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Can the liberals do as much for America as before?

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It's not popular these days to be a liberal. Every narrow, special interest in Washington is building and attacking our caricature. Liberals, supposedly, are the dreamers -- ideologues making Rube Goldberg-type contraptions to regulate the citizen.

The facts refute this cartoon. In the last two decades, which shaped my own set of values, liberals have seen this nation and the world as it was. We have made practical, realistic changes to make it work better.

* Look at the civil rights movement -- the great moral challenge of the 1960 s.

* Look at the Great Society -- which aimed to share growing US prosperity among all our citizens.

* Look at the Peace Corps -- an international expression of our commitment to human dignity.

* Look at the antiwar movement -- a powerful rejection of the traditional cold-war view that we would support repressive and corrupt regimes with our guns and our lives if only they would spout the necessary anticommunist rhetoric.

The world of the 1960s was well suited to the rationale of liberalism. At home, we marched to achieve a just society, then voted to build a great society. Abroad, we volunteered to serve peacefully, then marched against a war. To someone choosing a personal set of values in the 1960s, liberals were raising the important issues and working toward practical solutions.

Our case seems less compelling now. We must look at the world with fresh eyes, and understand why.

The fact is that liberalism is at a crossroads. It will either evolve to meet the issues of the 1980s or it will be reduced to an interesting topic for Ph.D.-writing historians.

In part, liberalism's difficulties reflect a natural cycle of resentment and retrenchment against the gains of the 1960s and, yes, there were some in the 1970s, too. There is an anti- political, anti-Washington element that conservatives are exploiting. Many Americans are discouraged and confused about current problems in the economy and society. Conservative rhetoric is raising their hopes for a 20-mule-team march into the past.

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