A liberal manifesto for America

Bruce Ackerman
30 October 2006

Powerlessness corrupts, and especially during an off-year congressional election: no leader of the opposition, no coherent party platform, no imperative to state a coherent programme for the responsible exercise of power. Whatever works to win your constituency is good enough for the party in its time of need. And if the Democrats do gain majorities in the Senate or the House of Representatives (or both) on 7 November, it's because moderates have joined liberals in repudiating the extraordinary blunders of the George W Bush administration.

Bruce Ackerman is professor of law and political science at Yale Law School. Among his many books are (with Anne Alstott) The Stakeholder Society (Yale University Press, 1999), and The Failure of the Founding Fathers: Jefferson, Marshall, and the Rise of Presidential Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2005). His latest book is Before the Next Attack: Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism (Yale University Press, 2006)

Bruce Ackerman and Todd Gitlin are co-authors of the manifesto – "We Answer to the Name of Liberals" – published on 18 October 2006 in The American Prospect. Its initial forty-four signatories have since been joined by hundreds more

Under the most optimistic scenario, the Democrats can't pass much ambitious legislation over the president's veto. The temptation will be great to spend the next two years on a muckraking politics that reveals the multiple misdeeds of the president, vice-president, and their fellow neo-conservatives. Some of this is absolutely necessary, but Bush and his minions are on the way out in any event. The Democrats shouldn't allow the prospect of presidential vetoes to deter them from presenting the country with serious legislative alternatives for the future, forcing the Republicans to play defense, and inviting Americans to move beyond the politics of fear.

This requires vision, and the task isn't made easier by radical-chic efforts to deny any real difference between the neocons and their intellectual antagonists. It's easy to point to prominent liberal hawks, but it's also easy to identify seriously conservative doves - just take a look at the far-right Cato Institute. We should move beyond individual personalities to recognise the breadth and strength of liberal opposition to our present course, and to define a compelling liberal agenda for the 21st century. This is not a job for newspaper pundits and Washington think-tanks. It requires a much wider debate.

This is, at least, the thought that led Todd Gitlin and me to write a liberal manifesto that might appeal to leading intellectuals across a broad front - from historians to poets, philosophers to novelists, as well as Nobel prize economists and leaders in law, political science, and sociology. Since it was posted on the American Prospect site, the manifesto has already gained hundreds of additional supporters - including Joyce Appleby, a former president of the American Historical Association, Oscar Hijuelos, a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, and Daniel Okrent, formerly public editor of the New York Times. This initial response suggests a broad determination to call America back to its liberal fundamentals.

I look upon this manifesto as a first step in a decade-long enterprise of reasserting the centrality of liberal values for America. The extent of the Bush fiasco will become clearer with every passing month. The only real question is whether this dark moment marks the beginning of a catastrophic decline or whether it will prompt a vibrant debate and a renewal of the core American values that this administration has fecklessly jettisoned.

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