Who Are The Classic Liberals?

A friend pointed me at this article by Michael Shermer, which suggests that a reinvigoration of what Shermer calls “classically liberal” values is what is needed to heal our divided country.

As a proponent of those classically liberal values precisely as Shermer defines them, I initially loved Shermer’s article, even though one wonders how much pure exhortation can accomplish. If a sizable minority in the nation opposes those values, and another sizable minority is indifferent to them, how much will just asking those groups to embrace liberal values help? Still, on the facts, Shermer is correct.

On a more careful reading, though, some of Shermer’s framing is wrong in a way that ends up being misleading in important ways.

Shermer begins with the recent incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia. Let’s recap: two young men were waiting for a third man at a Starbucks, for a business meeting, and had held off ordering until the third man arrived. One asked to use the restroom, and was refused as he hadn’t ordered anything. Shortly after, the police were called, and arrested the two men for trespassing, putting them in handcuffs just as the third man arrived for the business meeting. Neither of the arrested men was disruptive or combative in any way. The two arrested men are black, the third man, the latecomer, is white.

Does anybody actually believe that this would have happened if the two young men were white? Or that this is just a freak, one-in-a-million occurrence caused by a rogue Starbucks manager?

Shermer sounds wounded that Starbucks is now making its employees undergo sensitivity training to combat implicit racism “that, apparently, everyone in the company unconsciously harbors.” Hurt feelings aside, is there an actual argument there?

Shermer writes: “Traditional bigotry operates by mapping a stereotype of a collective onto an individual. Within Starbucks, the process has been inverted, with the vector of prejudice emanating from the one to the many.” I don’t see this at all. The original incident was precisely a case of “mapping a stereotype of a collective” onto two individuals. Shermer seems more worried that Starbucks’s response to this incident is somehow inappropriate (how, exactly?) than about the incident itself.

There’s a more fundamental problem, though. Shermer provides a truly outstanding definition of the core elements of classical liberalism, as a set of bullet points. They’re so clear, concise, and complete that I’ll quote them in full here:

  • a democracy in which the franchise extends to all adults;
  • rule of law, including a constitution that is subject to change only under extraordinary political circumstances and well-defined judicial procedures; a legislature whose laws are applied equally to all citizens; and a system of courts that serves all litigants impartially;
  • protection of civil rights and civil liberties;
  • a potent police and military to ensure the safety of citizens;
  • property rights, and the freedom to trade with others at home and abroad;
  • a secure and trustworthy banking and monetary system;
  • freedom of internal movement;
  • freedom of speech, the press, and association;
  • mass education, accessible to all, of a type that encourages critical thinking, scientific reasoning, and the dissemination of knowledge.
  • adequate public spending to help the needy—including the homeless, mentally ill, physically handicapped, unemployed, aged, and very young—through the provision of such needs as shelter, child care, food, energy, education, job training, and medical care.

My question is: how does this set of bullet points not coincide with the core values of the Democratic Party? And how has today’s Republican Party not positioned itself in opposition to every single one of these bullet points?

Shermer uses phrases like “the left”, “the social justice left”, and “liberals” (without the “classical” qualifier) interchangeably. That’s a pretty common tic, but it’s often malign, and certainly obfuscates. It leads directly to what Paul Krugman calls “both-sides-ism”: “gosh, isn’t it horrible that we’re so divided, if only there were someone who would stand up for classically liberal, centrist values.”

There is such a someone: it’s the Democratic Party. Shermer implies, at least, that those classical liberal values have been neglected or abandoned by all and sundry in favor of a deplorable factionalism practiced by all. In reality, the very source of the factionalism, and the intensity of the division, is that one side is defending those classical liberal values, while the other is attacking them. This is a fight over first principles, so it’s unsurprising that it’s bitter.

It is true that there is a left-wing ideology that puts group identity (ethnic/racial/gender) at its center, just as there is a right-wing ideology that does the same. These two ideologies have much in common, though the former is focused on using identity to transfer power to groups that have historically had less than their pro rata share, while the latter is focused on using identity to preserve what they correctly perceive as a diminishing surplus of power. Still, both are illiberal in carving up society along ethnic, racial, and gender lines.

What they don’t have in common is size, power, and influence. The left-wing identitarians exist, in small numbers, at the very fringe of the Democratic Party, and also outside the two-party system (two words: Jill Stein). The right-wing identitarians are in nearly total control of the Republican Party: Republicans who still hew to classic liberal values are either too cowed by the power of the identitarian majority to speak up, or are not running for office.

