What does it mean to be a 'liberal'?
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 July 2004)

Was that a liberal Cabinet we installed in Ottawa the other day, or just a Liberal Cabinet? Will John Kerry accept the word "liberal" or avoid it as a trap that the Republicans can spring on him?

Canadians and Americans both use the word promiscuously, even if we rarely agree on what it means. In Washington last week a liberal lobbyist acknowledged that "We've been losing the fight for the definition." The long-term conservative effort to make it a pejorative has worked. Only about one in five Americans admits to being a liberal.

Traditionally, liberals believe they are the major creative force in politics. In the 1860s, John Stuart Mill warmed their hearts with his definition: "A liberal is he who looks forward for his principles of government; a Tory looks backward." It would have been hard to defeat that argument during much of the 20th century, but in recent decades liberalism has degenerated into attitudes and rituals. Despite Mill, liberals offer only the vaguest notions about the future.

In the U.S. their last attempt "to make a difference" (as they say) was universal health care, which Hillary Clinton surrounded with such confusion that no one understood it, much less supported it. Today American liberals are down to one idea: George W. Bush, a scoundrel, must go. As for Canadian Liberals, their big idea in 2004 is shorter line-ups for hip replacements. Lacking ideas, liberals simply adjust the dial to "values."

In America they preach generalized, even universal values, but in Canada liberals support "Canadian values."

George McGovern, the losing Democratic candidate for president in 1972, has a new definition for liberalism: If you are educated, you are liberal. In his current book, The Essential America: Our Founders and the Liberal Tradition, he says that "Just about every educated person I encounter around the world is a liberal." No matter what their profession (nurse, poet, flight attendant, professor) they are liberal if they are educated. Or is it possible that McGovern decides they are educated after he learns they are liberal? The sample seems unscientific. It doesn't allow for the possibility that conservatives avoid McGovern out of a fear of being bored to death.

An earlier American liberalism springs back to life in a remarkable new book, The Fall of the House of Roosevelt (Columbia University Press), by Michael Janeway, a journalism professor. His father, Eliot Janeway, was at various times a communist, a New Deal fixer skilled at back-channel manipulation, a magazine writer, a rich business consultant and author of investment tip sheets. He connected business and journalism to Franklin Roosevelt's government while dreaming of a future focused on a young liberal congressman he and his friends profoundly admired, Lyndon Johnson.

Janeway's co-conspirators included Tommy Corcoran and Ben Cohen, famous New Deal policy men, and two backroom operators who became Supreme Court justices, William O. Douglas and Abe Fortas. Michael Janeway wants to describe the secret life of his father, having at age 15 simultaneously discovered Eliot's first marriage and his Jewishness, two facts never discussed in the family. But while that's fascinating, the book leaves a much stronger impression of the men who dominated American liberalism's shining hour. Though Michael Janeway treats them with a certain affection, the New Dealers come across as a slippery and self-righteous gang of high-class con men, most of whom did well for themselves. Lyndon Johnson, quietly accumulating precious government broadcasting licences while fighting for civil rights in the senate, was the rule, not the exception.

In either country the word "liberal" carries strong implications of virtue and does a lot to shore up self-esteem. In politics, a profession that constantly exposes its practitioners to scrutiny, the cultivation of self-esteem is no small matter. William Saletan of Slate recently summarized the self-satisfaction expressed by the recent we-need-more-liberalism books of Robert B. Reich and E.J. Dionne Jr. -- "Conservatives believe in serving oneself; liberals believe in serving one's country."

In Canada Liberals have the same infuriating way of expressing the belief that they are virtuous and the other people aren't. This has financial as well as emotional implications, as those who follow Liberal careers closely come to understand. My observation suggests that Liberals truly believe they can become rich (or at least prosperous) through their government connections and still be loved by the people whose money passes through their hands. Miraculously, from the Liberal point of view, much of the Canadian public takes them at their word, giving them honour as well as prosperity.

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