They thought the L-word was dead and buried, but it's back

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The Independent Online
"Liberals are variously described as limousine, double domed, screaming, knee jerk, professional, bleeding heart; see also pinko; parlour pink; new left; committed; egghead." Safire's Political Dictionary, by William Safire.

WILLIAM SAFIRE is not, as you might have gathered, a liberal. His columns in The New York Times make no bones about it. But the entry for liberalism in his political dictionary tells us about more than Mr Safire's personal political credentials: for more than two decades, liberalism has been a dirty word in America.

The creed has been without effective leadership, policies or politicians. The great ship of American liberalism drifted, apparently rudderless. Now, a few gusts of wind are starting to stir its sails, but there remains grave doubt over who can, or will, take the wheel.

The last great iconic figure for the American centre left was Bobby Kennedy, who was gunned down 30 years ago this week. Bobby wouldn't always have taken kindly to being described as a liberal, but if you want a date and a time for the death of the American liberal tradition, then June 5, 1968, is as good as any.

After the murder of his brother five years earlier, Bobby had collapsed into himself, reassessing, rethinking, trying to find a new way of carrying out politics in an age of increasing violence, clashes that pitched young and old, black and white, rich and poor against each other on the streets and in the minds of the American voter. Any chance that he might have had was extinguished by Sirhan Sirhan. The next three decades were to be dominated by conservatism, not liberalism, with Republicans in the White House for 20 years out of 30.

You have to be very careful with these words, of course. In America, they don't mean what they mean in the rest of the world. Liberalism in the US is more akin to what we call social democracy. Liberalism - the idea of individualism, reducing the role of the state, and relying on the market - is by and large the middle ground for both political parties in the US, but they just don't call it that.

Liberalism was redefined for America by the New Deal, an attempt to save capitalism, not to destroy it, by raising the profile of government. The centre-left seized the intellectual high ground in the 1940s and rarely lost it after that. It did it in the name of liberalism - not socialism or social democracy - but a statist liberalism that had more in common with the New Liberalism of 1890s Britain than Gladstone or John Stuart Mill. Government was to save the nation - through redistribution, welfare programmes and government-mandated desegregation.

By the time of Bobby's death, the consensus behind this was already disintegrating. Race riots, the disaster in Vietnam, the catastrophic 1968 Chicago Democratic convention, inflation and recession sealed its fate. In 1978 - ten years, almost to the day, after Bobby's death - California turned the country on to a new course with Proposition 13.

This ballot initiative, which limited property tax, acted as a catalyst for a revolt against tax and government that the Republicans rode to three successive terms in the White House.

The high ground was seized by the right. Sensing the popular mood - against government, in favour of tax cuts, socially conservative, thirsty for national aggrandisement after Vietnam - and leading it, they have frequently seemed all but invincible.

For much of the last 30 years, liberalism may not have been dead, but it sure smelled funny. The main output of liberal intellectuals has been a series of somewhat disjointed thoughts that go under the general rubric of "rethinking liberalism". This book stack gets larger as the years roll on; but liberals seem so concerned with rethinking that they don't have as much time as they should for thinking, let alone for doing.

There are plenty of groupuscules, magazines, agitators and educators, but precious few organisers. There are liberal politicians, but few have made much impact nationally. In the Democratic Party, there has been a realignment to the right, around more centrist party leaders, often indistinguishable from their Republican opposites. Most would rather slit their throats than be regarded as liberals.

But there is a whiff of change in the air. After three decades of conservativism, a space is opening up on the left for something new, which might just be liberalism. E J Dionne, the Washington Post columnist, prefers to call it Progressivism, referring back to an early age of radical social change.

Part of the reason for a new interest in the left is undoubtedly the terrible mess that is starting to emerge on the right. Newt Gingrich espouses technological revolution, while the religious right is intent on moral counter-revolution. His libertarian conservatism and their moral authoritarianism are tugging the party in divergent directions, and the cracks are becoming wide.

Gingrich is undoubtedly right to focus on technological change, but the right seems unable to get to grips with the broader concerns that this creates, along with economic opportunity. There is a slow shift within the middle class, or the Anxious Middle Class, as Dionne calls it in his book They Only Look Dead:

They are "wary of the economic change now under way, but sceptical of efforts to turn the process back. They are dissatisfied with the responses that have come from government so far, but are worried about their prospects in an economic order in which government withdraws and removes basic social protections. They are, potentially, the core constituency of a New Progressivism."

If the time seems ripe for a revival of Progressivism, there are pitifully few around who seem ready to seize the challenge. Bill Clinton has placed himself solidly at the right of the party, displaying little ambition or ideological fervour; and it is tough even to write the sentence "Al Gore could be the new Bobby Kennedy," let alone believe it.

During its long years in the background, liberalism has become the politics that dare not speak its name. The demonisation of the L-word has helped to make liberal politicians shrink from the light, leaving moral dwarves and grandstanding big-talkers to take te stage.

Bobby Kennedy "did not know the answers. But more than other politicians of the day, he knew the questions," wrote Arthur Schlesinger in his biography. His favourite song - "one heard it so often blaring from some unseen source in his New York apartment" - was "The Impossible Dream".

"When you have chosen your part," Kennedy underlined in his copy of Emerson's essays, "abide by it and do not weakly try to reconcile yourself with the world... Adhere to your own act, and congratulate yourself if you have done something strange and extravagant, and broken the monotony of a decorous age." There are few with that courage, or imagination, in the flat and empty politics of America in 1998.