Friday, December 05, 2008

Liberal Genetics

After the 1970s, liberal became something of a slur, associated as it was with love-ins, bra-burning, and moral equivalence. Even people who supported big government avoided the word. At the same time, conservatism became equated with responsibility and economic growth. Even today, a full quarter of Democrats identify themselves as conservative, according to Pew. In other words, Americans call themselves conservative more because of the residual backlash against 1960s and '70s social upheaval than because of their real-world beliefs.

I linked earlier in the week to an article that traces GOP political tactics back to McCarthyism. I’m going to try and keep that debate on that post and start a new one on this post. Because as much as I hate the McCarthy gene of the GOP (the one that runs through the culture wars, the paranoia & the jingoism), I also hate the lunacy that runs through many liberal political tactics and infects far too many Democratic leaders in safe seats, and eventually bubbles up in so many liberal/progressive organizations that start off well but end up skipping to the same old scratched record tune.

The quote above comes from a Slate article examining the terminology of the “Center-Right Nation.” It is a fantastic read about political labeling, but the quote above got me thinking tangentially about the problems with Democratic politics that are married too closely to “Liberal/Progressive” thinking that is anything but traditional liberalism and progressivism that guided me to a Democratic affiliation.
The word “liberal” should have a far better connotation than it does today (and the article also examines how this is changing in the youth of America). Think about the following terms “liberal democracy,” “a liberal arts education,” “liberty”, “liberation” and even “libertarian;” these are all phrases that are perceived as good things in the West, and have meanings outside the frame of politics. So much of our cultural makeup is tied up to change, progress, rebellion and revolution that cases could be made that we are a center-left nation (or at least a contrarian one).

But there are limits even to revolution, and “liberals” as we know them today took it a step too far, abandoning pragmatism and competence for symbolism and righteous indignation. It did start when the love-ins and bra-burning and moral equivalence folks showed up on my side of the aisle uninvited. While most liberals and progressives were worried about the Civil Rights movement, the peace and love element somehow stole the show, got in front of the cameras and started rubbing their ideology in the faces of folks on the other side, and that’s where it has been ever since. Liberalism is about ideas like expanding opportunities through education, justice in economics and law, and effective government moderating anarchic excesses of the absolute free market. But over time it appeared to be about getting high, telling others how awful everything was, and being indignant about society’s wrongs without actually doing much to correct them. In a generation, “Liberalism” turned from a very real political philosophy to a bunch of shrill nagging, plagued by the Hyperbole Genetic.

Constant overreaction and political circus have now made devastating societal ills like sexual harassment and racism butts of jokes. You think I’m kidding? In New Orleans, the city sanitation director, the mayor and a civil rights group recently cried racism very publicly against a white city council member who dared ask for receipts to verify the city garbage contracts – with black owned businesses – were providing garbage collection services at the appropriate price. If you don’t think that kind of behavior both devalues the very real race problems we have in the country and serves as justification for some folks’ already racist views, you are deluding yourself.

Add to this the splinter-faction chamber (as opposed to the McCarthy gene ‘echo chamber’ on the other side) of groups that loudly dominate “liberal” politics in the USA. The “all our problems are caused by X and we can only do Y to fix it” groups. The X will always destroy the planet, or humankind, within 20 years if America does not accept Y as The Plan immediately. This philosophical cul-de-sac operates on the assumption that America is the world hegemon (because as soon as America institutes Plan Y, the rest of the world will do it, thus saving the world) without admitting it (because that would require admitting that America is a Great Nation) and then casts America in the role of evil nation hell-bent on world destruction when no one in charge decides to agree with this week’s splinter faction and their world saving solution.

And this behavior only feeds into the mythology of McCarthy gene of the GOP, who could sell the culture war and paranoia more effectively since there always seemed to be some group out there advocating wholesale destruction of American families, apple pie, prayer and the flag. That behavior is a twofer for the McCarthy gene of the GOP, because so many American “liberals” sole reason for membership on my side of the aisle is based on being contrary to conservatives and the GOP. So we have plenty of folks who are told how to think by the people they are arguing against. Kind of like the atheist who can’t stop talking about God.

These conflicting forces, the McCarthy gene and the Hyperbole gene, combined to nearly wipe the old guard of Liberals out of the Democratic Party. Zell Miller, a famous defection, was the most progressive governor Georgia ever had: liberalism as a political philosophy to enact or start programs like the HOPE scholarship, PeachCare for Kids, the grandest government-works infrastructure improvement machine in the lower 48 states, and improved schools and state government efficiency throughout his two terms as governor. Got to Washington as a Democratic Senator and famously defected from the Democratic Party a few years later because of the culture wars, and was derided by symbolism and Hyperbole genetic liberals for not changing the Georgia State flag during his stint as governor.

This is why Obama’s election is so important to policy liberals. We have someone who can actually explain liberalism as a political philosophy and not as culture war or hyperbole. Such accusations bounced off the President-elect because his demeanor did not fit the mold of the “liberal” so many Americans have come to expect over the last 20 years. This is a very important change for the American left, one that will hopefully encourage a breeding out of the Hyperbole genetic and get my side back to the competency and problem-solving genetic of the past.

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11 comments:

Eric said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dante said...

I'm a little too young to remember proper hippies. When I think of liberals, I think of universal health care plans. I think of progressive tax brackets. I think of once useful labor unions that have lasted way past their use-by date. I think of the not so "Great Society." And I do think of people who don't bathe regularly but they're not hippies. They're Europeans. And their unemployment rates make our 6.7% look like a joke.

alli said...

better a 60s hippie than a 50s housewife, and i ain't the only woman who would say so.

patsbrother said...

Cousin Pat, I was with you for most of this post. But then you got to the part about the president-elect.

Before I get to that, let me point out that Zell Miller is still a Democrat. On the other hand, I am among that slim handfull of people who have switched party affiliation in adulthood.

Speaking as someone who voted mostly Republican this year (for the first time in my life), I take issue with your assertion that the president-elect explained anything. In my opinion, he won the primary and the election in large part by using indefineable words like Change and Hope. More frustratingly, no one seemed to get him to explain the more objective term, Fair.

I think you may have consumed too much of your own kool-aid when you say the president-elect "can actually explain liberalism as a political philosophy..." The clear implication in your post is that he has done this already. If the president-elect has actually performed this feat, he must have done so when I wasn't watching. I am not an imbecile, and I pay attention well, but I must have missed that memo. If you can point me to a website in which the president-elect elucidates this philosophy beyond meaningless, jingoistic terms, I will be much obliged.

DADvocate said...

I'm old enough to remember proper hippies. Some would say I was one. I sure look like one in my old pictures. You make a good point when you draw the connections between the word liberal liberty and its other forms.

Liberalism lost me when it began abandoning liberty and other rights. Affirmative action was a prime factor. Not only could employers, schools, etc. were told not discriminate according to race, religion, gender, etc. and then told to discriminate according to race and gender. Quota systems took away the freedom to hire the most qualified, desirable candidates and took away the freedom of certain to effectively pursue jobs and careers in the area of their choice.

White males became the boogeymen. As a white male who did not consider himself a boogeyman, I was/am quite upset.

But, as you said, liberalism turned "to a bunch of shrill nagging, plagued by the Hyperbole Genetic." And continues to be so. Obama may change this tenor. Some of his cabinet appointments are encouraging.

However, I look at Obama's election as a failure of the Republican Party to embrace conservative values plus the lousy track record of the Republican Congress and of George Bush. Obama won because it was time to give somebody else a chance, not because he appeared all that great.

I'm concerned about his position on freedom of speech, freedom of the press (Fairness Doctrine) and gun rights but I'm willing to give him a chance.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Dante: "I think of once useful labor unions that have lasted way past their use-by date."

True enough. One of the greatest failings of modern liberalism is that unions have (like Detroit automakers) absolutely failed to evolve and recognize new economic and political realities. This failing has also contributed greatly to the symbolism vs. pragmatism genetic in the liberal movement.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Alli: Thank goodness women today have far more choices than to be a 50's housewife or a 60's hippie. Sadly, both were creations of American marketing and pop culture more than anything.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

Sprout: It astounds me sometimes how you view statements in a vaccum. Obama's Pennsylvania speech on race issues was one of the most important of its kind in a generation. His Iowa speech after he had wrapped up the Democratic nomination absolutely summed up many of the driving forces behind both liberalism and its place in the evolving experiment of America. At no time did he fall into the shrill or whiny voice that turns so many people off to candidates for political office.

This is especially true when you look at other individuals who have tried to explain liberalism to the voting public. Do you remember Al Gore's robotic campaign? Did you ever listen to speeches given by John Kerry? Hell, Bill Clinton never summed it up so well, and that man could charm a crocodile.

When I think about it, the last individual who ever took a national stage and delivered such a poigniant definition of liberalism, progressivism and the Democratic Party was when Zell Miller gave his "Listen to This Voice" speech in 1992.

But, no, my opinion can't have come from the fact that I've been studying persuasive oratory since I was in the 8th grade, it all comes down to me "drinking the kool-aid."

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

DADvocate: "I look at Obama's election as a failure of the Republican Party to embrace conservative values plus the lousy track record of the Republican Congress and of George Bush."

Democrats and liberals would do well to take note of this, but we've explored this side of the argument almost exhaustively since 2006 - and Lord knows we've heard it plenty since November 4th. The point I'm speaking to specifically has been the other side of this, which has been given far less examination: Obama was far more palatable for many, many Americans because he did not fall into the same rhetorical traps most liberal Demcrats wreck themselves upon.

patsbrother said...

I have not alleged that the president-elect is unpersuasive. I have not alleged that when he speaks, the president-elect is shrill. I have suggested that the president-elect has failed to do what you suggest he has done: present a coherent and substantive definition of liberalism.

However, as you point out, this failure may not be to the president-elect's detriment: we cannot fault one for failing to perform the impossible. If, as you say, the leading Democrats of the past twenty years have been uniformly unable to enunciate a defense of modern American liberalism, then perhaps it cannot be done.

jmSnowden said...

"over time it appeared to be about getting high, telling others how awful everything was, and being indignant about society’s wrongs without actually doing much to correct them."

wow. very well put.