On Liberalism: Its Faults and its Historical Necessity

Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (1830) has long symbolized both the triumphs and failures of modern liberal thought,

Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) has long symbolized both the triumphs and failures of modern liberal thought.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I’m a political liberal. I make no apologies for this stance, and have spent plenty of time on this blog critiquing conservatism as a political theory. Simply put, I think that an examination of modern history supplies sufficient evidence to prove that liberalism, despite its many flaws, remains the best hope for individual freedom and small “r” republicanism in the modern world. 

Liberalism, therefore, must be preserved and vigorously defended against the relentless conservative onslaught that, for decades, has sought to delegitimize it in the eyes of the American public. On many fronts, the Right has succeeded in doing just that, often with the unknowing aid of wishy-washy lefties who are quick to descend into hyperbolic pits of despair in moments when their ideas and policies falter. But this doesn’t mean that liberals shouldn’t critique their ideas in order to make them better and to justify why such ideas are superior to those of the Right in terms of extending freedom in America and across the globe.

In a recent article for Salon, noted liberal Andrew O’Hehir provides a brutal critique of modern liberalism via what he calls the “monumental catastrophe of the Obamacare rollout.” Crucial to O’Hehir’s critique is the notion that liberalism suffers when its ideas and policies are watered down in a futile effort to make them palatable to conservatives who are hostile to liberalism as a basic political philosophy. Hence, by eschewing any type of single-payer program and, instead, basing Obamacare on a conservative model of mandated individual private insurance, President Obama and Congress created a law that sought an unattainable balance between states’ rights and federal power. The result, O’Hehir observes, was “a complicated mishmash with dozens of brand-new moving parts.” The complexity of the health care law allowed for “red-state resistance and bureaucratic incompetence” that made the law’s initial rollout a qualified mess.

O’Hehir views Obamacare’s difficult rollout as indicative of a broader problem that reveals the still inherent weakness of liberalism in the 21st century:

[T]he fact that a Democratic president who’s perceived as a liberal and has been comfortably elected twice had to fight so hard for such a patchwork law testifies to the ideological weakness of his party, which has been dragged inexorably to the right ever since its historic schism between Cold War liberals and antiwar activists in 1968, and often appears to have no clear principles and no core constituency beyond New York lawyers and Hollywood celebrities.

This is a biting indictment of liberalism made all the more harsh given that is comes from one of its own. But O’Hehir’s critique rings true because it hits at what has always been liberalism’s strength, as well as its weakness: its commitment to equality. Unlike conservatism, which views freedom and equality as incompatible, liberalism seeks equality of opportunity in a world where hierarchies are the norm. Conservatism, at its core, is a political philosophy that defends hierarchies, whether earned or unearned, because it sees hierarchies as essential to maintaining social order. Thus, as O’Hehir notes, liberalism does itself no favors by “moving inexorably to the right,” thereby diluting its commitment to challenging hierarchical powers that pose a threat to human freedom.

Ideologically, liberalism’s commitment to equality has given it a moral edge over conservatism by providing a trenchant critique of the Right’s historical defense of social hierarchies as ends unto themselves. In the realm of policy, however, liberalism’s defence of equality has often necessitated much more universal support for liberal programs. Conservatism is a philosophy predicated on hierarchical social divisions. Rather than seeking universal appeal, conservatism needs only to gain enough popular support to bolster the power of the ruling classes. Liberalism’s task is more difficult. Because it often seeks to challenge the power of entrenched ruling classes, liberalism must gain a broader base of support from various subordinate classes that, historically, have been far more willing to either side with the ruling classes, or divide amongst themselves. Such tendencies have made broad-based political challenges to conservatism difficult to sustain, a fact embodied in Will Rogers‘ classic quip: “I’m not a member of any organized political party…I’m a Democrat.”

In the rest of this post, I’m going to further discuss liberalism’s flaws, but I’m also going to offer a firm defence of liberalism – especially in contrast to conservatism – as the political philosophy that offers the best hope for preserving both individual freedom and democracy in the 21st century and beyond.

Modern American liberalism reached its peak during the era of FDR, whose New Deal programs destroyed freedom for privilged jerks everywhere.

Modern American liberalism reached the peak of its powers during the era of FDR, whose New Deal programs destroyed freedom for privileged jerks everywhere.

Before going any further, I should at least explain what liberalism is. In his book The Future of Liberalism, political scientist Alan Wolfe defines the basic, core principle of liberalism as this: “As many people as possible should have as much say as is feasible over the direction their lives will take.” A commitment to liberty and equality underlies liberalism. As Wolfe notes, liberals want equality to extend beyond the aristocratic class or the business elite via equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. “Liberals,” he writes, “believe that the freedom to live your life on terms you establish does not mean very much if society is organized in such as way as to deny large numbers of people the possibility of ever realizing that objective.”*

In contrast to conservative claims that liberty can best be achieved via free markets and the absence of state intervention, liberals believe in a “positive liberty,” which holds that human flourishing should not be reduced to a series of monetary exchanges. Thus, it is not enough for a free person to be merely “left alone” by the state; a free person should also have the capacity to realize her own personal goals, and liberals are “prepared to accept state intervention into the economy in order to give large numbers of people the sense of mastery that free market capitalism gives only to the few.”* In his book American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time, an excellent compliment to Wolfe’s study, political scientist John McGowan quotes philosopher Thomas Nagel to succinctly define liberalism as a philosophy favoring both ‘individual rights’ and ‘a form of distributive justice that combats poverty and large inequalities.’* Liberalism, then, recognizes that equality is absolutely essential to ensuring individual freedom and the functioning of democratic societies.

