Start Making Sense: Is Liberalism Dead?

Editor's Note: The following is Part III in a series of transcripts taken from a standing-room-only book panel/party in San Francisco for AlterNet's new book, Start Making Sense: Turning the Lessons of Election 2004 into Winning Progressive Politics.

The panel included Van Jones (executive director of Ella Baker Center for Human Rights), George Lakoff (linguist and best-selling author), Wes Boyd (co-founder of, Adam Werbach (executive director of Common Assets Defense Fund), Lakshmi Chaudhry (senior editor of AlterNet) and moderator Holly Minch (director of the Spin Project).

Part III

Holly Minch:

Is liberalism as we know it dead? Rest in peace. Or are we in the process of a rebirth? And what will it take for us to bring about a rebirth of inspiration and hope and optimism for a new American future?

Van Jones:

Well I don’t know about whether anything is dead or not. This is what I think. I think that we need a new story. I think that we need a new myth and I want to suggest one.

I want to make an argument that we are entering the third wave of environmentalism. And that the third wave of environmentalism actually creates the possibility of a new politics in the United States.

The first wave was called conservation; Teddy Roosevelt; let’s preserve the wild areas, etc. And that had its day and it had its beauty. The second wave initiated by Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring” and could be considered a regulation wave. Let’s regulate the bad stuff. Let’s regulate toxics, poisons, pollution. Let’s try to keep that bad stuff away from our children, away from our drinking water, etcetera.

The third wave, which is coming is conservation, yes, plus regulation of the bad, yes, plus investment in the good: investment in solar; investment in permaculture; investment in organic; investment in high performance cars and high performance buildings; investment in the environmental technology of the future. And that new wave, that new green wave has a potential to create new jobs, to create new wealth and to deliver environmental benefit. Not just avoid environmental horror but to deliver environmental benefits to this country.

Now, there is a danger. The danger is – the question that has to be asked and answered is – will this new green wave lift all boats? Will this new green wave lift all boats or will we have eco apartheid? Will we have what we have right now where in Marin you’ve got solar this and bio that and everything is groovy and hybrids and everything and it’s all eco and fifteen minutes away in Oakland you have smoke stakes, asthma epidemic, cancer clusters, learning disabilities, birth defects and the whole nine yards, all driven by environmental pollution. Are we going to have eco apartheid or are we going to have eco equity? That question, if we stand together and say, “You know what? This new green wave will lift all boats. We are going to stand together on a single, moral principle.

And that principle is this. Those communities that were locked out of the last centuries’ pollution based economy are going to be locked in to the new clean and green economy. We make that declaration. [Applause] When you do that something quite remarkable opens up as a possibility.

First of all, the economic justice struggles and the criminal justice struggles and the racial justice struggles suddenly have something in common. Something in common with the more white, affluent, progressive struggles. You can begin to put together a united front. You can begin to say, “We have a role now for government as progressives. As progressives we say, “no, no, no, we don’t want a nanny state but we don’t want a Robo Cop state either. We refuse to go back and forth between this welfare state versus warfare state debate, which is a false and leaves our communities further and further behind. We have a role for government. [Applause]

And the role for government is this: partner. We want the government to be a partner to our communities as we struggle to get into this new green economy. We want the government to stand with the problem solvers, the eco entrepreneurs, the guys and the women in the neighborhood who are trying to make peace and keep things together. We want government to fund the problem solvers and stop funding the problem makers. Stop funding the incarcerators and the polluters and the war mongers. We want government as a partner to the problem solvers. On that basis you have the beginnings of something quite remarkable; a new deal coalition for the new century. That’s my hope. [Applause]

George Lakoff:

There was a question that was asked about is liberalism or progressivism dead? I don’t think so. But I think it is very important to understand where we shoot ourselves in the foot. A lot of the very best things in the progressive movement come from our historical roots. And those historical roots lie in rationalism; the idea that everybody is equally rational; we have a universal rationality; everybody can think as well as anyone else.

There is another very important part of that which is if we are all equally rational, then what happens? Facts matter because facts affect our material well being. So we care about science. We care about the truth. The assumption is that truth will set us free if we reason to the right conclusion and so on.

These ideas are very important but they are not totally true. You can’t just say the facts will set us free because we think in terms of conceptual frames and conceptual metaphors as I’ve been arguing for sometime. And when those frames are part of our brains the facts are going to be trumped by the frames, right? So that when, for example, on the arguments about virtually any issues, Democrats start citing the facts over and over whereas the Republicans start citing their values; they are going to win.

It is not that the facts don’t matter. They do but they have to be framed correctly and they have to be put in the right way. So the old line liberalism that is just based on rationalism is a mistake.

