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Self-Declared Liberals Have Nothing to Be Afraid of

Should we bury the word "liberal" and try to define ourselves along a spectrum that puts progressives on the left side and conservatives on the right? No, for several good reasons.
 
 
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I often think it's comical -- Fal, lal, la!
How Nature always does contrive -- Fal, lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
That's born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal, lal, la!
—Iolanthe, Gilbert and Sullivan, 1882

Hillary Clinton: "... So I consider myself a proud modern American progressive, and I think that's the kind of philosophy and practice that we need to bring back to American politics." Anderson Cooper: "So you wouldn't use the word liberal, you'd say progressive?" Hillary Clinton: [nods] --CNN-YouTube presidential primary debate, July 23, 2007

It is time for a fresh look at how we label political viewpoints in America.

These days, the terms left and right, liberal and conservative, are most often applied to ideas, groups, and individuals by those aiming to discredit them. Not a very reliable way of understanding what the words mean.

If you are inclined to be a liberal, you can't avoid hearing the radio voices of the Limbaughs, Coulters, Hannitys, and Savages growling and hissing in the back of your head.

Liberalism has been so demonized that many people have either stopped defining themselves politically, straddled the question ("I'm a fiscal conservative but liberal on social issues"), claimed to be independent or pragmatic, looked for a "third way," moved to the center, or adopted the term "progressive."

The word "progressive" seems honorable enough, harkening back to the Progressive Era, 25 years of popular upheaval before World War I when anti-trust laws were passed, child labor was abolished, Teddy Roosevelt dedicated national parks, and government reforms were directed against the wealthy and the corrupt.

So, should we bury the word "liberal" and try to define ourselves along a continuum that we call progressive on the left side and conservative on the right?

No, for several good reasons.

First, such a shift would not be broadly accepted. As the lyrics from Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe remind us, the liberal-conservative dichotomy has been rooted in Western culture for more than a century, on both sides of the Atlantic. Reporting on political candidates, groups, and events, the media will continue to apply those labels regardless of what the people involved may say. The press calls MoveOn.org "liberal," a word the group has never used to describe itself.

Second, liberalism has a proud history and deserves respect equal to that accorded to conservatism. The word has many positive associations: our cherished liberties as a free people, liberal arts and education, liberal democracy, the liberation of the enslaved and oppressed, and national liberators from Simon Bolivar to Daniel O'Connell to Lech Walesa.

Ducking for cover under a new name will only invite more ridicule. From the Goldwater defeat of 1964 to the Reagan victory of 1980, a sturdy band of Republicans worked to convert the conservative label into a badge of pride, and they succeeded.

Third, there is a growing intellectual movement to rehabilitate the liberal tradition in America, tracing its course from the founding fathers to the 20th century leaders who pulled the country out of depression, prevailed over fascism, fought racial discrimination, instituted a mixed economy, and crafted the détente that kept us out of nuclear war. Paul Starr's recent book Freedom's Power: The True Force of Liberalism , is one example. Another was the proclamation by Bruce Ackerman and Todd Gitlin, just before the November 2006 elections, published on the website of the American Prospect , "We Answer to the Name of Liberals," signed by thousands of professors and ordinary citizens.

Fourth and most importantly, simply replacing "liberal" with "progressive" robs us of the opportunity that progressivism could stand for something quite different. It could be a perspective on politics that is not a slot on the horizontal left-right spectrum of ideological views, but represents motion in a vertical direction, to advance the way we resolve problems in American public life to a higher plane.

This could be very promising. A progressive may be a reformer who looks into the future, who seeks to resolve the left-right debate on major public policy issues and move society to a better level of political function. Perhaps progressive political philosophy is not a brand of ideological orientation, but a transitional way of thinking and acting that occurs only when reform is badly needed, long overdue, and well-conceived by farsighted men and women.

