‘Where have all the liberals gone?” I find myself asking this question a lot these days, and, truth be known, I miss them. Sure, I’ve had my share of very public battles with them. A number of our uglier encounters were splattered over the pages of the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun. Still, our underlying values were not so far apart; we simply differed on how to get there — how to make Maryland (and America) better. Today, however, those former colleagues with whom I served in two legislatures are a vanishing breed: Gone from the national political scene; gone from the ranks of Democratic leadership; gone from our daily political debates.
Now, I’m not talking about Truman–JFK–(Scoop) Jackson Democrats here. But for the recent anomaly of a Conor Lamb (who ran as a squeaky clean version of the president), those good folks have unfortunately gone missing for quite some time now. I witnessed their demise as a member of the Maryland legislature in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Each election cycle saw their long-held outer-suburban and rural seats turn a deeper shade of red. Seems the local folks simply decided to go with the “real thing” — to replace a conservative Democrat with a conservative Republican when given the opportunity. It was new blood versus dinosaurs — and even the right-thinking dinosaurs never stood a chance.
For the GOP, this realignment brought a significant increase in seats, especially in the South and West. I rode the wave of this historic bump (in 1994) to Congress along with 73 other Republican freshmen. The dozen and a half remaining “Blue Dogs” soon went the way of the horse and buggy. But the loss of this important third-party voting bloc did more than bolster House Republicans. By shrinking the Democratic base to (primarily) urban and coastal districts, it also signaled the decline of many old-fashioned liberals, as ascendant progressives challenged “safe” blue seats.
These liberals were further pressured by the demise of private-sector labor as a vote-generating machine. Here, the old New Deal “base” of socially conservative blue-collar ethnics has been replaced by young and minority voters attracted to the progressives’ big-tax, slow-growth, and very green agenda. Indeed, “Joe 6-Pack” quickly figured out that his local progressive Democrat had little interest in preserving industrial-era manufacturing and mining jobs (recall Hillary Clinton’s tone-deaf promise to West Virginians that she would put their mining livelihoods out of business — forever).
But traditional liberals have felt the heavy hand of progressive ideology — and on two issues more than any other: immigration and (free) speech.
Generations of grade-school kids learned how waves of turn-of-the-century immigrants from Poland, Italy, Greece, Germany, and Ireland launched FDR’s coalition. These new arrivals would soon populate America’s inner cities, assimilate into American culture, and join one political party — the party of the “workingman.” For decades thereafter, Democrats from right and left took great pride in this melting-pot immigrant identity, including an abiding respect for the rule of law and their (Ellis Island) legal entry into this promised land. Such a worldview lasted until and during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who famously declared in his January 1995 State of the Union address:
All Americans, not only in the States most heavily affected but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public service[s] they use impose burdens on our taxpayers. . . . We are a nation of immigrants. But we are also a nation of laws. It is wrong and ultimately self-defeating for a nation of immigrants to permit the kind of abuse of our immigration laws we have seen in recent years, and we must do more to stop it.
You may also recall Hillary Clinton’s opposition to driver’s licenses for illegal aliens during her presidential campaign of 2007. To wit: “As president, I will not support driver’s licenses for undocumented people and will press for comprehensive immigration reform that deals with all of the issues around illegal immigration, including border security and fixing our broken system.”
Our underlying values were not so far apart; we simply differed on how to get there — how to make America better.
Now fast-forward a decade and the world is upside down. Democratic mayors and their enablers in Congress champion “rights” for illegal aliens and sanctuary cities. And there appears to be no end to their “no-borders” platform. Every night, the cable news shows are full of Democratic leaders promising to resist . . . federal agents in charge of locating and deporting illegal felons. (Note: President Clinton uttered the above-cited words to bipartisan applause.) Can anyone in this audience imagine Hubert Humphrey championing the rights of alien felons over American citizens?
Free speech is another obvious victim of the progressive tide. Seemingly overnight, American campuses have been transformed from bastions of liberal protest to bastions of illiberal opposition to speech. Not so long ago, college activists marched for civil rights and women’s rights and in opposition to the Vietnam War. Liberals were in the vanguard; free speech and dissent would be utilized to bring about social change. A couple of generations later, Millennials and their faculty enablers march, protest, shout down, and destroy property . . . in order to deny those with alternative opinions their free-speech rights. Again, what would Hubert Humphrey say? He wouldn’t recognize his party. Neither do most Americans.