Liberalism for Now

Dominique Nabokov
Ronald Dworkin, New York City, 2001; photograph by Dominique Nabokov

The years leading up to the 2008 election were not a promising time for a liberal politician or a liberal philosopher to seek common ground with conservatives. The country was split, according to the conventional image, between red and blue states, reflecting two hostile cultures and worldviews. In 2004, Karl Rove’s strategy of inflaming those divisions and thereby mobilizing the conservative base had succeeded in reelecting George Bush. It was also by stoking right-wing passions against liberalism that the most powerful voices in the conservative mass media—Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter—had built up their audiences. Constructive dialogue with liberals was the last thing on their minds.

Under the circumstances, most liberals weren’t interested in dialogue either. Impatient with the lofty aims and gracious defeats of so many Democrats, they were in a fighting mood, not a reflective one. A popular line of argument among Democratic strategists was that it was time to learn from the other side, get tough, and return fire. Ideas had their uses, to be sure, as weapons in the arsenal of partisan warfare, provided that they were packaged shrewdly—hence the interest in language, “framing,” and “narratives” by such writers as Drew Westen and George Lakoff—but serious debate was not in high demand. Like conservatives, liberals were preoccupied with one problem above all: how to win a majority, if only barely, in what was presumed to be a closely split and highly polarized electorate.

In fact, according to opinion surveys, the American public hadn’t actually become more deeply divided than in the previous several decades; issue by issue, most Americans continued to be bunched closer to the political center than the extremes.1 What had become polarized was the expression of political opinion. As a result of the defection of the white South from the Democrats and the conservative revolution inside the GOP, the two major parties were now more ideologically distinct and antagonistic. And with the rise of talk radio and cable television, partisan mass media had become more important in the news and in public controversy. But far from being happy with intensified partisanship, many voters were disgusted with it and yearned for leaders who could somehow rise above the daily crossfire.

It was part of the genius of Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency that he was able to respond to this yearning without falling into a bland and muddled centrism, compromising the integrity and force of his own views. During the campaign, Obama blamed partisan quarreling for many of the nation’s troubles and said that neither of the major parties had faced up to its historic responsibilities; but it wasn’t as if his own positions lay somewhere vaguely between the two. His voting record and policy proposals were unmistakably liberal. Instead of adopting a combative position toward conservatives,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.