Liberals are the heart of the American republic. At least in my opinion. I think evidence can be found for why the spirit of liberalism in its classical sense imbued the Declaration of Independence and Constitution with something that was missing from hereditary aristocracies of Europe. As well, much or all of the social progress that has occurred since the country’s inception has been due to the liberal impulse to improve conditions, make everyone more truly equal before the law, and rein in the abuses of government and corporations to improve the lives of people. It’s people-power, really. Yes, Democrats have sullied the sterling image of true liberalism, but progressive causes have never been about one political party (evidenced by the massive movement undergirding the Bernie Sanders phenomenon in recent years). One of clearest examples of why we’re liberals was penned by author Eric Alterman, Ph.D. in a book that is, not coincidentally, entitled Why We’re Liberals. In this blog I share a bit of background about liberalism, progressivism, and the like, and use a hundred or so Eric Alterman quotes to illustrate what I think is best about the book and, therefore, most consistent with the wonderful philosophical, political, and economic phenomenon called liberalism. Enjoy. And buy the book.
Fundamentally, liberalism is clearly the heart of the American republic, because liberalism in its original and classical sense refers to a more merit-based, open, accessible, egalitarian, non-hereditary, non-monarchical way of sharing power and organizing society. Liberal economics is associated with Adam Smith, not Louis XIV of France, for example. Wikipedia, a site I actually do like and support financially, simply notes that “[c]lassical liberalism is a political ideology and a branch of liberalism which advocates civil liberties under the rule of law with an emphasis on economic freedom.” Civil liberties as distinct from hereditarianism, privilege, back-room deals, and tyrannical rule. David Ricardo and John Locke didn’t have too much emphasis on equality or progressivism per se, but the idea that a person could rise in society by their merit, hard work, and natural rights to life, liberty, and property were a step forward in the 17th and 18th centuries for sure.
However, once liberalism obviated privilege and replaced it with delineated rights of all individuals (well, slaves and women in America aside!), that changed the very fabric of society. The Enlightenment was co-occurring with liberalism in politics and economics, and society was becoming freer, more open, more predictable, safer for corporate-type investing, and economic growth via liberalism’s child, capitalism.
Set all that aside, however, because the modern term liberalism is only radically related to classical liberalism; in other words, someone such as the subject of this blog, Eric Alterman, would not have seen the light of day in a pre-liberal period, say, the 15th century. He might have been burned at the stake in early colonial America or 17th-century Italy or France. However, in the period that is called “the Progressive Era,” things began to move ever-forward. Left even further behind were debtor’s prisons, Lordships, rapiers and powdered wigs, and financial cronyism. Liberty and freedom were increasingly being conceptualized not just as negative (“keep your hands off my guns”) but positive as well (“a person isn’t free unless they have full access to what everyone else in society has”). Thus, as Wikipedia informs:
The Progressive Era was a period of widespread social activism and political reform across the United States, from the 1890s to the 1920s. The main objectives of the Progressive movement were eliminating problems caused by industrialization, urbanization, immigration, and corruption in government. The movement primarily targeted political machines and their bosses. By taking down these corrupt representatives in office a further means of direct democracy would be established. They also sought regulation of monopolies (Trust Busting) and corporations through antitrust laws. These antitrust laws were seen as a way to promote equal competition for the advantage of legitimate competitors.
This was not an era absolutely synonymous with things we consider “progressive” such as economic equality of opportunity, reduction in imprisonment, legalization of marijuana, getting money out of politics, unionization of workplaces, or civil liberties such as the right to free speech and burn the flag. Woodrow Wilson was a racist, and prohibition of alcohol is not entirely consistent with modern liberal notions of right and wrong. However, one look at Eugene V. Debs, Emma Goldman, and socialism makes it clear that in this era, society was being criticized as still sclerotic, oligarchic, and class-based. Try to get into Harvard if you were a poor, black female in 1920 and tell me how that goes, or try to vote in 1910. Good luck. Society was still very organized according to race, class, and privilege. Look how much money the “robber barons” were able to make with their railroads, oil extraction, and low-paid industrial labor. Things were heading in the right direction, but a far cry from where we are today. Here is a blog I wrote about differences between progressivism now and Progressivism then.
Fast-forward to the 1960s, and political liberalism begins to take wings. Union membership was probably at an all-time high, meaning that a man could work and the family would be supported. Few jobs were able to be outsourced overseas, so labor and ownership were locked in a zero-sum-game struggle, and wages showed it. The tax rate wsa probably a nominal 85% on top-income earners, which would obviously be considered very progressive. Women could vote. And African Americans were struggling against very old social forces of oppression, second-class status, and segregation. In this blog, I show/claim that progressivism is about positive social change.
The 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and early 21st-centuries also showed much progress and counter-reaction from conservative forces. This era is the primary emphasis of this blog, which is really about modern political liberalism (e.g., a “liberal” being one who supports unionization in the workplace, an increased minimum wage, environmental protectionism, regulations on corporatations, sufficient taxation to fund the social programs Americans value, such as Social Security and Medicare, etc.). Thus, professor and author Eric Alterman, Ph.D. is a person to whom we will turn for his thoughts on liberalism.
Alterman wrote a very interesting book that I was ignorant about for its first ten years, but I quickly remedied that. I raced through that 300+ page book in ten days; it was very compelling. It’s entitled Why We’re Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America. It is instructive, fair, interesting, enlightening, and full of quotes about liberalism, progressivism, and anti-conservative thinking.
Here are a few reviews from GoodReads.com:
“…the author has discussed liberalism not as a strictly left-side political ideology, but as the foundation of our country (Jefferson, Madison, etc). It is supposed to be about being open to new ideas, creating a strong democracy for everyone, and creating policies that support individual opportunity while protecting minority interests. But liberalism has been demonized since the 70’s by the media and far-right fundamentalism. Perhaps we are on the cusp of change. Only time will tell. I liked this book, while I didn’t always agree with the author, he made many good points. The foremost point being, that liberal ideals are actually what most Americans embrace. It is only the media and Republican party that tell us otherwise. What I didn’t like about the book was that most of his arguments centered on the Bush administration….”
“Something got garbled between the writing of this book and the selection of the title. It’s far less about the moral underpinnings of liberalism and more a catalog of conservative hypocrisy. Which is fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but I’ve read enough of that already. If you’re looking for a coherent explanation of liberalism, I recommend Being Right Is Not Enough by Paul Waldman. I’ve also got The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman on my list.”
“If you are liberal, or even just think you are you MUST read it. This book changed my view of the world and let me hear the call of war. For far too long we liberals stood in the shadows ashamed of our name, no more. The conservatives must prepare to come and do battle, and learn once again that we will not stand down and allow them to trample upon our views.”
