Liberalism, Alive and Well
Conservatives like to malign liberals as naïve adolescents, big spenders, pot-smoking pacifists, tree-huggers, moral relativists, Marxists, and worshipers of big government. They also like to think that liberals would rather write to a criminal in Attica than offer public sympathy to a rape victim.
There you have it folks. We're the bad-guy liberals. We are profligate. We are undisciplined. We love to be taxed. We don't like guns. We hate religion. We would rather date a Mexican. We love to run other people's lives from some Kafkaesque, bureaucratic big-government agency. We want every home in America to have solar panels. We despise war. We want to have an equal number of non-Caucasians and Caucasians in all of our elementary schools and high schools. We think men should stop being gynecologists. We want to annihilate all embryos. We love to fantasize about just when fish started growing the two legs Adam and Eve eventually sprouted.
Liberals are supposed to be weak and have no standards. In a word, we are all “morally rudderless.” And perhaps worse, we are all diluted forms of our original, tough primal selves (that weakening, decaying process many conservatives believe starts in the university with all those “free-thinking” college-prof types, the “effete” intellectuals who continue to destroy all the foundations of right thinking and moral behavior).
Liberals are also accused of attempting to “force” a group-think model onto society, thereby destroying all forms of rugged individualism and free choice (the political right conveniently forgets that conservatism, historically, has been responsible for very repressive laws against sodomy, women's right to vote, integration, black suffrage, abortion, the right of homosexuals to serve their country—all denying certain individuals all kinds of choices and rights in a free society).
The group-think paradigm seems to be at the core of why conservatives become apoplectic in their fears that all of their individual rights will be just drained away if the liberals get into power.
At the extreme end of how far some conservatives will go defending individual rights, I vividly remember one of my arch-conservative friends passionately defending the right of someone to drive an SUV as a Constitutionally guaranteed right. He was, by the way, a little short on the details as to whether SUV ownership came under free speech, freedom of religion, the right to due process, or of freedom of association—to some conservatives, economic choices are all covered by the Constitution. “Dunn't matter,” as the saying goes.
So, what is the source of the allegation against liberals that we all want to suppress individual rights?
I think it would be safe to say that liberals lean more heavily towards a communitarian philosophy of society. In general, we attempt to view American society as interdependent, and we try to view the effect that legislation or a court decision will have on society as a whole. Even when an individual's rights are protected, that protection is seen as a salutary force for “all” of society, not just for one person.
Communitarianism is closely allied to the “greater good” model of human behavior and, when push comes to shove, places a premium on the concept of the common welfare over private interest. This is one of the reasons, liberals are so adamant in their desire to protect consumers against corporate greed and fraud. It is also the model that is the foundation behind liberal support of protecting the environment through tough green-friendly legislation.
And the common-welfare paradigm is used by liberals to support a single-payer health insurance system, one that would level the playing field of the health-insurance malaise in the country since everyone would pay equally into a system that would benefit everybody equally.
Because the health insurance system in America remains a highly privatized system that favors those lucky enough to land the right job with the right benevolent employer, liberals support a more egalitarian health insurance system that is not a crapshoot.
In many ways, the current U.S. income tax system comes out of a common-good, communitarian model of governance. The government, ideally, uses those taxes to protect and serve the wider community.
The income-tax system shoots for an egalitarian ideal on several levels with a progressive tax model (using a rising percentage tied to rising income), while giving an individual or a business the right to deduct certain professional and business-related expenses (deductions can also be seen from a common-good perspective because those deductions allow non-government agencies to support the general economy in their own individual way).
The common-good moral paradigm also explains why liberals support any federal global program that subsidizes the use of condoms, not just for lowering the rate of AIDS but for keeping a lid on population growth—both issues that liberals believe trump any rigid orthodox belief to “increase and multiply” or the belief that the primary function of sex is procreative.
