Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Some Reasons Why I'm a Liberal

(From the great Propaganda Remix Project — 'cause liberals do better satire!)

My high school history teacher once passed on a line he'd been told as a young man: "Anyone under 30 who isn't a liberal has no heart, and anyone over 30 who isn't a conservative has no brain." I don't truly buy it (and neither did he, fully) but while it's sort of funny, it plays into fairly widely-held stereotypes and inaccurate notions about the wisdom, effectiveness, value and competency of the liberal versus conservative approach.

"Liberal, ""progressive" and "conservative" can be contentious terms, but for the purposes of this post, I'd say that the current Democratic Party leadership is not particularly liberal, while FDR and MLK, for example, were genuinely so. The Democratic Party, while more liberal than the Republican Party, is likewise largely beholden to corporate interests and entrenched power, and isn't much more liberal than the major conservative parties of other prominent nations (and on some issues, such as national health care, it's more conservative). On the "conservative" side, I'd say that rule-of-law conservatives and conservatives who practice fiscal responsibility (not necessarily the same thing as fiscal conservatism) can play a valuable role in government. Country club and think tank conservatives, however, are dedicated to benefiting their already privileged minority at the expense of the majority, and their pundits have repeatedly shown no compunctions about lying to do so. Meanwhile, authoritarian conservatives, such as the current movement conservatism of Bush and the neocons, with their continued assaults on meritocracy, competency, honesty, transparency, accountability and empiricism, undermine the very notions of principle-based government, law and objective truth itself (more on these dynamics in this older post, although this post will recap plenty of blather from older posts). But let's move on.

A More Compassionate Approach

Throughout human history there's often been a dynamic of unequal and unearned power in society, with an entrenched, privileged few benefiting at the expense of the majority, and often fighting like hell to maintain that advantage to harmful extremes. In America, this group sees being staggeringly wealthy in a slumping superpower as preferable to being merely ridiculously wealthy in a more robust national economy. According to 2006 United Nations study, 2% of the world's population holds a staggering 50% of the world's wealth, while in America, wealth inequity is now about the worst it's been since the robber baron days (more here).

There's a stereotype of a "bleeding heart liberal" mainly because liberalism at its heart is about a core, base level of respect and rights for all people, regardless of circumstances of birth. It's at its heart a meritocracy. It's at its heart about giving a damn — about others as well as ourselves, and in some cases even about sacrificing personal gain or advantage for a greater good. It's frankly a harder path to tread than those offered by the more common strains of conservatism.

There's a line that the conservative ethos boils down to, "Screw you, I've got mine." Put another way:

Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, offers a trenchant critique of the economic, political and moral shortcomings of conservative social and economic policy that he dubs YOYO, or “you’re on your own.” He wittily contrasts them a progressive strategy that recognizes that “we’re in this together,”: WITT.

The WITT paradigm takes much more work, and the challenge of making society more of a meritocracy can be daunting, but as Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland recently put it:

Well, like old Tony Grasci used to say down by the docks, "pessmism of the intellect, optimism of the will" -- there's never been any other option for champions of ordinary people who wish to keep on keepin' on in the often thankless struggle to wrestle power from the privileged.

I'll add that for me liberalism has always been very much entwined with imagination, compassion, creativity, curiosity, thoughtfulness, self-reflection and the arts. It takes imagination to conceive of how things might be better or more fair than they are now. And while conscience can in some cases be a "gut" feeling, in other cases it requires imagination. Recycling and energy conservation are (or can be) moral acts, but they require the imagination to consider how one's actions will affect other people, including people one will never meet. I consider compassion to be the emotional equivalent of imagination — imagining how someone else might feel, imagining how you yourself would feel in that situation, and reacting accordingly. I've known conservatives who give to charity every Christmas, for example, but as the right-wing campaign against Graeme Frost painfully showed once again, one of the defining characteristics of movement conservatism isn't just a lack of compassion, but an aggressive attack on compassion. It's also no surprise most artists tend to skew liberal, since art often questions the status quo, stirs reflection, and can say more than one thing at once (unpopular with a black-and-white mentality).

Of course, people often veer liberal or conservative because of (or in reaction to) their families, friends, colleagues, neighbors, the little talking heads on the TV... Some rhetoric and policies just resonate more than others. I've certainly met some Democrats in my time I'd call obnoxious, knee-jerk and unreflective, but that number shoots way up with conservatives. I'm personally not a fan of change for change's sake, and distrust obsessions with the latest fads without concern for quality or substance. Still, as I grew up, I noticed the conservatives I saw on TV tended to lie, be deceptive or be hacks faaaar more often than the supposed liberals. I've always tried to watch both national political conventions, and I still remember as a kid watching a Republican National Convention where the network hilariously kept panning over the lone black guy in the crowd, while the Democratic Convention was more multicultural and well, happier. I listened to the Republicans over the years to give them a shot, but Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2004, for example, were far more inspiring than anything I heard from the GOP. Throw in Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Paul Wellstone and others, and it wasn't much of a contest for me. (Meanwhile, polls show the Bush administration sure hasn't won many converts for conservatism.)

