Liberalism: what’s gone wrong? And what needs fixing?

There an interesting symposium in Democracy in which a number of well-known US intellectuals wrestle with the question of whether — and how — liberalism needs to be redefined in the context of Obama’s (and Limbaugh’s) America. Panellists include Michael Sandel, Martha Nussbaum, Robert Reich and Michael Walzer.

We asked some of America’s leading progressive thinkers to give us their takes on where the last 14 months fit within the historical scope of American liberalism. Here are their responses, which get at what may be the central challenge for progressives today. We have a liberalism that wants to do much–that has, over the years and decades, only added to its list of goals and desired interventions. But we have a system that seemingly in both political and policy terms simply can’t accommodate all those desires. We have what you might call an idea-oversupply problem. How, then, do we prioritize? What goals can succeed in the short term–and in the long term, can succeed in opening up more breathing room for the list?

Our symposium does not definitively answer these questions; they are, ultimately, unanswerable, destined for a state of constant flux, like Heraclitus’ ever-flowing river into which one cannot take the same step twice. But they’re the right questions, and our contributors address them in provocative ways.

Teflon Palin

Lovely piece by Christopher Hitchens in Slate.

Writing about Sarah Palin in Newsweek last month, I pointed out the crude way in which she tried to Teflon-ize herself when allegations of weird political extremism were made against her. Thus, she had once gone to a Pat Buchanan rally wearing a pro-Buchanan button, but only because she thought it was the polite thing to do. She and her husband had both attended meetings of the Alaskan Independence Party—he as a member—but its name, she later tried to claim, only meant “independent.” (The AIP is a straightforward secessionist party.) She didn’t disbelieve all the evidence for evolution, only some of it. She hadn’t exactly said that God was on our side in Iraq, only that God and the United States were on the same side. She says that she left the University of Hawaii after only one year because the climate was too sunny for an Alaskan; her father (whom she considers practically infallible) tells her most recent biographers that she quit because of the preponderance of Asian and Pacific islanders: “They were a minority type thing and it wasn’t glamorous. So she came home.” And so on.

Then, bang on cue, Palin made a live appearance that nicely illustrates Hitchin’s point:

She appeared on the radio show of a certain Rusty Humphries, another steaming and hearty slice of good-old U.S. prime, and was asked whether she would make an issue of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Her response: “I think the public rightfully is still making it an issue. I think it’s a fair question.” That was on Thursday, Dec. 3. On Friday, she had published a second “thought” on her Facebook page, reassuring all and sundry that: “At no point have I asked the president to produce his birth certificate, or suggested that he was not born in the United States.”

Well, exactly. Of course she hasn’t. She just thinks it’s a good idea for others to do that, in their “rightful” way, since, after all, it is “a fair question.”