Sunday, January 16, 2011

Saving Liberalism from the Liberals

Walter Russell Mead asks, "Can the L-Word be saved?"

It's a good question, and one important to this nation, which was founded upon classical liberal ideals.  It's been all down hill since then for liberalism, with its path winding through Fabian Socialism, illiberal nationalism, elitist progressivism and ending up in the dark caverns of tribalism, identity politics, and because-we-say-so-ism.

I do not hate liberals. Some of those nearest and dearest to me are liberals.  I was saddened when a liberal coworker moved on to greener pastures, because he is a very intelligent man and we had some awesome conversations while leaning on our shovels.

The words liberal and libertarian both come from the word liberty, but they diverged long ago and we here in America have hopelessly tangled up our terms.  Mr. Mead explains...
Politically speaking, America may be the most confused country in the world.  Millions of people in this country are conservatives and even reactionaries who think they are liberals; we have millions more liberals and radicals who call themselves conservative.

It is an unholy mess and it needs to be cleared up.  It’s time for a language intervention.
Many find such conversations pedantic and insist that the terms are what they are in this country and who cares if we've got it backwards?  But if you are a thinker trying to get to the root of the matter, you must start by defining terms and tracing today's movements back to their philosophical roots.  Clarity demands it.

"Liberals" sneering at tea partiers who cite the constitution provides a clue that liberalism has gone off the rails; progressives voluntarily severed ties with such antiquities in the early 20th century, and liberals inexplicably fell in with them.  Progressive politicians greatly expanded the commerce clause and the general welfare clause, and progressive judges let them get away with it.  We were grappling with wars and economic crashes, you see, so the president and congress needed extraordinary powers.  And today's liberals, with a straight face, would have us believe George Bush's post-911 bureaucratic expansion and increased government powers was a singularly unprecedented even in our nation's history.  Sadly, it was just one more brick in the wall.

Know Yourself (Socrates).  Know Your Enemy (Sun-Tsu)
Most liberals cannot explain liberalism, because it is an incoherent hodgepodge of pollyanic aspirations, musty dogma and high dudgeon.  Worse for them though, is that they cannot explain conservatism, and they are blind to the evidence that the tea party has a strain of radical liberalism running through it, while they have become the entrenched fuddy duddies on so many issues.  I urge my fellow conservatives and libertarians to not make the same mistake.  You must understand the ideology you do battle with.
most of what passes for liberal and progressive politics is a conservative reaction against economic and social changes that the left doesn’t like.  The people who call themselves liberal in the United States today are fighting desperate rearguard actions to save policies and institutions that are old and established, that once served a noble purpose, but that now need fundamental reform (and perhaps in some cases abolition) ...
Liberals Started With Noble Ideals
I also urge everyone to study liberalism with charity in your heart.  Along the way you may find liberalism has some admirable qualities.  American liberalism is not communism after all.  Liberals and Progressives did not set out with the intent to enslave us.  They perceived real problems and set about trying to solve them:
The industrial revolution and associated phenomena (urbanization, mass immigration from non-English speaking, non-Protestant societies, the economic decline of small farmers and rural communities) presented liberals with new and very complicated problems. The problems of urbanization, class conflict (and the competition with socialism for the support of urban industrial workers), assimilation, and the regulation of a modern industrial economy gave 4.0 liberals new issues to worry about.
The development of a professional, bureaucratic civil service and the regulatory state were intended to preserve individual autonomy and dignity in a world dominated by large and predatory corporate interests – and split into classes with most industrial and agricultural workers subject to very low wages, long hours and poor working conditions.
At the same time the challenges of modernization and urbanization (public health, food safety, provision of newly necessary services like electricity and gas) could best be met through public services and, in some cases, heavily regulated private monopolies.  The professional and managerial classes were not just middle classes in the sense of standing between the rich and the poor in income and status; they were mediating classes who sought through the state, the universities and the learned professions to impose a balance between the interests of the wealthy and the workers.
Mead gives them their deserved props, but concludes that rather than take a revanchist approach, liberals need to move on, and realize that while their goals were noble, they snuffed human liberty and initiative in the process. Keep the goals but ditch the totalitarian tactics

Mead also looks forward to a new liberalism, which he calls Liberalism 5.0.  I recommend you go read the entire article.  He provides a concise history of American liberalism.  If the libs got their heads screwed on straight, they'd make common cause with the tea partiers.

Walter Russell Mead - Can the L-Word be Saved?


Trestin said...

Liberals have now become the very tyrants that classic liberals fought against

Mustang said...

As always, you present challenging suppositions. I think such terms as liberal and conservative change over time, and I think they mean different things to different peoples in the world. It is certainly true our founding fathers were liberal in the sense they rebelled against England’s lawful authority. The (then) liberal argument was this: if English law is abusive, then it is not lawful.