Here’s a thought experiment: imagine an African-American man running for the Democratic nomination for President, with a platform that no white candidate could possibly be legitimate because such a candidate would represent “slave owner culture.” How far would that man get toward the Democratic nomination?

Now imagine a white man running for the Republican nomination for President, and claiming without any evidence whatsoever that the incumbent President, an African-American, was an illegitimate office holder because, not having been born in the US, he wasn’t a US citizen at all. Or that the incumbent President was secretly a Muslim. How far would that man get toward the Republican nomination?

Put another way: who’s more electable, Louis Farrakhan or Donald Trump?

We know the answer to that one, of course.

We are in a battle for the survival of precisely the classic liberal values that Shermer enumerates so articulately. On the classic liberal side is the bulk of the Democratic Party, a sizable number of independents, and a largely silenced minority of renegade and former Republicans. Opposing them is the bulk of the Republican Party along with a small fringe of left-wing ideologues. Why anyone on that side would ever be called “conservative” is beyond me. What is desperately in need of conserving now is precisely the traditional values that so many self-identified “conservatives” are trying to topple.

 

I Have Seen Them Riding Seaward

 

I Have Seen Them Riding Seaward

(With apologies to T. S. Eliot.)

OK, maybe it’s a little cowardly to respond to the disaster by hiding far away. Even here, it certainly isn’t out of our minds for long. But there is solace in sitting outside with Walter the dog and Lili the cat, as the sun sets, watching the surfers comb the white hair of the waves blown back.

We will linger here a little. Human voices will wake us soon enough.

 

What We Willingly Surrendered

Competence

Let’s start with the smaller part: our President-elect is remarkably ignorant of how government works or the challenges our nation, and the world, face. He doesn’t appear to have read the Constitution, and doesn’t seem to think much of whatever he’s heard about it. He is remarkably uninterested in learning. His decision to stop attending the daily Presidential intelligence briefings because “I’m, like, a smart person” speaks volumes. One yearns to ask him, and those who voted for him: Is it your impression that being President of the United States is easy? Should a President-elect, even one who is, like, a smart person, approach the new job with a certain amount of awe and humility, even fear; or is it the kind of job where winging it is good enough?

But the larger issue is mental competence. I do not say this to be insulting, or partisan, but as a simple statement of fact: the President-elect has obvious psychological disabilities that render him unqualified to be President of the United States. The rash insults, the constant self-praise, the clear tendency to shoot from the hip, and to double down when attacked — these are the hallmarks of a narcissistic personality with a brittle ego.

There is nothing particularly subtle about Donald Trump’s psychology. He’s not the charming guy who reveals himself to be a sociopath after you marry him. He’s an open book: what you see is what you get. That will also be obvious to foreign leaders, the more unscrupulous of whom will find it ridiculously easy to manipulate him, by goading him, or flattering him, or challenging him, or telling him that somebody else is laughing at him or doesn’t take him seriously. Consider that this childish, thin-skinned man will soon have his finger on the nuclear button, and realize that the United States is in as grave peril as it has ever been in.

Decency

Not the decency of Mr. Trump, which appears never to have existed. But decency on the part of the tens of millions of Americans who voted for him. The howling mobs yelling, “Lock her up” — at the Republican convention! The harassing of protesters, the racist taunts …. A friend sent a photo of a nice, middle-class home in Sebring, Ohio, the kind of place where parents likely work hard to pay the bills and raise their kids. And there on the front lawn is the sign: “Trump that bitch”. Some family values!

I have known my countrymen and women to be remarkably open, kind, and decent. I’m not blind to the thuggish mob behavior, the gross brutalities and indecencies we’ve regularly engaged in. This country was founded by conquering and displacing the previous inhabitants. It took almost a century for us to renounce slavery, and the racial divisions and wounds that atrocity engendered are with us still. But we keep trying to do better. And we mostly shun the angry mobs, the extremist inciters, and the cheesy demagogues. We listen, but we don’t let them run the show. That might happen in some third world countries, but not here. We’re better than that. Father Coughlin can have his radio program; Joe McCarthy can ruin quite a few lives before being exposed as a charlatan and ruining his own; George Wallace can carry six southern states. But we turn away; we always turn away. We would never actually vote someone like that into the Presidency. It’s just not who we are.

Or it’s not who we used to be, anyway.

Truth

This is the biggest one, because a democracy cannot function without it.

None of us has a perfect handle on the truth. We don’t have complete information, we’re not infinitely observant or intelligent, and all of us are prone to denial and wishful thinking. It’s part of being human.

