This blog dedicated to a brief analysis of what liberalism really means in this time of great storm and stress. I’ve been thinking about it while the news is showing the “Alt-Right” (or faction of power-hungry, white supremacist folks) and or the Nazis are planning to march on Washington D.C. this year – on the anniversary of the Charlottesville, VA debacle. I bet a year ago Germany looked at that hate-orgy and thought “Damn, America is tolerant of bigotry, hate, and racism.” Yes, America is the country that was built on slavery, did the Tuskegee Experiment, and shot J.F.K. But America is also the land of Thomas Jefferson, the country that beat the Nazis and Japanese in war, and created the University of California system of higher education. In a country with polarizing partisanship, the KKK and the Alt-Right, and extreme wealth inequality, what is the proper attitude for liberalism (i.e., political liberals, progressives, Lefties) to take? Agitate against power and bigotry vociferously, lay down, fight fire with fire, love those who hate us, or look down our noses on the Right?
The Left has many factions and interests arrayed against it. Look at how far union membership has sunk in the past 50 years (now, 8% of private-industry workers). Income inequality, dark money like the Koch brothers influencing elections, the Trump presidency, an out-of-control and dysfunctional health care morass, etc. The list goes on and on. Though the Left was the side which MLK fought on, which sought a 40-hour workweek, and helped create the largest and most significant middle class in history, it has had a tough few decades. Sometimes we who love liberalism feel it couldn’t possibly be any worse than to see Trump lie, cheat, and delude himself daily on Twitter and the news. We feel that real damage is being done to the country and we’re really scared, angry, and impatient. The phrase Trump Derangement Syndrome has been applied to this apoplectic state we often find ourselves in.
In addition to the Unite the Right movement happening as I type, I also have been processing the wonderful book Why We’re Liberals, by author and professor of English, Eric Alterman. It is a wonderful encouragement of both liberalism and rationality. The weighty book is absolutely chock-full of insight, humor, wisdom, tips, history, perspective, and encouragement.
So should the Left honor liberalism and progressivism by being apoplectic, or apologetic? Should we take to the streets and fight fire with fire when racists and frightened whites become vociferous publically? What to do when Uncle Pete spouts some nonsense about immigration, elitism, or calls us “snowflakes”? If someone in the coffee shop tries to “own the libs” (a term for subjecting liberals to a withering defeat), what then? How should we proceed when engaging the tireless libertarians in a struggle for the supremacy of ideas?
It’s a challenge for sure. On the one hand, liberalism led Adam Smith all those years ago to speak out on behalf of a new system, one not wedded to the old, aristocratic, feudalistic ways of being. It made Einstein feel that “The ideals that have lighted my way have been kindness, beatuy, and truth.” Women can vote because of political liberalism. African Americans asked for peace and justice and equality, and fought for them over many long years, and that is not a conservative movement. This is a wonderful and important and historically-important side we are on.
Though it sometimes seems we are alone, we have the likes of F.D.R., M.L.K., Gloria Steinem, David Leonhardt, Joseph Stiglitz, Barbara Ehrenreich, Michael Parenti, Howard Zinn, Harvey Milk, Thurgood Marshall, Clarence Darrow, Fareed Zakaria, Alice Walker, Paul Krugman, Jared Bernstein, Rana Foorohar, Louis Brandeis, Anna Quindlen, Noam Chomsky, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Cesar Chavez, Jonathan Chait, William Brennan, Robert Reich, Jim Hightower, Jon Stewart, Paul Wellstone, and on and on and on. I failed to mention 25,000 of the greatest Americans in history because the list would be simply too unwieldy.
The period from the mid-1970s through the Reagan/Thatcher era has seen an ascendancy of political conservatism, inequality, and crony capitalism. That is on the Republicans, almost exclusively. Liberals were once accused of overspending, but now even that doesn’t hold true (comparatively). The post-war era, however, was a time of fiscal liberalism, progressive taxation, and general financial growth and security. Economists John Maynard Keynes and John Kenneth Galbraith saw society as unified and socially- and economically-progressive, earning the ire of young Milton Friedman, who would later go on to teach this and other countries how to make their markets a black hole instead of a servant of the Commonwealth. The authors of How Much Is Enough?, Robert and Edward Skidelsky, point out the way things once were:
“The main achievement of the twenty-five years from 1950 to 1975 were the maintenance of continuous full employment, reduction in inequality through progressive income taxes, a big extension of social security, and the preservation of peace. Increases in productivity enabled real wages to rise and working hours to fall, with only very moderate inflation.”