“What I like most about Alterman is that he doesn’t pretend liberals are perfect–we wouldn’t be liberals if we did–but what I like even more are the facts he trots out to prove his points. Pew Research studies. Media Matters. Budget analyses (more economic growth on Democrats’ watch? get out of town!). Mainstream media quotes (the New York Times trumpeted the call to war in 2003? surely you jest!). And on and on. He decimates commonly-held assumptions about liberals: that we’re wimps, that we’re tax-and-spend fanatics, that we hate America, that we hate religion, that we get ugly and name-call in the face of defeat.”
So, there you have it. I think it’s a solid read and is not really self-congratulatory for political progressives as much as it is a fair look at what liberals have right and what we have wrong, and what conservatives have right and what they have wrong (well, he mostly gets into the latter). If you want another view, look up the word “conservative” in The Wisdom Archive on this site, and hundreds of quotations will pop up, and you can see a wide variety of what many authors have said about the topic.
I can’t say I am terribly in favor of libertarianism or conservatism, because I think from gun control to regulations on corporations to civil liberties issues, conservatives get a lot wrong. Here is part of why: “Don’t believe the right-wing ideologues when they tell you the left still controls the media agenda. It does not any longer. It’s a fact.” (Bill O’Reilly).
But let’s face it, moving head-long into the future and trying all kinds of social programs is not necessarily wise, either. Certainly, the mostly-conservative, aristocratic-type gentlemen who framed the Constitution did not think that change, progress, and egalitarianism were perfect.
And now, I present the best quotes about liberalism by Eric Alterman from his book Why We’re Liberals (I encourage you to buy the book as well, and find out what’s so great and not-so-great about modern political liberalism):
Liberals are, indeed, far better at protecting the individual liberties upon which libertarians base their political philosophy than is the contemporary conservative movement, dominated as it is by censorious Christian fundamentalists, favor-seeking corporate CEOs, and neoconservative ideologues dreaming of a global empire.
According to Gewirtz and Golder, the current [Supreme] Court, beginning in 1994, has upheld or struck down sixty-four congressional provisions during the first eleven years of its tenure. When applying the measurement to determine which judges were most likely to strike down the laws passed by Congress, Justice Clarence Thomas was clearly in the lead, followed by Justices Kennedy, Scalia, Rehnquist, O’Connor, Souter, Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer, in that order. In other words, all of the Republican-appointed justices were more “activist”…
So is the problem liberal “judicial activism”? Or is it the fact that right-wingers are prone to object to the outcomes of certain cases? Once again, as soon as the evidence is examined, the conventional wisdom collapses in a heap of conservative misinformation, which is parroted by the press and prevents any possibility of a genuine debate on the complex issues involved.
As both individuals and corporations grow more sophisticated in their ability to mask deliberate discrimination, racism becomes harder to demonstrate as a matter of law, or even journalism. But almost every day, those of us who are impressed by evidence find ourselves confronted by extremely worrisome examples of pervasive racial and ethnic prejudice in the United States.
One cannot escape the conclusion that the contemporary manifestation of hundreds of years of white racism continues to play an important role in the achievement gap. It’s no coincidence, after all, that the schools with the largest minority student bodies are also the ones with the weakest tax base and the children of the poorest families attending.
The views that motivate many to oppose affirmative action are frequently based on misinformation. According to an extensive poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, between 40 and 60 percent of all whites believe that blacks are now doing as well as or better than most whites in areas of employment, income education, and access to health care. Given that mind-set, they naturally oppose any and all measures to address the problems of racism. Whites who do have accurate views of black circumstances show far greater sympathy for political solutions designed to address these issues, including efforts by the courts and law enforcement to ensure that laws are followed.
As the liberal education expert Richard D. Kahlenberg explains, forty years of studies have demonstrated that the socioeconomic status of the school a child attends is, after family economic status, the single most significant factor in determining future success in school. As he puts it, “Blacks don’t do better sitting next to whites; poor kids do better in middle-class environments.”
Looking at class rather than race is not only far more politically palatable than reverse racial discrimination, it brings us closer to the nub of the problem. According to a study conducted in 2003-4 by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 76 percent of predominantly minority schools were high poverty, compared with only 15 percent of predominantly white schools.
Are we, in America today, really arguing that it is the job of today’s poor white students to pay for the wrongdoings of generations past?
Liberals misguided obsession with identity politics spawned a decades-long wild-goose chase in pursuit of an antiracist, multicultural utopia as it simultaneously blinded them to the effects of a vicious class war conducted against those in our society least able to bear it. Minorities don’t need their cultural heritage respected, their speech patterns legitimized, and their sense of self uplifted. They need more money, more opportunity, and a dependable ladder to educational and professional improvement.
In his memoir, Bill Clinton looked back at some of the most difficult decisions of his presidency and concluded that Americans prefer leaders who appear “strong and wrong” to those that are “weak and right.” This dynamic presents a diabolical dilemma for American liberals.
Perhaps no president [referring to George W. Bush] in all of American history has had more words like strong, resolute, firm, unswerving, unwavering, constant, steadfast, and determined applied to him, when, given the results of the policies in question — be they in Iraq or for the U.S. economy, environment, health care system, and so on — far more accurate descriptions might have been stubborn, obstinate, inflexible, mulish, and impervious to reality.
Jonah Goldberg… on the salutary aspects of war for its own sake: “… here is the bedrock tenet of the [Michael] Ledeen Doctrine in more or less his own words: ‘Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” Naturally, a policy based on such problematic precepts can cause the occasional disaster, in addition to the death of a great many innocent people, which in turn generates an anger that feeds into a vicious and all-but-endless cycle of death and destruction for all concerned.
Because our political system values macho pigheadedness pretty much as a prerequisite for the presidency, it is all but impossible for liberals to address this topic critically. Examine almost any American election campaign, and you’ll probably see the more conservative candidate accuse the more liberal one of being “soft” — in other words, unmanly — with regard to one threat or another.
Sadly, owing to Americans’ limited attention span for politics along with their limited body of knowledge about issues, they remain extremely easy prey for dishonest politicians and their manipulative consultants, who deal in evocative imagery designed to deceive rather than enlighten the average voter. Election discourse rarely delves beneath the airiest of glittering generalities, discussed entirely in symbolic terms.
Those who think the war was a mistake or, worse, that the United States “was committed to war illegitimately” are something else. Because they cannot possibly have the best interests of the nation at heart, the only explanation for their hesitation to embrace Bush’s dishonestly promoted and incompetently executed war as well as Donald Rumsfeld’s counterproductive military strategy and John Ashcroft’s unconstitutional assault on American civil liberties is not only that they are wrong, but that they are illegitimate, unpatriotic, and possibly traitorous.
