“Liberalism is, I think, resurgent. One reason is that more and more people are so painfully aware of the alternative.”
―John Kenneth Galbraith
Elisabeth Hasselbeck complained last week during a segment on a school that actually dared to teach its students about Islam, that,
A couple of years ago, the same high school fell under critique, by the way, for passing out a crossword puzzle to students that defined conservatism as “the political belief of preserving traditional moral values by restricting personal freedoms.
She was laughing by the time she finished saying this, as though in disbelief that anyone could suggest something so outrageous.
But it’s true.
Liberalism is about liberty. Conservatism is about defending the status quo, and, as Timothy Ferris writes in The Science of Liberty (2010), conservatives are “upholders of tradition.” As for liberalism, “Liberty means the observance of human rights and freedoms.”
No document in history is more dedicated to the idea of rights and freedoms than the United States Constitution. And to the idea that we all have these rights and freedoms.
Now granted, as Ferris points out, there are liberals and there are liberals – classical (“original”) liberals versus “leftists” – American liberalism that as often as not includes progressives, and they are not identical because, as Ferris points out, progressivism values equality over liberty, outcome over freedom of choice.
To define the two, Ferris provides examples of their accomplishments: for liberalism, “women’s suffrage and the thwarting of racial and sexual discrimination”) and for progressivism, “universal health care and state pension plans such as Social Security.” And of course, as with most things, the lines are blurred. Many of us are more or less liberal or progressive or conservative in different areas. The case of socially liberal conservatives is well known (today they are called RINOs).
But the truth is, most of us don’t think about whether or not wanting environmental regulations in the first place, and demanding they actually be enforced in the second, makes us liberal or progressive. We just want clean air and water for us and our children. Definitions are secondary – and often confusing. We just know that if we grant corporations the freedom to do what they want, they will make us serfs and poison our air, water, and food.
Conservatives are more than willing to help out with definitions by imposing their either/or paradigm. They are the ones who stand for freedom. Liberalism is a mental disorder, something better in theory than in practice. And indeed, they have controlled “freedom” discourse in this country for a long time, even while they themselves are freedom’s greatest enemies.
And look at how it has worked out: Religious Tyranny disguised as Religious Freedom laws. The right to persecute and to discriminate, to make some more equal than others, is somehow freedom: simply put, restricting freedom is somehow freedom, and granting more freedom is somehow tyranny.
If, in practice, the lines are often blurred, in theory, and by its very definition, liberalism is the antithesis of tyranny. And Ferris reminds us that, “Liberalism is inherently nonpartisan: it means freedom for all, or it means nothing for all.” We are all diminished when some among us are not free.
Examples are easy to find: freeing the slaves, giving blacks the same right to a political voice the rest of us possessed; granting women the right to vote, or to control their own biological functions; granting equal rights to atheists, or to gays and lesbians, or to people who are not Christian.
We have, since the Constitution was written, been inching incrementally forward, spreading that freedom to groups that once did not have it.
And we are not through: women can now vote, but they cannot earn as much as a man can in the same position. And to show just how far we have to go, look at the argument of South Carolina Republicans that they have the right to discriminate not only against gays, but against women – a classic defense of the status quo, that women and gays are lesser people, if they are people at all.
Elisabeth Hasselbeck laughs at the idea that conservatism is anti-freedom even while Republican Party fights day and night against freedom. You can hardly look at the news without seeing a fresh example of Republican repression, from voter suppression laws to the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana to David Barton’s call to outlaw “homosexuality.”
The American left tends to see freedom as something that must extend to everybody if it is to have any meaning, and to that extent, many who call themselves progressives are classically liberal. We want everybody to be able to vote. Conservatives want to restrict the vote, as a whole slew of voter suppression acts demonstrate, or take Ann Coulter’s recent call to revisit the idea of literacy tests as a pre-requisite to voting.
By the same token, we want atheists to be treated like people, or blacks, or Heathens like me, or women, or disabled people, or Latinos, or Muslims, or gays or lesbians or transgenders. The United States Constitution says (if you exclude the late and unlamented three-fifths compromise that enshrined slavery) we are all equal before the law.
To that extent, liberalism and progressivism are joined as one: equality is mandated by the law of the land: you do not have the freedom to be “inherently” better than your fellow citizens because we are all endowed with the same inalienable rights. The problem is in seeing this laudable goal through to its conclusion and against the entrenched view that the Bibles makes some people better than others.
We can differ as to how best get there, we liberals and progressives, but one thing is certain: conservatism, with its devotion to the status quo, stands in the way. Conservatives are not now, and have never been, defenders of liberty or champions of freedom.
The United States Constitution is by definition a liberal document. A “Constitutional Conservative” is an oxymoron and a logical impossibility. The American Revolution was a liberal revolution. It shook the status quo to its foundations to a degree that terrified even the Founding Fathers, thus one of the underpinnings of the Constitution itself, to corral these “excesses of democracy.”
Liberals and progressives are sometimes at odds, and should be. It is part of the discourse of finding solutions to debate. But in America, right now, the discourse of freedom is the property of a more or less unified left, and we must put an end to its hijacking by the right.
We cannot grant the freedoms we want to extend to our fellow citizens without also taking the word back, and restoring its true meaning as a counterpoise – and a solution to – an entrenched status quo.
The revolution is not over my friends.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.