Monday, August 09, 2004

Liberalism

Here's a speech I wrote for Kerry--not that he asked--when the primaries were still going on. Sent it to the usual suspects, NY Times, et al., as an op-ed, but no takers. It summarizes the content of liberalism as I understand it, but it doesn't address the question of why everyone except senators from Massachusetts wants to flee the label. For an answer to that vexed question, Irving Kristol, of all people, is the most helpful interlocutor--and I am not referring to his (in)famous remark defining conservatives as liberals mugged by reality. I'll explain next time with citations from his 1978 book, Two Cheers for Capitalism.

What John Kerry Should Say When Asked If He’s a Liberal

By James Livingston

In the last Democratic debate, John Kerry ducked the question when asked if he is a liberal. Here’s what he should say the next time he’s asked:

You know, the label of “liberal” doesn’t quite fit me in these strange times. Unlike George W. Bush, I’m profoundly conservative in several important respects. Unlike Bush, I don’t want to amend the Constitution for political purposes, I want to preserve and protect it. Unlike Bush, I don’t want to privatize Social Security, I want to sustain it. Unlike Bush, I don’t want to abolish the federal income tax--see the Economic Report of the President 2002—-I want to simplify it. And unlike Bush, I don’t want to repudiate the principles of 20th-century U.S. foreign policy, I want to reinvigorate them. He’s the radical on these issues, not me.
So I’ll accept the liberal label if you’ll let me explain what it means to me, and to those Americans who don’t take Rush Limbaugh’s word for it. I have four fundamental beliefs.
First, I believe in the founding principle of American politics—the sovereignty of the people, not the government, not the party. Like liberals since Adam Smith and James Madison, I believe in the supremacy of society over the state.
Second, I believe in individualism. I mean that our opportunities and identities should not be determined by the class or the race or the gender—or the country—we were born into. Those opportunities and identities should instead be the result of our talents, skills, and efforts. But some of us may need extra help in developing our skills, and joining the mainstream of American society, because in the past we’ve been excluded from certain places, jobs, and schools.
Third, I believe in pluralism. Democracy is not just a political system. Liberty and equality for everyone means that certain groups should be able to represent themselves in society, far from the halls of Congress, before and after the next election. For example, working people must be able to express their individual preferences through their votes, but they should also be able to represent their collective interests through their trade unions. So should every group that can plausibly assert a collective interest.
Fourth, I believe in reform. I believe in our ability to make progress, to foster economic growth and to meet social needs, by combining private initiative and public policy. Market forces and government power are not the terms of an either/or choice. They can and should be harnessed together for the common good.
Allow me to get historical. By my definition of liberalism, there are almost no “conservative” statesmen worth remembering from the 20th century—probably because as a people and a culture, we Americans are too restless to stand pat, too ambitious to settle for what the past has bequeathed us. From Herbert Hoover to Jimmy Carter, there’s not one certifiably “conservative” president. Hoover didn’t believe in “free markets” any more than FDR did, although both shared my commitment to balanced federal budgets. None of these presidents, from Hoover to Carter, embraced the “conservative” label because all of them were heirs to the Progressive tradition invented in the early 20th century by Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. And all of them, from Hoover to Carter, sought reform in the most liberal sense imaginable.
By my definition, even Ronald Reagan looks pretty liberal. In terms of rhetoric and policy, he’s closer to William Howard Taft, who feared what we call “big government,” than to Teddy Roosevelt, who wanted the state to closely supervise the market. But all three of these presidents could accept my liberal label. So could Reagan’s immediate successors, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton. And so could the overwhelming majority of Americans.
The exception to the rule of liberalism before, during, and after Reagan is George W. Bush. But he’s no more “conservative” than Tom DeLay is. This Bush is a radical—he wants to escape the past, and he’s got a plan.
I’m a liberal, and I’m more conservative than he is. Go figure.


James Livingston is Professor of History at Rutgers University. His most recent book is Pragmatism, Feminism, and Democracy: Rethinking the Politics of American History (Routledge, 2001). He is writing a book on American thought and culture at the end of the 20th century.
living@rci.rutgers.edu
jameslivingston49@hotmail.com