In other words, [George W.] Bush was willing to pursue a failed strategy on the war led by a discredited defense secretary because replacing him with someone more capable would be perceived as weakness. The president was willing to see tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people die and to send hundreds of billions of dollars down a hopeless sinkhole because he preferred this to admitting a mistake.
The great Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski likes to tell his players that people remember 30 percent of what they hear, 50 percent of what they see, and 100 percent of what they feel. Former Republican pollster Frank Lutz made this point in typical Republican fashion when he instructed GOP officeholders, “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” This disjunction is well known to every viewer of The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.
In fact, as liberals have moved toward the center, chastened by decades of internal division, perceived policy failures, and defeat at the polls, and the views of the public have edged leftward in many cases — perhaps in response to the excesses of right-wing Republican rule — we now have a situation in which not just majorities but massive supermajorities of the public tell pollsters that they hold views well to the left of what their political system produces: the very same positions ironically espoused by some of America’s most famous and allegedly out-of-touch liberals.
Liberals have committed any number of serious errors in the past, and will likely continue to do so… They pale in comparison to the dangers posed to America by the extremist right-wing political movement that currently controls the executive branch, the judicial branch, and, until recently, the legislative branch of our government, along with much of our mainstream media.
A key component of the Democrats’ victory was the fact that despite almost everything you read, see, and hear about how conservative the country has grown in recent decades, Americans are in fact liberals. True, barely 20 percent of them are willing to accept the “liberal” label, but take a close look at virtually and wide-ranging, carefully conducted political opinion poll, and you’ll be surprised at what you find. Pick any issue, foreign or domestic, social, economic, environmental, or even religious, and you’ll find not just majorities but supermajorities of Americans in favor of the “liberal” position time after time after time.
In terms of the role that religious and moral teachings should play in public debate about key issues, American voters do not focus on the issues of abortion, gay marriage, and the kind of topics that so exercise conservative Christian leaders, but would prefer to see their churches lead on issues such as alleviating “poverty and hunger” (75 percent), “homelessness” (61 percent), “government corruption” (58 percent), “terrorism” (56 percent), “the environment” (54 percent), and “health care” (52 percent).
One reason liberals today find themselves vulnerable to vituperation from so many quarters simultaneously is the difficulty they face in explaining, even in the most rudimentary terms, their basic philosophical beliefs. While contemporary conservatives may actually ignore their own principles in practice, they can at least explain them.
Liberals are often understood to be “progovernment” or even “protaxation,” but this reflects a fundamental confusion between ends and means. Liberals believe in “government” only insofar as it is necessary to achieve essential goals, including public welfare, investment, redistribution of income, defense, and so on. Conservatives, on the other hand, argue against government as a matter of principle; the less government involved, the better, period.
Liberalism’s bedrock belief in personal freedom, of thought, of expression, and of action, is derived from and defined by the philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and its children, a group that includes John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and James Madison. A liberal society strives to maximize these freedoms for the largest number of citizens while at the same time protecting the rights and interests of the minority, whose ideas of personal freedom may conflict with those of the majority. This focus on the freedom and the personal dignity of the individual fundamentally distinguishes liberalism from the tenets of both the religious right and the Marxist left, which stress instead unquestioned obedience to a higher authority for the benefit of the collective. Liberals find inherited and unquestioned belief systems — whether imposed by the Bible, the Koran, the Dialectic of History, or the Fatherland — to be anathema.
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [Dare to know!] ‘Have courage to use your own understanding!’ — that is the motto of enlightenment.
Just as conservatives were finding their voice in the public discourse, liberal intellectuals were forfeiting their own: withdrawing into university departments and embracing an impenetrable, specialized vernacular that effectively cut them off from any larger public than similarly trained specialists. During this period, as the sociologist Douglas S. Massey has written, “under the banner of postmodernism, deconstructionism, critical theory, or more popularly, ‘political correctness,’ what has become known as the ‘academic cultural left’ prosecuted their own private culture wars.” During the course of this new campaign, liberalism was easily portrayed by its new enemies as an Orwellian parody of its former self, “suppressing free expression to ensure liberal orthodoxy and seeking to instill through indoctrination what it could not achieve politically at the polls.”
The globalization of production and mobility of capital chipped away at the power of both unions and the liberal state to defend and protect their workers’ standard of living. Economist Dani Rodrik observed, “The fact that ‘workers’ can be more easily substituted for each other across national boundaries undermines what many conceive to be a postwar social bargain between workers and employers, under which the former would receive a steady increase in wages and benefits in return for labor peace.” Firms could now threaten workers with dismissal should demands for higher wages or on-the-job protection prove too onerous.
As it has developed during roughly the past 250 years, contemporary liberalism may be understood in its present incarnation to hover between two philosophical poles loosely defined as “rights-based” liberalism, which derives from the writings of twentieth-century political philosopher John Rawls, and “communitarian” liberalism, which arose in large measure as a response to Rawls’ writings but also owes a great deal to the “republican” beliefs that animated the visions of many of America’s founders.
To what degree, asks the political philosopher Michael Sandel, are our liberal virtues fashioned in relative isolation, and to what extent can they be found embedded in relations with others? Are we, ultimately, atomistic, individual beings or members of various interlocking communities? “Rawlsian liberalism defines certain actions as beyond the bounds of a decent society,” Sandel complains, “but wherein lies its commitment to the good, the noble purpose, the meaning, as it were, of life?”
Conceptually, James T. Kloppenberg notes, the central virtues of liberalism descend directly from the cardinal virtues of early Christianity: “prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.” He adds that “the liberal virtues of tolerance, respect, generosity, and benevolence likewise extend St. Paul’s admonition to the Colossians that they should practice forbearance, patience, kindness, and charity.”
In The Wealth of Nations — perhaps the founding text of capitalist philosophy — the proud liberal [Adam Smith] wrote: “No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath, and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed, and lodged.”
The goal of liberalism is not societal equality itself, which is not merely impossible to achieve but quite likely impossible to define. Rather it is equality of opportunity, where every citizen is entitled to the same chance to fulfill his or her potential regardless of the circumstances of birth, financial status, race, sexual orientation, gender, whatever.
In summary, we might term political liberalism to be “deliverable justice as fairness.” Yet as any philosophically serious liberal well knows, we live in a universe of profound limits to our ability to “do good” or even to identify it. Daring to know, after all, is not the same thing as knowing; what is morally desirable may not be pragmatically achievable.
