Aug. 9 issue - At the end of Barack Obama's keynote speech to the Democratic convention, I stood up and cheered at the TV. I was alone in the den with two dogs, a piece of needlepoint and a cup of Sleepytime tea. I must have looked like a solitary lunatic, but I'm certain I wasn't alone in my reaction.
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We liberals have fallen on hard times in recent elections. At the very least, like feminists, we are not supposed to say our name. Certainly none of the sanctioned speakers were supposed to describe either John Kerry or John Edwards using the L word. That will be left to the Republicans, who will use the description as a pejorative to suggest that the Democratic candidates are out of touch with the moderate values of the American people.
But it's worth remembering that today's moderate values were the liberal notions of yesteryear. Social Security. Integrated schools. A war on poverty. In just one generation we have gone from the dark threat of something labeled socialized medicine to the promise of the same thing, called universal health care. We liberals have been shamed into thinking our vision failed, when in fact it has simply been absorbed into the national self-portrait. From the idea that a woman ought to have the same legal rights as her male counterparts to the belief that workers should count on being safe from hazardous conditions, formerly liberal principles have become bedrock democracy.
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In his speech Obama reclaimed patriotism and traditional values for liberal activists, who have allowed their detractors to confuse dissent with disloyalty and tolerance with amorality. "There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it," he said. And he added, referring to the great fractured map of Blue Democratic states and Red Republican states that is the legacy of the 2000 election, "We worship an awesome God in the Blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the Red states. We coach Little League in the Blue states and have gay friends in the Red states."
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But his own was the story that made his point most powerfully. It was a story that, under the status quo of the recent past, would probably never have taken place at all. "In no other country on earth is my story even possible," he said. But it was possible in some substantial measure because of a movement devoted to replacing the status quo with something fairer, greater, different. According to the dictionary, and to history as well, that movement was, and remains, liberalism.