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Where's the Left? 

American liberalism at century's end

Wednesday, Mar 17 1999

Page 9 of 9

Thus the urgency of a Democratic sweep: For the first time in half a century, congressional Democrats actually seem committed to the goal of strengthening unions, as do the party's presidential candidates. No other goal is more central to the project of the new liberalism, nor more imperiled by a new decade of Republican control. Whatever the shortcomings of Al Gore and Bill Bradley, they pale alongside the question of the fate of America's unions, and its workers.

IN AMERICA'S CITIES, THE REINVENTION of American liberalism continues apace. Chicago and Detroit recently enacted living-wage ordinances. And just as the two Democratic presidential contenders swear their allegiance to the cause of organizing, so the victory celebration for the union of home-care workers, here in L.A., was joined by the two early front-runners in the next mayoral election: Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The moral claim of the working poor -- in modest apartments around L.A., in maquiladoras on the border, in the sweatshops of Saipan -- grows more insistent, more compelling.

It's been a long time, in fact, since American liberalism has attained quite this level of moral clarity -- not, I'd argue, since the heyday of the civil rights and anti-war movements more than 30 years ago. In the intervening decades, liberalism often turned on itself, pitting race against race while overlooking the commonalities of class. Today, it speaks for, and through, a more polyglot America -- acknowledging, celebrating, its differences, but demanding that the same single standard of dignity be accorded the least of our (and the world's) citizens as once it demanded a single standard of dignity for all of our races.

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