Conservatives so consistently denigrate the amazing achievements of twenty-first century Europeans that one can’t help but wonder what has them so worried… Conservatives have been making exactly these arguments for roughly five decades now, yet these same European nations have by almost every measurement — individual rights and community, capitalist enterprise and social solidarity, and even personal mobility — proven superior to the United States.
The progress that Europeans have made toward the goal of “justice as fairness” ought to be enough to make most Americans — and not just liberals — ashamed and envious.
Apart from cases of “severe poverty,” one in six American households earned less than 35 percent of the median income in 2000. (In Britain, among the least equitable of European nations, that proportion is fewer than one in twenty.)
The truth is that, when it comes to social mobility, these European nations prove far more successful in providing what might be called “the Nordic Dream” — or even “the British Dream” — than the romantic notion of “the American Dream” that schoolchildren are taught to cherish.
The United States is the only wealthy industrialized nation not to legislate any paid time off and holidays for its workforce. Austria and Britain both offer four weeks, Denmark gives thirty work days, and even Japan mandates ten days. The United States guarantees nothing, with low-wage and part-time workers, not surprisingly, suffering the most. Only 69 and 36 percent of them, respectively, enjoy any vacation time at all.
Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who helped hand the 2000 election over to George W. Bush, argues that the American “government derives its moral authority from God” and that “the reaction of people of faith to the tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it, but the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible.” Former House majority leader Tom DeLay explained his mission on behalf of the party as the promotion of a “biblical worldview” and even justified his pursuit of the impeachment of Bill Clinton on that basis.
As the scholar Wayne Baker explains in his 2005 book America’s Crisis of Values, during the two decades covered by the World Values Surveys of sixty developed and developing nations on six continents, America’s values did not appreciably change between 1981 — when we were among the most traditional people in the world, especially for an economically advanced democracy — and 2001. According to these surveys, Americans espouse values far more traditional than the values of almost any advanced industrial society and even a few that aren’t. America’s social attitudes, cultural values, and religious beliefs are likewise not as polarized as the fundamentalists would have us believe.
Clearly, most middle-class Americans take their religion seriously. But very few of them take it so seriously that they believe that religion should be the sole, or even the most important, guide for establishing rules about how other people should live.
President Bush’s only veto during his first six years was against a congressional compromise on stem-cell research. The right’s crusading fundamentalism on these issues takes a particularly worrisome tack when it comes to the use of America’s military, for what ought to be an obvious reason: we live in a world where most people do not share our values, and the conflict between those values has the potential to destroy our respective societies.
Despite its limited appeal, its extremist orientation, and its contradiction to the tenets of our Constitution, right-wing religious orthodoxy so dominates our political discourse that many in the media seem to be unaware of any other tradition… Virtually the only kind of religious presence to which most television viewers are ever exposed is the fire-breathing, damn-all-the-liberals theocratic variety.
Liberals tend to argue that children, once they reach a certain age, should receive all the information necessary to conduct happy and healthy sex lives, with the understanding that their moral education is the responsibility of their families, churches, and so on. Conservatives, meanwhile, tend to prefer that children be drilled on the lessons of the Bible, and on what pundits call “traditional morality.” That means they are to be taught nothing about birth control, and urged to reject heterosexual sex outside of marriage, and homosexuality under any circumstances.
The taxpayer — so beloved by the Wall Street Journal when it comes to preventing government expenditures that actually benefit poor people — is expected to fund this nonsense because, in the area of sex as in so many others, conservative hypocrisy trumps common sense. What is perhaps most infuriating, however, is that conservatives rarely insist that their own elites play by the rules they insist on for others.
The evidence from extensive polling of evangelicals, laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, “presents survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general.” In a 1999 national survey, the Barna Group found that the percentage of born-again Christians who had been divorced was slightly higher (26 percent) than that of non-Christians (22 percent).
Missing from almost all discussions of the role of religion in public life is what William James famously termed the “varieties of religious experience.” The right wing’s hijacking of religion’s public role in our political discourse is as undeniable as it is inappropriate, and represents one of liberalism’s most serious problems.
More than 60 percent of Americans state that belief in God is necessary in order “to be moral and have good values,” which is about twice the number of Germans and six times the number of French who say they feel similarly. As Barack Obama points out, “Substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution.”
Liberals, particularly religious liberals, have done a poor job of communicating their own bedrock values to America’s religious majority. Following the 1960s the left made the politically suicidal choice of cultural radicalism, which succeeded, over political and economic radicalism, which failed. As religion reporter Peter Steinfels observes, “American liberalism has shifted its passion from issues of economic deprivation and concentration of power to issues of gender, sexuality, and personal choice… Once trade unionism, regulation of the market, and various welfare measures were the litmus tests. Today the litmus test is abortion.” Liberals, as Michael Kazin put it, have morphed in the public imagination “from people who looked, dressed and sounded like Woody Guthrie to people who look, dress, and sound like Woody Allen.”
American liberals need to remember what the great German philosopher Jurgen Habermas has frequently argued: not only must believers tolerate others’ beliefs, including the credos and convictions of nonbelievers, but disbelieving secularists must likewise appreciate the convictions of religiously motivated fellow citizens. Liberals actually have many points of confluence with many cultural conservatives — at least those who reject biblical literalism.
As a parent I find myself constantly bombarded with messages explicitly designed to corrupt the values of my child for the purpose of corporate gain.
Hollywood producers and rap artists who exploit the violent denigration of women should be condemned by liberals every bit as much as the racism, homophobia, and sexism that are so frequently purveyed on right-wing talk radio.
John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty of the use of “moral disapprobation in the proper sense of the term as a useful check on antisocial behavior.” (His example was a father’s squandering his family’s food money.) Where, today, is that liberal voice of “moral disapprobation,” directed where it might not only be most useful but could find common ground with cultural conservatives.
A second avenue open to liberals who seek to reach religious and culturally conservative Americans would be to employ a moral vocabulary when discussing political and economic issues. There is nothing to prevent making a moral case, for example, that it is objectionable to give huge tax cuts to the rich while cutting social programs for the poor and working class when that gap is already at its widest in an entire century. Liberal arguments for universal health care and education are also fundamentally moral arguments, and need not be defended entirely in terms of economic efficiency — though they can be.
Liberal evangelical Jim Wallis correctly points out that the issue the Bible raises most often is not abortion or gay marriage but “how you treat the poorest and most vulnerable in your society. That’s the issue the prophets raise again and again, and Jesus talks about it more than any other topic, more than heaven or hell, more than sex or morality. So how did Jesus become pro-rich, pro-war and only pro-American?”
