Does American liberalism have a future?
The question has a simple answer: not as long as liberals allow their opponents to define political reality.
Right-wing dominance of American politics is easy to understand: popularise a hysterical image of a dangerous world; devote surplus government revenue to ensure "national security"; thus evade a debate about domestic priorities that you might lose; thus leave a vacuum to be filled by trivia such as prayer and gay marriage.
This is not to accuse the right of duplicity. Political actors usually manage to believe whatever maximises their influence.
It is hard to tell whether American liberals have lost their voice because they lack courage or because they half believe in the same picture of reality. That they have forfeited their tradition of social reform is shown by the paucity of their hopes for an Obama victory.
These amount to little more than damage control, that is, cleaning up the worst of the messes that the Bush Administration has created. Get United States troops out of Iraq, not attack Iran, regulate the financial sector, and manage the coming recession.
The right-wing image of the world is absurd: America is safer than at any other time over the past 80 years.
No other nation qualifies as a great power and those that come closest, Russia and China, are not expansionist but inward looking.
No "rogue" state is mad enough to launch some feeble attack on America to be obliterated in return. Even Stalin with his huge nuclear arsenal was not that mad. Hostile subterranean groups are relatively weak and can be combated cheaply and effectively.
They may have one or two more successes over a period of decades but the casualties they have inflicted thus far are less than those America has chosen to inflict on itself by pointless wars. Let us look at some of the rhetoric that emasculates liberalism.
War on terror
No liberal should use that phrase. Terror, or attacking targets by stealth, is something that all peoples use when they have a sense of injustice and cannot compete using conventional arms.
America should take steps to be "free from intimidation". The handful of subterranean groups hostile to the US must be infiltrated.
When states allow such groups to establish bases, those bases should be bombed, without consent if necessary. The invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake and Barack Obama is wrong to shift troops there from Iraq.
Bases there and those in Pakistan are legitimate targets. Sending American troops into such states is costly and ineffective.
There are no rogue states, only badly governed states some of which have the capacity to develop a limited nuclear force, mainly to "balance" that of a neighbour (Iran and Israel - India and Pakistan).
As for a regime that has actually threatened America, Saudi Arabia is pre-eminent. Its "Islamic charities" financed al Qaeda. That the US has taken so long to eliminate this threat is inexplicable.
That is a legitimate objective. Letting Israel annex more and more of the West bank by settlement is not.
Unless Israel immediately puts all new housing starts there under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian authorities, the US should withdraw its support.
Only if Israel actively helps to create a Palestinian state, possible by unilateral steps that can be taken at any time, can moderate Arab opinion be reconciled to its existence and US support for its existence. So long as America is an uncritical ally of Israel, the US cannot hope to be regarded as a neutral influence in the Arab world, much less a benign one.
The Russian threat
The expansion of Nato (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) to include the states of Eastern Europe, much less putting missile bases on their soil, is folly. To include a state like Georgia is folly on stilts. Russia has no intention of trying to re-absorb these states by force.
If the US wants to underline that the integrity of the Baltic region should be respected, station many non-military personnel and token military personnel in the territory.
America is effectively starting a new Cold War with Russia by provocative behaviour and by absurd rhetoric over Georgia, which seems determined to rule over minorities who are "part" of Georgia only because Stalin put them there.
Liberal lack of will
The list could be extended, for example with the mistake of treating China as an expansionist power and making India a nuclear counterweight. But the crux is this: no liberal (including Obama) should be taken seriously unless he or she offers an alternative world view.
America is relatively safe. Steps effective against its one real enemy (mainly infiltration) are cheap.
The withdrawal of many, many US bases abroad, no new missile defence system, no more silly wars, no more pumping military aid into the Middle East, would save hundreds of billions.
A real peace dividend would emerge so that America could actually do something about its lamentable education and health systems, reorganise industry so that its environmental imprint is bearable, and so forth.
But all the Right has to do is shout "national security' or "terror" or "Israel" and the liberals cave in.
The mere fact that every liberal is not out in the streets talking about Georgia and about the new cold war America is initiating, the fact they have complied with the Bush rhetoric and the invasion of Iraq, and the fact that they do not even dare to discuss the shape of the US-Israeli alliance, seals their fate.
Without money, liberals can do little about domestic problems. But one group's plight goes unaddressed partially because of an image, removed from reality, specific to that group.
We are told that irresponsible sexual behaviour by black adults dooms 63 per cent of black children to live in single-parent homes and poverty. And who can do anything about that? As an antidote, let us face some facts about black America.
By ages 25 to 45, so many black men are dead, in jail, missing, or employed less than half the time, that there are only 57 black men likely to be permanent partners for every 100 black women.
So 43 black women must choose between having a child by a black man unlikely to be a permanent partner or going childless. In 1900, when faced with a dearth of Irish-American men in work and sober and non-violent, half of Irish women simply married out.
Black women are trapped because few white men marry them and stay married. Indeed, since some promising black men marry out, racial intermarriage actually worsens their plight.
By age 19, 26 per cent of black women have a child. Do they have to be so promiscuous and hurt their chances of attracting a viable husband? And yet, 34 per cent of Hispanic women bear a child by 19, far more than blacks, but only half as many become single parents.
Why is that?
Thanks to a huge illegal immigration of highly motivated males, Hispanic women enjoy a far more favourable marriage market. For every 100 Hispanic women, there are literally 96 Hispanic males who are promising spouses, higher even than the 86 for whites.
If you are a black girl who is a high school drop out, and face the fact that other black women have more to offer, and that there are few males available, getting pregnant is the only card you have to play. Since promising men can get all the sex they want without marriage, the gamble rarely works.
A Hispanic woman is in an entirely different position. Viable Hispanic men who want children could not all have them if they ignored one-third of Hispanic women, those who at 19 carry the extra baggage of a child.
At age 45, only 11.5 per cent of white men are dead or dysfunctional. An extra 4 per cent of black men are in prison, an extra 7 per cent are missing, and an extra 9 per cent are dead, giving a total of 32 per cent.
Battle casualties at Iwo Jima were 5 per cent. It is as if every black man assaulted that island twice during his life. The missing or "lost" men represent something so tragic that no one wants to think about it.
At 45, 8 per cent are so alienated that they do not show up in the army, prison, or the census. By age 65, the percentage has almost doubled.
Like Peter Pan's lost boys, they never come back: except on death certificates. The total number of black men missing exceeds one million.
What could be done
Drop-in centres for solo parents to increase the range of adults to which the child is exposed, with toys, books, and advice on family planning, budgeting, and health.
Every state should train a cadre of outstanding teachers in basic literacy and numeracy to help any school that needs them with poorly performing schools first in line.
Public housing with resident police to keep it crime-free and resident teachers to help with homework and offer everything children today need, computers included. The buildings would surround an educational park with recreational facilities, elementary vocational training, and child minding.
Note that everything that could be done for blacks is colour-blind in the sense that it would benefit all disadvantaged Americans.
Millions of non-blacks need programmes that recognise the solo-parent home as something here to stay rather than to be eliminated by rhetoric, and programmes to promote education, health, and viable neighbourhoods.
What will actually be done is almost nothing, so long as liberals are afraid to question the world view that establishes bases and sends armies all over the world.
Until then, concern about whether American troops abroad have Burger King will take priority over whether Americans at home have a decent life.
* Jim Flynn is emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago.
Originally from Chicago, Dr Flynn came to New Zealand in 1963. His new book is Where have all the liberals gone? Race, class, and ideals in America (Cambridge University Press)