The administrations of Ronald Reagan and his successor, George Bush senior, are tagged as an era that sealed the demonization of the liberal label.
Bush I took bold aim at what he called the L-word during his ultimately successful bid for the White House in 1988.
More than 15 years later, his son was still able to leverage the ick factor that stuck to liberalism, gleefully abetted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter and a host of Fox News talking heads.
Liberal became a catchall word for un-American, extremist, out of touch with the mainstream, weak, socialist, communist, soft on terror, tree-huggers… even fascist, interestingly enough, if they attempted to establish a measure of sanity on gun ownership and availability.
Instead of nipping the attack in the bud, and assertively rejecting the aspersions with reasoned argument — or even invoking the record of good that policies and programs bearing liberalism’s stamp have produced historically — liberals distanced themselves from their philosophical moorings.
Without forcefully, or even publicly, re-embracing the old liberal label, or any label for that matter, those on either side of the political centre are suddenly cohering around personal and pragmatic notions of what constitutes civil, enlightened living.
From the sporting world, to the religious pulpit, to voting-age young people with broader worldviews — and even some conservatives who have decided to see the transformational writing on the wall — there are unmistakable signs of a cultural shifting of gears.
“When our Jackie Robinson comes out, he’s going to have a supporting cast around him, and we’re going to support him and we’re going to treat him just like we treat everybody else… with love and fairness and kindness and compassion,” asserts Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who says the ground is being laid for gay players to come out in the hyper-masculinized football arena.
Baptist pastor Frederick Haynes gave his Dallas congregation and colleagues-in-religion a dressing down about their homophobia in a rousing sermon months before the American election. “Do you know the words of the Declaration of Independence?” he asked them. “Notice it does not say that all straight men are created equal. It does not say that all men, unless you are gay and lesbian, are created equal.”
Similarly, the Boy Scouts of America organization is being assailed for its anti-gay policy and faces the prospect of having to ditch that cargo as pressure, corporate and otherwise, piles on for it to get with the equity-and-justice program.
Some Republicans, including Newt Gingrich, now consider it futile to block the gay marriage freight train, despite the intransigence of others, like Congressional House leader John Boehner, who continue to throw money behind the DOMA fight the Supreme Court will hear.
Even as what is happening in the American body politic can be said to fall under a resurgent liberalism’s reach, at this juncture it is perhaps too anachronistic a term for liberals gone AWOL to come home to.
Meanwhile, the American right continues its free-fall into the morbidly ridiculous in its reactions to the momentum behind gay rights, gun control and healthcare, even as some try to rein in its excesses by calling for a change in PR when the message itself is fundamentally flawed.
A switch has been flipped in the public sphere.
Combined with the tireless grunt work of community and advocacy organizations, the power of reasoned and reasonable argument based in common sense and empathy is riding a momentum of its own in an environment where blind, unquestioning adherence to ideology, party, tribe or faith are increasingly proving outmoded, even primitive and pathetic.