Indeed, as Warren’s own evolution suggests, it ought not be too taxing for any religious Christian to commit to memory a few of the Bible’s more poetic phrases that have no place in a Karl Rove playbook, much less a Rush Limbaugh rant. There is, for instance, the Gospel that explains, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty!” (Luke 1:52-53.)
The “key,” if there is one, is not merely to say the passages [from the Bible], but to say them with genuine conviction. If liberals cannot do this, then they resign themselves to losing, always, in America. This is a free country, but also a deeply religious one. There can be no more Sisyphean battle than to ignore this or try to wish it away. For liberals, this fact should be a blessing, not a curse.
For liberals, religious beliefs provide inspiration rather than dogmatic direction. Our Enlightenment legacy mitigates any claims of absolute truth, particularly one deriving from a literalist interpretation of a particular religious text. Let justice flow, as Dr. King preached, like a mighty river.
No matter what outrage against which the Christian right is busy fulminating, the media not only reports it but does so quite credulously.
With America’s wasteful and expensive system of public health, and family-unfriendly employment laws, its children face a whole host of impediments to their development potential that are all but unknown across much of Europe. The United States and South Africa are the only two developed countries in the world that do not provide health care for all of their citizens.
Conservatives, members of the American medical-industrial complex, and other defenders of the U.S. status quo frequently berate the European health care alternative because, they say, the care that patients receive there is both less responsive and less advanced than that available to Americans, however much more we may have to pay for ours. These claims tend to evaporate under even minimal scrutiny.
Just how did the Europeans get so smart? The education figures tell a similar story. Although the United States devotes roughly the same proportion of national income to education as the European Union nations, on average, European nations all rank higher in math and science. They also enjoy, on average, an additional year of education and have a higher proportion of young people in higher education.
Socially, the values of Europe strike most liberals as far more humane than our own. As amazing as it may sound to many Americans, candidate countries for EU membership must first abolish capital punishment as a condition for entry; in fact, it is the very first condition listed.
Because Christian conservatives and the gun lobby do not enjoy the power to shape public policy in Europe and Canada, their children are also safer than ours. Canadian and European teenagers do not have to contend with restrictive laws that deny them access to truthful sex education and contraception, or with federally funded programs that deliberately misinform them about the dangers associated with sex to try and scare them into abstinence.
As for violent deaths, the United States must contend with the power of the conservative National Rifle Association, which not only lobbies to prevent background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists, but also insists that when such checks are conducted, the evidence amassed must be destroyed within twenty-four hours. The result: American children are sixteen times more likely than children in other industrialized nations to be murdered with a gun, eleven times more likely to commit suicide with a gun, and nine times more likely to die from firearm accidents. These figures are hardly surprising when one considers the fact that the rate of firearms homicide in the United States is nineteen times higher than that of thirty-five other high-income countries combined.
One could fill an entire book with examples and statistics that demonstrate the multiple means by which various European governments better serve their citizens than does our own. Apologists for American failures in these areas point to characterological, ideological, and historical reasons why Americans shy away from more effective delivery and distribution systems for the services they need to live healthy, prosperous lives.
Powerful lobbies buy themselves the right to rip off Americans with perfectly legal payments to politicians and then pretend that somehow this legalized larceny represents the true desire of a public that is perennially kept in the dark. Policies with strong majority support such as universal health care and paid maternity leave are written off as liberal or even socialistic, as if that ends the argument then and there.
The conservative movement — frequently aided by the putatively liberal members of the mainstream media — has invested many billions of dollars in sullying the good name of liberals and making a mockery of their true beliefs. This effort involves well-funded foundations, think tanks, newspapers, cable stations, talk-radio programs, Internet sites, gossip columnists, PBS programs, publishing houses, and network broadcast programs — to say nothing of the resources of the Republican National Committee — all of whom have made a concerted effort to vilify and dishonor the term liberal, associating it with all manner of weakness, treachery, and immorality.
Liberals have a great many good ideas. But ideas remain just that until they are implemented, and here, liberals have been overtly impatient and frequently unconcerned with the (necessarily) unpredictable results of their policies. The popular reactions to the busing of schoolchildren or the implementation of race-based affirmative action programs are but two of many examples where good intentions were not only insufficient but may have proved counterproductive. Too often liberals depend on the weight of sensible arguments to carry the day, and dismiss those who oppose them as simply failing to “see the light.”
Just before the 2024 election, former Christian Coalition chief Ralph Reed explained, rather cogently, that Bush would win the election because Christian conservatives would all go to church on Sunday, would be reminded to vote, and would be driven to and from the polling places, if necessary. Liberals, in contrast, went nowhere on Sundays, and indeed did not congregate anywhere, anytime at all. Conservative mega-churches, moreover, also provide a central focus for the lives of many of their members to a degree that has no corollary in liberal life.
Of course, owing to U.S. campaign finance laws, it is awfully difficult to run for the presidency without also being a multimillionaire. And if you’re an actual poor person, it’s impossible.
The average hourly wage of a U.S. worker, according to the 2006 Economic Report of the President, fell, in constant 1982 dollars, from $8.21 in 1967 to $8.17 in 2005. Many factors helped contribute to this decline, but certainly a major one was the fact that in China in 2005, the legal minimum wage was just 41 cents an hour (which was higher than in some other nations), and many companies were allowed to skirt even that.
The fact that global corporations can and do outsource their labor to nations where labor is cheaper and environmental regulation most lax severely restricts the ability of liberals to use their traditional fiscal and economic tools to generate economic growth and good jobs for American voters. It also significantly reduces the power of its primary constituency, organized labor.
It is no secret that the party that lavishes its legislative and executive power on advancing the interest of big business and wealthy Americans is going to have an easier time finding resources to continue to do so than one whose fealty lies with working people and ordinary Americans. On a corporate level, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a decade ago political donations from nineteen key industry sectors were split roughly evenly between the parties. Today the GOP holds a two-to-one advantage in corporate donations.
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.
Conservatives, however, appear to have reached an understanding among their followers that if a politician or a pundit professes to be in favor of virtue, it matters little that he practices vice. Conservative voters want their representatives to speak out against fornication, gambling, and drug abuse, but they are happy to embrace leaders like Newt Gingrich, Bob Livingston, Bob Barr, Henry Hyde, Dan Burton, and even Bob Dole, all of whom railed against Bill Clinton’s love life but were adulterers themselves.
No historical figure in America is more revered today by conservatives than Ronald Regan, a man who was divorced, estranged from some of his children, and completely unfamiliar with his grandchildren; rarely if ever set foot in church; invited gays to spend the night together in the White House; supported the rights of gays to teach in public schools; and, as governor of California, signed what was then perhaps America’s most permissive law on abortion.
