A few weeks ago, I was asked whether I thought Connecticut had become the new liberal bellwether by a reporter (the article he was writing, excluding my incoherent answers, is here). My immediate answer was "No!", simply because we don't seem to fit the definition of liberal. Our government is, by most standards, fiscally moderate (see the 1960s and 1980s for fiscally liberal) and socially tolerant. We are permissive, to a degree, but not to the point of social engineering. Is that the new liberalism?
But the more I think about it, and the more I reflect on the historic 2005 legislative session, the more I start to think that perhaps Connecticut is, in some ways, a new and better standard for American progressivism. Indeed, progressives across the country would do well to follow our lead, as we have taken great steps forward with a minimum of outcry and anger. If this is liberalism, it's common sense liberalism.
The article cites civil unions, the lawsuit against No Child Left Behind, campaign finance reform and mounting irritation with Joe Lieberman as examples of liberal leanings. Yet the two major pieces of legislation this year, civil unions and campaign finance reform, were compromise pieces. Both have flaws, especially from a liberal point of view. Civil unions aren't quite marriage, although in Connecticut they carry all the legal rights, and the bill includes a hastily-added definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman only. Campaign finance reform has plenty of problems, most notably a too-high threshold for third parties and many, many loopholes through which money can sneak.
But these two bills, flawed though they may be, are unprecedented in our country. Civil unions have never been implemented by a legislature without pressure from the courts. Public financing of elections has historically only been accomplished through referenda. Other states have blazed the trail on gay marriage/civil unions and public financing, but Connecticut has showed that these advances can be done quietly and civilly, without court orders, mass demonstrations and a national outcry.
In short, we have taken the cutting edge and dulled it. Positions once advocated by fiery radicals are now thoughtfully debated on the floor of our House and Senate. What were in other states unthinkable social and political leaps ahead are here made commonplace and normal.
That in itself is historic and remarkable, especially considering the times in which we live. The first decade of the 21st century is the conservative mirror of the 1960s and 70s, in which the losers of that earlier culture war try to win back all the bloody ground they lost. This is a time of passion and partisan hatred, fueled by war, fear and uncertainty. It's astonishing that, in such a climate, Connecticut is able to quietly march to the beat of its own drummer.
So to answer the title question again, Connecticut is not quite the "liberal" leader, rather it is the standard-bearer for tolerance, moderation, civility and common sense. When it comes to those virtues, liberals and conservatives nationwide would serve their country well to follow our lead.