A favorite saying of liberals not long ago was: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Hillary Clinton, then a senator, said it. It was on bumper stickers. John Kerry, also a senator, said in 2006, as violence engulfed Iraq, that dissent in wartime and support for a war are “two sides of the very same patriotic coin.”
But that was in the era of George W. Bush. In the age of Barack Obama, liberals have changed their mind. Now, in case after case, dissent is to be suppressed, censored, or at the very least marginalized. Brendan Eich, the CEO of the Silicon Valley firm Mozilla, was forced out recently because he had supported a California referendum in 2008 barring gay marriage. Brandeis University rescinded an honorary degree for writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who criticizes Islam’s treatment of women. Asuza Pacific University canceled a speech by Charles Murray of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
That’s not all. Many liberals condemn dissent over political issues. Global warming activists are seeking to silence “deniers,” urging the media to ignore them and publications to reject their writings. Liberals, including Obama, claim Obamacare is a success, thus critics should shut up. Others say dissent from Obama’s policies is illegitimate, motivated only by his being an African American.
Liberals, it turns out, aren’t very liberal these days—and not just in their efforts to stifle dissent. They’ve become name-callers, casually using words like “racist” to delegitimize thoughts, ideas, and proposals they oppose without mounting any substantive argument against them. We saw this when Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) offered ideas aimed at uprooting the welfare culture.
Ryan had been visiting poor, urban communities all over the country for months, guided by Robert Woodson, the founder of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. His ideas are serious and well intentioned. Dismissing them as “racist” without considering them was illiberal. It was the sort of know-nothing response liberals used to condemn.
The same term was applied to Republican opposition to immigration reform. “I think race had something to do with them not bringing up the immigration bill,” House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said. Rep. Steve Israel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the GOP base is “animated” by racism “to a significant extent.” Israel and Pelosi offered no evidence for their accusation.
Another poisonous term once detested by liberals has become part of their political vocabulary: “un-American.” Senate majority leader Harry Reid calls the Koch brothers, who aid Republican candidates, “un-American.” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says Republicans are “un-American.” The lawyer for IRS official Lois Lerner says it would be “un-American” for the House to hold her in contempt.
Obama is more clever. He uses code words to imply the same thing. He’s repeatedly insisted Republicans put “party over country” when they object to his policies. Liberals accuse Republicans of utilizing this “dog whistle” technique (only the faithful can hear it). I doubt if Republicans are deft enough to use this approach, but Obama is. To the Democratic masses, “party over country” is code for “un-American.”
On policies, too, liberals have drifted away from traditional liberalism. Until Obama was elected, Democrats were champions of human rights. Getting the Soviet Union to release human rights activists was one of the few successes of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. But when Hillary Clinton visited China as secretary of state early in the Obama administration, she downplayed human rights in talks with Chinese leaders.
Nor has Obama let concern for human rights interfere with other foreign policy concerns. He was silent when demonstrations for democracy erupted in Iran. He’s made little effort to free political prisoners around the world, notably in Russia.
For decades after World War II, liberals were passionate defenders of democratic Israel. Today they aren’t. They’ve acceded to Secretary of State Kerry’s approach to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. To force concessions, he said Israel is in danger of becoming an “apartheid state” confronted by a growing anti-Israel BDS movement (boycott, divestment, sanctions). Obama’s support for Israel is the minimum acceptable to most Americans.
Free trade has gradually slipped from the liberal agenda. The short explanation is unions oppose free trade, so now liberals oppose it. This affected Obama’s strategy for winning approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He was too meek to lobby Democrats for “fast track” authority, barring amendments to the TPP treaty. Once he failed to get it, the Japanese balked at signing a treaty that might be tattooed with amendments and never gain ratification in Congress.
And let’s not forget tax reform. Liberals continue to say they are for it. Not quite. Liberals were leading voices for the tax reform in 1986 that eliminated preferences and loopholes, broadened the tax base, and cut rates. It passed the Senate 97-3. But that’s no longer the liberal formula. Obama’s version of tax reform is killing business tax breaks and spending the money rather than using it to reduce taxes.
Liberals have made one more change. They’ve become “progressives.” I’m not sure what that means. But a name change was appropriate, because the folks formerly known as liberals certainly aren’t very liberal anymore.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.