The central characteristic of sixties liberalism (at least in the remembered national indictment) was one of moral superiority. A liberal would chat you up on civil rights, Vietnam and soybean recipes in a manner aimed less at honest proselytizing and (judged by exasperate liberal segues like The point you can't seem to understand is… ) more at sending one away with a new sense of self as a racist, warmongering junk food addict. The common people didn't respond well to such labels.
It's not to be assumed that conservatives of the time were in much better shape. By the seventies the American people, exhausted by Watergate and the failed war in Vietnam, held conservatives to be as honest as Richard Nixon and as smart as Spiro Agnew. At the low point, conservatism was viewed as a parody of itself; fixed in popular projection as that character in the jowly Nixon mask (so popular at Halloween for a few years there) riding down the street in the back of an open-topped convertible, grinning obscenely, waving two-fingered peace signs with stretched arms and nervous hands.
Liberalism, here, is not to be mixed up with Classical Liberalism, that nineteenth-century philosophy that stressed the dignity of the individual, and scolded, in the process, the depredations of state control. We examine, instead, the liberalism perceived by a working-class population (still smarting from those unkind cracks about racism and soybeans and all) as the value-system of federal buttinskies, idealism and day-glo peace signs.
So, even as Nixon and his posse were run out of town, the people discovered that they hated "the liberals," more than they hated conservatives, who, at morning's first whiff of such lagniappe, poked their heads, prairie-dog style from the foxholes, rolled their eyes skyward and gave tearful thanks to the gods of authoritarianism.
The pointy-heads are laughing at you, they reminded folks early and often, and, sure enough, liberalism became accepted as an ad-hominem attack on working people, makers of profit, all authority figures except liberal ones, soldiers, sailors and stay-at-home moms. The trouble was, that as the country's media drifted rightward and grew increasingly concentrated in the hands of big corporations, the l-word was morphing into a facile, all-season calumny aimed at anyone who criticized, for example, war, or the power of the state, or the tinhorn patriotism of talk radio. James Madison cogently admonished against blind support of militarism when he told posterity, "[I]f tyranny and oppression come to this land it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy." Had he rejoined our nation anytime after the 1970s, the conservative media would have had him down as a liberal screamer; weak on national defense, and showing disrespect for our troops.
The right-wing had its l-word, (much as the sheep dog had his bark), and it proved indispensable in the culture war being waged against the "liberal elite" by the real elite: special interest groups like defense contractors, Big Oil, right-wing think tanks like American Enterprise Institute and foreign agents like AIPAC. An environment was being created for the engorgement of that real-life monster identified by President Eisenhower as the military-industrial complex.
No matter. As the 1970s closed out, the common man was more consumed by worries that President Carter had lust in his heart and, it was said, wrote poetry.
Could things get any better for the conservative establishment?
You bet they could! By the eighties, a heretofore-oxymoronic phrase had been born: Reagan Democrats. Hardened union members, in one surprising example, were heard to speak kindly (sotto voce, at first) of a president whose first public action had been to fire the striking air traffic controllers. Loyal, dues-paying brothers and sisters of locals through the land saw Reagan not as a righteous Old Testament union buster. They saw, rather, the flag. They heard, rather, the great communicator's gentle, fatherly raspings that, no, you are not a racist, warmongering junk food addict. And even if you are — well — too bad.
Liberals! Liberals! Liberals! Damned Liberals!
"Liberals…," archbully Rush Limbaugh was heard to say on the radio some years ago. Here Rush stalled, vexed clearly at putting essential words to existential evil. "Liberals," he finally allowed, "are against humanity." The l-incantation was pixie dust; it could make folks forget that Rush was a mean, ignorant son-of-a-bitch who, to give the measure of the man, once ridiculed a thirteen-year-old Chelsea Clinton for her then-awkward looks, labeling her as the White House dog, and leaving those who could still think to wonder why a grown man would viciously attack a thirteen-year-old girl in public. But Rush hated liberals, didn't he, so he couldn't have been all bad. The nation had a mean streak and right-wing hate radio was bringing it to the surface.
Things didn't change through George H. W. Bush's tenure. Then Bill Clinton decided that liberals weren't cool anymore and, just to prove he wasn't one, scaled down welfare, talked the Red States into believing they were better off competing for wages against Mexican peasants, and implemented anti-Iraqi sanctions that killed at least half a million people, mostly kids, earning everlasting Islamic enmity toward the US. The CIA knew that with this slaughter would come terrorist retribution, which they dubbed blowback, although that specific application of the word went unexamined by a media obsessed with the oval office ministrations of a Miss Monica Lewinsky.
