No one in American public life has become so much a pariah, so ready a punching bag, as the liberal. He can trace his lineage to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln (a Republican, no less) and Thomas Jefferson all he wants. He's still a libril, and for that reason hounded from elective office, hammered on talk radio and -- as if injury needed insult -- hung out to dry in best-selling books.
The titles and subtitles of these volumes betray more than an adversarial point of view. They drip with bile.
A sampling: "Useful Idiots: How Liberals Got It Wrong in the Cold War and Still Blame America First." "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right." "Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty Over Liberalism."
Liberalism's crowning achievement was the New Deal and its last hurrah the Great Society. But those were decades ago, when the Democratic Party's liberalism reflected the values and hopes of most Americans. In the years since, it has drifted -- sometimes willfully -- ever farther from the American middle class. It has become easy sport for barrel-chested pundits to take careful aim at the barn door, and knock off for the day. To be a liberal in America today, you might think, is not to be an American at all. As one conservative has written, there are Americans and there are liberals. Which is to say: If you are American -- a real American -- then, by definition, you are conservative.
Look around: How many political candidates advertise themselves as liberals? You don't have to go looking for conservatives. Why, then, the need for so many cobbled-together indictments of a political philosophy whose adherents have all died off or gone underground?
One answer is that these books provide conservatives a bracing tonic. They validate their resentments. In truth, liberals have had some of this coming. Democracy, H.L. Mencken said, was the theory of government based on the notion that the people know what's best for them, and they deserve to get it good and hard.
But it's one thing to beat an opponent when he's down and another to keep at it when he's gone into rigor mortis. It would serve conservatism better if some of these best-selling authors -- no one would call them writers -- trafficked more in ideas and less in impulses.
No impulse is so pervasive in these books as deep-seated contempt. "Let me say this before I go any further," writes Sean Hannity, the author of "Let Freedom Ring" and a Fox Television talk-show host. "My quarrel with liberals and liberalism is not personal. Just because I think liberals are wrong on the issue doesn't mean I don't like them."
Believe it if you wish. To my ear, it's disingenuous. I am not a regular viewer of Hannity & Colmes, but I happen to find Hannity -- the conservative half of the show -- right on many of the issues and yet he seldom offers arguments or reasons. He doesn't have to. His viewers don't demand them. If this does liberalism a disservice, it does conservatism one as well.
Conservatism, every bit as much as liberalism, is heir to a rich and varied intellectual tradition, from Edmund Burke, John Adams and T.S. Eliot to William F. Buckley Jr., George Will and the Weekly Standard's choir of wits and polemicists. Give credit where credit is due: These are provocative thinkers and stylish writers.
Theirs is a conservatism of temperament, public policy and intellect. Politically and culturally, it rests on a bedrock of ideas, some in uneasy accommodation with others. Buckley is only the intellectual cousin, not the twin, of William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, and neither is interchangeable with, say, the political scientist James Q. Wilson, Danielle Crittenden or a dozen others.
Almost 10 years ago, before the Standard was even founded, Kristol wrote incisively of the predicament in which contemporary liberalism found itself: "[I]f, once upon a time, conservatives felt a Burkean responsibility to uphold sound social habits and traditional customs against liberal debunking, now it is liberalism that constitutes the old order, dictating 'correct' habits and permissible customs, while conservatives can become the exponents of light and air, of free and open debate, of demystification and even of political and intellectual liberation."
This is a point of view refined by ideas. But it is not, by and large, what many Americans imply when they call themselves "conservative." Theirs is the rot-gut distillation, rough around the edges, concocted for imbibing today. Packaged between book covers, it is often accompanied by a picture of the author -- a giveaway that the contents are boilerplate.
Thus, on the cover of "Slander: Liberal Lies About the American Right," a honey-blonde Ann Coulter sits in a pose of imper- ial ease, like a lioness on one of those TV documentaries about the Serengeti Plain. "Political 'debate' in this country," she writes on her opening page, "is insufferable. Whether conducted in Congress, on the political talk shows, or played out at dinners and cocktail parties, politics is a nasty sport. At the risk of giving away the ending: It's all liberals' fault. As there is less to dispute, liberals become more bitter and angry."
Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is an unpromising start if one comes to the book expecting a joust of minds.
The literary and cultural critic Lionel Trilling, writing in the early '50s, declared the tug of war between liberals and conservatives all but over. "In the United States at this time," he said, "liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition." The opposite could almost be asserted today: Conservatism is ascendant, liberalism moribund.
Labels obscure more than they disclose, and political labels are of billboard proportion. Most Americans, by now, understand that what is a conservative today was a liberal yesterday. Freedom of the individual today is an article of faith in the conservative catechism. Even so, details of taxonomy matter less than what ordinary people believe from one generation to the next. The year after Bill Clinton was elected president, Kristol wrote: "Contemporary liberalism . . . has not captured the hearts and minds of the American people. Indeed, its resort to the machinery of political correctness -- the attempt to impose sanctions on views contrary to liberal dogma -- has been driven in part by just this failure to capture those hearts and minds."
It required only liberalism's self-mutilation from the '60s through the '80s for a majority of Americans to realize what they were not. They might be Democrats or they might be Republicans, but they were not liberals.
And they realized something else: The conservatives so smugly caricatured by academics and much of the mainstream media were not werewolves after all. They were people like themselves, wanting nothing more than a future for their children, schools they could respect, neighborhoods where you could walk the streets without looking over your shoulder, and an affirmation of values that liberals sneered at. They realized they were conservative, if not by conviction then by default.
If some have traded civility for braying boorishness -- and they assuredly have -- they've effected an unflattering reverse image. The same contempt and hubris that did liberals grave harm now is reflected back at them. With the tables turned, conservatives of a certain stripe are proving themselves as capable of ignorance as anyone in the faculty lounge.