Better Policies

I won't go into great detail here, since we pore over policy all the time on many liberal blogs, but in almost every instance liberal policies are far sounder than the conservative versions, on health care, taxes, social spending, education, foreign policy, the regulatory function of the FDA, EPA, and USDA, and a general attitude towards governmental competency and working for the public good. That's not to say that government is always the solution to every problem, but obviously the ideology and approach of those running the government plays a huge role in the harm or good it causes. It's probably not a surprise that the GOP, which claims to loathe government, is so bad at governing, and that the Bush administration has featured so much cronyism, abuse of governmental powers and large handouts to its political allies. The reason conservatives so rarely try to debate policies honestly on the merits is because almost every conservative policy benefits a privileged minority at the expense of the public good. I've often touted Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal, which gives a great overview of why progressive taxation and economic policies are better both for the majority of the people and for the country's economic prosperity as a whole. Meanwhile, pushing the mainstream media — particular the television media — to discuss the actual consequences of various policy proposals is a key goal of media reform, because, for example, they rarely challenge common, false claims about health care and taxes by conservatives.

A Commitment to Progress

One of my pet theories is that part of the conservative-liberal divide comes down to whether one, however unconsciously, subscribes to a paradigm of perfection or excellence. Conservatives, especially the authoritarians of movement conservatism, tend to worship with nostalgia an idyllic, perfect past that either never really existed or wasn't quite so idyllic for everyone. It's a mentality opposed to self-reflection, one that coheres perfectly with the fear-mongering and scapegoating so characteristic of the modern GOP — In their minds, everything would be great if only those uppity women, ethnic minorities, gays and liburals just minded their place. We have to fear the evil commies/Islamists, the Evil Other, and if we only sacrifice the 4th Amendment and habeas corpus, then we'll be safe. Even though the Bush administration called the shots almost exactly as it wanted to regarding Iraq, from selling the war dishonestly, to invading with too few troops, to botching the occupation and reconstruction, and so on, the real problem is that liberals and the press stabbed the Great Cause in the back. Many of them really do believe this stuff. John Stuart Mill famously observed that not all conservatives are stupid people, but most stupid people are conservative. Or, as Digby's often quipped, in their view, conservatism cannot fail, it can only be failed. While the neocons, with their desire to go double-or-nothing by attacking Iran, demonstrate this frightening insanity on the foreign policy front, I'd say this general view of infallibility is even stronger for conservatism on social issues, and helps explain the conservative agenda for social control. Return to 50s social roles, to the Garden of Eden, or the womb, and all shall be well.

Life, however, is dynamic, not static, and a evolutionary paradigm describes reality better than does a paradigm of failed perfection and "sin." As we progress, things can grow better or worse, but progressives naturally believe they can grow better, and try to make them so. Rather than lamenting some lost, illusionary perfection, there's in fact no limit to the progress that can be achieved. Excellence, not perfection, is the goal. At its best, without being naïve about tough realities, liberalism is more forward-thinking, positive, and hopeful.

There's a big schism on patriotism, too. Consider all the silliness about flag pins and patriotism thrown around idiotically and generally disingenuously in the press these days, with right-wing hacks or shallow pundits often attributing their vapid attacks to the interests of the "public." I've previously featured E.J. Dionne's great thoughts on the great, American tradition of patriotic dissent:

...The true genius of America has always been its capacity for self-correction. I'd assert that this is a better argument for patriotism than any effort to pretend that the Almighty has marked us as the world's first flawless nation.

One need only point to the uses that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. made of the core ideas of the Declaration of Independence against slavery and racial injustice to show how the intellectual and moral traditions of the United States operate in favor of continuous reform.

There is, moreover, a distinguished national tradition in which dissident voices identify with the revolutionary aspirations of the republic's founders.

Compare that sentiment to what MLK said in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, about making the reality of America match the ideal:

In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds."

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.

Finally, for patriotism versus nationalism and jingoism, I have to go with George Orwell:

By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.” But secondly—and this is much more important—I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseperable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality

It is also worth emphasizing once again that nationalist feeling can be purely negative. There are, for example, Trotskyists who have become simply enemies of the USSR without developing a corresponding loyalty to any other unit. When one grasps the implications of this, the nature of what I mean by nationalism becomes a good deal clearer. A nationalist is one who thinks solely, or mainly, in terms of competitive prestige. He may be a positive or a negative nationalist—that is, he may use his mental energy either in boosting or in denigrating—but at any rate his thoughts always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. He sees history, especially contemporary history, as the endless rise and decline of great power units, and every event that happens seems to him a demonstration that his own side is on the upgrade and some hated rival is on the downgrade. But finally, it is important not to confuse nationalism with mere worship of success. The nationalist does not go on the principle of simply ganging up with the strongest side. On the contrary, having picked his side, he persuades himself that it is the strongest, and is able to stick to his belief even when the facts are overwhelmingly against him. Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception. Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also—since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself—unshakeably certain of being in the right.

