Following the disputed presidential election in 2000, and continuing into George W. Bush’s presidency, die-hard ‘liberals’ — and I use the term with reluctance, because I consider such labels inadequate to the task of identifying a consistent political ideology these days — put forth a concerted effort in the media to dispute his legitimacy, deride his authority, and torpedo his agenda. I am no fan of either George W. Bush or Al Gore, and find much to criticize in our new president, but I find this liberal intransigence both disrespectful of our institutions and divisive in a time of social and political fragmentation. I wrote this to chide them for that, but when it was done I realized its form seemed inappropriate for publication in a periodical format. So here it is.
3 April 2001
Since the results of the last presidential election were finally settled, and especially since George W. Bush’s inauguration, there has been a steady stream of newspaper columns and letters-to-the-editor from proud and defiant self-described ‘liberals’ decrying both his personal character and his policies, defying his authority to lead, and declaring a low-intensity civil war against what they perceive as an aggressive and pernicious ‘conservative’ agenda spewing like a toxic plume from the White House. Columnists such as Stephanie Salter, of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Molly Ivins, in her nationally-syndicated columns, allege villainy, predict catastrophe, and imply or declare openly that George Bush will never be their president. Letter writers echo that sentiment, asserting they have been disenfranchised by the election and demanding restoration of their own priorities. Editorial cartoonist Mike Luckovich, of the Atlanta Constitution, depicts the Republican party as a savage Viking band on a rampage of “pollutin'”. A liberal acquaintance has described Bush to me as “evil”.
From all the hyperbole, you might conclude that George Bush and his supporters have a secret plan to:
- Establish a corporate government answering to Exxon, RJR-Nabisco, Archer-Daniels-Midland, Chase-Manhattan, and Lockheed-Martin
- Revoke the civil rights of all but white people
- Undertake a massive redistribution of the nation’s wealth from the lower and middle classes to the ‘super rich’
- Clear-cut and mine every bit of open space from sea to shining sea, then pave it over to build enormous industrial plants for the sole purpose of spewing toxic chemicals into the air and water
- Establish a military government answering to the Pentagon and its corporate death merchants
- Outlaw all forms of political dissent
- Re-colonize the entire world under the American flag, and reestablish mercantilism
- Implement a ‘shoot on sight’ policy for all suspected ‘blue collar’ criminals, while abolishing the concept of ‘white collar’ crime
- Distribute free handguns to all elementary school students
- Establish a theocratic government answering to the one true (fundamentalist Christian) church
- Force women out of the workplace and back into the home where they belong
- Outlaw abortion once and for all, along with contraception and sex education
- Round up all homosexuals and atheists to ‘cure’ them or gas them
- Establish a national censor to clean up books, movies, television, music, and art
- Outlaw any activity which might lead to having fun
But is this perception even close to the truth? On the subject of abortion, alas, it probably is; and, certainly, reasonable people can find other individual policies on which the conservative and liberal positions are so far apart as to seem catastrophic to the losers.
But abortion is a divisive issue even within the broad conservative community and, abortion aside, in its extremity, the version of ‘a conservative agenda’ proffered by such ‘liberals’ is a fantasy born of fear and zealotry, a parody of the worst excesses of the least principled self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’. At best it is pessimism run amok; at worst it is demagoguery. And the claim that they have been somehow disenfranchised, and their accompanying refusal to acknowledge not only the legitimacy but even the reality of the Bush Presidency, would be pathetic if it weren’t so potentially damaging.
The election was indisputably controversial and there are plausible grounds for claiming that Al Gore might have been the moral winner.
But the election was also excruciatingly close — closer than identifiable margins of error — and sure knowledge of such a moral certainty is simply unobtainable. Never mind the fact that George Bush received more votes than the Democratic darling and two-term President Bill Clinton ever did. Even under the most optimistic (translation: far-fetched) assumptions supporting a Gore Presidency, the margin of victory cited is about 1% of the ballots cast and a much smaller percentage of the total electorate: under the most favorable (translation: improbably optimistic) scenarios, more than half the voters, and about three-quarters of the electorate, didn’t vote for him.