Theodore Roosevelt, often associated with Progressivism, noted that “[t]he things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life.” Democrats (with a capital “D”) have not always done rightly. It is important to separate the leftist spirit of progressivism and high moral and economic principles which can be perceived as America’s “better angels” in our remarkable past. The distinguished writer for the Nation, William Greider, sets this record straight:
One problem for Democrats is they can’t tell the truth about their own past. Despite ‘bleeding-heart’ rhetoric, the party has been directly complicit with corporate capitalism in generating the retrograde policies that effectively dismantled the country’s widely shared prosperity. Income inequality, we might say, was partly manufactured in Washington, DC, and both parties did their part.
The Skidelskys describe further the era of unrivaled prosperity that marked America in the post-war era:
“Degrading poverty of the nineteenth-century kind was abolished. There were advances in health, education, women’s rights. For most of the period, economic growth was taken to be a by-product of the whole mix of policies, not an independent (much less the overriding) policy objective. There was strong social cohesion based on real improvements in the living standards of all classes.”
Martin Luther King, Jr., tireless as he was in his pursuit of justice and other progressive principles, famously believed that even though the arc of history is long, it bends slightly toward justice. Perhaps, in fact, the country is again moving leftward after its generation or two of capitalism-on-steroids. So says a recent Atlantic Monthly. In the article, Peter Beinart writes: “The more I examined the evidence, the more I realized that the current moment looks like a mirror image of the late ’60s and early ’70s. The resemblances are clear, but their political significance has been turned upside down. There is a backlash against the liberalism of the Obama era. But it is louder than it is strong. Instead of turning right, the country as a whole is still moving to the left.”
If his analysis is correct, liberalism is not being driven into the ocean or facing Persian swords, to use a metaphor of the Greeks at the Battle Thermopylae, but is facing a difficult time because we came off a somewhat disappointing Obama presidency, and as Tolkien put it, are “out of the frying pan and into the fire” with a wanton and belligerent and tragically-flawed President Trump. Ouch, it hurts to even type that title.
“What do I do when pessimism strikes? I get together with other people. I’m encouraged when I get together with other people who feel the way I do about things, and I realize I’m not alone. Or I’ll turn to the arts. The great poets and the writers were almost always progressive people who saw beyond the politics. So I’ll read Mark Twain and Helen Keller and Upton Sinclair and Tolstoy and Thoreau. I’ll read things that are encouraging and uplifting.”
Libertarians may bother us, white supremacists may enrage us, Republican donors may gall us, the owners of the seven megacorporations responsible for virtually all mainstream news may irritate us, and our rightist relatives may perplex us. But how to deal with these stressors? What do we do “in these times”? How can we cope without becoming deranged or trying to take an eye for an eye? What is the best method when you find yourself unwittingly engaged in a game of dirty pool with a shark? The possible responses and approaches range from kow-towing and deference and turning the other cheek to joining Antifa and trying to crack some skulls. I know a lot of liberal men feel very challenged by, Do I stand and fight, or walk away and hear the phrase “butt-hurt” uttered by some classless douchebags as I do so?
Why is politics so depressing nowadays? I explore that in this blog
Michelle Obama touted class, restraint, and a “love thy enemy” approach when she counseled that “When [Republicans] go low, we go high.” I don’t know if she meant Blue Dog Democrats or the likes of Debbie Wassarman-Schultz, or if she meant “all good people on the Left” (my words). In contrast to this measured, honorable, civil approach, Trump foe Michael Avenatti took a page from the Al Capone playbook when he urged Dems that “[w]hen they go low, we hit harder.” Somewhere in between those two poles lies wisdom.
We can take a lesson from some hard-core fighters like Mary “Mother” Jones, Doris Haddock, Emma Goldman, and Eugene V. Debs. Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, and Henry A. Wallace would agree wholeheartedly. Look at something Doris “Granny D” said when she ran for Senate in 2004: “I am running so that our voters might at the very least send [my opponent] a message: that we expect our senators to represent common sense and the interests of our country and of our working people and children, even when to do so requires the courage to go against his party, and I am running to do a favor for my many Republican friends who are most uncomfortable with how far their once-venerable party has strayed – formerly a bastion of sensible federal spending and small business defense.”
