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Untrammeled by reality

National | Liberals become louder, more extreme, and more demanding when they are out of power

Issue: "One president, under God," Feb. 3, 2001

Didn't Republicans win the election? In fact, aren't Republicans now in control of much of the federal government-the Presidency, the House, and the Senate-for the first time in decades? So why are liberals the ones who seem energized?

The left wing seems back in vogue. Protesters, representing anarchists, radical environmentalists, and old-time socialists, are trying to shut down cities. Civil-rights leaders are supercharging their rhetoric, throwing around allegations of racism and social injustice as if nothing had changed since the age of Jim Crow. The media have ratcheted up their liberalism, with pundits vilifying, ridiculing, and condescending to the new administration before it even started. Congressional Democrats interrogated President Bush's most conservative cabinet nominees as if conservatism were a disqualification for office.

Conservatives, in turn, for all of their new-found power, are defensive, with many in the new government trying to present themselves as more liberal than they really are.

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Even the general public, though electing however narrowly a conservative government, seems more open to liberal solutions. Many citizens in California, browned out by the state's bungling of energy policy-semi-deregulating the electric companies, but keeping consumer prices artificially low and refusing on environmental grounds to allow for more power plants-are demanding that the state, in effect, socialize energy production. Accepted principles of a free economy, such as free trade and open competition, are coming under new attack.

So why the resurgence of the left? Human history is a record of pendulum swings, but there are reasons to expect liberals to be even more aggressive now that they are out of power.

Today's left came of age in the 1960s, its ideology motivated and shaped by protest. While Roosevelt-era liberals were constrained by the necessities of government, the New Left-despising old-line liberals such as President Johnson for their anti-communism and complicity in Vietnam-had the luxury of pure ideals, untrammeled by reality.

When communism collapsed in the Soviet Union, Marxist professors and other campus radicals had to take stock of their movement. The consensus that emerged was that the fall of Soviet Communism was a good thing for the left. Before, all of the gulags, secret police, censorship, and state-sanctioned murders gave Marxism a bad name. Now, said the radicals, socialism can be lifted up as a high ideal, a basis for criticizing the messiness of capitalism, while being immune from actual evidence.

It is easier to be the opposition than to be in charge. Those who protest can be louder, more extreme, and more demanding than those who rule.

This is true even for conservatives, when the liberals are in power. The right scored its strongest rhetorical points while Jimmy Carter was trying to control the economy and while Bill Clinton was trying to take over the nation's health care system.

Mr. Clinton, in turn, found himself implementing policies that would be anathema to liberal orthodoxy. Free trade, welfare reform, a balanced budget, eliminating the deficit-these were Goldwater-style issues, for which the Democrats, pressured mainly by the Republican Congress, took credit.

With the new election, Democrats can go back to ideological purity. The labor unions have reasserted their old clout, as have the interest groups-feminists, gays, Earth Firsters, race card players-that had been an embarrassment to the erstwhile "New Democrats."

Conservatives, in the meantime, will be everyone's target. The left will jump on every mistake. The necessary compromises of governance will look like sell-outs. Republicans will be on the defensive, because they will have something to defend.

But though the left will howl, amplified by the media, conservatives should not be afraid of exercising their power. If they do, they may achieve the consensus won by Ronald Reagan. Not only did this principled conservative unify the country to a remarkable degree, he and his policies won over even former leftists, who found themselves transformed into neoconservatives.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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