Over time, our desire to adhere to the U. S. Constitution became the conservative stance, while adopting “progressive” social policy the liberal. Who can argue against mandatory education among the masses? I suggest no one, except when one understands what progressives are now doing to our children. It is possible for progressives to rend the fabric of American exceptionalism when they systematically destroy our history. If America is not exceptional, then why should anyone step forward to defend her? Or serve her? In this sense, US law and policy has become abusive and is therefore hateful to an orthodox American.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. No matter what liberalism intends, I do not require government assume my responsibility as a husband or father. I do not believe it is the government’s lawful authority to seize portions of my income, and give it to others. I am a citizen of my state. I do not require a national ID card —but I already have one: we call it a social security card. I do not need, nor want a unique identification number to shop on-line. I already do that. What business is it of the United States government whether I bank or shop on line?

The Constitution protects us from government … that’s why I am a conservative.

Oso said...

Hi Kurt,
I'd read the article,and the impression I got is the author is an academic, and politically center-right.

Many of my fellow liberals (if that term has any remaining significance)who enjoyed my strong criticism of the administration during the Bush years no longer respond to my emails or my comments due to my applying the same standards to the Obama administration.

Yet the Republicans I work with seem even worse, they rail about our socialist govt and radical president - oblivious to Obamas crony capitalism, his Defense budget higher than under Bush.

I don't know man, maybe I'm nuts.

TAO said...

No Oso you are not nuts....the same thing has happened to me!

The reality is that if you read this article without a political agenda you realize that without a definition for liberalism then the political concepts such as "conservative" or "libertarian" have no meaning due to the fact that they define themselves in relation to liberalism.

Thus the whole concept behind "the right" is actually nothing more than reactionary and by that they are nothing more than a mere reaction to the political dysfunction that they see today and refer to as "liberalism" or "the left."

Always On Watch said...

I was going to say something, but I really can't add anything of value to Mustang's comment.

Silverfiddle said...

Mustang: You got caught in the spam filter for some reason...

I think you speak for a lot of conservatives. We realize the need for government, but it's now gone too far. I think many of us would be happy with schools if they merely stuck to academics and dropped indoctrination of any kind.

Oso: I think Mead could probably be better categorized as a classical liberal. He is decidedly not libertarian, as he is a believer in the power of the state to better people's lives.

Mark Adams said...

The word Liberalism has been hijacked by the progressive left to hide behind. Extreme liberals hide behind the word progressive to filter their socialist agenda from the American eyes.

As I have stated before (maybe not here) The Constitution is like a wall of separation.
Built by the founders to keep a tyranny government from the people.
However, with in this wall of separation the founders added a window called 'Enumerated Powers’. Allowing the government to control law and order and setting some rules and defense of the nation.
Over the course of the last 100 years, the left (and some right) have chiseled the brick and mortar to enlarge this window.
Obamacare took a sledge hammer to this wall and blew wide open this 'Enumerated Powers' window.
Now Americans want the window damage repaired and restore it to its original size.

Finntann said...

OSO/TAO, you're not nuts. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Honestly IMHO we have practically devolved into a one party system...the centrist progressive party of which the Republicans and Democrats are the center-right and center-left wings.

Honestly what is the difference between a liberal Republican and a conservative Democrat? Other than who you get to vote for you out of straight party ballots.

SF: Why don't you come over for dinner?

On the menu you have a choice of Patagonian Toothfish sauteed with Chinese Gooseberrys, or Slimehead and Prunes sauteed in Rapeseed Oil...

Which is Chilean Seabass and Kiwi, or Orange Roughy and Dried Plums sauteed in Canola

Isn't rebranding wonderful?

And it applies to so much more than mere politics...ROFLOL. Curiously the article URL above was the one I read just before coming here.

It's all about branding yourself or rebranding your opponent.

Silverfiddle said...

Finn: That was an interesting article. Where do you find stuff like that?

Finntann said...


It was linked on the front page of MSN.

Hey, technically we are all liberals: Classical Liberals, Social Liberals, Modern Liberals, Laissez-faire Liberals

Jersey McJones said...

This is among the funnist blogposts I've ever read. Good for you guys for keeping a straight face.

"most of what passes for liberal and progressive politics is a conservative reaction against economic and social changes that the left doesn’t like. The people who call themselves liberal in the United States today are fighting desperate rearguard actions to save policies and institutions that are old and established, that once served a noble purpose, but that now need fundamental reform (and perhaps in some cases abolition) ..."

Man, youy guys are funny! So what, pray tell, needs abolition? The silly-ass department of this or that? Any serious thoughts about this or that?

I didn't think so.

You do not know what a liberal is.


Finntann said...

Jersey, do you even know who Walter Russell Mead is?

He is the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and currently teaches American foreign policy at Yale.

He is a Democrat and voted for Barack Obama... and you can listen to him tell you himself here:

So why don't you enlighten us and define what you believe a liberal is? Instead of trolling with trite comments?

Christopher - Conservative Perspective said...

I am with AOW as I fully support what Mustang commented.

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