The missing secret of American liberalism |

The missing secret of American liberalism

Kirk Caraway

Ask 10 liberals what liberalism is, you will get 20 different answers, and most of them will be wrong.

And yet liberals made great gains in the 2006 elections, which should tell you just how bad conservatives are doing.

This is the No. 1 complaint I hear about liberals and Democrats, that they don’t stand for anything. The true definition of liberalism is like a secret locked away in a vault; its combination lost, leaving adherents to wander around guessing at what it means.

John F. Kennedy knew the combination. So did his brother Robert. Teddy forgot it at a place called Chappaquiddick.

But in the heyday of the ’60s, with its unrest, hope and tragedy, the idea was lost. What was once a coherent philosophy was hijacked by a plethora of special interests. Being liberal came to mean civil rights, labor unions, abortion, peace, etc., with no connection to the basic philosophy. It’s as if someone clipped the flowers of liberalism and put them in a vase to be admired, not realizing that they would die without the roots.

And die they did. Those same special interests are now the weeds choking the life out of the Democratic Party. It’s the party of affirmative action, killing babies and mob-influenced unions.

The secret they are hunting for was hidden in plain sight all the time. JFK spoke the words, which anyone 40 or older knows: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

That wasn’t just some line in a speech. It states clearly what liberalism truly is. We, as a country, can together do great things. We are greater than the sum of our parts. Together, we can solve any problem, meet every challenge. Working together for the common good is the philosophy this country and the Constitution were based on.

I have yet to hear any present Democrat espouse that view as clearly as Kennedy did. Sure, they beat the Republicans last month, but only because their opponents forgot what they stood for, things like limited government, fiscal responsibility and individual freedom. Like the Democrats, the Republicans became a party of issues, most of them just the opposite of the Democrats.

Now we find ourselves at a time when both major parties have lost touch with their philosophical roots. So instead, they simply launch partisan attacks against each other, hoping no one will notice that their parties have come loose from their moorings.

What is sad is that we, the people, lose out. We need a government that acts for the common good, balanced with individual freedom. Right now, it isn’t acting in either direction, drifting to whatever the political attack of the day is.

As Congress changes hands, leaders on both sides of the aisle need to look back at the roots of what they stand for, and act for the common good, not just what is good for themselves. It’s about making America better, not bettering their chances for reelection.

What they might find is that voters will like them better if they stop all the pandering and become true leaders.

“I have a philosophy about elections,” said Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, one of the new breed of Democrats trying to reclaim the foundations of the party. “I believe issues divide and values unite.”

The first party that can recapture what they stand for will win in 2008. However, we need both parties to find themselves if we are all going to benefit.

• Kirk Caraway is editor of, and also writes a blog on national issues at