To claim that ‘the voters’ — meaning, of course, only the ones who voted for Gore — have been ‘disenfranchised’ by Bush’s Presidency is no more rational or justifiable than claiming that ‘the voters’ would have been ‘disenfranchised’ by Gore’s Presidency or were ‘disenfranchised’ by Clinton’s. That’s the way elections work — a large number of people don’t get their way. It is not disenfranchisement, and it is not a justification for undermining the authority of the Presidency itself by refusing to accept it.
Alas, we have seen this before. At the start of Bill Clinton’s administration, conservatives — particularly those identified with the religious right — promulgated the same kinds of exaggerations about his ‘liberal agenda’ and attached the same kind of moral outrage and true belief to their arguments. While it is indisputable that Bill Clinton bought himself much of the trouble he endured during his presidency, it is also true that ‘conservative’ zealotry operated the factory in which it was manufactured and that proud and defiant self-described ‘conservatives’ packaged and marketed it with reckless abandon. Liberals who deplored the spectacle and waste of a Presidency under siege, take note: the besiegers were the faithful sustained by moral, not political, conviction.
Remember that Bill Clinton — like both George W. Bush and Al Gore — campaigned for the Presidency as a ‘centrist’. He publicly eschewed the old liberal socialism, promising to recreate a “new Democratic party” which would integrate traditionally ‘conservative’ themes like personal responsibility and fiscal restraint with the core liberal ideals of compassion and justice. George W. Bush claimed to be a “compassionate conservative”; one can imagine Clinton claiming to stand for “conservative compassion”. Why, then, do all three evoke such animosity? Because, notwithstanding the sincerity and credulity of their disciples, all three lack both the consistency and the moral authority to make their claims credible. We assume their centrist pronouncements are mere camouflage for more radical intentions and we are terrified the camouflage will be confounding enough to let those intentions win out.
It was perception of Bill Clinton’s ethical vacuum, the sense that everything he told us about being “centrist” and “moderate” reflected neither a belief nor a promise but political calculation — to be abandoned in favor of his leftist agenda as soon as he firmly held the reins of power — that made conservatives so nervous. And his initial actions, from “gays in the military” to an attempt at radical government overhaul of the health care system, reinforced that perception.
Ironically, for conservatives, in hindsight it is clear that Clinton’s tendency to tailor his story to pragmatic political expediency, far from being a danger, was his saving grace. For we now know that his agenda tended to follow his story rather than the other way around; and if, by intent, he was reluctant to keep his centrist promises he also refused, in the face of negative polling, to stick to his liberal principles. In the end, his major threat to conservatism was not the policies he actually implemented but the inspirational rhetoric with which he accompanied his capitulations.
Despite a campaign in which he seemed intent on demonstrating otherwise, the most worrying aspect of a future Al Gore presidency for conservatives was exactly the prospect that he, unlike his predecessor, might not be a political coward. For liberals that is also the most worrying aspect of the current Bush presidency.
If the potential for a ‘conservative’ agenda now seems so ominous to idealistic ‘liberals’, how must the practice of the ‘liberal’ agenda under Clinton — and the last eight years of Democratic superciliousness in promoting that agenda — have appeared to idealistic ‘conservatives’? A lot like this:
- The right to private property, and any profits it may generate, is to be abridged at the slightest excuse — except, of course, for your right to continue living in your apartment for as long as it amuses you, at whatever rent-controlled price you agreed to during the recession ten years ago when you moved in, and regardless of the owner’s desires or plans.
- Failure of the government to pay wholesale for creation of anti-social or misanthropic works of art amounts to censorship — but absolute prohibition of certain words and ideas involving women or “protected minorities” or ‘conservative’ values on public college campuses or in political debate does not.
- Freedom of conscience is to be afforded the greatest respect, especially when it involves refusing to go along with what is popular or traditional, like standards of public decency or respect for authority and institutions — unless, of course, it involves not wanting to rent the spare room in your conservative Christian household to a gay activist couple.
- Privacy is a bedrock principle of liberty, to be protected from government intrusion at all costs — unless what you choose to do with your privacy is smoke a cigarette, or school your children at home, or keep a gun in your house for protection against those who would violently invade your privacy.
