Ask a conservative what the biggest problem in America is today, and you'll get answers like overtaxation, a sexualized culture, lack of respect for authority, insufficient church-going or big government running amok. But if you then asked the conservative what the real source of the problem was - the beating heart pumping blood to each and all of these socio-politico-cultural wounds - you'd get the same answer: liberalism.
And conservatives learn these messages when still young. What does a "campus liberal" do? Well, it depends what his or her issue is: fighting sweatshop labor, or environmental degradation, or the Iraq war, or any of a dozen other problems about which liberals are concerned. What, on the other hand, does a "campus conservative" do? Fight liberals and liberalism.
As everyone knows, conservatives have succeeded in making "liberal" an epithet, something they throw at their opponents - who try desperately to dodge the label. The demonization of "liberal" has been successful in part because conservatives have effectively created what social psychologists call a "schema" with decidedly negative features around the term. A schema is a set of ideas that are connected in people's minds, such that activating one idea - "liberal" - activates a whole set of related ideas, like lights on a Christmas tree. We assemble schemas as a way of storing and categorizing related information in memory. In this case, the related ideas are things like "soft on crime," "weak on defense," "sexually permissive," and so on. The ideas liberals would like to pop right up in people's heads when they hear the term liberal - "wants prosperity for everyone," "supports universal health care" or "stands up to powerful interests" - are farther away from the schema's center.
This didn't happen by accident. It is the result of a relentless campaign against liberalism by conservatives. And liberals need to do the same thing to conservatism.
Conservatives had their chance: a Republican president, a Republican Congress, Republican-appointed courts - in short, the perfect environment for enacting their vision with little to stand in their way - and they failed. Should we be surprised at the level of corruption? Of course not; they don't think government is there to serve the people, so why shouldn't they raid it for whatever they can grab?
In short, progressives should start talking about the Bush administration's failures not as those of a president, but of an ideology.
Conservatism is Bill Bennett lecturing you about self-denial, then rushing off to feed his slot habit at the casino. It's James Dobson telling you that children need regular beatings to stay in line. It's a superannuated nun rapping you on the knuckles so you won't think about your dirty parts. It's Jerry Falwell watching "Teletubbies" frame by frame to see if Tinky Winky is trying to turn him gay. Conservatism is everyone you never wanted to grow up to be.
Conservatives are cowards, and they hope you are, too. We're afraid, they shout. We're so afraid of terrorists, we have to become more like the things we hate. We're so afraid, we have to let our government sanction torture. We're so afraid, we have to let the government spy on us. We're so afraid, we have to give the president dictatorial powers. We're so afraid, we just want to rush to the arms of politicians who say they'll protect us.
Progressives need to frame their rejection of the fear campaign as an act of courage: Al-Qaida does not scare us, and we will not dismantle our democratic system because we are afraid. The America we love does not cower in fear, as the conservatives want it to.
The key challenge facing progressives right now is how - once George W. Bush decamps for Crawford in January of 2009 - to maintain the increased energy motivating the political left in recent years . They will be able to do so if they come to understand that George W. Bush is not what they need to fight. What they need to fight is conservatism.
I agree with everything Mr. Waldman says until the second-to-last sentence. We damn sure do need to fight Bush, in the short term of his remaining days in his stolen office. He gets it right, and back on track, in his last sentence.
He's dead right about fighting conservatism via a progressive message. The way us peasants can send that message is at the polls in November.
Go to Main and Central and click the links for more on this and a definition of a great short description of conservatives, WATB.