Nov. 3 was a hard day. After weekends and summers spent canvassing door-to-door and hours spent calling voters in swing states, to see all that work go for naught hurt. Most Democrats were in shock; many were on the verge of despair. When Bush’s re-election finally set in, many people were moved to anger and recriminations. It would be easy to say that we’d been sold out by an unprincipled party that had forsaken its base, forgotten its message, and was reduced to farcically imitating its opposition.
There is some justice to these accusations — liberalism is in a rut these days. Nationally, very few positive articulations of liberal politics exist in the mainstream American media. The word “liberal” itself has even become a liability on the campaign trail. Ask the conservative to describe a liberal, and he’ll paint you the picture of an unprincipled, elitist, latte-drinking, Volvo-driving weakling. Faced with these stereotypes and increasing marginalization, the liberal cause has become reduced to a laundry list of concerns for the poor, the environment, reproductive rights and a host of other commendable stances — but no explanation of how they fit together.
This has led to nearsightedness in liberal thought. All too often, Democrats will raise salient objections to Republican policies, while failing to offer compelling alternatives. But even when such alternatives do emerge, Democratic policy as a whole lacks a cohesive vision. We saw this clearly in the election, where John Kerry hammered an unpopular president with a record of failure but failed to win voters because he offered few positive alternatives and no unifying theme. Without a well-articulated guiding vision, it is not easy to see solutions to failing policies. We have no alternative for all those Americans whose primary exposure to liberal politics is as an object of ridicule by Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter. We can shout ourselves hoarse saying that these depictions are wrong, but without something definite to point to and say, “This is Liberalism!” most of these Americans will shrug us off as irrelevant cynics.
This is not the first time a political movement has faced this situation. Conservatives found themselves painted into a similar corner in 1964. Just like Democrats today have not (with the exception of Bill Clinton) held the highest office in more than 25 years, Republicans then had elected no president since 1933 except Eisenhower. Conservatives seemed stiff, regressive and out of touch with America. However, over the next 15 years, they rebuilt their movement. They founded think tanks to reconsider their fundamental principles, retool their policies and repackage their image. They poured millions of dollars and hours into building a powerful grass roots movement. They created conferences and forums to educate and train young conservatives. Most visibly, they waged a war on what they termed the “liberal media” and created right-wing alternatives. With Reagan’s election, conservatives saw their work pay off, and America entered a Republican era.
Now it’s our turn. We must rebuild the liberal movement, and we have the tools to do it. Unlike the conservatives in 1964, we still benefit from a wide base and a massive grass-roots movement. But as this election proved, funding, organization and policy stances are not enough. We must present a comprehensive vision of a better America that ties our immediate concerns to our most basic principles. We must articulate what it means to continue to strive for the betterment of American society. Concern for the disenfranchised, rights for minorities and the sustainability of the environment are not separate issues. They are integral parts of the most basic principle of liberal politics: progress. Progressivism goes upwards and outwards, from the frontiers of technology to our moral obligation to ensure that every American enjoys a standard of living compatible with human dignity.
The Roosevelt Institute at Yale, a student-run think tank, was founded in response to this need to articulate a comprehensive progressive vision. True to the values of the movement, our organization works from the ground up. College students have the intellectual capacity and energy to influence the national political dialogue. Here at Yale and across the nation, concerned students have come together to discuss, redefine and revive progressivism. We are researching the state of our country and the consequences of American policies. We are proposing new solutions and reviving old ones. We are committed to discussing politics on our terms, and to doing so in a compelling way. Most importantly, we are educating ourselves and those around us.
Colleges across the country are joining in the effort. In partnership with the Roosevelt Institute at Stanford, we have created the Roosevelt Network, a national organization of progressive student think tanks. Together, we can engage in the national political discourse, giving a voice to forward-thinking students across the United States. We as students have a responsibility to shape the world that we will inherit. At the Roosevelt Institute, we accept that challenge and are optimistic that others of our generation will join us at this critical juncture in our nation’s history.
Andrew Cox, a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College, is a founding member of the Roosevelt Institute at Yale. This piece was written collectively by the Institute.