a price, he said. “The lower classes cannot absorb changes,” Edsall said. “You cannot dismiss these things as fictions by Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh.” In addition, Edsall worried that the new applauded coalition created by Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) cannot last without an African-American candidate.
While Alterman agreed about the historical issues faced by liberals, he did not believe that the current situation was comparable. In fact, he said that lessons of the past have been synthesized and that Edsall was “fixated on the liberalism that is 20 years old.” Instead, he described liberals today as smarter, more resourceful, and more respectful of the country in which they live.
Both authors agreed that the current administration had greatly hurt conservatives and the entire country. In addition, Alterman referred to small dollar donors as indicative of greater democratic participation and the irresponsibility of members of the press who encourage character-based interrogation of presidential candidates.
Although Alterman approved of the term “progressive,” he emphasized the necessary embrace of the word “liberal. “You can’t run away from the term ‘liberal’ because you’re running away from how you’re perceived,” he said.