A new book and a recent report raise anew the issue of Democratic liberalism vs Democratic centrism.
The difference between the two positions, more liberalism or more centrism, hinges, it seems to me, on what one believes about the country's "conservatism". As public opinion polls indicate, more Americans identify as conservatives rather than liberals, some polls showing almost a
2-to-1 conservative advantage.
But here is what I want to know: did Republicans adopt an overtly conservative rhetoric and agenda beginning in the 1950's and 1960's in order to cater to the public that it perceived as already inherently conservative, or did Republicans "create" a conservative majority in the public by the use of the conservative "brand name"?
It should be easy enough to find out what the conservative to liberal ratio was during the post-war years when the ideological split between the parties began to be more distinct. While this might be instructive, it's also the case that an investigation of this kind would be mired in conceptions of just what exactly constitutes "conservative" and "liberal".
But the basic point is, do you think that a "liberal brand name" can be "created"? I think this is the position that most of us on the left take. That Republicans have succeeded in no small degree by staking their claims unapologetically to a "conservative brand name" while Democrats have basically chosen to avoid ideological labels (think Michael Dukakis' "competence not ideology" based campaign) or to try to position themselves as the "moderates" or the "centrists".
But in any event, as I, and I think many on the left believe, whatever the realities of public opinion and ideological self identification among the public might be at any point in time, or whatever the public's perception of conservative-liberal dichtomies, the Democratic Party's avoidance of ideology in general, and its retreat from liberalism in particular, has been a disaster.
By shrinking from the liberal label, Democrats have embolded Republicans to be more "conservative" and to push the country's politics and policy further to the extreme right. Democratic acquiencense to the Republican conservative talking points has allowed Republicans and its media institutions to marginalize and in many ways demonize the word "liberal" itself, those wishing to move the country in a more liberal and humane direction, important institutions, such as the ACLU(again remember 1988) and more recently, groups like Moveon and people such as Michael Moore, and perhaps most importantly, liberal "values" such as reproductive choice, the right to privacy, the separation of church and state, and the freedom of expression both in war time and in other times.
And of course, ultimately, liberal Democrats believe that the public's embrace of liberal Democratic values on health care, social security and the right to choose, put it in a more favorable position to campaign as "liberals" than a superficial reading of conservative vs. liberal self identifiers might indicate.