The ideas and principles people have heen putting forward are all means to this, more general and more worthy end. The American left looks at contemporary society and says to itself: how can we get rid of the most repugnant aspects of this, but still keep everything basically the same? We have no real framework other than a discredited marxist one, for explaining how we might transform our present society. What we need to do is re-learn how to think programmatically, and I recommend the work of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, whose thought I have been (and will be) pillaging in this diary, to teach us how to do it.
To most ears, I assume that the above definition of a liberal seems nebulous and only valuable as a rhetorical tool. However, if we want an over-arching principle, this is a better one than mere equality. You can see people reaching for something like it in their responses, but not knowing where or how to look to put it into words. If this still seems vague let me put it all together into a more concrete example:
We need universal access to food, clothing, shelter, healthcare etc... not just because it's the right thing to do, but because these are the most basic necessities required for anyone to accomplish anything.
We need high quality education that continues through an individual's lifetime in order to first free individuals from their parochial boundaries and give them the skills and ideas to surpass what they might have been without such education. We need continuing education because this process never ends, and because of the increasingly dynamic nature of our economy.
We need a high-energy, participatory democracy in order to effect the kinds of change that might be necessary for this program, and in order to give individuals a sense of agency in their own political system.
We need strong unions (but not the kind of unions we have today--ones that don't so heavily favor insiders over outsiders) and labor protections, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because these things upset the power of entrenched privilege.
We need a good system of progressive taxation, not just because it's fair, but because the government needs money in order to accomplish any of the above goals.
We need a system of "social inheritance," like baby bonds (funded poetically through a reinstatement of the estate tax?), so that individuals who might otherwise have lacked the economic resources to pursue their dreams, can draw on this wealth to go to college, buy a home, start a small business, or--if they're damn patient--retire on.
Any of these things is great in its own right, but taken together, these ideas are more than just the sum of their parts. They present a liberal social vision, finally united by a coherent idea. These aren't "five liberal values," they are one liberal goal, accomplished by several smaller, but inextricably linked goals.
This is how we need to be thinking. When people say they don't know what Democrats stand for, it isn't because they don't know that democrats believe in expanded access to healthcare, a good and stable pension system, generous social insurance progams, the right to choose and so on. It's because we haven't been thinking or talking in a way that unites everything under one, easily understood and generally awesome umbrella.
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