Accuracy Over Hackery

Anyone who's followed the blogosphere for some time in some depth knows that liberals tend to, ahem, swear more, but also care much more about something called accuracy, whereas many conservative bloggers sadly consider political advantage to be the loftiest ideal. Conservatives just spew far more bullshit than liberals. As John Dickerson put it:

One of the healthiest things about the left-wing blogosphere is its confrontational dislike of the mainstream media. There's a distinction here with the media's critics on the right. At some level, the right doesn't much like that the press exists. They don't want to fix it, they want to drive a stake through its heart. The left, on the other hand, just wishes the establishment press would do a better job. The Kos-type critique of the media is intertwined with its passion about politics. When the press gets it wrong, left-wing bloggers believe, the people are ill-informed and democracy suffers. There's respect in that anger, though you wouldn't always know it if you're the target of one of their flaming arrows. (Sometimes they apologize.)

Violent rhetoric towards one's perceived political foes is also an accepted norm on many leading conservative sites — in posts, not merely comments — whereas the same is simply not true of most liberal sites. (I have more on this in posts on Ann Coulter and the campaign to slime Graeme Frost.) I'll add that in the national discourse, beyond the corporate media bias, there's an essential disconnect between actual liberals and movement conservatives, because the liberal ethos is all about being fair, including to the person one's debating, while the conservative ethos is all about power, acquiring it and maintaining it, and honesty and fair play often don't enter in.

A Liberal Tradition

Whatever its flaws over the years, the United States of America was founded on principles of classic liberalism, as shown by the Declaration of Independence and its stirring lines about "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." As MLK and others have reminded us, we haven't always lived up to those ideals initially, but we can and have made progress in making reality match the ideal more closely (rather than believing everything was hunky-dory back when people didn't ask so many goddam questions). There are certainly intolerant Democrats around, but the liberal ideal is to uphold that other great founding document, the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and the sentiment that while I might disagree vehemently with what you have to say, I will fight for your right to say it (authoritarian conservatives do not share this value).

You can see this divide on many issues, but perhaps most starkly on an issue BH and VS have endeavored to cover in some depth: torture. As we noted in a Torture Watch roundup post, "as with virtually every other issue, [authoritarian conservatives] hold that torture is right when their side does it but wrong when the "Enemy" does it, with no independent standard of morality separate from tribalism." Liberals (and rule of law conservatives) feel differently, of course. But it makes conservatives' charges against liberals of being "moral relativists" just as ironic and false as their claims to be the party of "personal responsibility," since the Bush administration in particular has accused their opponents of cowardice and proclaimed their own courage and righteousness, while continually lying about their own radical actions and criminal negligence.

As Pete Seeger and other folkies have sung, some of the liberal-conservative divide simply comes down to "Which Side are You On?" Who moves you? What causes stir you? As the fictional Matt Santos put it memorably in the live debate episode of The West Wing:

Santos: I know you like to use that word "liberal" as if it were a crime.

Vinnick: No, I'm sorry. I know I shouldn't have used that word. I know Democrats think "liberal" is a bad word. So bad you had to change it, didn't you? What do you call yourselves now? Progressives? Is that it?

Santos: It's true. Republicans have tried to turn "liberal" into a bad word. Well, liberals ended slavery in this country.

Vinnick: A Republican president ended slavery.

Santos: Yes, a liberal Republican, Senator. What happened to them? They got run out of your party. What did liberals do that was so offensive to the liberal party?

I'll tell you what they did. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act.

What did conservatives do? They opposed every single one of those things. Every one. So when you try to hurl that label at my feet – "liberal" – as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won't work Senator. Because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honor.

That's pretty stirring to me. I'll add that I believe in bipartisanship, but only on shared goals with thoughtful conservatives of good faith. If a conservative wants to craft a cost-effective poverty-reducing program, great, we can work together, but if that conservative doesn't view poverty and the vast inequity of wealth as a problem (as the National Review crowd certainly doesn't), there's no basis for cooperation. The same goes for many line-in-the-sand issues such as torture, habeas corpus, due process, reproductive freedom, the Bill of Rights, and so on. There are times it's necessary to make a stand, and the modern GOP has sadly shown that it will consistently put party solidarity and power above "bipartisanship," the good of the American public and the nation as a whole. In contrast, liberalism is about making the country better — even for the constituents of obstructionist Republicans.

This post recaps plenty of older posts, but for all that, it's pretty cursory. Please feel free to pass on your own thoughts, or link a post on why you're a liberal (or conservative, or libertarian), in the comments. Thanks!

(Edited slightly for clarity.)

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)


Brave Sir Robin said...

Spot ON!

I particularly like the quote from The West Wing.

I am PROUD to be a liberal!

Comrade Kevin said...

Thank you for this analysis.

I'm too sedated at the moment to put together a pithy response. :)

Bee said...

There is such a wealth of information and analysis here that I feel rather inadequate to the task of responding to it. For all of its length -- and I read most of the links, too -- you make a cogent argument for liberalism. (In my case, you were preaching to the choir -- but I still enjoyed and valued the sermon!)

I have been a minority liberal in a sea of conservatives for all of my thinking life. I wish that I had had some of your eloquent words to hand when I was called on to defend my "position."

One last thing: I was awestruck, once again, to read MLK's words. What a mighty voice. The tragedy of his death still rankles, doesn't it?