Wednesday, December 01, 2004

How to Talk to a Conservative--If You Must

Here is my second column for The Centurion, the new conservative student publication at Rutgers. We--the boys on this weird bus and I--had to thrash out a compromise on a "reply" to said column. I resisted until I read the thing, and then I thought, oh man, we're shooting fish in a barrel: maybe these people are as clueless as we thought they were. I wrote a mean-spirited rebuttal, which I will post, along with the "reply," when I figure out how--that is, when my daughter shows me how. Attentive reader(s) will know that I have plagiarized myself from the Kerry speech posted long ago.

In addition to being a Marxist, a socialist, a feminist, a pragmatist, and a post-modernist, I’m a liberal. These seemingly incompatible commitments are, in fact, perfectly consistent, because all of them specify society, not political action, as the site of self-discovery and self-government.

I agree with Newt Gingrich in thinking that liberalism is the hidden transcript of American politics and culture. For it is hard to find anyone who would disavow what I would call the five fundamental principles of modern liberalism.

As a liberal, I believe, first, in the founding principle of American politics—the sovereignty of the people, not the party, government, or state. Like liberals since Adam Smith and James Madison, I believe in the supremacy of society over the state.

Second, I believe in individualism. Our identities and opportunities should not be determined by the class or the race or the gender—or the country—we were born into. Those identities and opportunities should instead be the result of our natural talents, our learned skills, our past 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.

As a liberal, I insist it is a mere perversion of the idea of equality to say that it is the result of treating everyone exactly the same. If we expect women to bear and raise children, for example, equal opportunity for them in the labor market will require us to acknowledge that this cultural difference of expectation between men and women creates a practical disadvantage for women who want or need to enter the labor market. When we continue to treat men and women the same in view of that acknowledgment, we are producing inequality by giving men a practical advantage.

Third, I believe in pluralism. Democracy is not just a political system. Liberty and equality for everyone means that certain groups must be able to represent their collective interests and identities in society, far from the halls of Congress, before and after the next election, especially if those identities and interests have hitherto appeared as illegitimate (for example, the identities and interests of working people in and through their trade unions, or the identities and interests of black folk in and through their public bodies and associations—let us remember that these forms of representation became normal and legitimate only within the last seventy years).

Fourth, I believe in reform. I believe in our ability to make progress, to foster economic growth, to enable social mobility, and to meet social needs, by combining private initiative and public policy. Since the Progressive Era, liberals like me have insisted that market forces and government power are not the terms of an either/or choice. We know they can and should be harnessed together for the common good.

Fifth, I believe, along with the founding fathers, that liberty and equality are not mutually exclusive categories or commitments. They knew that a free society can and must be a just society—otherwise it would devolve, as James Madison understood, into an oligarchy that sacrificed the rights of persons to the rights of property, “the poor to the rich” in his words. As Irving Kristol has pointed out, Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman, conservative icons indeed, are among the very few intellectuals of the 20th century who repudiated this liberal principle.

But if liberalism is as unobjectionably mainstream as this citation of principles would suggest, why are liberals in retreat before the rising red tide? Or are they? Let us keep in mind the simple fact that the Left has won the culture wars (according to all accounts, including the Right’s)—which is to say that the liberal values of inclusion, acceptance, and equality have carried the day in matters of race, gender, and sexuality. “Out of doors,” in civil society, in cultural politics, conservatism is a losing proposition, regardless of what Rush, Sean, Ann, and Laura are ranting about today. People born after 1943 don’t pay attention to the angry antics of talk radio when it comes to so-called moral values.

It is nevertheless true that public policy is now more deeply informed by pre-Keynesian, post-liberal assumptions than twenty or thirty years ago. There is still no debate about the ends of fiscal and monetary policy (recall George W. Bush’s acceptance speech, a laundry list of federal contributions to upward mobility), but there are fundamental differences about the means to those ends. And here I think the substantive, (re)distributive vision of recent liberalism is what the so-called conservatives are fighting. As far as they are concerned, since the 1970s it has been either difficult or pointless to distinguish between liberals and socialists. The external threat of communism has expired, from their standpoint, but the internal threat of socialism remains in the form of liberalism.

I am inclined to agree with this view of things for three reasons. First, it helps us understand the otherwise incomprehensible ferocity of right-wing attacks on liberals and liberalism. Second, it alerts us to the possibility that since the 1960s, liberalism in the US has become a great deal more than its left-wing critics would allow (it’s way too individualistic, too procedural, etc., they say)—it alerts us to the possibility that liberalism here has become the equivalent of European social democracy. Finally, this seemingly paranoid view of contemporary liberalism tells us why it’s worth, er, well, conserving.