Shortly after the American presidential election, The New Republic pulled itself together and reassured the troops. "American liberalism did not die on November 2," the editors wrote. "It merely lost an election."
Was that all it was? The Democrats declared George W. Bush the most unpopular president in memory, then failed to beat him. How could that happen? Some blame their leader, branded by the New Republic "a conspicuously unclear and unthrilling Democratic candidate, whose advantage in money did not offset a disadvantage in authenticity." Still, it said something about the liberals that they couldn't nominate a better politician than John Kerry, who would have been everybody's second choice if only there had been a first choice.
Kerry spent a year struggling to craft an appealing agenda, but he may have been working on the wrong problem. American liberalism suffers less from inadequate policies than from a failure in culture. Governments are organized around policies, but elections are won on the ground of culture, by politicians who understand they must project the appropriate mood and style.
John Lukacs, a shrewd American historian, writes this week in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the collapse of liberalism as a word and an idea. He believes that the history of politics is the history of words. "Liberal," once a compliment but now an insult to many Americans, provides the perfect example. Today few politicians dare to use it.
Fifty years ago, liberalism was not just the leading political philosophy in the United States; it was the only one that mattered. Conservatism looked to most people like no more than a series of responses to progressive programs. When conservatives became a political force, one of their purposes was a severe critique of liberalism.
Katha Pollitt, an eloquent columnist in The Nation, recently identified one result: "For well over a decade now, right-wingers and Republicans have heaped insult, lies and slander on liberals and Democrats, who responded for the most part by becoming starchy, self-doubting and depressed."
That's part of a pattern, according to Neil Gabler: Liberals are performing the wrong script. Gabler, who writes books about movies and their meaning, argued in The American Prospect last spring that the Democrats have surrendered their themes and their story to the Republicans.
For generations, Democrats won elections as the party of optimism. From Woodrow Wilson through Franklin Roosevelt to John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, they promised to make life better for all Americans and spread democracy around the world. Today the Democrats are the party of pessimism. They are the people their (presumably Democratic) parents hated, the people who are always ready to tell you what can't be done.
As Gabler says, the Vietnam War soured them. It was essentially a Democratic war, prosecuted with great passion by Lyndon Johnson, a Rooseveltian liberal. Once the war backfired, "liberals turned wary, fixating on examining how things had gone wrong.... this was the new liberalism -- gun-shy and cautious."
As liberalism was searching its soul, the Republicans found new confidence. Ronald Reagan grafted a version of Roosevelt's optimism and sense of destiny on to the conservative movement. "Reagan stole liberal optimism," Gabler says. That's how conservatives moved from the margins to the political centre.
Democrats, Gabler suggests, are living in a dark and depressing novel, where everyone doubts everything. The Republicans, on the other hand, are producing an endless Hollywood movie, which promises a happy ending -- just like Roosevelt and Reagan. The Republicans have written their own story and acquired the poise to tell it.
Tone, poise and symbolism matter far more than we like to admit, but they need to be grounded in conviction. Liberalism in the U.S. began to flounder when it doubted its own principles. Once it stood, above all, for the freedom and dignity of the individual. Slowly it shifted to a belief, above all, in the freedom of government to organize society.
As government's role grew, liberalism became the ideology of choice for pressure groups, bureaucrats, union bosses, lobbyists, wealthy lawyers and movie stars. It came to be seen as a way to get rich; certainly that's how Lyndon Johnson used it, along with many others. Modern government requires patronage, but too much of it drowns idealism.
American liberalism didn't die in the 2004 election, but it revealed itself to be gravely ill. It will recover when it finds politicians who have the nerve to proclaim their liberalism proudly, the brains to explain their beliefs and the talent to make it all sound like a Hollywood movie.