It is also important to understand that the progressive community has gotten some strange ideas and that are probably not terribly great. One of them is what is called “the reverse moral order,” the idea that the oppressed are more moral than their oppressors. It may be true, or may not be true. But as soon as we take that idea, you are going against facts in many cases.

There is another idea that is in certain parts of that community which is “we should be anti-business.” Now there is something ridiculous about this because most of the people I know are in business or work for businesses. The best restaurants are businesses. The cafes are businesses. The commuter companies are businesses.

What’s important about this is to understand that business of America is business and most businessmen are honest and try to do the right thing. There are corporate criminals; but progressives should be in favor of ethical business. What does ethical business mean? It means you have reforms. For example accounting reform; open accounting. We should be able to see the books; honest accounting. Full accounting, no externalization, no dumping stuff into the air and not paying to clean it up and so on. We would have to be thinking about positive things about business; not just negative things about corporate criminals.

Adam Werbach:

American liberalism is definitely dead. It has been dead for years and that doesn’t mean that European liberalism is dead. But when you talk about liberalism as a moral, intellectual ideological project it no longer functions for the average American. It doesn’t mean it still works for some people; but it doesn’t work for most people.

When liberalism was created it provided two solutions; group rights by court and large social safety net government provided programs. It was created in the era of the depression, of WWII. But all of these sort of structural problems facing the broad majority of Americans today are not solved by that [liberalism]. And instead of saying, ‘we need liberalism to evolve and become another thing that actually serves people and effectively ends poverty or gets people out and moves it,’ liberals say ‘we are actually going to protect the structure first.’ We are going to care more about the structure than we are going to care about actually what the services are. Instead of saying we are going to innovate new programs; we are saying we are going to hold on to our old ones. And when I say progressives, I’m not talking about liberals.

Progressive right now is an empty brand. It means to most people angry liberal. [Laughter] And the type of solutions that we need to talk about are actually what we need to impart into progressivism. But liberalism; that set of solutions that we know so well, we have to understand isn’t working for most Americans. Most Americans are not at the place they were fifty, sixty years ago. Most Americans are worrying about credit card debt. They are worrying about obesity. One in six Americans live in a gated community right now. The majority of voters live in the suburbs right now. America has changed deeply from that time so why are we still supporting the same liberal programs? Wes, what does and should progressive mean?

Wes Boyd:

Ah, truth, justice and the American way. [Applause] But that is from a fifties serial superman. I really appreciate the fact that Adam charges that environmentalism is dead or liberalism is dead because those challenges need to be made. In fact I don’t think he goes far enough.

I mean, is the middle class dead? We have to fight for the middle class. We have to be champions of the middle class. We have to be clear on that.

We need to fight for the enlightenment. The enlightenment is an idea that was the basis for the founding of this country. We need to understand that scientifically we know that human beings have cognitive blind spots. Therefore we can actually figure out how to socially compensate for those things. It is actually called morality, right? It is called a set of taboos; however you want to think about it; good and evil. Society comes up with these things to help us deal with our cognitive blind spots.

We have to understand that cosmopolitanism; the view of this as one world is a good view and it’s the thing that is going to hold the pieces together as the tensions of regionalism and tends to establish empire and try to pull it apart. Those are all the pieces, right? But how we talk about these things; that is something we all have to work on together, because there is a lot of work to do there

Lakshmi Chaudhry:

I think there is too much fuss about what’s dead what’s not – in the end, you know, maybe it’s because I’m Hindu and I’m like, ah, it’s all reincarnated anyway. [Laughter]

But aside from that really cheap joke that plays to my Indian identity, what I will say is there is a serious point behind that which, in the end you can call it liberalism, you can call it progressivism, it used to be called a nationalist struggle at one point, you know, in different context, freedom struggle, the struggle to democracy. In the end what it is, is some basic belief in common decency, fairness, equality, justice, the idea that a society in which the weakest and the frailest are simply sort of left behind is not a society worth living in, that where people should have opportunity to be the best that they can be. And so these ideas that remain the same and I don’t think anything can ever kill them through time as long as you have human beings on this earth, which may not be that long but that is beside the point.

But I think what we lose when we get caught up in these struggles is the idea that when it comes to morality, when it comes to words like decency they have no meaning without context. They need time and space to figure out what does it mean to be moral in this context, in this way. We get too caught up in the ways of being liberal. And I guess Adam touched on that in the beginning; the ways in which we were liberal; we like to think of ourselves as liberal. We can be liberal any way we want.

What is really important is called humanity. And it is frightening and it is difficult even in our own personal lives to figure out how we are going to remain ourselves and yet change. And I think that is the challenge. If you want to call it the soul or you want to call it our conscience, it doesn’t really matter. It’s still the same and we need to be on the right side of that. We have to ask ourselves where our politics gets in the way of being on the right side of issues or on the right side of history. [Applause]

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