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.