But for a democracy to function at all, we have to agree that there is an external truth that exists independent of our needs, wishes, and fears; and that we trust our fellow citizens — at least most of them, most of the time — to acknowledge the existence of that external truth, and to arrive at peaceful compromise and effective government in the shared pursuit of it. In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not to your own facts. It never actually works that way in practice, of course: it’s an aspirational model. But aspiring to it is a good thing; and the closer we get to it, the better we do, in governing ourselves equitably and in our dealings with other nations.

Donald Trump simply ignores the truth. Those who describe him as a serial liar may be missing something: he may simply consider the truth irrelevant, as opposed to considering it and deliberately telling a lie. Actual liars try harder to cover their tracks. Trump doesn’t bother. He baldly contradicts written and video records, and simply expects us not to care. He has treated the American people as if we were dumber than potatoes. It gives me absolutely no pleasure, no smug, coastal sense of superiority, to point out that that strategy actually worked.

Who can say what goes on in his head? He probably couldn’t tell us, even if he wanted to, introspection not being his long suit. My own sense is that Jonathan Chait got it closest to right when he said that Mr. Trump’s one core belief is that whatever is coming out of his mouth at any given instant is true.

Nonetheless, Mr. Trump should not be our main concern. Every nation has people like him. But we take the measure of ourselves in the voting booth: what are we willing to put up with? Do we care about what’s true, and what’s simply made up on the spot, do we allow ourselves to be distracted from our civic obligations as the citizens of a democracy? Forget, for a moment, holding our public officials accountable. Are we willing to hold ourselves accountable? On the answer to that question rests the health, indeed the survival, of our republic.

And the news is not good.

 

Another Bend

1968, when I was in seventh grade, was when I first became interested in politics. It was a tumultuous year. In January, the Tet offensive shook the US narrative of a steady slog toward victory in Vietnam. By March 31, President Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run for re-election, his Presidency broken by Vietnam and civil unrest. Just 4 days later, Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. was assassinated, and American cities exploded in riots.

I wasn’t in America; I was an American child living in Europe. I was an ardent Humphrey supporter; my friend, David C., was for Robert Kennedy. I still felt, at the time, that the cause the US was fighting for in Vietnam was a good one, and that Kennedy was too defeatist. (I’m not sure where that came from; to the best of my recollection, my parents were far more skeptical of the war than I was.)

On the morning of June 5, I got to school and found David in the hall listening to a transistor radio. “Kennedy’s been shot,” he said. For a seventh grader, just becoming aware of current events, it seemed that politics was one long series of assassinations.

Kennedy’s life hung by a thread during that school day. We had English class in the early afternoon, but our teacher, Miss W. was out, so the Physical Education teacher, Mr. B., substituted for her. Mr. B. was bluff, calm, amiable, but quietly authoritative: the kind of personality that the best coaches and police officers have.

At some point during the class, some of us must have been horsing around a little — I don’t remember what we were doing, exactly, only that it wasn’t a big deal. But Mr. B. snapped, which I had never seen him do: he shouted at us, told us to sit down and be quiet. Then he said, almost to himself, “I’m upset enough about what’s happening in my damned country, I just don’t need this.” His use of the word “damned” was as striking as his outburst — striking enough that I remember it nearly half a century later.

Democracies are fragile, and ours keeps being bent, in one way or another, by events and by our most fervent disagreements. Sometimes it seems it is getting bent beyond repair, but it keeps snapping back. You could say it broke during the Civil War, but somehow, after killing over 2% of our own population, we patched things up, however messily, and carried on. At other times, even after horrendous missteps, we have found our more level-headed selves and returned to the uneasy business of getting along. During the seven years after Mr. B.’s outburst, we endured a Democratic convention of tear gas and riots; saw Richard Nixon elected, then re-elected, then resign in the face of overwhelming scandal; and withdrew from Vietnam. Yet by 1976, traveling around the country, as I did, it was clear that the war at home was over. Disagreements didn’t end, of course, but as a nation, we were at least back on speaking terms with each other.

We’re being bent again now.  A sizable minority among us is enraged at our current state: some because their times are genuinely hard, and some, bafflingly, because they think there must be easier answers for a complex, changing world. Through a fluke of electoral politics, that sizable minority has chosen our next President: a shallow, compulsive liar with a thin skin, an admiration for dictators and an intolerance of dissent, who has gained power by fanning the most divisive sentiments we harbor.

I’d like to believe that this is just a phase we’re going through, that this flirtation with authoritarianism will pass, that we will find our own cooler heads, eventually, and show the world that we still know how to make democracy work.

But the world changes, and so do we, as a people. Just because we’ve survived every bend until now doesn’t mean we won’t break this time. Once again, we find ourselves at the abyss. Let’s hope that, as we have before, we find it in ourselves to take a deep breath, step back, and allow the American experiment to endure.

