Liberalism in the Wildnerness

For those who regularly read this blog, you know that I used to be a teacher who primarily taught political science classes at various colleges and universities. Every semester, I would talk about the philosophical foundations of our founding documents and would often talk about “the liberal tradition” and how in relation to the dominant paradigm of government in Europe at the time (Monarchy), liberalism was very radical (as in a break from “what is”).

At some point, I would say to to the class that those of us who are citizens were all liberals of one stripe or another. Since the word “liberal” has come to mean all things weak, evil, and wrong with our country, this statement would cause some uncomfortable shifting in the chairs — especially among those who wore the label “conservative” as a sign that they were the “true Americans.”

I would then explain that what I meant by “liberalism” wasn’t what was commonly used in today’s political vernacular. Without running back to my lecture notes, or coming up with long-winded dissertation on what liberalism means, I’m going to take the lazy route and quote a paragraph in Saturday’s NY Times:

“Along with political debate, the great loser has been liberalism, not in the cheap sense that has turned the word into the preferred insult of contemporary American politics, but in its historical sense, the one articulated from John Locke to Isaiah Berlin: the embrace of personal liberty, pluralism and the right of dissent within the rule of law as pillars of a healthy society.”

There are a quite a few things that stand out in that paragraph, but the three are “personal liberty,” “pluralism,” and “the right to dissent.” It seems pretty much a given that we have those things locked in, right? Wrong.

If you listen to the rhetoric/bile/poison coming from the Right, our country is headed in the wrong direction if Nancy Pelosi becomes the Speaker of the House and brings her “San Francisco values” to Congress. What are those values? Well, if you’ve ever been to San Francisco and spent time in the non-tourist areas, you would find a place where “personal liberty” is paramount. “Pluralism” in the political sense is iffy in San Francisco, but cultural pluralism is really what the city is all about. I’m not saying that it’s one big hug-fest in San Francisco, but when I lived there I noticed that since there was no one ethnic group in the majority, it forced people to acknowledge and accept culture difference as a given. And because cultural pluralism is a given, people didnt’ really separate into ethnic enclaves — although there are neighborhoods where one group is more dominant than others. The level of tolerance for each other is amazingly high in a major American city.

How about the “right to dissent?” To be honest, there was a PC vibe that permeated the places I frequented when I lived in San Francisco, and it seemed that many people had their “bigot radar” tuned to extra sensitive, so it was difficult to argue a politically sensitive point without being called a racist, sexist, or homophobic. But when you add “dissent within the rule of law as pillars of a healthy society,” the San Francisco certainly has that one nailed down.

Why do I bring all of this up? Much of it has to do with the upcoming election on Tuesday, but it also has to do with how far our country has drifted away from those foundations of liberalism above.

About 40 years ago, it used to be radicals on the Left who wanted to see the liberal tradition end. They were young, full of life, and not completely aware of the consequences of their political desires. However, they were largely justified in taking direct action to rid our political system that had failed to live up to the ideals of liberalism. Like today, we were in an unpopular war, the government was using its powers to spy on Americans, and religious types were bemoaning the loss of “good, Christian values.” Liberals of that era were so hell-bent on maintaining their seats of power that they were willing to shuffle their feet on civil rights until they couldn’t ignore it anymore. They were willing to lie to get us into a war that had no exit strategy. They were willing to use the FBI to spy on political activists who were using their right to dissent to oppose what they thought were injustices at home and in the world. These liberals (and conservatives, too) were instrumental in radicalizing many who were interested in making a better country, but were met with the force of police baton, water canon, or snarling dogs. Liberals paid a dear price for their stance back then. They helped engender distrust, anger, paranoia, fear, and even political apathy in a generation. Conservatives of that era piled on as well with a “cracking skulls” campaign to restore “Law and order” for the “Silent Majority.”

You may not remember, but radicals back then were impatient folks who wanted change right away. On some college campuses there were “sit-ins” where non-negotiable demands were issued to the college administration for a variety of things. Compromise was an anathema, because it led to a watered-down policy that would accomplish nothing, so it was all or nothing for those who wanted radical change.

Fast forward to today. We have a very politically active Right wing — many of whom were in college 35-40 years ago — who are pushing a radical agenda on the political system to get their desired political results. While many of the politically active Left were getting the lion’s share of the media spotlight back in the 60s, there was another group of radicals who wanted to see liberalism end. But this movement came from the Right and they were going to do it with a 30 year plan to completely remake the political order in their own image. To do so, they needed to neutralize the opposition, because compromise is an anathema that leads to watered down policies that accomplish nothing. Well, since 2000, the Right has effectively been in charge of the government, and they have been able to do quite a lot to reach their political objectives. But it has come at a price, and that price is a war where the invasion of Iraq was the relatively easy part. However, the occupation has proven to be a hellish nightmare.

If the Democrats take control of Congress, Bush and his buddies will have to do something they detest: compromise. Also (and this is the biggie), the Dems will have the power to investigate the White House and their, ahem, highly suspect actions both here and abroad. This means their power to continue their radical agenda will be checked/tempered/stopped by the Congress.

If the Dems do become the majority party in Congress, I just hope the they bring a return of liberalism with them.


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