The value that liberals place on equality is what puts them at odds with conservatives, who view equality as, at best, an unachievable state, at worst, an impediment to individual freedom because it rejects the role that organic social hierarchies play in maintaining social order. In a 1790 speech, one of conservatism’s towering thinkers, the Irish political theorist Edmund Burke, outlined conservatism’s preference for hierarchy when he described the implications of the French Revolution:

It was the case of common soldiers deserting from their officers, to join a furious, licentious populace. It was a desertion to a cause the real object of which was to level all those institutions, and to break all those connections, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination: to raise soldiers against their officers, servants against their masters, tradesmen against their customers, artificers against their employers, tenants against their landlords, curates against their bishops, and children against their parents. That this cause of theirs was not an enemy to servitude, but to society.*

Here, Burke outlined his core reasoning for why liberalism, as unleashed by the chaos of the French Revolution, was dangerous. Liberalism entailed the overturning of what Burke considered to be the “natural” hierarchies that held society together through a “chain of subordination.” And why did Burke consider this to be so dangerous? Because those in power, whether they be employers, landlords, or clergy, always view their rule as “natural.” They therefore view rule by the subordinate classes as an “unnatural” affront to social order. This is why political scientist Corey Robin characterizes conservatism as “a meditation on, and theoretical rendition of, the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Winning back power restores order, and conservatives view equality as a threat to order.

Edmund Burke still stands as as a hero to conservatives who defend unearned privilege.

Edmund Burke still stands as a hero to conservatives who defend unearned privilege.

The need for order was a central tenet of Arizona senator Barry Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative, one of the core texts of modern American conservatism. “The Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of the social order,” Goldwater writes. He rightly observed that freedom is impossible if one man can deny to another “the exercise of his freedom,” but, like conservatives throughout history, Goldwater postulates that state intervention in the marketplace more often than not diminishes freedom by overturning orders that conservatives view as “natural.”* These so-called “natural” orders, however, tend to be defined by those who have the power in society and, by extension, have the most to gain and maintain by describing their rule as “natural.” It’s no surprise, then, that those “natural” rulers tend to be conservative.

Liberalism has fallen short of its goals, and witnessed its greatest failures, when it has failed to convince the majority of society that their interests are not synonymous with those of the ruling few. In some historical instances, such as the Democratic Party’s failure to unite its middle-class, socially liberal wing with its more traditional working-class supporters, liberals are to blame for their own messaging failures. But liberals also face a more difficult task than do conservatives: they must consistently forge broad-based coalitions in order to maintain support for their cause.

As Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson note in their study The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, liberal unity has historically fallen prey to ugly American divisions that strengthen conservatives’ political power. “Liberals’ inability to unite the poor and the middle classes in America,” Alterman and Mattson write, “is profoundly complicated by historical circumstances – specifically the divisions of race…that continue to define so many citizens’ identities.” Liberalism’s failures, they conclude, can often be explained by the fact that people “do not generally appreciate subsidizing, through tax and transfer policies, the lifestyle’s of those they deem to be different from themselves.”*

The rocky rollout of the Obamacare insurance exchanges bares such hallmarks: it is a law that could never gain broad popular support beyond its component parts. Conservatives exploited widespread fears that Obamacare would redistribute wealth from whites to “lazy” minorities, leading the president and his Democratic Congress to compromise the bill into a complicated mess that attempted to please everyone but ended up pleasing almost no one.

By compromising with conservatives, who have little interest in a functioning government that uses its power to ensure greater freedom to individuals left at the mercy of insurance companies, liberals failed to fully embrace and defend their commitment to universal equality. This does not mean that Obamacare can not work, or that the president should not make it work to benefit of all Americans. Rather, Obamacare’s introduction should push liberals to defend their ideas with greater confidence, and recognize that caving to the Right’s demands in the name of short-term political gain ultimately weaken’s liberalism’s overall political hand. Americans get behind leaders who are firm in their convictions, and if liberalism is to regain its once prominent stature in American society, it must first convince voters that it has backbone. In that respect, liberals have their work cut out for them.

* See Alan Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 10-13.

* See  John McGowan, American Liberalism: An Interpretation for Our Time (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 8.

* See Eric Alterman and Kevin Mattson, The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama (New York: Viking, 2012), 465.

* See Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (New York: Viking, 1960), 5, 3.

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