 

What Will We See When We Look In The Mirror Wednesday?

I’m haunted by this picture, which seems to capture the mood of the Trump campaign and today’s Republican Party. For God’s sake, please don’t let this be the face of our nation’s future. It is, of course, not up to God — we are a democracy, so our destiny is in our own hands.

The founders of our republic knew better than to institute a pure democracy; they did not expect us to govern ourselves directly. But they did ask us to recognize and elect to represent us women and men (well, back then it was just men) of courage, character and wisdom, who would fairly represent our values and interests — and to reject the bullies, the blusterers, the con artists, the gabblers of wild lies who substitute anger and insult for reasoned argument. They bet that they could trust us to do that, at least in the long run — or, as Winston Churchill put it, more sardonically: “The Americans will do the right thing, once they’ve exhausted the alternatives.”

We’ve exhausted the alternatives. Tomorrow we find out if we’re still up to the responsibility the founders charged us with.

 

Our Insurrectionist Age

Among all the comments about last night’s debate, I thought these brief sentences, by J. D. Vance, were notable:

The headline from last night’s debate nearly writes itself: A major party presidential candidate refused to accept the legitimacy of the 2016 election.

This is unprecedented in recent political history, and Donald J. Trump will undoubtedly wallow in the scorn of the mainstream press over the next few days. Yet I found myself wondering, as debate co-watchers gasped over Mr. Trump’s statements, whether any of the Trump supporters I know back home in southern Ohio will actually care.

The answer is probably no. At the core of his appeal is a rejection of mainstream political norms, and this is just another example of Mr. Trump slaughtering a proverbial sacred cow.

The question now is not whether Mr. Trump will lose the election — he will — but whether the segment of our country that gasps when he delegitimizes our democratic institutions can ever be reconciled to those who cheer the same.

Vance’s assertion that a sizable minority in this country cheers the delegitimization of our democratic institutions is probably correct. The word “treason” comes more readily to the lips of the political right, as a kind of invective (Ann Coulter made a pile writing a book accusing liberals of it, apparently just by being liberals). Here, it’s just plain descriptive. You have to wonder how we got here, to where millions want to make America great again by overthrowing it; and, much more important, how we engineer a U-turn. Decades of Republican malpractice are part of the answer: political purposes were served, and individuals enriched, by egging on the ignoramuses. I’ll confess to feeling a little Schadenfreude that these reckless games have finally blown up in the Republican Party’s face.

But only a little. Schadenfreude literally means “pleasure in harm” (implicitly, harm experienced by someone else). In this case, we’re all harmed. “You broke it, are you happy now?” isn’t an adequate response. Coming up with something better, and soon, will be essential.

Still, understanding how we got into this situation may help us figure out how to get back out. George H. W. Bush has said he’ll be voting for Clinton this year. I wonder if he sees the line that runs back from Donald Trump through Willie Horton and attacks on “card-carrying” members of the ACLU (an organization whose express mission is the safeguarding of the Constitution!), and has second thoughts about what must have seemed merely expedient at the time.

Tony Judt’s Clairvoyance

It’s hard to believe that Tony Judt has been gone for almost 6 years. I recently re-read some of the short, more intimate pieces he wrote toward the end of his life, and marveled at this passage, from Edge People, a deeply personal defense of cosmopolitanism and rejection of the political uses of “identity” on both the left and the right:

We are entering, I suspect, upon a time of troubles. It is not just the terrorists, the bankers, and the climate that are going to wreak havoc with our sense of security and stability. Globalization itself—the “flat” earth of so many irenic fantasies—will be a source of fear and uncertainty to billions of people who will turn to their leaders for protection. “Identities” will grow mean and tight, as the indigent and the uprooted beat upon the ever-rising walls of gated communities from Delhi to Dallas.

Being “Danish” or “Italian,” “American” or “European” won’t just be an identity; it will be a rebuff and a reproof to those whom it excludes. The state, far from disappearing, may be about to come into its own: the privileges of citizenship, the protections of card-holding residency rights, will be wielded as political trumps. Intolerant demagogues in established democracies will demand “tests”—of knowledge, of language, of attitude—to determine whether desperate newcomers are deserving of British or Dutch or French “identity.” They are already doing so. In this brave new century we shall miss the tolerant, the marginals: the edge people. My people.

The reference to the “flat” earth is a gibe at Thomas Friedman, whom Judt found glib and facile. Six years on, Judt looks almost implausibly clairvoyant, and the reference to “political trumps” is an unintentional pun before the fact. The time of troubles Judt spoke of is upon us now.