John Leo: Can liberalism survive?

USNews & World Reports is running this editorial by John Leo, entitled Can liberalism survive? (3/7/05). It’s a fascinating mixture of accurate observations about the state of liberalism in the U.S., combined with great heaps of partisan hot air. Take a look at some of Leo’s contentions:

. . . the liberal agenda consists of wanting to spend more, while the conservatives want to spend less.

Really? Which conservatives would those be? Certainly not the Bush administration, with its policy of ongoing international military intervention and deficit spending. Certainly not the borrow-happy Republican Congress, so far eager to comply with Bush’s skewed economic policies without question. At present, the only hope for lowered spending coming out of Congress is obstinate Democratic obstructionism, possibly paired with traditional Republican glee at taking pot shots at low-cost social programs that fail to pass the new ‘traditional values’ political correctness test (see: National Endowment for the Arts). The real monsters of the budget – the Department of Defense, Medicare and Social Security- will be consuming more, not less, under these ‘fiscal conservatives’.

Its fundamental value is that society should have no fundamental values, except for a pervasive relativism that sees all values as equal.

Conservative pundits are eager to characterize the Left as having ‘no values’ and standing for nothing except unfettered relativism and the absence of right and wrong. They’re half right, but for the wrong reasons. If modern liberalism looks like it is bereft of values and principles, it is because the current crop of liberal leaders have done such a poor job of articulating them, not because they do not exist. Since the end of the Clinton administration, Democrats in the U.S. have done a terrible job of setting an agenda and putting their values at the forefront of their platform. It’s a serious failing, but it is a failing of representation and not one of fundamental principle. Liberalism as a philosophy certainly has no fewer principles than modern conservatism:

  • Equality before the law
  • The possibility that government action can make improvements in the lives of its citizens
  • Society’s responsibility to care for the underprivileged
  • Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religious practice or choice

There are certainly more, but those occur off the top of my head. These principles have not always been expressed to their utmost, and at times have become tarnished by misuse or neglect. That’s true of any political philosophy that lasts as long as liberalism has. These ideas change, they diminish, and they are renewed. As Leo points out, that’s already happened to conservatism in the U.S. at least once in this century.

We are seeing the bitterness of elites who wish to lead, confronted by multitudes who do not wish to follow.

Is Leo talking here about liberals or conservatives? I can’t tell, since neither one of them is supported by a ‘multitude’ that’s more than half the voting population of the U.S. Calling liberals ‘elites’ is a convenient way to create the perception that conservatives must be, by process of elimination, closer to the ‘common man’. Just like that poor little rich boy from Crawford, Texas. . .

For a stark vision of what cultural liberalism has come to, consider the breakdown of the universities, the fortresses of the 1960s cultural liberals and their progeny. Students are taught that objective judgments are impossible. All knowledge is compromised by issues of power and bias. Therefore, there is no way to come to judgment about anything, since judgment itself rests on quicksand. This principle, however, is suspended when the United States and western culture are discussed, because the West is essentially evil and guilty of endless crimes. Better to declare a vague transnational identity and admiration for the United Nations. The campuses indulge in heavy coercion and indoctrination.

It’s hard to tell where to begin here. Objective judgments are impossible? Is that what I was taught at my liberal university? I thought that I was taught that judgments have to be based on clearly stated criteria of judgment, and that those criteria themselves can be subject to challenge or debate. I thought that I was taught that it wasn’t sufficient to rely on the authority of any particular position, dogma, or institution, but rather to provide clear and relevant evidence that speaks directly to the issue at hand. I thought that I was taught that while power can infect and compromise knowledge, it is not the final arbiter of truth. Power can be questioned, power can be subverted, and power can be taken into account, analyzed, and discussed when judging the veracity of a source. I thought I learned that only be thinking rigorously about every idea, and not hesitating when faced with sacred cows, can we come to a better understanding of the topics that we consider. I thought I learned that personal bias was endemic, making it as important to consider the source of information as it is to consider the information itself. I thought I learned that it was more important to provide a detailed and nuanced view of a situation or actor than it was to quickly categorize it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in a simple-minded way. I thought I learned that no country should be singled out for special acclaim or contempt except by its actions. I thought I learned that in some situations, the U.S. was the ‘good guy’, and in some situations, the U.S. was the ‘bad guy’, and that in some situations everyone went home with bloody hands and no one did much that was right, but on the other hand no one really set out to do wrong.

But I guess that was all just brain washing.


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