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Rick Perlstein | The Nation

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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Where the past isn’t even past.

Why I Am A Liberal


(AP Photo/ Nam Y. Huh)

This past October, I participated in a debate at North Carolina State University sponsored by the Libertarian group Young Americans for Liberty. The YAL debates join a libertarian, conservative and a liberal. I held down the liberal pole. Why two positions to right of center and only one to the left? Good question, given that I find the potential breach within the the Democratic coalition—between, you might say, Keynesians and austerians, Krugmanites and Obamaites—more profound and potentially more portentous than that between conservatives and libertarians within the Republican coalition, but that’s an issue for another post. For this one, though, my inaugural post, the first of my thrice-weekly missives I’ll be blasting your way here at TheNation.com, you get a manifesto: my opening statement at that debate.

Richard Kim, the editor of this site, asked me for a few lines about what I’m going to be writing about here. I wrote back, “I’ll be interpreting contemporary political developments in light of their historical context. I’m especially interested in educating folks on the left about the organic continuities in right-wing thought and action—since the 1960s, since the 1920s, even going back to the eighteenth century. Too often we act as if the forces we’re fighting came about only the day before yesterday.” But first, before I get into all that, here are some “priors,” as the philosophers put it, some thoughts about where I’m coming from and why, the very best brief statement I could muster, for an audience of mostly conservative Southern college students about why I am a card-carrying liberal, and why they should be to.

A “liberal.” Yes, I’ll own the designation, not, as many on the left do, preferring the identity “radical,” disparaging “liberal” as a synonym for all that is anodyne, weak-kneed, not really leftist at all (see the classic statement by Phil Ochs here). I own it in part for the reason that liberalism, done right in this all-too-reactionary nation, is always already radical; for the reason that what most of the people putting their lives on the line to make left-wing political change around rest of the world—in Iran, say, in India, in Greece—are fighting for is liberalism; because a politics not merely of tolerance but of recognition—radical recognition—of those “different” from contingent cultural norms also is liberal, properly understood; and because frankly most of what I think is worth doing to create an economically just society is pretty damned liberal, too. If it was good enough for Franklin Delano Roosevelt to call himself a “liberal,” saying stuff like this (start reading at the part about “our resplendent economic autocracy” and “the individualism of which they prate”), it’s good enough for me.

But enough. That’s a digression. Here’s the post. I hope you find it helpful. Hold onto it for Thanskgiving next year when your wingnut uncle asks you how a nice person like you can be a stinking rat-bastard liberal. Maybe you can make him one, too.

* * *

In the 1930s, a congressman named Maury Maverick defined liberalism in three words: “Freedom plus groceries.” That’s how I define it, too. Liberalism is a both/and philosophy. There is no freedom without groceries. There are no groceries without freedom. What people call “capitalism” and “socialism” are actually one and inseparable. It’s a virtuous circle.

Consider healthcare. We all of us—libertarians, conservatives and liberals—want a growing economy. And we all agree that a growing economy requires entrepreneurial dynamism.

So ask yourself this: In a country in which health insurance isn’t guaranteed, how many millions of Americans with great ideas find it impossible to become entrepreneurs because they’re terrified to leave their job, because then they would lose their health insurance and ruin their lives if they get sick?

Now, in response to something like that, you’ll hear my fellow debaters repeat a curious fallacy, a crushing intellectual failure. They’ll act like only governments have the power to deprive citizens of freedom.

Consider, however, a corporation like Walnart, which had $447 billion in revenue this year, bigger than the gross domestic product of all but seventeen of the world’s nations. But according to libertarianism and conservatism, Walmart can only produce liberty. It can never curtail it. Even if they fire you for no reason at all—and by law there’s nothing you can do about it.

Conservatives and libertarians somehow believe that you are freer if an entity bigger than the economies of Austria, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates is simply left alone to act against you in whatever way it wishes. Only liberals know how to make you freer on the job, which is where most of us suffer the gravest indignities in our lives.

Liberals, in fact, make you freer everywhere. Look at liberty’s greatest historic advances: ending slavery. Giving women the vote. Outlawing legal segregation.

Each and every time, the people at the forefront of advancing those reforms—often putting their lives on the line—called themselves liberals.

Each and every time, people who called themselves conservatives announced that those reforms would unravel civilization.

Then—each and every time—once the reform was achieved and taken for granted, and civilization didn’t collapse, conservatives claimed to have always been for it, even holding themselves up as the best people to preserve it.

It happens with economic reforms too.

Let me quote what some conservatives said, once upon a time, about a certain bill pending before Congress:

“Never in the history of the world has any measure been so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers, and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people.”

“…Invites the entrance into the political field of a power so vast, so powerful as…to pull the pillars of the temple down upon the head of our descendants.”

“…Sooner or later will bring the abandonment of private capitalism.”

The bill they’re talking about was not Obamacare but Social Security. Which conservatives now say they’re the best people to preserve. That’s how they roll.

It’s happening now with same-sex marriage. Watch Fox News. Two years ago they brayed it would quote-unquote “destroy the family.” Now, they hardly mention it. Just you wait: ten, twenty years from now, conservatives will say they were for it all along. And that it is conservative. Just like they now say about Martin Luther King Jr., whom in the ’60s they called a Communist. (Did you know that when he was assassinated conservative leaders said he had it coming, that it was his own fault? Strom Thurmond said, “We are now witnessing the whirlwind sowed years ago when some preachers and teachers began telling people that each man could be his own judge in his own case.” Ronald Reagan said it was just the sort of “great tragedy that began when we began compromising with law and order, and people started choosing which laws they’d break.”)

What a childish way to be in the world. It’s cowardly. But that’s conservatism. Meanwhile, liberals will push for the next frontier for justice, and the right will figure out some way to call it the end of the world.

So in conclusion, I ask you, as young people parsing out your own political identity: Which side would you prefer to join? The side of the cowardly? Or the side of the courageous?

Has the Democratic Party given up fighting for progressive values today? Read a manifesto on the “political bankruptcy” of the Democratic Party and other commentators’ criticism of and support for its conclusions.

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