- “Needs” — as in, “No one needs a gun or an SUV; rich people don’t need the extra money they earn” — are to be the primary criteria for deciding what is to be prohibited by the government. “Wants” — as in, “he wants to work as an artist; she wants to stay home with her children; they want to choose their own doctors” — are to be conflated with “rights” and used to define what the government should mandate or subsidize.
- Slavery — the coercive extraction from an individual of his/her labor and time for another’s benefit — is an abomination. But coercively extracting from an individual his/her money — the fruits of his/her labor and time — to provide for others’ ‘rights’ to housing or health care or child care or electricity or food is not only justified but noble and morally uplifting.
- Any antisocial act, no matter how heinous, can be excused by an unfortunate personal history, or ennobled by a communal grievance, or forgiven in the name of compassion — except acts of ‘greed’, meaning a desire to keep what one already has or what one may earn in the future through physical labor or diligence or daring or intellect or talent or beauty.
- Peace can be achieved by dialogue and moral suasion and common vision, without reliance on deterrence or coercion, and without maintaining our military might (itself a dangerous inducement to war), because the nature of both men and their governments is inherently generous and cooperative — except when it comes to caring for the poor and downtrodden, in which case private giving is wholly inadequate so money must be extracted by force from the miserly citizenry and distributed by the government.
- Government is the only possible mechanism for implementing the ‘common will’, or for groups of like-minded people to band together for some common purpose. All other forms of cooperative endeavor are ineffectual, ridiculous, or, worse, self-serving and corrupt — except for labor unions, environmental lobbies, class action lawsuits, protest marches, citizens’ advocacy groups, and the Democratic party, which are indisputably effective, vital, altruistic, and honest.
- Autonomy, the sanctity of the individual as a free and independent agent with his/her own self-contained moral purpose and moral responsibility, is to be denigrated as outmoded and selfish, subjugated at every opportunity to a duty to a higher ‘social responsibility’, to a moral obligation to ‘serve the needs of society’, and to a ‘collective guilt’ over the actions of society past and present — except when the individual whose sanctity and independence is in question is a denizen of death row or a pregnant woman who wants to abort her fetus.
This may seem a caricature. It may seem extreme or downright paranoid — and it is.
But, is it any more extreme or paranoid than the view self-described liberals have given of our new president — George the Hun and his agenda of barbarian conquest? Is it any more extreme or paranoid than their vow never to accept his legitimacy, the rest of the electorate be damned?
What I infer from their diatribes is desperation borne of fear and helplessness. They foresee everything they hold dear under threat — their “progressive” agenda publicly mocked, their hard-won policy gains incrementally reversed, their institutions under attack, their lifestyles marginalized, their sense of justice and morality replaced by something they perceive as harsher and crueler. Their world is to be turned upside down, their home to become alien. They feel change in the wind, their traditions displaced, their futures in the hands of enigmatic strangers whose very humanity they doubt. The storm has not yet broken, but it is coming, friends, and it will lash us with no mercy before it finally recedes and leaves us to rebuild on the ruins of our former glories…
I think their angst is overdone, that the tempest they fear will turn out to be no more than a passing thunderstorm. I am also sure they will never be convinced of that, even after it is over. Private angst may be destructive, but public angst is too useful to be relinquished: it creates community, and community provides certitude and hope.
Nonetheless, amidst their collective despair I would ask them to reflect on a truth: the fear they feel now, the sense of everything important to their lives slipping away, the sense of impending suffocation by moral repugnance, is what their conservative opponents have felt for the last eight years — and would still be feeling had the election turned the other way. I would ask them to ponder what that means and, perhaps, to begin to view their political opponents as they view themselves: as people honestly afraid of losing all that is dear to them in the arrogance of our winner-take-all political system. I would ask them to take from that an insight into how fear has shaped our politics and shapes it still.
If, in so doing, they can learn to reach across political differences, rather than exacerbate them, perhaps the next election will bring back a true “government of the people” — of all the people, rather than only of those who think and live like “us”.
© Copyright 2001, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell