Read the Label. Ingredients Matter and So Do Ideas
For a short time during the 2016 presidential cycle, Gary Johnson and his running mate Bill Weld seemed a viable option for voters who did not want to cast their ballot for Clinton or Trump. Both had executive experience; in the 90s, Weld had been a fairly popular Republican governor in deep blue Massachusetts. Johnson served as Republican Governor of New Mexico from 1995 – 2003 before switching his party affiliation to libertarian in 2011 just in time to run for president. The day after Johnson and Weld appeared together on 60 Minutes, a good friend of mine who I had known for decades went all in for the libertarian ticket. My friend, we’ll call him Bob, had not been especially political but was impressed by the duo’s laid back personalities, their rational approach to the legalization of marijuana (seeing it as a way to raise revenue and to reduce mass incarceration), immigration, and national security.
I was surprised and I said as much to Bob. Bob and his family were by no means dependent on government assistance, but they were not completely self-sufficient either. They had, at times, relied on public programs funded by federal and state tax dollars. Bob’s mother-in-law worked for a state agency and was looking forward to retiring on a publicly funded pension with lifetime benefits. Like most of us, when the market crashed in 2008, Bob and his wife Susan lost a lot of their 401k savings, and while they kept their jobs during the resulting recession, their retirement is just now back to what it was at the time of the meltdown. So I asked him, “You know what libertarians believe, right?” He responded by admitting that he did not agree with everything, but that he did not vote “for the party,” instead he “voted for the person.”
No! No! No! It was all I could do not to scream. I didn’t. The Johnson-Weld ticket resolved itself through a couple of “Aleppo Moments” that September. I am sure that Bob and Susan voted for it regardless, but they were in a state that did not play a major role in the election. Further, I have found that people prefer to learn on their own, rather than be lectured to and thus, I am hopeful that in future conversations, my friends will get a better understanding of libertarianism. But for this post, this situation serves a larger purpose; that is, the need to understand various political terms and specific “labels” that we apply to groups and ideology.
Why now? Well first, there are a lot of labels and ideologies in the news and on social media. At times, terms are used incorrectly, and that really bugs me. So I have spent time the last year or so, trying to get my head around some of the more ambiguous terms and those with dual or changing definitions. Secondly, in these politically charged times, some labels are used in particularly derogatory and damaging ways. In the 1950s, being publicly labeled a communist by Senator Joe McCarthy was the kiss of death. It was not until McCarthy went after members of the United States Army, that his Senate peers finally censored him. Today, being a “liberal” is also the kiss of death in some sections of the country, at least it is if you are Ted Cruz. Therefore, it’s important to know why you hate liberals, or why your Facebook followers call us “libtards.”
But the reason I am taking the time to define these terms is that we need to plan for what comes after Trump. What concerns me and other progressives is not that there is not a significant reaction against the administration; there is. But in poll after poll, while Trump hemorrhages support from traditionally Republican voters, he and the Republican party are not losing support for their policy agenda. The Trump agenda is that of the far right wing of the Republican party, which still has the support among the GOP base. Wrap it up in a shiny box with a different colored bow on top (aka, a different candidate who does not tweet obscenities) and we are no better off than we are with Trump. As James Carville so famously said (almost), “It’s the policy stupid.” So before we dig into progressivism, let’s make sure we understand everything else.
Let’s start with liberalism. It should be easy. Doesn’t everybody hate liberals? We are all east coast educated elitists who look down on “real Americans,” the voters living in flyover states in the south and west. To hear politicians like Ted Cruz describe us, liberals are all radical abortionists who will not be satisfied until we force everyone to give up their guns and outlaw heterosexual marriage. In short, liberalism has been demonized and tied to the destruction of America and western civilization. Here’s the problem: Ted Cruz is wrong (shock) and people can read.
Liberalism grew out of the Enlightenment. Readers with just a rudimentary knowledge of American history will remember that our founding documents and ideas of liberty were also rooted in the Enlightenment. Classic liberalism, that which defined our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, is grounded in a familiar set of beliefs including individual and personal liberty, human dignity and equality, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, the right to worship freely, the right to one’s own labor (aka – the free market), the rule of law, and other liberties and freedoms to which we have all grown accustomed.
Liberals then became the resistance to the established order, which at that time was the monarchical systems across western Europe. We were the ‘agents of change.’ The old systems promoted closed mercantile trading empires, the opposite of what came to be known as the capitalist, laissez-faire economic markets. Defenders of the old order were what became the Tory’s in Britain but would be defined as conservatives by Sir Edmund Burke shortly after the American War of Independence. But classic liberalism as it was originally formed was the antithesis to the old aristocratic order. America is rooted in classic liberal values.
Viewed as a concept then, one should understand how liberalism can morph into different meanings, depending on the conservative element and established norms. Liberalism is society’s ideological basis for change and will stand in opposition to the conservative desire for the status quo (or in today’s environment, the reversal of liberal policies). I will make the argument later (it’s probably not my argument – I am sure I have picked it up from someone much smarter), that modern liberalism is just the academic and philosophical framework that supports progressivism.
Politically, I should note that Liberal Party’s in Europe fall on the right side of the ideological spectrum. They govern to the right of center while Labor governs to the left. In the United States, we have grown to understand liberals as those to the left of center but again, to understand the conflict between left and right, we must understand the philosophy underlying both in their respective environments. But before I move on to the next section, let me state unequivocally: liberalism is grounded in democratic norms. Liberal should always be used to describe democratic governments founded on principles of equality, rule of law, constitutional protections, the secret ballot, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Left or right, a healthy democracy is a liberal democracy. And it should go without saying that liberal democracy has been America’s great national export.
Here’s a weird coincidence. I read and actually remember the 1997 article that Fareed Zakaria references in his December 2016, Washington Post opinion column. I had forgotten his central thesis until this was published over a year ago, and subsequent to it, other esteemed political analysts have written books and columns about similar concerns. Zakaria and others like him are noting that democracies are becoming increasingly “illiberal.” And that is bad. I suggest you read the column and also the 1997 Foreign Policy article. As I have noted before, our public education system teaches the basics of America’s founding and certainly, we learn the importance that the Bill of Rights had on the Constitution’s ratification. What we do not learn is the critical role the Bill of Rights, the media, political parties, civic associations, unions, and other independent but powerful organizations play in mitigating the risks of both majority and minority rule in a democratic state. A republican government (small ‘r’), one with a constitution grounded in rule of law, combined with specific rights and liberties spelled out in black and white, was America’s secret sauce to prevent the tyrannical rule of the majority.
Zakaria makes the point that while we see democratic governments and institutions around the globe, we do not necessarily see them coupled with liberal principles. Without the individual freedoms granted to everyone, regardless of race, color, creed, or citizenship, our democracy is one in name only. And yes, America does have cause to worry. Set aside partisanship and we see a population in which only 60% of eligible voters show up to cast their ballots, and that is considered a good turnout. The statistics are even lower for off-year and mid-term elections. Local elections see some of the lowest turnouts when arguably those votes have the most direct impact on individuals and families.
Moreover, we are one of the few democracies in the world that actually makes it difficult for citizens to vote, and one of our two major parties actively attempts to disenfranchise the opposition’s voters. Third party candidates find it nearly impossible to get on the ballot, and running for elected office can cost millions of dollars. In poll after poll, trust in our democratic institutions (with the exception of the military, the most illiberal institution we have) is at historic lows. In other countries, these environmental factors would signal civil unrest and even revolution.
