Proud To Be A Liberal
John J. Dunphy
(Originally published in The [Alton, IL] Telegraph, 5.29.15)
I remember when the Republicans succeeded in making “liberal” a dirty word. Polls showed that Vice-President George H.W. Bush was 17 points behind Massachusetts governor Mike Dukakis after the Democratic National Convention in 1988. Republican campaign strategist Lee Atwater advised Bush, “You gotta go negative. You just gotta.” Bush took Atwater’s counsel to heart and began castigating Dukakis as “that liberal governor from Massachusetts” and “a card-carrying member of the ACLU,” who refused to allow schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and granted furloughs to convicts so they embark upon crime sprees. PBS noted that “Some commentators would later call the 1988 campaign the dirtiest in history.” Tragically for our nation, depicting Dukakis as a liberal after transforming the term into a smear worked all too well. Bush won the election with 426 electoral votes.
Fearing that they would also suffer Dukakis’ fate, many Democratic politicians began to avoid calling themselves liberals. In his article I’m proud to say I’m a liberal,” Omer Aziz pointed out that “ostensible liberals like Barack Obama ran away from the label” and Hillary Clinton, when “asked during a primary debate in 2007 whether she identified as a liberal…answered in the negative.” Clinton said that she preferred the term “progressive.”
We liberals should never have allowed right-wing extremists to hijack the term “liberal” and redefine it to suit their warped political agenda. The very notion that we should somehow be ashamed of believing in and fighting for human rights as well as economic and environmental justice — the very essence of contemporary liberalism — is absurd. President John F. Kennedy embraced the term. “If by a ‘Liberal,’ “ Kennedy said, “they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties — someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal,’ then I’m proud to say that I’m a ‘Liberal.’‘
Liberals, regardless of their party affiliation, have supported the great reform movements throughout our nation’s history. Republican party liberals supported the abolition of slavery when the Democratic party was dominated by conservatives, who were at best lukewarm toward ridding our nation of the “peculiar institution.” Liberals fought for decades to grant women the right to vote, while conservatives extolled what historians call “the cult of true womanhood,” which held that women should remain meek, submissive wives and mothers who concerned themselves solely with home and family.
We liberals supported the rights of workers to form unions and to bargain collectively for better wages and working conditions. Conservatives opposed organized labor tooth and nail — indeed, they still do to this day. Liberals enacted both Social Security and Medicare over the strident objections of conservatives. The landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s was passed in congress with the support of Democratic and Republican liberals and moderates. Republican conservatives and Southern Democrats, the latter not being merely conservative but outright reactionaries on civil rights, preferred a status quo that locked black Americans into second-class citizenship. Liberals spearheaded the environmental movement, much to the outrage of conservatives who believed — in fact, still believe today — that companies possess some kind of sacrosanct right to poison our soil, water and air without government interference.
Anyone with a knowledge of history and a functioning intellect knows that liberals have been responsible for every significant victory for humanity and the environment. John F. Kennedy took pride in being known as a liberal. So do I.
John J. Dunphy is the author of From Christmas to Twelfth Night in Southern Illinois and Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois. His latest book, Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials, will be published in December by McFarland. He owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton.