We Answer to the Name of Liberals

As right-wing politicians and pundits call us stooges for Osama bin Laden, Tony Judt charges, in a widely discussed and heatedly debated essay in the London Review of Books, that American liberals -- without distinction -- have "acquiesced in President Bush's catastrophic foreign policy." Both claims are nonsense on stilts.

Clearly this is a moment for liberals to define ourselves. The important truth is that most liberals, including the undersigned, have stayed our course throughout these grim five years. We have consistently and publicly repudiated the ruinous policies of the Bush administration, and our diagnosis, alas, has been vindicated by events. The Bush debacle is a direct consequence of its repudiation of liberal principles. And if the country is to recover, we should begin by restating these principles.

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We have all opposed the Iraq war as illegal, unwise, and destructive of America's moral standing. This war fueled, and continues to fuel, jihadis whose commitment to horrific, unjustifiable violence was amply demonstrated by the September 11 attacks as well as the massacres in Spain, Indonesia, Tunisia, Great Britain, and elsewhere. Rather than making us safer, the Iraq war has endangered the common security of Americans and our allies.

We believe that the state of Israel has the fundamental right to exist, free of military assault, within secure borders close to those of 1967, and that the U.S. government has a special responsibility toward achieving a lasting Middle East peace. But the Bush administration has defaulted. It has failed to pursue a steady and constructive course. It has discouraged the prospects for an honorable Israeli-Palestinian settlement. It has encouraged Israel's disproportionate attacks in Lebanon after the Hezbollah incursions, resulting in vast destruction of civilian life and property.

Make no mistake: We believe that the use of force can, at times, be justified. We supported the use of American force, together with our allies, in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. But war must remain a last resort. The Bush administration's emphatic reliance on military intervention is illegitimate and counterproductive. It creates unnecessary enemies, degrades the national defense, distracts from actual dangers, and ignores the imperative necessity of building an international order that peacefully addresses the aspirations of rising powers in Asia and Latin America.

The misapplication of military power also imperils American freedom at home. The president claims authority, as commander in chief, to throw American citizens into military prison for years on end without any hearing, civil or military, that would allow them to confront the charges against them. He claims the power to wiretap Americans' conversations without warrants, in direct violation of congressional commands. These usurpations presage what are likely to be even more drastic measures if another attack takes place on American soil.

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At the same time, the president is unconstitutionally seizing power on other fronts. He seeks to liberate himself from the rule of law by issuing hundreds of "signing statements" asserting, with unprecedented sweep and aggressiveness, his right to ignore congressional control. Such contempt for the people's representatives verges on monarchical pretension.

The administration's politics of panic diverts attention from pressing questions of social justice and environmental survival. The president remorselessly seeks to undermine the principle of progressive taxation. Under cover of patriotism, he promotes vast tax cuts to the rich at the expense of policies that strengthen the common ties that bind us together as a community.

We reaffirm the great principle of liberalism: that every citizen is entitled by right to the elementary means to a good life. We believe passionately that societies should afford their citizens equal treatment under the law -- regardless of accidents of birth, race, sex, property, religion, ethnic identification, or sexual disposition. We want to redirect debate to the central questions of concern to ordinary Americans -- their rights to housing, affordable health care, equal opportunity for employment, and fair wages, as well as physical security and a sustainable environment for ourselves and future generations.

Instead of securing these principles, the president and his party view the suppression of votes indulgently and propose new requirements for voting that will make it still harder for the poor and the elderly to exercise their democratic rights.

The administration's denial of reality reaches a delusional peak in its refusal to acknowledge basic science describing the massive climate change now under way. Against the advice of all serious experts, the government has grossly failed in its responsibility to our descendants. It has consistently sought to undermine the Kyoto treaty and refused to encourage energy conservation. We insist on a clean break with this shameful record. Our government should be taking the lead in reducing greenhouse gases, recognizing our responsibilities as the world's leading polluter. We should be investing massively in energy sources that carry out a commitment to environmental stewardship and help restore our manufacturing base at the same time.

The administration's contempt for science is of a piece with its general disdain for reason -- a prejudice that any modern society ought to have left behind. Whether confronting scientific research, evolution, birth control, foreign policy, drug pricing, or the manner in which it makes decisions, the Bush administration has defied evidence and logic, sabotaging its own professional civil servants. It refuses serious consultation with experts and critics. It acts secretly, in defiance of the powers of Congress. It refuses to identify those whose advice it solicits, even concealing the names of the vice president's staff. It stifles civil servants attempting to do their jobs. It appoints cronies whose political loyalty cannot compensate for their incompetence. When challenged, it responds with lies and distortions.

