Liberals are yawning into action

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For a dying breed, they sure put up a good squawk. Then again, they’ve had 35 years (give or take) to lick their many wounds.

Nineteen-Seventy-Nine is the year to which many political observers with long memories point when asked to trace the roots of the modern liberal’s terminal disease. That’s the year British politics took a sharp right with the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government. It was the year the Iranian revolution changed the face of the Middle East and of western foreign policy. And it was the year the Moral Majority and other right-of-centre populist groups in the United States paved the way for Ronald Reagan and his neo-conservative notions of free enterprise and trickle-down economics.

Here, in Canada, of course, we were still pretty liberal – that is, we were, until we commenced our serious flirtation with Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives, which almost perfectly completed the  “North Atlantic Triangle” (Reagan-Mulroney-Thatcher) of staunch traditionalists in the 1980s.

But as one decade bled into another, it became clear that the very essence of liberalism had fundamentally changed. Bill Clinton was not FDR, after all. Tony Blair was in no way conceivable comparable to post-war labour leaders in the U.K. And nothing about Jean Chretien or Paul Martin resembled Lester Pearson or even Pierre Trudeau.

Now, the whole subject of what went wrong in the trenches of the just society – at least in the United States – is the subject of a extensive cris de coeur in the latest issue of Harper’s Magazine.

“Nothing Left: The long, slow surrender of American liberals” by University of Pennsylvania political science professor Adolph Reed Jr. chronicles in exquisite, often painful detail, how the wheels came off the truck, one by one. He targets all the usual suspects – political opportunists, true believers in limited government, libertarians, corporations and big businesses – but he also blames his once fellow travellers for allowing themselves to become corrupted and coerced.

“Today,” he writes, “the labour movement has been largely subdued, and social activists have made their peace with neoliberalism and adjusted their horizons accordingly. Within the women’s movement, goals have shifted from practical objectives  such as comparable worth and universal child care in the 1980s to celebrating appointments of individual women to public office and challenging the corporate glass ceiling.”

Meanwhile, he laments, “dominant figures in the antiwar movement have long since accepted the framework of American military interventionism. The movement for racial justice has shifted its focus from inequality to ‘disparity,’ while neatly evading any critique of the structures that produce inequality.”

Professor Reed’s arguments are not especially new. Others have observed the great and steady resignation of social principles to power and money over the past three decades.

But the degree to which points, such as his, are cropping up everywhere in the mainstream and alternative media is striking. As a result, perhaps, it’s almost as if a sizable chunk of the body politic is rousing itself from a long, fitful slumber.

That, at least, appears to be case in Canada. Notwithstanding a largely successful economic plan (reflected, most recently, in a broadly inoffensive budget) the federal Conservatives’s steadily eroding popular support suggests a deeper, more existential problem for them.

“A slim majority (54 per cent) of Canadians ‘disapprove’ (16 per cent strongly/37 per cent somewhat) of ‘the federal government’s overall management of the Canadian economy’, compared to 46 per cent who ‘approve’ (7 per cent strongly/40 per cent somewhat) of the government’s performance on the economy,” Ipsos reported last week. “By comparison, in late 2012, nearly equal proportions of Canadians approved (49 per cent) as disapproved (51 per cent).”

What’s more, Ipsos observed, “just one in three (34 per cent) ‘agree’ (10 per cent  strongly/24 per cent somewhat) that they ‘trust Stephen Harper and the Conservatives to make the right choices to ensure the next Federal Budget is fair and reasonable, and in the best interest of Canadians’. Two in three (66 per cent) Canadians ‘disagree’ (36 per cent strongly/30 per cent somewhat) that they trust the Prime Minister to do this.”

Whether any of this will produce a pendular swing in the political fortunes of the left remains to be seen in the run-up to the 2015 election – as do the progressive bone fides of those who populate its ranks.

Still, it’s clear, they’re not dead yet.

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