In the political landscape, seismic shifts first occur below the surface. Only after accumulating a critical social mass do they become visible. Until then, one can track their movement in the growing incoherence of the political language, and in the terms we use to describe our political choices, like “liberal” and “conservative.”
But, as even the most casual observer knows, these terms no longer identify a consistent set of political positions. Instead, they increasingly refer to policies that are almost the opposite of what the terms themselves imply.
What is liberal, for example, about a bill that would use the power of the state to crush an industry that is otherwise legal, and whose customers voluntarily pay billions a year to purchase its product in full knowledge of its medical consequences? What is liberal about a strategy that would achieve such social agendas by regulating what people can see and hear, and by imposing a regressive tax whose burdens would fall principally on working people and the poor?
But then, what is liberal about liberals at all anymore, except their attitudes toward drugs and sex?
What the obsolescence of the political language reveals, in fact, is how profoundly the parties themselves have changed; how much they have in effect traded places. The opponents of the tobacco legislation — the “conservative” party in contemporary political discourse — is in practice the party of liberal values (deregulatory and individualistic) and of social reform.
It is Republicans who want to shrink the power of the federal bureaucracies and devolve it through the states to the people. It is the liberal party that is dominated by a faction of political reactionaries and puritan busybodies fighting tooth and nail to obstruct this process, and to reinstitute the kind of moral prohibitionism that was proven bankrupt more than a half century ago.
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