Indeed, this struggle remains with us today, as too many governments, including frequently our own, embrace an authoritarian philosophy of governance that denies citizens not only the power to question their leaders but also the ability to obtain the information they need to make informed decisions about choosing them. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel points out, whatever form of liberalism we may be discussing, it remains a fundamental precept that the power of the state over the individual be carefully limited.
What this [the “New Liberalism” by L.T. Hobhouse, and subsequent advancement by John Dewey that “liberty” was not an abstract principle but “the effective power to do specific things”] meant for liberalism was that the commitment to Enlightenment principles was insufficient if real-world forces — say, corporate trusts or monopolies — interfered with individuals’ ability to realize them. The new view was initially adopted in the early 1900s by both Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose” Republican Party and Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats under the banner of “progressivism,” where trust-busting and industry regulation became the agreed-upon responsibility of progressive governance. It was not until Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal in the early 1930s, however, that the actual term liberal came into widespread use in the United States.
The introduction of pragmatism to liberalism was obviously necessary to make it meaningful in people’s lives. But it also raises a question that liberals have never satisfactorily resolved, either philosophically or pragmatically: Just what are the limits of liberalism? What, in other words, is the proper mix of rights and responsibilities of the citizens of a liberal government, and how far should that government go in attempting to ensure that those rights and responsibilities are guaranteed to all?
Similarly, Lionel Tilling, in the enormously influential 1950 introduction to his collection of essays entitled The Liberal Imagination, complained that the United States simply lacked a viable conservative intellectual tradition. This troubled Trilling not because he particularly cared for conservatives, but because liberalism would likely grow weak and flaccid without a suitable philosophical partner with whom to spar on occasion.
White liberals were understandably eager to establish their Cold War bona fides, they were unable to strike a sensible balance between voicing their disapproval of communism and Communists while simultaneously defending constitutional guarantees that permitted Americans to make politically unpopular choices if they so desired. As a result, the right-wing Red Scare took place without the energetic opposition of those in the best position to blunt its effectiveness, and many, many innocent lives ended up in ruins thanks to what would later prove to be exaggerated — and in some cases imaginary — dangers.
Had liberals had the foresight to focus on an overall strategy to uplift the poor and the middle class regardless of race, they might have had a fighting chance. Instead, they placed race at the center of their appeal, and thus ensured the equivalent of a low-level race war between black Have-Nots and white Have-Littles.
The catastrophe of Vietnam caused a quadruple fissure within liberalism: it diverted resources from the government that could have been used to sustain social progress; it isolated liberals from an increasingly angry (and ultimately nihilistic) anti-war movement made up of much of America’s most articulate and eloquent college-educated young people who could have benefited from their guidance; it weakened the movement’s association with the historic (and highly popular) cause of anticommunism; and finally, and most crucial, it robbed liberals of their self-confidence.
Beginning in August 1971, future Supreme Court associate justice Lewis Powell undertook a campaign to convince not only conservative billionaires but also ordinary businessmen that their way of life faced a threat not only from “the Communists, New Leftists and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system,” but also from “perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.”
It’s a cliché that the media is biased in favor of liberals, but a profoundly outdated one. The accusation, while true thirty years ago, perhaps, has been overtaken by the growth of a massive conservative media establishment that, to a considerable degree, has not only displaced the old media but simultaneously transformed it.
Fox, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Washington Times, is a conservative counterestablishment institution designed to ape the functions of establishment organs, doing double duty by firing up the troops with custom-crafted ideological spin, “analysis,” and phony scholarship while confusing the rest of the world with nonsense disguised as news.
A recent survey by the Pew Research Center found viewers of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report likely to be better informed than the average Fox News consumer. But the impact of Fox’s brand of fake news is not limited to its own viewers. When in April 2007 anchor Katie Couric misreported on CBS Evening News that Barack Obama “grew up praying in a mosque,” she was citing a discredited Fox report that had appeared three months earlier.
Pat Buchanan, among the most conservative pundits and presidential candidates in the history of the republic, finding that he could not identify any allegedly liberal bias against him during his presidential candidacies: “I’ve gotten balanced coverage, and broad coverage — all we could have asked. For heaven sakes, we kid about the ‘liberal media,’ but every Republican on earth does that. And even William Kristol, without a doubt the most influential Republican/ neoconservative publicist in America today, has come clean on this issue. “I admit it,” he told a reporter. “The liberal media were never that powerful, and the whole thing was often used as an excuse by conservatives for conservative failures.”
When liberals take office, they devote themselves to what they understand to be the public interest: doing the greatest good for the greatest number. They also like to play by established rules, for much of what liberals understand to be fundamental to their political philosophy involves procedure, fairness, good governance, and so on.
While the past decade represents a veritable cornucopia of examples of conservatives’ forgoing their commitment to small government in order to reward their political friends and allies, the 2003 Medicare overhaul will stand forever as a monument to the exploitation of taxpayer-funded largesse.
One of the greatest problems of democratic civilization is how to integrate the life of its various subordinate ethnic, religious, and economic groups in the community in such a way that the richness and harmony of the whole community will be enhanced and not destroyed by them.
Almost all of us suffer from racist fears and impulses on occasion, liberals as well as conservatives. The primary political difference between liberals and conservatives, however, is that the former seek to transcend these fears for the purposes of building transracial coalitions, while too many conservatives prefer to exploit them. It is no accident, after all, that the Republican Party contains not a single black man or woman in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, or in a governor’s chair.
While no one ever says so aloud, blacks are demonized by conservatives so that they might more effectively exploit the fears of white Americans. We have seen examples of this tactic over and over, from the Jesse Helms ads with white men losing jobs to blacks, to George H. W. Bush’s notorious invocation of Willie Horton.
America’s most popular conservative talk-show host, Rush Limbaugh, once told an African-American caller to “take that bone out of your nose.” “The NAACP should have riot rehearsals,” he announced on another occasion. “They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.” When Senator Carol Moseley-Braun’s name was mentioned on his program, Limbaugh played the theme song “Movin’ On Up” from the 1970s black sitcom The Jeffersons.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s a powerful network of labor organizations, integrated with a locally based Democratic Party structure, represented middle-income Americans in political, economic, and cultural matters. They helped workers identify common issues, informed them about political and policy considerations, helped shape their long-term philosophies, and turned them out for rallies and votes, much like what the mega-churches do today for conservatives. This movement also once provided Democrats with much of their political support, through funding, registration drives, solidarity campaigns, political campaigns, and all-important generation-to-generation political acculturation, assuring a sustainable future for all concerned. All that is but a memory today.
