Redefining Liberalism: How the Republicans Became Freedom Fighters
Does being a "believer" mean you have to give up independent thinking? Are the two mutually exclusive? Too many "liberals" think so and that is why we lost this incredibly close election. We have let the right define us in a way that guarantees continued losses.
The Republicans won, according to exit polls, on "moral issues" — gay marriage, abortion, and other issues most people think are private. The prevailing definition of "liberal" assumes that people should have the freedom to do what they want. The conservatives on the right believe that when some people do certain things in their personal lives, it radically and adversely affects all of us.
The Republicans won because they motivated their base with fire and brimstone and the resulting zealots went out and motivated moderate believers. They convinced their supporters that we are facing moral Armageddon if one more abortion is performed or one gay couple is legally married in this country. From the left's point of view, we have a bigger chance of catastrophe (large-scale terrorist or military attack) if we keep killing Iraqi civilians at the same rate and do not address the Palestinian issue. These have not been framed as "moral issues". Those on the religious right continue to be more concerned about the "innocent unborn" than innocent children of war who are dying in Iraq in unreported large numbers.
The tactics used by Republican conservatives, especially the rabid religious right, are questionable at best and viciously mean-spirited and illegal at worst. As reported on National Public Radio, there are a number of voter fraud cases awaiting trial around this election, mostly against organized Republican operatives, many who have ties to people close to the White House. There are anecdotal stories like the one about Democrats paying a drug addict in crack for every voter he registered, but these stories are a trickle compared to the stream of large-scale Republican illegal registration and vote fraud activities. It is amazing how the far right took the moral low road to claim moral high ground and got away with it.
From "flip-flopper" to disinformation campaigns claiming that Kerry would legalize gay marriage, ban the bible, apologize to terrorists, (these are all real) they successfully used the best deceptive marketing tactics to spread outrageous lies. Why do we let them?
Because we are too busy being freethinking liberals. We do not have the same mindset or pre-existing organizational structures, like churches, to help us easily form alliances and use our collective power. We are too isolated and stratified in our independence to participate in non-professional organizations on any large scale. We need to organize and find the common ground between, for instance, the urban black poor and upscale liberal white gays and lesbians. It is much easier to build coalitions out of monolithic sameness. Most Republicans are white and middle or upper class. Democrats are much more diverse and inherently more difficult to organize. We have to define a common ground that covers a wider range of terrain and motivates people to action.
It is easy to forget that ensuring freedom means taking collective responsibility for it. We have taken our liberalism for granted and have not fought hard enough to protect it. We have also forgotten the most important thing — that change requires collective action. All successful revolutionary movements have known this and organized by forming coalitions.
Perhaps the silver lining of this campaign is that Democrats, and the sub-group of liberals understand we have officially become the resistant minority, rather than the underrepresented majority. The majority of American voters supposedly are pro-choice social liberals, but where were they on November 2? Republicans probably had three times the volunteers than Democrats had because they were already organized through churches and grassroots political organizations and are used to working together to accomplish goals. They are the minority of registered voters and they won all of it — the House, the Senate, and the Big House because they more successfully motivated their believers to vote. They are a majority (of eligible voters who vote) that behaved like an oppressed and endangered minority and the strategy worked.
George Bush and the Republican machine did not win this election fair and square or from any moral high ground. Our response to that should not be to match them with equally dirty tricks or better spin, but to establish our own clear belief system that will motivate people to action beyond casting our independent isolated votes every couple of years.
If we are going to gather the political power to have at least an equal voice in U.S. politics, we have to dispel the idea that liberalism is casual, amoral and undisciplined. Our liberal belief system is widely perceived as "anything goes" and "anti- (war, Bush, etc.)". We know our ideology is based in morality and wanting to do what is right, but the Republicans redefined us. To them, the only thing we are for is "choice," and that even seems vague and mushy when taken out of the context of abortion rights. In this election, serious dialogue about race, gender and class inequality, peace or even the environment was effectively shut down for fear that we would seem "too liberal". The issues that articulate our values most strongly were off limits. We let the Republicans define the "liberal" agenda and they framed it as pro gay marriage and abortion, soft on terrorism, anti-Bush and anti-God.
Perhaps we need a new name and a new "brand" identity. The "liberal left" just will not sell in the current ideological marketplace. Whatever we call ourselves, we need to clearly articulate what we stand for and what we believe. Until we can do that, we will keep losing political and ideological ground. We will be effectively quarantined in our blue states on the edges literally and figuratively. Meanwhile the rest of the country will blithely march on in its neoconservative capitalist, imperialist, Christian pseudo-moral superiority, conducting business as usual in a world that has proven it is ready and willing to resist our superpowers.
We have lost the election, but we cannot lose our power to effect change in this country that is going in such a completely wrong direction.
Colette Gaiter is a Professor, Web and Multimedia Coordinator for the Department of Academic Computing at Columbia College. She is also a frequent contributor and former member of the Bad Subjects Production Team.