"L" Is For Losers

Opening with a forward by George McGovern and written in a pugnacious ra-ra style, David P. Barish's The L Word fully lives up to its secondary title: "An unapologetic, thoroughly biased, long-overdue explication and celebration of liberalism." Unfortunately, Barish's unswerving enthusiasm for liberalism borders on blindness and epitomizes the book's shortcomings.

Barish aims first to define liberalism and point out its virtues as a solution for the main problems facing American society today. Reasoning that "Liberal's don't need new ideas nearly as much as they need faith and confidence in their old ones," Barish points out with historical examples how all of the progress in America--indeed in Western civilization--is rooted in classical liberalism: a protection and awareness of individual rights based on rational thought.

The L Word

By David P. Barish

William Morrow & Co., Inc.


Barish sees modern liberalism as the logical embodiment of these older beliefs. Modern liberalism ensures individual rights through government action. Barish cites school desegregation, the right to choose abortion and labor's right to unionize as some of the tangible accomplishments of modern liberalism. Each of the chapters outlines a specific issue or fundamental ideological belief--like the historical record of war and peace or the view of innate morality versus immorality of humans--and points out the virtues of liberalism when compared to its polar opposite, conservatism.

The L Word is best when Barish sticks to specific issues and when he offers actual critiques and solutions. Especially clear is Barish's discussion of the contradictions of Reagan conservatism, which touted "old-time values" while supporting selfish individualism. He also effectively critiques the inability of current liberals to produce an outstanding leader and the meek unwillingness of existing leaders to proclaim support for liberal policies.

Unfortunately, neither of these points is particularly insightful or original. And The L Word suffers from larger structural and ideological flaws.

For one, Barish fails to live up to a principle he sees as integral to liberalism: the integration of minority groups into society. Instead of addressing their arguments, Barish thrashes conservatives and conservatism in the same good versus evil manner he criticizes them for. The L Word abounds with lines like "Just as liberals have difficulty dealing with evil, conservatives are ill-prepared for goodness and virtue."

By passing off conservatives so utterly and glibly, Barish does not even acknowledge legitimate conservative critiques that may explain liberalism's existing unpopularity; resolutions of these criticisms could revive and strengthen liberalism. Further, by framing his argument in such a moralistic manner, Barish undermines the possibility for thoughtful discourse on political issues.

Barish also fails to deal with more extreme critiques of liberalism. Barish states that one of the reasons that conservatives have been able to depict liberalism as so subversive is due to the relative lack of radicals in the United States throughout history.

Barish thus ignores the Black nationalist and student movements of the 1960s, and their critiques that many still hold today. Black nationalist leaders like Malcolm X generally prioritized individual responsibility in reform and saw government as a tool for the power elite's oppression rather than a means to a conducive ends. And groups such as Students for a Democratic Society formed largely in response to the Vietnam War, a product of Cold War liberalism.

In addition, The L Word fails to pose viable, realistic methods for improving liberal organization and self-definition that would lead to political victories. Throughout, Barish points to the conservatives' ability to stigmatize liberals, while falsely representing themselves as the peoples' party. Conservative exploitation of the media was critical to the success of the "teflon factor."

Barish suggests no response for liberal politicians. Should they attempt to match such below-the-belt tactics? Or will the electorate just wake up? Barish offers no answer.

In his concluding chapter, Barish optimistically cites a recent survey indicating the public's concurrence with traditional liberal programs. Barish offers no technique for turning public opinion into votes during a time of general disaffection with the political process. The L Word's celebration of liberalism remains stuck in the past.