Do you remember when it was O.K. to be a "liberal"? Do you remember when you could be proud to be a "liberal" and when "conservative" was an epithet? Today, "liberals" masquerade as "progressives." Why is that?
There was a time when it was easy to be a "liberal." Liberals stood tall for truth, justice, and the American Way. After all, what moral person could fail to see the injustice in racial segregation, police use of firehoses on civil rights protesters, prosectution of political dissenters, persecution of religious minorities, blatant discrimination against women, electoral districts that were wildly malaportioned, the termination of welfare rights without even a hearing, the use of the third-degree against persons suspected of crime, or the denial of counsel to criminal defendants?
The interesting thing, the often unnoticed thing, is that we "liberals" won on all of those issues. The challenge facing us today, however, is that having won those battles, liberalism has lost its way. Liberals still hold the same fundamental values. We still believe in equality, individual dignity, fair process, and tolerance of others. But we no longer know how to implement those values in a clear, coherent, and compelling manner in light of the more complex issues that face our nation today.
In truth, it is much easier to see the injustice in racial segregation than it is to justify affirmative action. It is much easier to support one-person-one-vote than it is to know how to deal with the challenges of campaign finance "reform." It is much easier to protest the prosecution of political dissidents than it is to address obsessive government secrecy and the concentration of media ownership. It is much easier to defend the rights of religious minorities than to respond to members of the religious right who claim that their nation has been hijacked by rampant secularism.
We liberals need to go back to the drawing board, not to figure out what our values are, but to figure out what they mean today and how we can persuade others that we are right.
Interestingly, conservatives faced a similar dilemma in the late 1970s. They were demoralized, disorganized, and defeated. They had lost on all of the issues on which liberals had won. In a period of conservative crisis, conservative law professors (including Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork) established the Federalist Society in order to reevaluate conservative positions and define a new strategy for articulating and explaining their views.
Over the past quarter-century, the Federalist Society has been breathtakingly (and admirably) successful. It has helped redefine the conservative agenda and the very terms of the debate about constitutional interpretation, federalism, regulation, religious liberty, and a host of other issues. It did this by bringing together professors, students, policy analysts, politicians, judges, and citizens. It brought them together to think.
The American Constitution Society was founded four years ago in order to do for liberals what the Federalist Society did twenty-five years ago for conservatives. The nation needs this organization to succeed. We need it not just for ourselves, but for our children, and for our children's children. If we liberals can't figure out how to refine, articulate and champion our views, then we will become irrelevant. The American Constitution Society is the best hope we have for thoughtful, challenging, and constructive thought. Check it out.