Earlier this week, New York Times columnist David Brooks asked, "Where are the liberals?" He claimed that liberals are failing to expand their reach in the American population, despite a generally agreeable worldview and cultural influence.
Brooks' argument is a collage of smaller theses, not all of which seem to go hand-in-hand. I take exception to his claim that liberals are trapped in alliances with "rent-seekers" who only want to take for themselves from the federal coffers and therefore show no interest in innovating government. From a push to raise wages to the movement to curb climate change, the most dynamic liberal causes tend to be animated by people not arguing for their own benefit, but for a greater good. On the other hand, I do agree with his assessment that Democrats, including President Obama, do themselves a disservice when they demonize the government. The government needs to be the tool that utilizes our shared resources to achieve our common goals. That doesn't happen by campaigning against it.
That said, whenever David Brooks gives advice to liberals, it should be taken with the same grain of salt as when I give guidance to conservatives. Brooks is more interested in pinching progressives than encouraging them. However, because of his valuable real estate on the Times op-ed page and his smooth style, he probably has gotten many readers asking: "Where are the liberals?"
The short answer is that they are everywhere—pushing solutions, envisioning a stronger America and building a movement.
There is the People's Budget, submitted by members of Congress, which suggested straightforward steps to reducing the deficit while remaining compassionate to those in need and effectively using government to serve all its citizens. An alternative to Paul Ryan's draconian vision, this much less-touted plan showed that progressives could limit the deficit without limiting our values.
There is the vision for green jobs, put forth by organizations like Green For All, which outlines a strategy to bring effective job training to urban populations, and put them to work retrofitting buildings—a program that erased the divide between environmentalists and urban activists, created skilled jobs, and supported a workforce suited for the new economy. The champion of this blueprint, Van Jones, was set to bring this approach to Washington until Glenn Beck and Fox News chased him out.
There was the new program backed by the AFL-CIO and other unions to invest their own pensions in green infrastructure: creating jobs, impacting the environment, putting their money to good use and seeing a profit from it.
There is the argument for a smart financial speculation tax, articulated by economists like Dean Baker, working out of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, which would be a simple step toward reining in Wall Street excess and recalibrating our economy.
There are those arguing for Medicare For All, an elegant route to create savings throughout the healthcare industry, model our system on successful precedents, and increase health coverage. There is the Contract for the American Dream, a series of simple planks for improving government services, strengthening our financial security and improving America's economic and international standing.
If some of these ideas are new to you, that's not your fault. It may mean these groups haven't communicated broadly enough, or aren't given the same air time as those who hawk more conservative visions. It is also because the Democratic leadership in Washington does not always embrace these visions. If you look at an Obama Administration that fell short of its promise, a chief executive who has too often negotiated away from our principles, a Democratic contingent on the Hill that has embarrassed itself with a mix of ineffectiveness at certain times and incredulous deal-making at others, you might agree that there isn't liberal leadership in this country.
But the next step isn't Brooks' answer that liberals need to reinvent themselves: it's that the Democrats in Washington need to embrace these liberal solutions; that liberals—who champion a compelling agenda—need to to find allies who propel these ideas further into the mainstream; and that ultimately we would be better if liberals—not just any old Democrats—held more influence in Washington.