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Bring Back Liberalism
The dichotomies we grew up with no longer apply
Once up a time, ideological battle lines were as clear as a laser pointer. We had conservatives one side and liberals on the other. Leading the conservative army were Russell Kirk, Robert Taft, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, James Burnham, and the like. The liberals had John Dewey, Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, Gore Vidal, George McGovern, and many more. You knew who was whom and which side you were on.
The issues, too, were clear: welfare, bussing, deficits, abortion, regulations, taxes, racial economic disparity, dealing with the Soviet Union, etc. To some degree, we fought over public decency, sexual promiscuity, and free speech.
If you remember, those debates involved unsettled matters. The issues open to consideration felt emerging and novel, not endemic. If political philosophy had provided the ideological equivalent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, our old battles would have be over issues near the top of the pyramid.
We didn’t fight over settled matters because there was no point. Conservatives and liberals agreed, for the most part, that the first two paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence contained unassailable truths that guide every decision made by states and the national government. The matters Jefferson presented in that document were settled because they defined the American ideal. The philosophy Jefferson summarized in paragraph two was what made America a nation and not just a geographical oddity.
The Bill of Rights, too, espoused our accepted, settled political science. While we might have quibbled over some of the other amendments (particularly the clumsily worded and opportunistically interpreted 14th Amendment), the first ten amendments to the Constitution were revered like scripture. The American Civil Liberties Union came into existence to promote a strict interpretation of the Bill of Rights.
On the long timeline of political philosophy, America was founded on liberal principles. Only liberals believed the common man was capable of self-governance. The 30-Years War was recent enough that freedom of religion posed a threat to the country. Some conservatives feared the dangers of a free press with its ability to rake muck and rouse the rabble. Conservatives worried that the Bill of Rights favored criminals over their victims and that the 9th and 10th Amendments would prevent America from maturing into a great nation.
The Declaration and Bill of Rights, when written, debated, and ratified, were liberal principles. The Federalists were the conservatives of the day hoping to preserve more of the vestiges of monarchy in the new republic. The liberals were the anti-federalists. The Bill of Rights was a concession by the conservatives to the liberals. It would be fair to say America was the world’s first liberal country.
Yes, conservatives and liberals disagreed on the edges of the liberal principles of our founding, but never on the substance. A good example comes from the debates over the 1st Amendment. In the 20th century, liberals supported a libertarian interpretation of the 1st Amendment while conservatives argued for sharper limitations on certain forms of speech, to wit: Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers, and Woodward and Bernstein, who brought down Nixon, were seen as heroes to liberals and traitors to conservatives.
Some might argue that conservative and liberals have switched sides on free speech, what with the Twitter Files and the like. I disagree. I believe liberals are still libertarian on freedom of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of petitioning government. I would also argue that conservatives become more liberal in their interpretation of the 1st Amendment and, if we are honest with ourselves, would admit our conservative forebears might have taken their opposition to certain free speech too far. In the past four years, we have gotten a taste of our medicine and found it disgusting.
No, liberalism hasn’t changed. What has changed is the makeup of what we call “the left.”
The left in the 1900s was dominated by liberals with communists and other statist ideologies on its fringes. In the twenty-first century, those fringes have spread to dominate the left. Liberalism is now an edge case, and that’s creating a lot of confusion for labelers.
It’s remarkable, frankly, that the right’s new heroes include:
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
among many other dyed-in-the-wool liberals. I see a lot of conservatives on social media claiming all of these people have either “moved to the right” or disavowed liberalism.
Nonsense. Robert F. Kennedy and the rest are still liberals. They are not conservatives, and they likely never will be.
They might have disavowed the “liberal” label, but they have not changed their points of view on anything as far as I can tell.
What has changed is that the fundamentally accepted principles upon which America’s liberals and conservatives have always agreed and accepted as settled political science are now under murderous assault by the government and its totalitarian colleagues in the press, technology, and chamber of commerce. Liberals never advocated for the abolition of the 1st Amendment; totalitarians did. Now, the totalitarians dominate one of our two major political parties, and they’ve infiltrated the second.
