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.