There was a time when a "liberal" was something most people -- even some conservatives -- wanted to be. On the stump in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower said "we need in Washington liberal and experienced members of Congress." Eight years later, Richard Nixon quoted FDR's definition of a liberal as "a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life," and said, "It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him."
But when Republicans began to go after liberalism, Democrats cowered in fear, not only trying to distance themselves from the term but embracing the idea that a "conservative" is a great thing to be. Few Republicans would claim to be "social liberals" -- even if they are -- but Democrats are always claiming to be "fiscal conservatives," saying they have "conservative values" or chiding Republicans for not holding to the principles of conservatism on issues like the deficit. The message this sends to Americans who don't know much about politics is that, regardless of the details of policy, it's good to be conservative and bad to be liberal.
Which brings us to what may be the most important feature of ideological competition in America today: Unlike liberals, conservatives don't simply criticize specific candidates or pieces of legislation, they attack their opponents' entire ideological worldview. Tune into Rush Limbaugh or any of his imitators, and what you'll hear is little more than an extended discourse on the evils of liberalism, in which specific events are merely evidence that the real problem is liberal ideology. Liberals may write best-selling books about why George W. Bush is a terrible president, but conservatives write best-selling books about why liberalism is a pox on our nation (talk radio hate-monger Michael Savage, for instance, titled his latest book Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder).
Indeed, large portions of the conservative movement can be understood as an effort to crush liberalism in all its manifestations. Conservatives understand that their main enemy is not a law, government program, or social condition they don't like. Their main enemy is a competing ideology, and that is what they spend their time fighting.
In contrast, liberals spend very little time talking about conservatism. They talk about their opposition to President Bush or the policies proposed by the Republican Congress, but they don't offer a critique of conservatism itself. When was the last time you saw a book-length polemic against conservatism? Liberals have failed to understand that a sustained critique of the other side's ideology not only defines your opponents, it helps to define you by what you are against.
As a consequence, while there are "movement conservatives," there are no "movement liberals" for the simple reason that there is no coherent entity we could call the "liberal movement." Instead, there are a dozen liberal movements -- a pro-choice movement, an environmental movement, a labor movement, and so on. Whether cause or consequence, the conservative campaign against liberalism has been accompanied by a sharpening of conservative identity, not only in the public mind but in the hearts of conservatives themselves.
There is no doubt that the difference between the number of people who tell pollsters they are conservatives and those who say they are liberals should be a matter of concern for Democrats. But if they respond to that concern by "moving" to an imagined "center" -- in other words, by making their positions on issues more conservative -- they will find themselves in an even worse hole than they are now. The Democrats' "liberal" problem isn't about issues, it's about identity.
As part of a solution, many on the left have decided to start with a clean slate, ditching "liberal" in favor of "progressive." As a strategic move, this has much to commend it. Recent American political history has made it hard to argue that the root of "liberal" -- liberty -- belongs more to the left than to the right. In contrast, liberals can legitimately claim that they and not conservatives are the advocates of progress. They can argue that with their desire to conserve, conservatives are stuck in the past, while progressives want to achieve social and economic progress. Any number of different issues can be understood through this prism.
But the rebranding of the left through the substitution of "progressive" for "liberal" can only succeed if all on the left agree that they are in fact progressives, and proclaim it loudly. If they accompany that proclamation with a critique not just of conservative policies and politicians but of conservatism itself, they'll find more and more moderates calling themselves progressive. Otherwise, they'll be right back where they started.
I think this is exactly right, and suggests the idea that rather than running from the liberal label, Democrats would do better, over the long run, of resuscitating the word liberal (or progressive if you prefer) and begin the process of competing for voters on the basis of ideology, rather than personality or even specific issues.
Thanks to Atrios for the link.