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Reason is indispensable to democratic self-government. This self-evident truth was a fundamental commitment of our Founding Fathers, who believed it was entirely compatible with every American's First Amendment right to the free exercise of religion. When debating policy in the public square, our government should base its laws on grounds that can be accepted by people regardless of their religious beliefs. Public commitment to reason and evidence is the bedrock of a pluralist democracy. Nevertheless, it has been eroded by the present administration in an ongoing campaign to pander to its hard right wing.

This government's failures to respect the process of public reason have generated predictable consequences -- none of them good. The Bush administration has failed to protect its citizens from disaster -- from foreign enemies on September 11, 2001, and from the hurricane and flood that afflicted the Gulf Coast in 2005. It has driven the war in Iraq to an impasse. It is incapable of presenting a plausible strategy to bring our military intervention to a tenable conclusion.

We insist that America be defended vigorously against its real enemies -- the radical Islamists who organize to attack us. But security does not require torture or the rejection of basic guarantees of due process. To the contrary, this administration's lawless conduct and its violations of the Geneva Conventions only damage our moral standing and our ability to combat the appeals of violent ideologues. By defending torture, the Bush administration engages in precisely the kind of ethical relativism that it purports to condemn. Meanwhile, it refuses to confront its responsibility for the human-rights violations at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and elsewhere. Having failed to plan for obvious contingencies, it has scapegoated low-level military personnel when it should be identifying and punishing broader command failures.

We refuse to confine our criticisms to personalities. We believe that the abuses of power that have been commonplace under Bush's rule must be laid not only at his door -- and the vice president's -- but at the doors of a conservative movement that has, for decades, undermined government's ability to act reasonably and effectively for the common good.

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We love this country. But true patriotism does not consist of bravado or calumny. It resides in faithfulness to our great constitutional ideals. We are a republic, not a monarchy. We believe in the rule of law, not secret prisons. We insist on justice for all, not privilege for the few. In repudiating these American ideals, the Bush administration disgraces America and damages our claim to democratic leadership in the larger world.

It will take hard work to undo this damage. It will take more than defeating the hard-line right at the polls. We must engage in large acts of political imagination and inspire a new generation to take up liberal principles and adapt them inventively in a new century.

-- Bruce Ackerman and Todd Gitlin

Additional signatories:


George Akerlof, Berkeley

Jeffrey Alexander, Yale

Eric Alterman, City University of New York

Kenneth Arrow, Stanford

Ian Ayres, Yale

Benjamin Barber, Maryland

Yochai Benkler, Yale

Joshua Cohen, Stanford and Boston Review

Lizabeth Cohen, Harvard

Robert A. Dahl, Yale

Norman Daniels, Harvard

Michael Doyle, Columbia

Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Graduate Center, CUNY

James K. Galbraith, Texas

Robert W. Gordon, Yale

Jorie Graham, Harvard

Adam Hochschild, Berkeley

Arlie Hochschild, Berkeley

G. John Ikenberry, Princeton

Christopher Jencks, Harvard

Pamela S. Karlan, Stanford

Michael Kazin, Georgetown

Chang-Rae Lee, Princeton

Margaret Levi, University of Washington

Sanford Levinson, Texas

Doug McAdam, Stanford

Jane Mansbridge, Harvard

Katherine S. Newman, Princeton

Robert Post, Yale

Robert B. Reich, Berkeley

Susan Rose-Ackerman, Yale

Ruth Rosen, Berkeley

Elaine Scarry, Harvard

Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Graduate Center, CUNY

Richard Sennett, LSE and NYU

Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton

Jane Smiley, Carmel Valley

Christine Stansell, Princeton

Charles Tilly, Columbia

Michael Tomasky, The American Prospect

C.K. Williams, Princeton

William Julius Wilson, Harvard

Alan Wolfe, Boston College

George M. Woodwell, Woods Hole Research Center

This list of signatories will be continually updated as new additions are made. To have your name added to the list, e-mail this address.

Click here to see the updated list of signatories.

Bruce Ackerman is a professor of law and political science at Yale. Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University. E-mail them here.

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