Difficult as it is to remember now, there was a time in the United States, as recently as fifteen or so years ago, when we were not engaged in constant political warfare. In those days Senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in a war, would not have been visually equated with Saddam Hussein in a television ad, something the Republicans did to him in 2002. The release of a declaration by, for example, the National Academy of Sciences was for the most part acknowledged as legitimate, and not attacked as a product of so-called liberal bias as its 2005 report on global warming was.
We can regret, as it is customary to do, the loss of civility in political discourse (although such laments tend to assume a golden era that wasn’t quite as civil in reality as it is in the memories of those who mourn its passing). But the nakedness of the modern right’s drive for political power and of the Bush administration’s politicization of so many aspects of governance and civic life has, paradoxically, given us one thing to be grateful for. Liberals and Democrats now understand much more plainly the nature of the fight they’re in. Some recognized this early on: many of those who worked on the Clinton administration’s health care plan recognized back in 1994, as Paul Starr, one veteran of that effort, puts it, that the Republicans would not compromise on the plan under any circumstances because “if it succeeded, it might renew New Deal beliefs in the efficacy of government, whereas a defeat of the health plan could set liberalism back for years.”
Others realized what was happening only much later, after the impeachment of Clinton, the foreshortened election in Florida, and the administration’s post–September 11 policies, including its brutal violations of civil liberties and its invasion and occupation of Iraq. Why it took such people so long to recognize reality is an interesting question; but now, in plenty of time for next year’s presidential election, Democrats and liberals seem more prepared than usual to put up a fight.
Many liberals would name Paul Krugman of The New York Times as perhaps the most consistent and courageous—and unapologetic—liberal partisan in American journalism. He has made his perspective on the Bush administration and the contemporary right, and on the need to see politics as a battle, manifestly clear in column after incendiary column. Indeed, of all the ways he could have concluded The Conscience of a Liberal, he chose to do so with a short essay that appears under the headline “On Being Partisan,” which notes:
The central fact of modern American political life is the control of the Republican Party by movement conservatives, whose vision of what America should be is completely antithetical to that of the progressive movement. Because of that control, the notion, beloved of political pundits, that we can make progress through bipartisan consensus is simply foolish …