“One can understand how the excesses of certain American politicians in recent years may have shaken world faith in the essential liberality of the American political tradition. Yet that tradition and its liberality rest on something deeper and solider than official rhetoric or pious hope. American liberalism, in the broad sense, is an expression of the total national experience – a fact which will doubtless become evident to the world again when American liberalism, in the more restricted sense, returns to political power.” ~ Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
I am essentially arriving at the conclusion that we can learn something from Jesus, Socrates, Howard Zinn, and Martin Luther King, Jr. about how to deal with the present conundrum, the storm and stress that characterizes the Trump era.
All three fought hard, but fought fair. They didn’t advocate violence, not because they were weak, but because they were strong. The lofty principles of liberalism buoyed their long, difficult campaigns on behalf of equality, salvation, justice, truth, and civil liberties.
Howard Zinn – who was no shrinking violet or snowflake – worked his whole adult life to bring about liberty, equality, and fraternity for all Americans. This included those who were Jewish males educated to the level of a Ph.D. from New York, like himself, and every other American, too. This is one of the guiding principles of liberalism. This kind of love of the other is something to be deeply proud of. Care has honor and love in it.
Think about the spirit of the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Common Cause, or of Patriotic Millionaires, or any of 500 other PACs and grassroots organizations and enlightened individuals. They want the best for this country, see a positive vision for the future, and understand the significance of liberalism when they look at our history. Upton Sinclair, Jane Addams, and Stokely Carmichael all had America’s best interests at heart. That is something libertarians, crony capitalists, and white supremacists cannot boast.
“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history of not only cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, and kindness…The future is an infinite succession of ‘presents,’ and to live now as we think that human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that “We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear.” He also pointed out that “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”
This is a very trying time. There are pressures on us and changes confronting us that really frighten both the Right and the Left. In that sense, we are all (save, perhaps, for the 1/2 of 1% who use their vast resources to feather their own nests at the expense of the common good) in this together. Perhaps it has always been thus. Fearless proponent of liberalism, Emma Goldman, noted many decades ago that “The minds of men are in confusion, for the very foundations of our civilization seem to be tottering. People are losing faith in the existing institutions, and the more intelligent realize that capitalist industrialism is defeating the very purpose it is supposed to serve.”
The millions and millions of middle Americans who are duped and misled and erringly conclude that the other is the cause of their fears and their suffering – that liberalism is the enemy instead of the way – can be conceived not as ignorant, strident, armed and dangerous, foolish, uneducated, racist, and self-centered. David Leonhardt points out that the country is moving left even as the power structure bouying the GOP is moving right: “Americans, to be clear, are deeply divided on all sorts of issues — abortion, guns, immigration, and race. And on some of those issues, public opinion is significantly more conservative than liberals often like to admit. But economic policy is different. A majority of Americans lean decidedly left on taxes, health care, the minimum wage, and education funding.”
“Because my country — our country — means more than my money. ” ~ Charlie Fink
We all long for a time when we felt more camaraderie, that we were “all in this together.” Let us pray (or hope, if you’re a humanistic liberal) that we don’t need a cataclysmic event as awesome as World War II to bring us back together. We can accomplish much when we are more united and when the rich and the powerful are forced to own simply three homes instead of ten; to donate a limited amount to their favored politician instead of an unlimited amount; when the middle class is growing and the lower classes are shrinking. We have seen such days, and we can fight without fighting dirty for them to return again. Liberalism is and has always been our best bet; an America as good as its promise (Barbara Jordan) is our birthright, our guiding light.
Not everyone sees it this way, but that is the unique character of the Left — we don’t always see eye to eye because we have disparate goals and come from very distinct places. As an example, Adam Werbach sees the new millennium as “the winter of liberalism. We need to first accept that the liberal project is dead. We need to achieve that so we leave space for something else to grow. Progressivism is almost just a placeholder for what hasn’t been created yet.”
I may not agree, but that could be because of my ignorance. Liberals tend to be and can take some pride in being more flexible, open-minded, and humble than many on the Right. Perhaps Adam sees some facts I am blind to; we’re still headed in the same direction and are aligned in our interests.
“There’s no reason for liberals to feel they have to disagree with conservatives simply because it hurts too much to admit they’re right on some issues. Agreeing with the other side doesn’t make you lose your liberal credentials. In fact, in the name of openness and tolerance, it strengthens them.”
This is not to say that tribalism is a good thing. The Left is in the peculiar position of having to fight for its rights, to work hard for all Americans, and to prevent having their necks stepped on by the many bad actors on the right (e.g., Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, David Koch, Donald Trump, Richard Spencer, Ted Cruz, etc.). However, we must look to people like Zinn, King, Jesus, and Socrates to ensure that we remember that the goal is not for our team to win, but for the principles of progressivism to prevail.