Liberals today have simply lost too many elections, and it shows. According to a July 2006 poll by Democracy Corps, 68 percent of Americans believe that the Republican Party knows what it stands for, while only 45 percent say the same thing about the Democrats. The Republicans did mismanage the government so egregiously between 2000 and 2006 that they discredited themselves sufficiently to enable a Democratic landslide. But as National Review’s Rich Lowry put it so eloquently, “Liberals cannot count on conservatives being associated with corruption, incompetence, or an unpopular war forever.”
My hypothesis is simply this: correct the lies, half-truths, and outdated assumptions about liberals and liberalism that have taken root in the minds of most voters; improve their understanding of the actual impact of the past eight years of conservative rule and the past forty years of conservative agitation; and we get our country back. It sounds simple, I know, but it’s not so easily done.
Note that conservatives deem only certain American groups and institutions to be legitimately “patriotic.” That list would include the military, conservative Christian churches, NASCAR, the Grand Ol’ Opry, and holiday parades (both patriotic and Christian), but would exclude unions, jazz festivals, mainstream Christian churches and non-Christian houses of worship, pickup basketball games, nearly all moviemaking, and protest marches.
The devotion of conservatives to America’s military seems to consist, primarily, of two separate aspects: expressing one’s love rhetorically while specifically avoiding service oneself, and refusing to offer appropriate funding or support either for soldiers fighting abroad or wounded veterans returning home.
This [Karl Rove’s explanation that after the 9/11 attacks Liberals wanted to “offer therapy and understanding for our attackers,” and Conservatives “prepared for war”] was nonsense; nearly 90 percent of liberals supported the U.S. military response against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Liberals, unlike Rove and his patrons in the Bush White House, tend to believe that when one is attacked, it is appropriate to respond against those responsible, rather than against another group of people in another part of the world who had nothing whatsoever to do with the attack.
One can debate the ethical responsibility of a young person who refuses to fight in a war he or she does not support; having never been faced with this choice personally, I am reluctant to moralize about it. But how is it possible to defend those, like young Dick Cheney, who say they believed in the cause of the war but felt themselves to have “other priorities” in their lives rather than fight it, or George W. Bush, who clearly employed his privileged position in society to ensure a series of cushy postings in the Air National Guard that he did not even bother to fulfill?
In fact, whether boomers or not, liberals and Democrats, it turns out, are far more likely to have served in the military, even when the war in question is one they personally did not support.
Georgia senator Saxby Chambliss, who defeated Max Cleland, a man who lost three limbs to a grenade in Vietnam, by questioning his patriotism, managed to stay out of the military with five separate student deferments plus a medical deferment for a football-related knee injury.
Conservative disrespect for the military features a far more deadly aspect than mere personal hypocrisy. While often eager to risk the lives and limbs of our fighting men and women in war, they are notoriously stingy when it comes to protecting their lives, or even the institutions they serve.
The Bush administration had enough expert analysis accessible to gauge just how difficult democracy would be to export under the best of circumstances. Study after study, easily available to U.S. military planners, provided ample warning of just how daunting a task lay in store. Indeed, just before the war was precipitately launched, a secret CIA report judged the administration’s goal to be, in all likelihood, “impossible.”
The Bush administration never did take the job of Iraqi reconstruction particularly seriously. Instead of appointing trained professionals or individuals with knowledge of the region and its people to oversee the vast tasks of rebuilding the country, it placed the responsibility entirely on the shoulders of untrained political hacks whose only apparent qualification was a publicly professed loyalty to the administration itself.
Expecting the military to provide guidance for the creation of a political democracy among people with no experience of it and little or no cultural basis or necessarily even a demonstrated desire to embrace such a system demonstrates disrespect for both the individual soldiers and the institutions they serve. It is a sacred trust granted to an American president to send soldiers off to fight and die. George W. Bush and his conservative supporters have treated this trust with contempt.
Nor did the Republican-controlled Congress initiate so much as a single bill that might have encouraged the Pentagon to act with greater alacrity in its acquisition efforts. By contrast, when other nations’ forces in Iraq required more bulletproof vests, they ordered them directly from a U.S. manufacturer, who began supplying them within twelve days. The net result was that soldiers’ hometowns — indeed, even some of their families — banded together to buy soldiers the vests, at least until the army barred the use of privately purchased body armor.
Meanwhile, back at home, the Bush administration was also quietly slashing veterans’ benefits over the next decade by nearly $29 billion, leaving them to languish in a system that demands that they wait weeks or months for mental-health care and other appointments; fall into debt as VA case managers study disability claims over many months; and hire help from outside experts just to understand the VA’s arcane system of rights and benefits.
The Bush administration conservatives who inexcusably abused the trust of our soldiers have done so without any sense whatsoever of personal accountability — a value that we are frequently led to believe is the bedrock of conservative philosophy.
President Bush has spoken on the importance of national sacrifice to win the “war on terror,” musing. “Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country.” What was unclear from his remarks was just who, besides the soldier and their families, was making any sacrifices. “Nobody in America is asked to sacrifice, except us,” said one officer upon returning from a yearlong tour in Iraq. “For most Americans,” said another officer with a year’s experience in Iraq, “their role in the war on terror is limited to the slight inconvenience of arriving at the airport a few hours early.” Indeed, Bush is the first president in American history to combine commitment to a war with the simultaneous granting of a massive tax cut to the wealthiest Americans — or indeed any Americans.
Asked by a journalist what sacrifices nonmilitary Americans were making for the war, Bush answered by explaining that Americans “sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night.” Asked about this issue by NBC’s Ann Curry on the Today show in April 2008, Laura Bush responded, “No one suffers more than their president and I do.” Suffice it to say that few soldiers serving in Iraq — nor the family members of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for the administration’s folly — would be likely to embrace either Bush’s definition.
William Bennet, who frequently decries the loss of standards of decency and civility among liberals, calls Limbaugh “possibly the greatest living American” and “extremely sophisticated, extremely smart… He’s very serious intellectually.”
Liberalism is perceived among the politically active to be concerned with abortion, health care, and poverty, rather than Scuds, MIRVs, or Apache attack helicopters. Liberals who do evince an interest in foreign affairs tend toward “softer” issues, such as global poverty, human rights, and environmental threats.
One of the unchallenged assumptions of American politics is that conservatives are not merely more patriotic than liberals, but also far more attentive to protecting America from physical threats to its security. This, too, is a myth perpetrated by conservatives in the media that collapses with even rudimentary scrutiny.
The most frequent charge one hears against liberals in America today is that of “elitism.” It is not that the charge lacks any truth; some liberals are indeed “elitists.” But what, one wonders, is ultimately so bad about elitism? Do conservatives really mean to argue that the functioning of a society of roughly three hundred million people does not require elites to help manage its affairs?
