FOCUSING ON IDEOLOGY….There are several things I’d take issue with in Paul Waldman’s latest column for the American Prospect, but I think he’s exactly correct about this:
Liberals may write best-selling books about why George W. Bush is a terrible president, but conservatives write best-selling books about why liberalism is a pox on our nation (talk radio hate-monger Michael Savage, for instance, titled his latest book Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder).
Indeed, large portions of the conservative movement can be understood as an effort to crush liberalism in all its manifestations. Conservatives understand that their main enemy is not a law, government program, or social condition they don’t like. Their main enemy is a competing ideology, and that is what they spend their time fighting.
In contrast, liberals spend very little time talking about conservatism. They talk about their opposition to President Bush or the policies proposed by the Republican Congress, but they don’t offer a critique of conservatism itself. When was the last time you saw a book-length polemic against conservatism? Liberals have failed to understand that a sustained critique of the other side’s ideology not only defines your opponents, it helps to define you by what you are against.
It’s not just the term “liberal,” either. Conservatives have also done a masterful job of demonizing, for example, “feminist,” “environmentalist,” “trial lawyer,” and “labor union,” despite the fact that sizable majorities of Americans support equal rights for women and stronger environmental rules, and equally sizable majorities are helped far more than harmed by trial lawyers and labor unions.
Conservatives succeed at this, of course, by focusing only on the most extreme positions of these groups: trial lawyers who sue McDonalds over hot coffee, the prison guard union that practically bought Gray Davis’ soul in California, feminists who agitate for single-sex restrooms, and environmentalists who smash the windshields of SUVs. That’s the populist, Bill O’Reilly version of liberalism, and it’s the one that tens of millions of Americans hear about every day.
So how do we fight back? Presumably by focusing on extremist conservative ideology, something we don’t do often enough. Paul has a book on this subject coming out in the spring called Being Right Is Not Enough: What Progressives Can Learn From Conservative Success, and it sounds like it should be an interesting read. In the meantime, there’s always the blogosphere….