Liberals will ally themselves to a strong government in order to balance out the sometimes inordinate control corporations and an economic plutocracy continue to have over American society. The government then, becomes the “collective will” of a voting citizenry and represents that will in its executive branch, its Congress, and its Supreme Court (the Supreme Court is the only branch that is given a structurally static form—Justices are chosen for life—in order to maintain judicial consistency and continuity, at least ideally; on the debit side, the Supreme Court can be seen as a “repository” of inherited wisdom, giving it the potential to be a crusty old leviathan undaunted by the evolving nature of politics and public opinion, a natural evolution liberals are more apt to subscribe to than conservatives).
The common welfare theme has been quite dominant throughout United States history. It was Lincoln's justification for fighting a civil war to preserve the “Union.” It was the guiding force behind the American Revolution that explained the cohesive and unifying force of American colonists fighting as “one” against a common enemy, England, in order that this one-nation-under-God, fragmented as it was, could establish its independence. Although the colonists consisted of many regional voices, the one-nation voice spoke loud and clear against a colonial empire.
And the common-welfare/one-nation model was a strong philosophical component of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal and Harry Truman's Fair Deal.
Roosevelt, of course, remains maligned by even contemporary conservatives, who believe that he was out to destroy private enterprise and capitalism by all of his government subsidized programs during the late thirties and early forties. They conveniently overlook the fact that market-driven capitalism could not sustain the vast millions of unemployed in America during the Depression.
Because of the widespread economic destitution experienced by the nation as a whole during the Depression, America had to think of itself as “one nation,” heeding the many voices of poverty in the same way that the one-nation American voice responds to a natural disaster in any part of the country (to be fair, even conservatives melt into the we-are-one-nation-in-spite-of-our-differences during a natural disaster or a war).
In terms of Harry Truman's approach to domestic governance after World War II, he gets the usual mixed reviews from liberals and conservatives. Liberals like him because he was not afraid to use the resources of the executive to enforce wage-and-price controls in order to stabilize the economy, an act liberals view as one stemming from the common-good model of governance.
Conservatives despise Truman for an overly zealous “planned economy,” a euphemism for the communist model of economics. When Truman unsuccessfully tried to nationalize the steel industry, after being slapped by the Supreme Court, conservatives are quick to use that as evidence of Truman's socialist tendencies.
Many liberals, like myself, would not like to believe that Ronald Reagan was using a very liberal, common-welfare model of governance, when, by executive decree, he fired all the air comptrollers in 1968.
Although Reagan's toughness against the union was lauded by the conservatives (many liberals, on the other hand, believed he could have negotiated more actively), he was actually making an executive decision based on the common good over private interest. He obviously accepted the advice of his advisers that the air-comptrollers union had no right to strike and to endanger the economic welfare of the nation.
Aside from the liberal governance model that favors communitarianism over private interest, liberals have a more expansive and inclusive view of its country's sacred text of rights and freedoms, the Constitution.
Liberals view the Constitution as a living document that constantly needs to be reinterpreted in light of the evolving nature of social codes and mores. In that sense, it sees the Constitution as expansive enough to be relevant to such modern Constitutional issues as abortion rights, homosexuality, and the right to remain silent during a police interrogation.
Liberalism in the United States also tends to be more inclusive. It is generally quite comfortable with an active mixture of ethnic groups, religions, languages, races, and sexual orientations. On the other hand, conservatism in America is quite homogeneous—Caucasian, English-speaking, heterosexual, and predominantly Christian.
Liberal expansiveness can be seen in its ability to read history beyond patriotic ideology, to be a strong advocate of privacy, to accept science and technology as legitimate empirical models of knowledge,even if that knowledge conflicts with religious texts and received-wisdom interpretations of reality.
Finally, liberalism views viable life as a legitimate, moral necessity. The viability-of-life paradigm explains the views it has about its opposition to capital punishment, on the one hand, but its support of a woman's right to choose to terminate a non-viable embryo.
Viability is crucial to the liberal position of defining life around the capacity of that life to physically survive outside the womb. Having arrived at that viable stage and after, a person, to a liberal, is born with an inner necessity to live. And no state, government, or judicial process has the right to deny that inner necessity, even though liberals concede the right of a state to require imprisonment and social isolation to those who take it upon themselves to end the lives of others.