With the best kind of progressive change, there is no turning back. In the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, those great reforms included women's right to vote, the direct election of U.S. senators, and the graduated federal income tax, all of which required constitutional amendments. Thereafter, the vast majority of both liberals and conservatives had to accept that a structural change had happened. The social contract in America had been remade. In many cities and states, there were new charters and constitutions in place with professional city managers, party primary elections and direct democracy through initiative, referendum and recall votes. The progressive reform movement restored faith in popular government and gave the country a new platform upon which the left-right debates of the future could proceed to other issues.

To see what the vertical motion of progressive reform might be, we need to look again at the horizontal spectrum of ideology, what the terms "liberal" and "conservative" have come to mean today, what dynamics are at play and what choices we have.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of liberalism is "a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties." Conservatism is defined as a political philosophy based on "tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change."

Two hundred years ago, classical definitions of political philosophy, contrasting progress with tradition, regarded both the democratic and republican views flowing from the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions as "liberal," while the "conservatives" were those favoring monarchy and aristocracy. In today's post-modern world, those defending the old order could be resisting the reform of Social Security, those favoring change could be promoting school vouchers. The distinction between change and stability is no longer much of a clue to the underlying ideologies involved.

On economic grounds, since the advent of Marxism, the left-right divide often has been portrayed as socialism and central planning versus capitalism and the free market. Again, history has taken us way past that dichotomy. Socialism in its purest totalitarian state form, Soviet communism, failed. Capitalism is the dominant system almost everywhere. Conservatism has become identified as a pro-business ideology, which is ironic because the free enterprise system is founded upon the liberal idea that anyone can own and exploit private property.

Some, using a linguistic or anthropological approach like George Lakoff, have characterized conservatism as personified by the "strict father" and liberalism by the "nurturing parent." Others, using a two-dimensional "political compass," suggest that there is another axis of philosophical orientation ranging from authoritarian to libertarian. The ironies abound. Liberals defend a woman's right to abortion but want the state to limit the individual's right to own a gun. Conservatives want a stronger military and lower taxes at the same time.

To add to the confusion, there is the dimension of nationalism, sovereignty, and globalization. During most of the 20th century, conservatives in America opposed foreign intervention and "nation building," while liberals such as FDR and LBJ plunged us into World War II and the Vietnam War. Now, so-called neoconservatives justify the Iraq war as a demonstration project for liberty in the Middle East.

Finally, we have seen election campaign efforts by partisan forces to define conservatism and liberalism using short-hand statements of "values." Our public life is spinning so fast that political philosophies have been compressed into sound bites or, at most, what can be said in an elevator ride. Thus, conservatives claim to stand for national defense, free enterprise, lower taxes, smaller government and family values, implying, of course, that liberals favor the opposite. Liberals, in various ways, have claimed their values as diversity, sustainability, peace, prosperity and justice. These marketing pitches do not help define the left-right continuum in the United States. Most Americans will say they believe in all of them.

Maybe there is a deeper principle at work here, something imbedded in our collective unconscious that causes each of us to gravitate instinctively toward the liberal or conservative side when we hear subjects discussed such as terrorism, healthcare, immigration, gay marriage, abortion or global warming. If we can discover what that principle is, perhaps we can see what it will take to get our country unstuck from all those political stalemates we have left over from the 20th century.

Philosophical observers from Saul Alinsky to Thomas Jefferson have noticed a theme that seems to resonate at the core of our attitudes toward the political life we see around us. In 1824, after more than 50 years in politics, Jefferson wrote:

"Men by their constitution are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depository of the public interests."

In other words, our political views may be shaped by many influences, but the most essential question is, "How much do you trust in the goodness of human nature?" Strangers, people you do not know personally. Neighbors you haven't met. People who are different from you. Who laugh and whisper in other languages. If you tend to believe that most people, when called upon, will act unselfishly, in consideration of others, you lean to the liberal side. If you are inclined to think that most people, most of the time, will act in their own self-interest, you will lean conservative.

In the conservative worldview, at the ultimate extreme, you can trust only yourself and those you personally know to be trustworthy. Outside of that circle, it is every man for himself. Having a weapon to defend yourself and your family is imperative.

Liberals tend to believe that most people, most of the time, liberated from the compulsory authority of others over their lives, will behave themselves. Misbehavior can be understood, corrected, even forgiven. Conservatives are tougher on crime, trust less in rehabilitation.