That is, religious liberals like my wife, Jim Wallis, and Bill Moyers must unite with secular liberals such as myself, Larry David, and Jon Stewart. We don’t really want Ricky Gervais, and neither does the religious camp. Kidding.
Progressive thinkers have been calling reactionaries heartless and conservatives have termed liberals foolish for centuries. We will all have to grow in order that we may abolish such polarized and pejorative approaches to the problems of the world. But make no mistake; the problems of the world must be solved if we are to be able to grow on into the future. Ω
NOTE: I want to point out that the use of the words liberal and liberalism in this blog do not connote the spirit of the term used by Milton Friedman or John Rawls or the like. I’m not talking about liberalism vs. monarchy and aristocracy and traditionalism. For example, look at professor Michael J. Sandel use the word liberal here to refer to the other type:
The liberals’ insistence that politics be neutral on moral and religious matters was misguided in principle and costly in practice. As a philosophical matter, it is by no means clear that government can or should be neutral on the pressing moral questions of the day.
I will end with some additional quotes about liberalism, progressivism, and values such as social justice, willingness to share, open-mindedness, and large-heartedness.
Patriotism isn’t about making everyone stand and salute the flag. Patriotism is about making this a country where everyone wants to.
The abjectly poor, and all those persons whose energies are entirely absorbed by the struggle for daily sustenance, are conservative because they cannot afford the effort of taking thought for the day after tomorrow; just as the highly prosperous are conservative because they have small occasion to be discontented with the situation as it stands today.
The word commonly used to describe supporters of the counterrevolution is “conservative.” But this is a gross misnomer, as these officials, politicians, corporate executives and owners, activists, journalists, and intellectuals are clearly not trying to “conserve” anything, but instead are in the business of dismantling existing institutions and relationships and replacing them with others, in accord with specific interests and ideologies. The proper word is “reactionary,” not conservative. This even applies to purported “liberals,” like Bill Clinton and, say, Larry Summers.
There is a penalty for ignorance. We are paying through the nose.
The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, defines “liberal” in this way: “Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behaviors of others; broad-minded.” I’ve always seen it as an ethos in which possibility gets way out in front of reality and takes a flying leap.
A thousand things advance; nine hundred and ninety-nine retreat; that is progress.
I love discourse. I’m dying to have my mind changed. I’m probably the only liberal who read Treason, by Ann Coulter. I want to know, you understand? I like listening to everybody. This to me is the elixir of life.
Let’s stop teaching our children to fear change and to protect the status quo. Let’s teach them to inquire and to debate, to ask questions until they hear answers. The best way to do that is to change traditional schooling.
Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.
Liberal to the bone, a follower of the English philosopher John Locke, Condorcet believed in the natural rights of men, and, like his contemporary Immanuel Kant, he sought moral imperatives that lead rather than follow the passions. He joined Tom Paine to create Le Républicain, a Revolutionary journal that promoted the idea of a progressive, egalitarian state. “The time will come,” he later wrote, “when the sun will shine only on free men who know no other master than their reason.”
The future belongs to those who go down the line unswervingly for the liberal principles of both political democracy and economic democracy regardless of race, color or religion. In a political, educational, and economic sense, there must be no inferior races. The poll tax must go. Equal educational opportunities must come. The future must bring equal wages for equal work regardless of sex or race.
What I wanted to do was something creative, something that might help the world and make it a better place, although in 1950 I knew not what that might be. What I really lusted after was knowledge and understanding of the world. What had happened over the centuries? What was going on in the far reaches of this and other societies? What meaning, if any, did life have? Maybe that is why I became a social science professor and researcher.
…it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labor by a wide margin, and the concentration of capital will attain extremely high levels – levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies.
Because liberals tend to believe that they have to live up to the ideals and principles they preach, they severely limit their appeal to people who know, deep inside, that they cannot eschew certain kinds of personal behavior that would be inconsistent with the politics to which they dedicate themselves in public. It’s not that liberals are never hypocritical. They are, of course.
This is a very depressing day for me [the day after the second election of G. W. Bush]. Outcomes like this illustrate some serious shortcomings in democracy, namely, that people are poor at collecting and interpreting facts, that people are easily fooled by half-truths and distortions, and that people don’t think much beyond their prejudices and predispositions.