OK, could things get even better?
On January 20, 2001, a Texan with the swagger of a poolroom tough was inaugurated as Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful military machine in the history of the world. George W. Bush was thought to be dim by most (including, presumably, himself, as there is no record of self-defensive argument) so, lest disadvantage ensue, he brought with him from Texas Karl Rove, strategist and political crook, who bragged that he ran his campaigns "as if people were watching television with the sound turned down." In other words, it would be best all around if voters were treated as unthinking, reactive reptiles, with the attention span and the common sense of — let's say frogs. Proof of efficacy lies in the fact that America is still in Iraq after all these years. Mr. Rove's service to his country earned him the presidential endearment turdblossom, for the little prairie flowers that are said to pop up from cow pie.
After 9/11, the President appeared on TV wrapped not merely in the flag, but in concentric semi-circles of cops and uniformed troops. Mr. Bush had soldiers and security to offer his subjects. To terrorists, he offered fiendish genital tortures. When Bush legal adviser John Yoo was asked if it was OK to crush the testicles of a terrorist's child in the course of interrogation, Attorney Yoo said that it all depended. Depended on what? On why the President thought he needed to do it.
"Liberals," Mr. Rove sniffed after 9/11, "wanted to offer our enemy therapy and understanding."
Public apprehension of manipulative political labels is, by design, a movable feast and, where once conservatism connoted small government, sound money, constitutional law, and the minding of our own beeswax overseas, the conservatism that metastasized outward from the Bush White House (AKA neoconservatism), doubled the US deficit, neutered congress and started wars that have damaged national security, all in the name of saving us from the weakness of liberalism. .
Liberals! Liberals! Liberals! Goddamned, frigging liberals! They knew who they were, these liberals — the ones sitting in front of the TV reckoning that the Iraq war was all a lie. And, if it was all a lie, then why were we murdering hundreds of thousands of people anyway? You see, each question had a way of begging the next. So, shouldn't the liars be held accountable? At this point in the thought-chain, the idea that the citizenry should demand (DEMAND!) an end to the war would rise in the American freeman's mind but, just before it reached the surface, a pall of irresolution and denial, would fall upon the almost-epiphany, to be pushed out by one eternal, patriotic question.
What are you, some kind of a liberal?
Who will be our next president? John McCain, that old ghoul singing his gleeful paean of mass infanticide to an old Beach Boys' tune? More likely, it will be Barack Obama, so afraid of being called soft on terrorism, or unsupportive of the troops, that he won't call the Iraq war what it is: an unspeakable war crime, that was founded on lies, and that threatens, quite literally, to bankrupt the US, validating, in the process, Madison's caveat about war and civil liberties. No mainstream politician today would give offense with such political incorrectness, so Barack Obama and the Democratics prefer we look at Iraq as a mere tactical error in the global, eternal, patriotic war on terrorism, a big White House screwup really, something that Obama and his party will have better luck with over in Afghanistan, But does anyone really believe that in five years or fifty years, a credible report will come out of Afghanistan confirming that the terrorists have been defeated? Could even the five dullards who graduated from Annapolis beneath John McCain in class ranking believe that the American Empire will accomplish what the Russian Empire and the British Empire could not the defeat of a relentless Afghan insurgency?
The War on Terrorism will work no better in Afghanistan than it did in Iraq, though Candidate Obama's call for troop increases will prove that he's no liberal on national defense. The terrorists who took down the Twin Towers (according to the US government, anyway) came out of the Middle East, Hamburg, Germany, Florida and California. Why would those intent on following them to Paradise be convinced to set up shop in the gunsights of the US Army, the bombsights of the US Air Force? Conventional military force will never defeat terrorism.
In the American political discourse, the truth is of far less value than that which appears to be true, and, de rigueur, every presidential candidate must appear tough on terrorism. The price of admission to the President's Club is hale and unblinking support for war and occupation.
Today, that parent encouraging a kid's White House aspirations would be derelict in his advice, were he not to add a conditional: if you want it bad enough, don't ever let them call you liberal on national defense.
Say you'll start a war or something.
October 30, 2008