Huffpost Politics

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Matt Littman Headshot

Is the Word "Conservative" Going the Way of the Word "Liberal?"

Posted: Updated:

In 1964, it was considered a virtue to be a liberal. FDR's legacy was strong. Liberals brought us victory in World War II, social security, voting rights for African-Americans, a tough stance against Communism, and Camelot. On the big issues, the liberal agenda was dominant.

But the divisive Vietnam War, the race struggles of the '60's, women's rights, and finally, the presidency of Jimmy Carter brought an end to the time when being considered a "liberal" was a badge of honor.

Liberals became associated with being soft on crime and softer on defense. Liberals burned bras and loved abortion, they wanted to save the spotted owl at the cost of real jobs, they were welfare queens who took every penny they could from the government while having more and more kids, and most of all, liberals became associated with higher taxes - so that welfare queens could have more kids and get more money from hard working, middle-income Americans.

Today, candidates run from the term "liberal." Liberals want to be known as liberals as much as they want to be referred to as pornographers, which conservatives would say is how liberals prefer to be known.

Today's liberals have found peace with the term "progressive." There are no liberals anymore. There are only progressives.

Conservatives used to be on the fringe, but Ronald Reagan changed all that. He was sunny, optimistic, morning in America after Jimmy Carter's malaise. He brought Democrats to the Republican Party - "Reagan Democrats," the people who voted against their own interests to support a political party that did not want them to have health insurance, good wages, or equal education. The country that voted for Reagan overwhelmingly never sided him on the issues; they sided with Reagan because of his charm.

Reagan and the conservative agenda were considered winners. Conservatives could crow that the Cold War is over, tax rates are at historical lows, welfare queens have traded in their crowns for a paycheck, and Republicans have been in the Oval Office for 20 of the last 28 years.

But today's conservatives, armed with victories, had to find a new agenda. Without Reagan's affable personality, they had to try to settle on winning issues. Conservatives instead settled on an agenda that represents an incredible misreading of where the country stands on the issues. Conservatives went from talking about low taxes, fiscal responsibility, and a strong defense to irresponsible spending, irresponsible wars, ignoring global warming, creationism, big oil, neglecting the basic services of government and, finally, conservatives are now the group that promotes torture.

In the Republican primaries, Mitt Romney determined that he needed to sell his soul to appeal to the conservative - the Rush Limbaugh - wing of his party. It turned out, he was many years behind the times because the talk show hosts do not represent the real Republicans out there, any more than Al Sharpton represented my parents and their view of liberalism.

Real conservatives - real conservatives want to keep taxes low, government responsible, and maintain a strong defense. And there's no reason for conservatives to abhor the environment and distrust science. Those views are products of this very political moment, and many conservatives know it. But those conservatives cannot be heard, because they do not have the power in the Republican Party. Ann Coulter speaks for conservatives.

You can't be a proud conservative anymore, because being a conservative does not mean what it meant 20 years ago, when Reagan's second term ended. George W. Bush destroyed what Reagan built. If W is a conservative, then the word "conservative" is a going to be a four-letter word for a long time, and to confirm it, we just not George Carlin to put in his "Seven Dirty Words" stand-up routine.

John McCain cannot run as far to the right as conservatives want him to run, because if he runs that far right, he will fall off what the right-wing believes to be a flat earth.

Soon, conservatives may not want to be known as conservatives at all. Perhaps they'll be non-progressives. I don't know. I'm not a conservative, so I can't coin the term that best describes their views.

But conservatives are about to enter the long, dark political wilderness. If Senator Obama becomes President Obama, as I expect, the political fights of the last 20 years will recede. There will still be fights, to be sure, but they won't have the same venom they have had for the last couple of decades. Progressivism will rise. The Republican Party will have a fringe on the right, but it will gradually move back toward the center, where it was 30 years ago.

Eventually, conservatism, if it wants to return, will have to enter a political rehabilitation program and emerge with a new identity. It won't look to Ronald Reagan for answers, for the aforementioned reason that much of the country did not agree with Reagan on the issues, but they did agree with his charm, which the far-right (Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter) has none of right now.

If they are smart, conservatives will instead look to Teddy Roosevelt. Pro-business, pro-defense, pro-environment.

But that rehabilitation is years from now. Today's conservatives are yesterday's liberals. And today, there is no such thing as a liberal.