The liberal impulse is to believe not only in basic individual goodness and individual liberty, but also that people are capable of joining together in collective efforts for the common good. Liberals use slogans like "We are all in this together." They favor government action to address public needs and believe that the unselfish payment of taxes is worthwhile if the programs are administered well. Conservatives tend to distrust collective solutions and believe that the competitive business model, in which the managers, employees, shareholders, and the enterprise itself all seek to maximize their financial self-interests, will somehow better serve the common good.

Conservatives like the rugged individual who earns his keep, pays his own way, pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, and doesn't need government help. Liberals see suffering and oppression and believe that government should take the side of the weak against the strong. To conservatives, liberals are naïve. To liberals, conservatives lack compassion.

It may no longer be part of the conservative instinct to believe in monarchy or aristocracy, but distrusting the majority of people does lead to a preference for a wise and powerful establishment to rule the unwashed masses. This may explain why some conservatives, despite what they say about wanting to shrink the size of government, do end up supporting the extension of government power over our lives (often producing budget deficits), and liberals are more likely to challenge authority and favor participatory forms of democracy.

Few of us are purely liberal or conservative. We want to trust, but we have strong doubts about many of our fellow human beings. As Ronald Reagan famously said, "Trust, but verify." Our inclinations to be liberal or conservative are always relative. How we lean is not genetically determined, but is a product of personality, upbringing, peer influences, and critical life experiences. We define ourselves as to the right or left of George W. Bush or Nancy Pelosi or Attila the Hun -- as well as we may comprehend where they stand. We may find ourselves to be liberal in relation to the prevailing views in one community, state, country or decade, and conservative in another. We may shift our relative stance when we perceive that the party in power has moved too far in the wrong direction.

Without doubt, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, left many Americans more fearful, less likely to trust human nature, and more conservative than they were on Sept. 10.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, there was a noticeable shift in the public mood to the liberal side. "Sink or swim" is not our creed, the class and racial divide in America is shameful, the government should do a better job. The Army Corps of Engineers failed to build strong enough levies. FEMA has no "first-responders" when local public safety officials are overwhelmed. It is time to take global warming seriously.

This is not to argue that all liberal or conservative political philosophies can be reduced to a single dimension of trust or lack of trust in the great mass of humanity. From the Federalist Papers, to Emerson and Thoreau, to Ayn Rand, to Martin Luther King, we have inspiring articulations of conservative and liberal ideologies that detail the implications for how we organize politics and government in our society.

Rather, it is to accept that for most of us, our political persuasion is more intuitive than ideological. We will not be saved or destroyed by having the right or wrong political theory. We need to relax and understand that the tension we feel in America and in ourselves, between trusting and not trusting human nature, can be a constructive dynamic between valid concerns.

The revival of liberalism will not, alone, unlock the solutions to our most pressing political problems. It will surely help when more public figures stop being defensive, come out of the closet, and answer to the name of liberal. However, the push and pull of our left-right debates has become too partisan, too piecemeal, too timid, too poll-driven, too wrapped in euphemism, to rise above the morass that politics has become in the United States. Too many assumptions go unchallenged. Too many untruths are accepted as truths. The bandwidth of conventional wisdom is too narrow.

We need a transformational political philosophy that is not incremental but bold, that is honest rather than manipulative, that admits the possible truth of the other side's arguments, that is willing to let go of old assumptions, to break the mold. That is willing to advance some unpopular ideas because they are right, that looks beyond the next election. To be a progressive is to be called to participate in a high-intensity, temporary period of reform aimed at long-term, structural change rather than the tactical victories of the day.

Progressive reform might sometimes take the centrist course of moderation and compromise. In immigration reform, for example, we need a humane path to legal status for those who are here, a guest worker program and better border security. In other cases, there may be no middle road, and we will need to jump forward in the more unselfish direction of trusting and serving humanity: a new international treaty to address global warming, universal single-payer healthcare, election of the president and vice president by direct popular vote, and use of the United Nations to control rogue nations rather than unilateral American military action. Where conservatives cannot be won over to the high road, progressives will need to take them on at the polls in their home districts.

