Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Dear Paul

I really enjoyed your column today, but there is one problem.

The label. Moderate. Fighting Moderates. Here is what you say about the elevation of Dr. Dean to the chairmanship of the DNC:

Those words tell us what the selection of Mr. Dean means. It doesn't represent a turn to the left: Mr. Dean is squarely in the center of his party on issues like health care and national defense.

Then you go on to tell us how Dean as governor of Vermont balanced budgets even when he didn't have to, so "it was always absurd to call Mr. Dean a left-winger". Instead Dean is a "fighting moderate".

I know you mean well, and much of what I am about to contend may be more a matter of semantics than substance, but the problem is, the style of the thing, and the words we use matter. Now, when we use words like "moderate" and "centrist" and "center", we are really being cowardly, in my view. And the more we talk like this, the more Republicans continue to proudly assert their "conservatism" and the whole debate becomes a "moderate" versus "conservative" thing, and the result is, the debate and the policies and the "center" keep getting pushed further and further to the right.

Here's an idea. We are liberals. Why not say that? The truth is, yes, I want today's politics and policies to make a turn to the left. You say that Dean's ascension does not represent a turn to the left. But shouldn't it?

"Well, 'liberal' has a bad name". And why is that? Because the conservatives have made it so. We need to correct and reverse that notion. Because the reality is, liberalism is good. Liberalism works. We have a whole century of social progress to look back on that says liberalism is good and that liberalism does work.

While attempts to claim the moderate label or the center of the political debate may be smart politics today, they are bad politics for tomorrow, and for the day after that.

The problem is not just today's bad policies. The bad policies of today stem from our decision yesterday to abandon the ideals of liberalism for a short cut to the electoral promised land (and that hasn't worked either, if you've noticed). The problem is the political frame and context, including symbols, in which the political discourse occurs. This is what must change. By claiming we are moderates we are sounding reasonable, but people don't respect it, or at least people that are motivated to go to the polls don't. And I don't remember the conservative movement, in picking up the pieces after 1932 or 1964 making efforts to become "more moderate". No, they went back to their ideology's roots, and attempted to swing the culture to their point of view, rather than attempting to move themselves to fit the changing environment. Yeah, they've used soft talk and code words when they've had to, but they didn't turn away from their basic idea of a conservative heaven or apologize for opinions that were unpopular to some people. And today, as a result, we are talking about tearing down the foundation of the New Deal. This is how far the debate has shifted.

Paul, you have a valuable platform. Please recognize that the problem is not just today's policy debate. It is today's political environment, including the words we use and how we identify ourselves. If we seem apologetic about our history and our values, others will sense that, and we will continue to lose ground.

Yeah, the media and the Republicans are loudly proclaiming that Dean is a "liberal". I actually think this is a good thing. We should leave the media and the Republicans with this impression. We shouldn't be spending valuable time trying to debunk this idea by yapping about balanced budgets and NRA ratings.

Liberal. It's OK. You can say it. And we'll all be the better for it later.

No comments: