Skip to main content

So I was about to publish this diary, and then I refreshed the Kos home page in another window and found this excellent rescued diary by AndrewMC, asking "Open Thread: What Is Liberalism?" One thing that struck me about the comment threads was that some people seemed to reject "classical" liberalism, a' la Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and many of the Founding Fathers, while others insist that liberalism as it is currently practiced is too morally relativist to be taken seriously.

Eric Alterman, the Altercation blogger for Media Matters for America, put out this book recently. My partner and I ran into it at Barnes and Noble on Tuesday, his birthday, and had to buy it.

The book is called Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America.

Amazingly, it answers both the "moral relativist" issue and the "classical vs. current liberalism" issue, and I'd like to share a bit with you here to address those items as well. While my logic is a bit roundabout, it does eventually come full circle and even come to a point, so I hope you'll read along.

Come with me across the jump, and have a look.

I just want to excerpt one paragraph for you, because it's very telling, and then talk about some of the thoughts and issues that this paragraph (and this book) has raised for me. And I recommend the book to anyone who is a liberal or (despite not being able to adopt the label) supports liberal causes. Here you go, and all emphases in bold are mine:

Capitulation on [the subject of gay marriage] is, in any case, impractical. In the first place, the courts have decided that the issue is upon us, as evinced by the Justices in Massachusetts, Hawaii, and New Jersey who have ruled on its legality, so it's going to happen anyway. Second, there will always be ambitious politicians who seek to solidify their reputations for "bravery" and "vision," and many in the conservative and tabloid-driven media will seize on these individuals and blow their positions up into national controversies. Conservative Republicans will naturally do the same, for when the topic dominates the headlines, it not only removes the proverbial spotlight from a whole host of issues where their positions are well beyond the national consensus but puts liberals in exactly the same bind in which candidate Kerry found himself. This explains why the Republicans continue to bring up the subject on the floor of Congress just before every election, but ensure that they lose whatever vote it happens to take. If they won, the issue would go away, which is the last thing they want. Instead, continual defeats on gay marriage - which is already illegal virtually everywhere in America - allow them to appeal to the sense of persecution that so many conservatives enjoy, even while controlling two of the three branches of the federal government, most state legislators, and much of the media (Alterman 2008:226).

That's the way it is with pretty much every conservative hot-button issue, too. Think about it. If abortion went away, how would the current (neo)conservatives scare people into voting them back into office? How about if the terrorists were no longer an issue, or drug use patterns, or women's rights, or immigration, or any of the things guaranteed to make a neoconservative foam at the mouth? What would they use as talking points if these things were no longer at the forefront of every political debate? The economy? The war? How ridiculous does that sound?

They need these talking points, because their entire identity and ideology is based on unchanging issues that will always press anger buttons among their constituency. Without them, conservatism becomes simply the party of the elite, rich, and robber baron, rather than that of the common man.

Alterman says that one of the largest contrasts between the American conservative and the American liberal is that conservatives have a set of ideological rules that they never move away from. They hold fast to their rules come hell, high water, or both, regardless of the changing political, social, and economic landscape. Liberals, on the other hand, hold to a set of values or "ends" (as in, means and ends), but their application of those ends changes over time; they're flexible, where the conservative rules are inflexible and rigid. As a result, the man on the street, when asked to describe conservatism, has no problem doing it. But liberalism? Even lifted out of the stigma that the neoconservative movement has managed to place on that word, the concept of liberalism remains slippery and elusive to the common man. It's too nuanced, not black-and-white enough.

According to Alterman, the liberal "agenda," in a nutshell, is to ensure the greatest freedoms for the majority while also ensuring that the interests and freedoms of the minority are protected, whomever those minorities might be, when those minorities' ideas of personal freedom conflict with those of the majority (Alterman 2008:22). During the time of the Enlightenment, the greatest freedom that seemed to be needed was to allow persons to pursue a laissez-faire economic dream, establishing business and autonomy and getting one's livelihood out from under the thumbs of the ruling nobilities and monarchies. This is called "classical" liberalism. However, during the very end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, this began to curdle as a new class of ruling rich had been created by all that laissez-faire economic free-marketeering: the robber barons, the filthy-rich industrialists who now exploited those less fortunate in their factories and industries.

As a result of the rise of this new rich elite, liberal values shifted to protecting the rights and freedoms of the workers, especially after the 1929 stock market disaster. FDR's New Deal was a pastiche of programs aimed at raising the poor and destitute out of their poverty and giving them back their dignity (not to mention their income). Alterman quotes FDR: a "liberal party is a party which believes that, as new conditions and problems arise beyond the power of men and women to meet as individuals, it becomes the duty of the Government itself to find new remedies with which to meet them" (Alterman 2008:25), and this value, of the government being responsible for providing some kind of social safety net when the issues got too big for individuals to address them adequately, was one of the driving forces behind the New Deal and its various programs.

After unionized labor became strong and powerful against the robber barons, blacks and women and gays and other minorities all found a champion in the liberal left over time. Unfortunately, championing all those diverse and disparate folks has made it impossible for liberals to speak clearly to the enduring values that they are supporting and expressing by doing so, due to in-group infighting and between-group infighting. As Senator Obama said in the now famous speech he made last week, whites of the working class saw all that they had worked for being taken away by black equality, and fought back. Blacks, meanwhile, saw whites refusing to share what they had, and fights over who got the biggest piece of the pie became common, which hurt the liberal (nominally Democratic) political base. That's just one example of why we do not have much of a liberal base among the working class these days, even though by all rights we should, and why classical liberalism and modern liberalism, while very different, are still joined by the common thread of "greatest benefit for the majority while making sure the minority is protected."

The other problem with the liberal "agenda" of values and ends over rigid rules is that whole moral-relativism thing. It makes liberals look like they are flip-floppers, changing with the political breeze and trying to make the most of any particular trend, when what they're actually doing is trying to address injustice and make things more fair for everyone. That's what the original liberals of the Enlightenment were trying to do, too: make things more fair and less polarized. Conservatives tend to hold to a rigid set of moral rules: these few things are RIGHT and GOOD, and all else is BAD and WRONG, and that's the way it is. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to say "This is bad in this context, but good in this other context. And this good thing is only good for people who are part of this context; it's not good for those who are excluded from it." That's too nuanced for some people to handle; it's not comfortable, black-and-white, yes-or-no thinking but rather a charcoal picture done in shades of gray.

I'm bringing all this up because first, I want you all to read Alterman's book. It's good stuff, and thought-provoking. It's not a hard read, but it will make you nod and say "hmmm" and talk about what you're reading, and that's a good thing. Second, I want to get the word out there that complexity is okay, nay, necessary, and that it's better to have complexity than to hide in a black-and-white binary world. I wish I could find the article that I saw on this last week; it reminded us that Einstein said that "explanations should be as simple as possible, but no simpler," and that we've oversimplified and dumbed down so much that even a two- or three-step logic chain is now too hard for most people to understand. Keep it simple, stupid - but don't keep it stupid. Remember that simple and easy (sort of like "alike" and "equal") are two entirely different things.

Many progressives and liberals have real trouble understanding why the Republican base continues to support the Republican elite. One of the answers may be that they've been so trained into the simple, one-step thinking that they are having trouble figuring out why Mark Foley's and Larry Craig's homosexuality was tolerated by a group that claims to be against all gays. The answer is that of course they're shocked by the revelation that Foley was pursuing sixteen-year-old male pages, but they revert to the easy answer. They know that the party still stands against any rights for gays - after all, they're saying it all the time, from right-wing radio to national television -  so the party must still be right, and Foley and Craig (and many others) get dismissed as aberrations, just blips on the conservative radar that will be quickly forgotten because thinking about them causes such cognitive dissonance and distress.

Am I saying that the base is stupid? No. But I am saying that they're naive, and afraid, and trained to think not simply, but easily. They're not looking for the simple answer, because that answer might still have several steps. They're looking for the easy answer, the one with no complications or annoying anomalies or dissonances. And conservative rhetoric happily provides it for them. Gays are bad. Immigrants are bad. Black people are bad. Women are bad, especially if they have an abortion or love another woman. And so on. That's one-step thinking, that's comfortable, that's easy, and that's safe.

Education is key to breaking out of this cycle. It's no accident that the rise of fundamentalism has come in tandem with the decline in educational standards, the disappearance of the civics and ethics classes that were commonplace in the 1950s, the dumbing-down of American politics, media, and news. Without the ability to think through a logical chain of thought, and without being continually challenged to use that ability, people have become inured to the tripe that Fox News spouts every time they turn on the tube. Resistance, for these folks, may indeed be futile... or impossible.

The answer? Simple, but not easy.

Talk to your Republican neighbors, family, and friends. Ease them into a simple, but not easy, discussion of the issues. Help them get comfortable with complex answers rather than easy ones. See if you can find some common ground. Barack's call for common ground isn't just for common ground among liberals and progressives, although that's certainly part of it. We also need to find common ground with the people who have never understood how to deal with complexity and make it familiar.

Add some complexity to your conversations. See where it leads. That may be our real saving grace as liberals and progressives: reclaiming the right of all persons to think.

Originally posted to Killer of Sacred Cows on Fri Mar 28, 2008 at 04:41 AM PDT.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (16+ / 0-)

    And I'm going to be in trouble with my partner, because I've been up all night writing this...

    "These are the kind of people who see blood on their hands and claim it's just a sunburn." - SuzieQ

    by Killer of Sacred Cows on Fri Mar 28, 2008 at 04:43:06 AM PDT

  •  The right to think. (8+ / 0-)

    What a novel idea in our society today.  We begin in the earliest days of schooling to teach  our children to regurgitate when we should be teaching them to think for themselves.  We are generations away from ending the lockstep society we have generated I fear.

    I work with several well educated people.  I am always amazed at how little they think for themselves in the political arena.  I am shocked to hear some of the right wing memes come from those people.  If professional are deluded we are in deep trouble at every level.

    Conversation and inquiring minds are necessary.  One mind, one conversation at a time the ripples can become the tsunami of change we need in our nation today.

    Well done Killer.  I am going back to read again.  There is so much in here I have to remember and process for myself.  Thanks for sharing.


  •   the Liberal label (4+ / 0-)

    Coworker comes into my office yesteday, we start talking about how Baghdad is getting hot again. He says "well then I guess you must want to get out of there" and I said yes, there was no good reason to go in there originally. He says "are you a Republican?", and I say "No". He says (get this) "So you are a Liberal then." I said no, because the word Liberal has been corrupted from its meaning. The Republicans and talk radio propagandists have substituted an entire shipload of negativity on the word "liberal" and I refuse to buy into their vocabulary.

    I then proceeded to explain to the guy my entire position on the war in Iraq, the reasons for that war, and a bunch of other stuff about cases like Sibel Edmonds, the Cheney task force, etc. etc. and he was simply astounded. Knew about none of those things. amazing that listening to right wing radio passes for a knowledge of current events.

    The country as it is currently set up is doomed. The only thing left to happen is the utter collapse of the dollar in hyperinflation once McCain gets elected and the Eternal War gets greenlighted and the rest of the world opts out by dropping the dollar as the reserve currency. Now a liberal would seek to preserve economic viability whereas a right-wing ideologue (fascist in the classic sense) will seek to maximize private profit and shunt losses to the public for as long as possible.

    The utter gargantuan disaster that is Bush/Cheney will go down in history as the culminating crisis of the post-WWII American Empire (if there are many Western history books written from now on). Yeah there will be flags waving for quite some time but as far as I'm concerned, the liberal ideals of the Declaration and Constitution are defunct in this goverment.

    Spoon or no spoon, you still have to fight Agent Smith.

    by indeterminate cutlery on Fri Mar 28, 2008 at 04:52:59 AM PDT

  •  Excellent diary! (3+ / 0-)

    Thank you Killer.

    Show your partner this diary and the comments and he/she will understand.

    My partner understands, she just says "go to it honey." She's starting to become a political junkie now too.  :-)

    If the people lead, the leaders will follow.

    by Mz Kleen on Fri Mar 28, 2008 at 05:43:41 AM PDT

  •  In the movie "Dogma"... (5+ / 0-)

    the theme of beliefs and ideas stuck with me.  If you believe something, then you have to ignore all evidence to the contrary.  An idea about something can be fluid and change as more information becomes available.

    Conservatives spend a good amount of their time and energy trying to disprove anything that goes against their norm, rather than examining causes or re-examining thier own beliefs.

    The most frightening thing is that their "leaders" have convinced them that everyone else is lying.  That's how you build a cult.

    Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society -Mark Twain

    by gooners on Fri Mar 28, 2008 at 06:19:41 AM PDT

  •  Liberalism has a problem. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    One Pissed Off Liberal

    It is far more concerned with the "ends" rather than the means.

    It is far more concerned that we all have the same finish line, rather than the same starting line.

    Americans don't want to discriminate others, and aren't asking for unfair advantages.  They just want to be left alone to live their lives.

    Liberalism is far too consumed with reducing inequality, even if it means dragging others down.  Stop worrying about what other people have. Worry about what you can do to help yourself and your fellow person.

    The old saying is that "a rising tide raises all boats".  Well, it doesn't raise a boat that has a hole in it.

    We need to stop worrying about holding back the tide, and worry more about how to help people patch their own boat.

  •  Great diary Killer... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ed in Montana

    thanks very much.

    "The truth shall set you free - but first it'll piss you off." Gloria Steinem

    Iraq Moratorium

    by One Pissed Off Liberal on Fri Mar 28, 2008 at 07:10:01 AM PDT

  •  What I do with Republicans (2+ / 0-)

    is just ask them "why?"  Most of the ones I know, even if they appear otherwise intelligent, have obviously never spent any time thinking about why they believe what they do.  I have learned it doesn't do any good to argue with them, or tell them they're boneheads (although it might feel really good.)  Instead, I try to engage them by asking questions.

    "You are moving to Canada if Hillary/Barack is elected?  What exactly do you think will happen if he/she is President?  What policies would he/she enact if elected, and how would that be bad?"

    I had a conversation a couple of years ago with a true Fox-watching Hillary hater.  He seemed obsessed with her, and this was long before she announced intentions to run for Pres.  I kept asking him what he didn't like about her, what policies she had supported that he didn't like, what he thought she would do that would be somehow bad.  And he couldn't come up with one single specific; not one thing.  I kept pressing him, out of genuine interest as to what he based this hatred on.  Finally, frustrated, he snapped, "I just don't like her demeanor!"

    What I think, or hope, this approach does is to get them to think a little bit.  It works well in reverse too (what exactly is it you like about George Bush?)  When they try to formulate a logical response, they usually can't, and then is a good chance to slide in some reality-based information.  (Do you have a problem with the Bush administration being pals with the Moonies?)

  •  I think it's also important to talk to your (3+ / 0-)

    Democratic neighbors, too.

    Talk to your Republican neighbors, family, and friends. Ease them into a simple, but not easy, discussion of the issues. Help them get comfortable with complex answers rather than easy ones.

    Last night, I sent to a very progressive and liberal friend of mind a link to some incredible NASA photos that had been linked to here in a comment. I was surprised to get a reply that basically said, "We should cut NASA funding so that we can fund universal health care." Of course, I replied, taking my usual tact of pointing out that NASA's annual budget was approximately $16.5 billion a year, which works out to approximately 15 cents per day per American, whereas health care costs are currently running close to $20 a day per American, and that in any case, I was more interested in being able to fund space exploration AND have health care.

    So I saw this as another example of a simple versus an easy answer, and it served to underscore that we sometimes have to also help guide our fellow progressives and liberals away from easy answers to slightly more complex, though still fairly simple, answers.

    That is, we need to be diligent always.


    -7.88 -8,77 Just a wine sipping, brie eating, $6 coffee drinking, Prius driving, over educated, liberal, white, activist, male New Englander for Barack Obama.

    by EquationDoc on Fri Mar 28, 2008 at 10:03:23 PM PDT

  •  I'm a Liberal (2+ / 0-)

    Just to clear that up, from the offset.

    I'm not sure I buy this argument, that conservatives have fixed beliefs but liberals are relativists. For one thing, I haven't noticed that I have relative beliefs. I believe in liberal values. Some of those are pretty clear and relatively (so to speak) absolute:

    (1) I believe in freedom of speech and of expression. The only relative part is that I also believe in personal responsibility, so that if you say something that reasonably causes others to take an action, you are responsible for their actions.

    (2) I believe in a personal right to privacy. This has to be balanced, at some point, with other rights, but it isn't subject to cancellation with or without notice. Furthermore, you don't get to invade my privacy just because someone takes a vote. There has to be a legitimate reason to invade it, one that suggests (for example) that the alternative would cause great and irrevocable harm to someone.

    (3) That personal privacy includes freedom from coercion. What is coercive? The threat of physical violence, economic pressure, taking away the means of life--these are all coercive.

    (4) Society's rules should be fair and should mitigate against the natural unfairness of the world. Everyone is born into a world of pre-existing conditions. If those conditions favor one group over another, then it is society's responsibility to set its rules to lessen that unfairness.

    Liberalism is characterized, I think, by fairness, consistency and sustainability. The means of achieving these ends is relative but the ends are not, just as the means for conservatives to achieve their ends are relative but their goals aren't.

    In a lot of ways, conservatism appeals to people who are not inconvenienced by the current state of affairs. They have the luxury of saying that it's okay for someone to be treated unfairly because, to a large extent, they aren't being so treated.

    And, to a large extent, conservatism in this country is a means of waging class warfare. Racism, nationalism, hate of any groups (Jews, blacks, gays, women) are all ways of shifting blame away from the real culprits (usually the rich and the organizations they control) to a scapegoat group. Freeing yourself from prejudice is the first step in throwing off the shackles of conservative thinking and reaching for the broader vision of liberalism. It means taking responsibility for your situation, rather than blaming it on some other group of people.

    Liberalism means seriously taking the side of those who are being unfairly treated by the powerful. Those powerful used to be nobles, and so liberalism favored entrepreneurship and capitalism. But today the powerful no longer are typically nobility, they are just rich, and those victimized are just simply poor. The powerful are those who run major corporations, and the unfairly treated are largely employees. So, now liberalism favors workers and the poor.

    This is not relative. It's following a clear, simple and largely unchanging goal in a flexible way according to current conditions.

    Hurray for liberals! Don't shrink from it. Stand proud as a liberal and explain that it simply means that you stand for the important principles of fairness, consistency and sustainability.

    To get a clear picture of what this means, try this page: Our Vision for America.

  •  Psychological well-being and Liberalism (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    opinionated, Jeff Weimer

    You may also like to look at the book ‘Life, and how to survive it’ by Robyn Skinner and John Cleese (yes that John Cleese, the Python).

    The key theme is how people have different levels of psychological health. The ability to handle complex ideas while maintaining firm standards is part of this. Amongst other things the authors look at politics and religion, which makes it rather relevant to this months uproars.

    While the ability to handle complexities is identified by the authors as once component in what might be called Liberalism, there is also a warning that intellectual arrogance and patronising attitudes are also part of the ‘lower level of mental well-being’. So self-identified liberals need some humility and reflection.

    It is an enlightening read, worth a diary or two on its own.

  •  Oh my... (0+ / 0-)

    How patronizing.

    I got the same treatment at another blog when I rebutted the flap over Rush's "phony soldiers" statement. The guy started off with "Rush could have re-edited it" and then used that conjecture as fact in order to try to take me down. He went into a rant about Rush fans being "robots" that can't think for themselves. His last line was, "Are you a robot, Jeff?"

    He had asked how I knew what Rush really said. He had no response to "I heard it live, not memorex."

    This is the experience I get at blogs that share your "progressive" bent. Is that inclusive? Is that "reality based?"

    Now, there's no doubt we (conservatives/Republicans) start looking at an issue from a certain point of view, just like you do. Ours happens to be different, and based upon our experiences, just like yours. Why does it seem you want our opinions ignored, nay, prohibited from the arena of ideas? If your opinions are so "correct", what do you fear?

    When will you on the left realize we care as much, maybe more, about this ongoing experiment we call America? Have you investigated the the other side, checked redstate, hotair, or national review to see an opposite point of view that might challenge your cherished beliefs? I came here to see what those who disagree with me have to say - in order to see the issues from another perspective - for a better understanding of the issues of the day, have you done the same? Or do you, like Alterman or the diarist above, blatantly misrepresent our positions on the issues and then dismiss us? If you truly look at the issues from a more complex viewpoint, then why does "the other side" have no place in that? I'm just asking.

    Jeff Weimer

    •  Why do you have no place in a complex viewpoint? (0+ / 0-)

      Because you yourself have abstained from participating. If it can't be reduced to three sentences of short words only, you can't be bothered with it.

      I don't operate on beliefs. I operate on evidence. The evidence is in, and the evidence overwhelmingly points to the fact that conservatism is a damaging, dangerous, and backwards method of managing a country.

      Until you are at least open to giving the reality-based community a chance, there's no hope of communication. I cannot operate within a belief system that demands belief in forces for which there is either no evidence (such as God, or Iraqi WMDs) or large and convincing amounts of evidence for their fallacious nature (unregulated economics; the trickle-down theory; global warming deniers; the necessity of pre-emptive war).

      When you can support your ideas with facts and evidence, they will be more than welcome in the arena of ideas. Facts and evidence, not beliefs. Not feelings. Not "what should be," but "what is."

      "These are the kind of people who see blood on their hands and claim it's just a sunburn." - SuzieQ

      by Killer of Sacred Cows on Fri Apr 04, 2008 at 12:40:32 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site