Over the last few days, there's been a conversation going on over at Shakesville about Barack Obama's aversion to the liberal label, as well as concerns over just how liberal he'd be as President, were he to be elected. Let me start by saying that those concerns are legitimate. I worry about that too, to the very limited extent that I've seen Obama as a progressive, which is to say, not very. Paul Krugman has pointed out that his health care plan is the least progressive to come out of the Democratic side, and a large part of Obama's campaign has been to talk about crossing the aisle and working with the Republicans to heal the rifts between the parties. People looking for a candidate who was going to bash the right never had their eyes on Obama, and for good reason.
So yes, I have worries that President Obama will not be the progressive leader I'm hoping for. But frankly, none of the candidates were going to be that leader for me, because I'm a minority, and I think it's time we progressives got that through our heads.
About a week ago, this story was on the front page at Daily Kos, and it got, by the standards of traffic over there, not much play, perhaps because of the way DemfromCT looked at the results from this particular question (Warning: pdf file).
How would you describe your views on most political matters? Generally, do you think of yourself as liberal, moderate, or conservative?DemfromCT was looking at the point that the conservative numbers were down to below a third of the population, and that that meant the US is certainly not a conservative nation, which is a perfectly valid way of looking at it. But I'm looking at the liberal numbers. The numbers for liberals are up a little for the last 6 months, but the six month old numbers were equal to the 15 year old numbers. At least when it comes to the way people self-identify, the US is not a liberal country either.
Liberal Moderate Conserv DK
23 41 29 6 2/20-24/08
20 40 36 4 3/7-11/07
20 47 30 4 3/92
Now, when it comes to individual issues and programs, the US is a lot more liberal than its politicians are, and I think that's what Barack Obama was saying when he argued that universal health care and getting money out of politics weren't liberal policies. They're policies that people who call themselves moderate want as well, and when you're trying to get votes from 50+% of the population, maybe it's important to focus on the policy and not the political label, because when I look at 23% of the population identifying as liberal, I see us as a long way from the 50+% we need to win national elections.
So one thing is obvious--we have to get those liberal numbers over 23% and closer to 40% at least in order to get a liberal politician to embrace the label. Easier said than done, but the numbers indicate that we've already gotten the ball rolling. We just need to keep it up, and reclaim the liberal title for future generations. And we need to convince moderates that they're more liberal than they realize at present. One way to do that is to work with moderates to get good legislation passed and good programs in place that improves the lives of moderates as well as liberals (and if conservatives benefit as well, that's lagniappe).
And lastly--and my fellow activists probably don't want to hear this, but I think the numbers bear it out--we have to understand that most politicians, who are naturally risk-averse, aren't going to embrace the label until we prove it's a winner, and we have a lot of work to do to reclaim it from the poison job the right wing has done on it over the last 30 years. It's policies, not labels, that are more important, and we can affect that by working at the lower levels right now--state legislatures, city and county officials, and the US House and Senate. The more progressive we can make those bodies, the more likely we'll get someone who will advance the label in a presidential race.
This is why I'm less concerned about either Obama's or Clinton's rhetoric right now than I am how we do in House and Senate races this year and in future years. If we expand our majorities with more progressive legislators, that will have a greater effect than electing a president. If the Congress passes a single-payer universal health care system, for instance, neither Obama nor Clinton will veto it. A progressive Congress can push a reluctant executive toward more liberal policies.
And I think that, if we get a better Congress and a willing President--Obama or Clinton--we can enact enough beneficial change in the next 4 years that when whichever of them is running for re-election carries the flag, the word "liberal" will be somewhere on it, maybe not in big letters, but on it. And the next candidate might carry it in bigger letters, if we continue being successful in convincing people that liberal isn't a bad word.
We have work to do, and we are not wholly responsible for the place we find ourselves in. The liberal tag was abandoned by some of our forebears a couple of decades ago, and we haven't cleaned it up quite yet. We can--the greatest cultural and social achievements of the last century were done by liberals, and that's a proud history. But we're not there yet, and I think it's asking a little much for candidates for national office to parade the term right now. Let's rehab it a little longer, clean up the damage from the last 8 years, and see where we stand after that.