A progressive philosophy can transcend the liberal-conservative divide if it is:

1. Transitional. There are key moments in history when a quantum leap can take place, when our social contract can be remade. The wide-open election of 2008 is our opportunity to begin. Like the Progressive Era of a hundred years ago, it may take two decades. But it can be done in our lifetimes.

2. Deep. This is a time for more than topical applications of sentiment. We must re-examine our history, social institutions and philosophical traditions, and grasp our deepest moral purpose as a polity and society, such as "the greatest good for the greatest number with dignity for all." We must look beyond government and determine whether our main forms of social organization-family, business, and public service-need to be in better balance. How we articulate our philosophy of reform will be unique to our time and place in history.

3. Comprehensive. When we consider reforms, the whole subject must be put on the table. We may have to detach from vested interests whether they may be business, labor, religious, or regional, and pursue the best interests of all the people. For instance, in educational reform, we need to consider everything from racial integration, to lengthening the school day and year, to merit pay for teachers, to school vouchers, to language, to moral teaching, to technology, to how we are going to pay for all this. All questions must be asked and answered, all consequences taken into account.

4. Objective. To be competent about reform, there must be genuine respect for truth, for known facts, for evaluating the results of past policies and experiments conducted in cities, states and other nations. Where we can't know in advance what will happen, we have to be guided by a sober estimate of the probability of good and bad results. We did not do this before invading and occupying Iraq. Bipartisan study and action, where possible, will yield the best outcomes. We must harness the creative energy of both sides of human nature. Trust, but verify.

5. Broad. The progressive movement must pursue simultaneous, mutually reinforcing reforms throughout government and society, on all significant foreign and domestic public policy questions, from abortion and Afghanistan to zoning and Zionism.

6. Farsighted. We must anticipate and prepare for the difficulties that the human race will have, surviving on this planet. We should not choose strategies, or fail to act boldly, where we are likely to cause huge financial, environmental, or military burdens to fall on future administrations and generations. Many problems invite us to place ourselves in the future and think back to the reforms we need now. The pace of fossil fuel extraction. How to avoid both religious wars and religious intolerance. Paying for what we need government to do without deficit financing. The melting of the polar ice caps.

7. Global. Every question must be addressed twice: What is best for America? And what is best for the world? During the last Progressive Era, Teddy Roosevelt was a nationalist who promoted the Spanish-American War and seized the Panama Canal. Wilson's dream for the League of Nations was blocked by a conservative Congress. This time, we must be internationalists. If we disregard the impact of American decisions upon the peoples of other nations, we do so at our own extreme peril. In the words of Martin Luther King, "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."

Let's begin by recognizing that both liberalism and conservatism are, in the 21st century, valid human impulses, and that a philosophy of reform is what we need most of all.

Of necessity, progressive reform will require a higher level of trust in the essential goodness of humanity, because the only path to security and prosperity in a globalized, interdependent world lies in finding new ways to cooperate. As Robert Wright has so brilliantly illustrated in Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny , this has always been the main feature of progress in human history. But we need conservatives to remind us where we should be careful not to trust too much.

The vertical course of progressive reform is open to conservatives as well as liberals. Many conservatives, despite their views on other matters, are ready to trust enough in mankind to take some big, unselfish steps toward the future. To sacrifice the advantages of a high-energy lifestyle and have a lighter impact on the world so that we avoid a global environmental catastrophe. To treat same-sex couples like the rest of us. To drive big money out of politics completely. To guarantee every American the dignity of access to affordable health care.

Progressive reform could yet be the greatest achievement of the generation that first voted in the 1960s, fulfilling the promises and dreams of its idealism, linked arm-in-arm with the generation of its children. We had better get started. The time is right.

Greg Colvin and his family divide their time between home in Petaluma, Calif., and a log cabin in Bath, N.Y. Besides progressive political philosophy, Greg's other big project is a 12-year campaign to hike the 2,700-mile Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada with his two adult sons: 490 miles so far.

 
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