The American totalitarians view the FBI and the Pentagon as sickles with which the state may slice down any remaining vestiges of liberal thought. Liberals have always viewed the FBI and the Pentagon with jaundiced eye while conservatives considered them two of our finest institutions. It burns me to admit that the liberals were right all along. The presence of a federal police force that is, for all intents and purposes, above the law was always a disaster waiting to happen. An ever-growing military has always been at odds with America’s founding principles, but conservatives who lived through World War II or the Cold War, or both, refused to accept that large standing armies tend to get used regardless of the need for war.1
Two things seem clear from all this:
We should not reclassify liberals as conservatives upon our realizing that we all agree on America’s founding principles.
Conservatives owe liberals a tip-of-the-cap (at least) for having been right all along.
As Robert F. Kennedy laments in his excellent Letter to Liberals:
Many traditional liberals—reacting to the orchestrated fear and propaganda—have embraced “Lockdown Liberalism,” an ideology that departs dramatically from the tenets of traditional liberalism. Like Galileo’s colleagues, so many of today’s “Lockdown Liberals” refuse to read or debate the science that they believe supports the government’s COVID countermeasures. Instead, they place their faith in the official orthodoxies of famously corrupt pharmaceutical companies and their notoriously captive federal agencies and expect others to do the same. This blind obedience is itself a kind of novel virus that now infects the entire upper deck of the Democratic Party.2
And Kennedy defines what might be the singular definition of liberalism:
Liberalism’s foundational assumption, after all, is that freedom of speech and expression are essential to a functioning democracy; the free flow of information yields governing policies that have been annealed in the cauldron of fierce, open debate before triumphing on the battlefield of ideas.3
Glenn Greenwald, too, speaks to his fellow liberals who have fallen prey to ideologies and institutions they once found abhorrent:
For the past two years, Greenwald’s twitter feed has been a scream of bewilderment over his liberal brethren losing their minds by joining the totalitarian monsters roaming Washington, DC and corporate board rooms. For that, he’s accused of being a Nazi.
I get a little irked when my fellow conservatives insist that liberals are actually conservatives. As much as I’d welcome them to our ranks, they are not. And that’s okay. It’s okay to agree with and fight alongside those with whom we disagree on certain things. I don’t agree with Glenn Greenwald, Robert Kennedy, or Naomi Wolf on thousands of issues—but I agree with them on fundamental issues of liberty and self-governance which are now in danger of disappearing everywhere on the planet for centuries or millennia.
Liberty and self-governance, democracy and republicanism, are all facing existential threats by some of the institutions we conservatives built, funded, expanded, served, defended, and venerated for 100 years. We have a moral duty to set aside our differences with liberals and man the barricades in this war. We owe history an acknowledgment that we helped animate Frankenstein’s monster which now threatens our existence. The very tools we forged to fight the Soviet Union and Islamism have been turned against us.
Thanks be to God that so many of our ideological rivals have remained true to their liberal principles at a time when doing so opens them up to personal and financial ruin. They have lost friends and family over their commitment to the things liberals have always believed. They have given credibility to conservatives’ warnings. They have received relatively little in return.
Two of William F. Buckley’s closest friends were the liberals John Kenneth Galbraith and Senator George McGovern. Many people scratched their heads at this. Some even doubted Buckley’s commitment to conservative because of it.
I have another view.
Buckley, Galbraith, and, especially, McGovern were children of the depression and young soldiers in World War II. Before their ideologies were known to the world, they fought common foes as brothers in arms. They put down threats to humanity, to civilization, to all those settled political science questions. They knew that the issues debated in the post-war era were issues it was a privilege to debate. A privilege because, to paraphrase Buckley, “all questions that are finally important are behind us.”
Debating the size of the federal budget in terms of GDP is the privilege of a society free from fundamental threats. Now that we have boogered things up to the point that our very purpose as a nation lays vulnerable beneath a precariously placed anvil, our mission is to find common cause with our old liberal enemies. In this war, Bobby Kennedy Jr. and I wear the same uniform, salute the same flag, and obey the same code of justice.
When we emerge from this grave danger, we will fight again, no doubt, but we will, like Buckley and McGovern, never lose our mutual respect. We have seen the enemy, and he is not a liberal.
Liberals like Robert F. Kennedy and Naomi Wolf were also right about big pharma, big agriculture, and many other institutions that conservatives defended and revered as recently as 2020.
Kennedy, Robert F.. A Letter to Liberals: Censorship and COVID: An Attack on Science and American Ideals (Children’s Health Defense) (p. 9). Skyhorse. Kindle Edition.
ibid. (p. 11)