If you find yourself wondering how Iraq happened, how Katrina was botched, or how U.S economic and environmental policies were so profoundly mismanaged by the Bush administration, imagine a government staffed by all too many Goodlings, “Brownies,” and Doug Feiths — whom former chief of U.S. Central Command General Tommy Franks termed the “fucking stupidest guy on the face of the earth” — serving the Bushes, the Cheneys, and the Rumsfelds.
Perhaps a more useful question would be why is it that the ultimately contentless accusation of elitism — a quality that is usually considered complimentary in the worlds of, say, baseball, law, medicine, and so on — can be so confidently hung around the necks of liberals when conservatives are every bit as — if not more — attached to the very same “elitist” advantages they so decry in liberals.
Since then [when Nixon’s vice-president Spiro Agnew and his speechwriters Pat Buchanan and William Safire showed the political potential in attacking “liberal elites”] no right-wing campaign has been complete without some form of repudiation of what former vice president Dan Quayle named the liberal “cultural elite,” whose avowed purpose is to undermine all that is admirable and virtuous in Middle America, or as Quayle termed it, “the rest of us.” (Asked to define the evildoers, Quayle responded, “They know who they are.”) Quayle’s addition of the word cultural to elite, coupled with his attack on a popular television character, single mom/ anchorwoman Murphy Brown, was a stroke of genuine genius, as it allowed conservatives to continue to feel themselves oppressed even as they gained control of virtually all of the levers of political power in the United States and much of the news media.
Rush Limbaugh posited his own success as an example of what he termed “middle America’s growing rejection of the elites,” which he defines as “professionals” and “experts,” including “the medical elites, the sociological elites, the education elites, the legal elites, the science elites… and the ideas this bunch promotes through the media.
The conservative pundit Peggy Noonan identifies “America’s elite” as “the politicians, wise men, think-tank experts, academics, magazine and editorial-page editors, big-city columnists, TV commentators” who had the temerity to oppose Bush’s ruinous war in Iraq. The qualities of the “big and real America,” from which George W. Bush (of Harvard, Yale, and Andover) hails, are those that liberal elites would recognize only as native to “another America, and boy has it endured. It just won a war.” [Noonan was writing in early 2003, before the catastrophe that Iraq has become was apparent to all.]
In observing the members of the conservative elite denouncing “elitists,” it can be difficult to tell your players without the proverbial scorecard. For instance, the radio talk-show host and former conservative cable host Laura Ingraham has written an entire book about the dangers posed by liberal elites, entitled Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the Media Are Subverting America. In it, this daughter of a Connecticut lawyer, and graduate of Dartmouth and the University of Virginia Law School, who now lives in an expensive home in Washington, D.C., distinguishes between liberal elitists and those whom she terms “true Americans.” She begins her treatise by explaining who these “elite Americans” are and what they think: “They think we’re stupid. They think our patriotism is stupid. They think our churchgoing is stupid. They think where we live — anywhere but near or in a few major cities — is stupid. They think our SUVs are stupid. They think owning a gun is stupid. They think our abiding belief in the goodness of America and its founding principles is stupid.”
Conservative disgust at liberals in particular and Democrats in general for their embrace of the entertainment industry is truly a wonder to behold. Nothing seems to goose their gander quite so much as a picture of some liberal politician poolside with Warren Beatty or Sharon Stone. No matter that these horrible Hollywood heathens automatically morph into admirable political visionaries just as soon as they become Republicans. Ronald Reagan, it turns out, was not the exception to the rule, but its template. Arnold Schwarzenegger is now revered as a political phenomenon and potential president (despite a constitutional prohibition against naturalized and foreign-born Americans holding that office.)
The real problem the right wing has with Hollywood is the fact that its cultural and financial center of gravity is liberally located (just as the analogous axes of Houston or Dallas turn rightward). Because these same liberals are also wealthy and pampered and not always perfectly well informed on all the issue upon which they opine — much like the rich everywhere else — they are supposed to embrace the right-wing politics that would benefit their economic self-interest and leave the opinion business to the professionals.
It is true that Hollywood’s wealth notwithstanding, its politics are by and large liberal. Like an Ivy League humanities department or a folk-singers’ convention, Hollywood attracts those kinds of people. They give their dollars to protect the environment, to secure a woman’s right to choose, to promote the rights of gay people to enjoy the same rights as the rest of us, to help prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa, and to oppose virtually every aspect of President Bush’s foreign policy.
A March 2004 report by Public Citizens found that of the 416 Bush campaign “Rangers” and “Pioneers” — donors who had raised $200,000 and $100,000 respectively — 90 percent represented the special interests of America’s most powerful corporations. The top six, CEOs all, enjoyed an average additional income $270,000 each in 2003 alone, merely on the basis of their personal tax reductions. No fewer than sixty-one of Bush’s top money men enjoyed direct benefits for their businesses owing to the twin boondoggles of the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug bill and the giant 2004 energy bill.
One night at David Geffen’s Malibu beach house, Geffen brought nine or ten of these guests together to tell the president not to cut the capital gains tax: “We’ve already got enough. We don’t need this too.” Have we become so cynical a society that altruism is itself reason for contempt?
It’s not merely bad words, body parts, imaginary cartoon bunnies, and privately made satires that offend the new censors; it’s science itself. The New York Times has reported that some Imax theaters — even those in science centers — will no longer show Darwinian documentaries like Galapagos or Volcanoes of the Deep Sea for fear of antagonizing faith-based activists who find evolution offensive.
The U.S. Constitution makes no reference whatsoever to God. This was clearly a conscious choice on the part of the document’s authors, as it broke with virtually all known precedent, including the Articles of Confederation and nearly every state constitution. God is also barely mentioned in the eighty-five Federalist Papers by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, written in support of the Constitution, and the deity receives only two mentions in the Declaration of Independence.
While America’s founders lived in deeply religious times, and were, with some important exceptions, Christians themselves, it is almost impossible to find a founder who played a significant role in the creation of the republic who shared conservative Christian views on the role of God and politics; and this includes the evangelical community of the day. America’s founders possessed a panoply of religious beliefs, many of them syncretic, and not given to standard Christian categories.
Thomas Paine would write, in Common Sense, that “the Almighty hath implanted in us these inextinguishable feelings for good and wise purposes.” But with respect to organized religion, he once said, “of all the systems of religion that ever were invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself than this thing called Christianity.”
“To this effect, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man, into mystery and jargon unintelligible to all mankind and therefore the safer engine for their purposes.”
What is particularly inconvenient for the fundamentalists (and ironic for the rest of us) is the fact that among the strongest voices for keeping God and Christianity out of the Constitution was the eighteenth-century evangelical Christian community.