I find it ironic that I have spent more time writing about conservatism than progressive and modern liberal ideas. I think it is because these last two years have been so surreal that I needed to make sense of what we have all witnessed. And so as I read books that detailed the rise of modern conservatism and then fit those pieces into post-war “American Exceptionalism” ideology, the reactionary nature of today’s Republican Party made more sense. Trump and what political scientists are at the moment calling “Trumpism” is logical. But Trumpism, a fusion of nativism, nationalism, anti-intellectualism, and pro-grievant, is not traditional conservativism. And while Trumpism has reared its head in various forms and done incredible damage throughout the American story, its supporters have been relegated to the garbage heaps of history. Trumpists are never the heroes. They are the losers.
Conservatism – real conservatism – is something else entirely. As you recall from my comments on liberalism, it rose from the Enlightenment in opposition to the existing monarchial order, which in time came to be known as conservative. But it was Edmund Burke, who after the American Revolution, gave conservatism an ideology and philosophy from which future generations would expound. I posted a few comments on a book I read about Burke and Tom Paine last year which readers might find interesting. But unlike liberalism, I have found American conservatism to be much more consistent, at least in its economic philosophy. While modern liberalism moved to the left toward government regulation and intervention in the economy (this will be discussed in much more detail as we build out progressive ideas), conservatives have held fast to laissez-faire economic principles. This is admirable, given the historical evidence that time and again roll back of regulations and lack of intervention has led to economic downturns, recessions, panics and in some cases, depressions.
In defining conservatism though I would like to be less “partisan” – if at all possible. Certainly, there are unique elements of American conservatism that liberals detest. For example, both of our political parties have a nasty history with racial politics (the bad kind) and activist government. We need to separate the party from the ideology because both Republicans and Democrats have supported similar policy ideas, just at different points in time.
I started down a path of comparing conservatism to liberalism (or for purposes of this blog, we will be comparing it to progressivism), but quickly found myself in a rabbit hole. So let’s keep it simple. Conservatives look to the past for answers to social, political, and economic problems rather than seek new ideas and suggestions from academics, political scientists, or other social reformers. They are not fans of change; certainly a conservative would strongly agree with the statement, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Moreover, if it ‘was broke,’ a conservative would review how “it was fixed in the past,” and would then, “follow that process.” Conservatives are not risk takers and they are not gamblers.
Now we can extrapolate from this description all day long to apply to the modern day Republican Party. But let’s not. We should, however, note that conservatism as an idea acts as a critical counterweight to the ambition and sometimes recklessness of progressives. I would remind you of the French Revolution and more specifically of the Jacobins. I really do not want to look up all of the details but I remember the important points. The Jacobins emerged as the most successful radical leftist element in revolutionary France. They were led by Robespierre, and under his authority, beheaded A LOT of people, including members of the aristocracy. Now I am not suggesting that a Democratic majority in Congress will lead to the beheading of the President. Rather, I am using the unchecked radicalization of the left as an example of how movements can get out of control.
Conservatives serve as a countervailing force to progressives and vice versa. When the two competing philosophies work together in moderation, they might actually govern effectively. Retrenchment and attempts to return to a previous golden era that never actually existed and affixing itself to a libertarian view of market capitalism are what American conservatism has become. I hope Burke would have strongly disapproved of a conservative philosophy that has disavowed science, logic, smart regulation, and progressive taxation that helped equalize income and defend social justice. I’ll let you know for sure when I read his biography.
What does Mormonism, country music, the Ford Pinto, and Populism all have in common? They were all, one-hundred percent in totality, created in America and exported to the rest of the world. You’re welcome!! Populism as a movement made its first official appearance in American politics in the 19th century but it has reoccurred in the twentieth and in 2016, emerged again in both the Sanders and Trump campaigns. Populism is not a party, but an idea; an idea that lives on the left, right or center of the political spectrum.
Populism speaks to the power of the people against the elites; the protagonists are the people, whether it be working classes, students, farmers, and blue-collar factory workers. The “establishment” elites play the antagonists which in 2016 were Wall Street bankers, career politicians, financiers, billionaires and millionaires, and anyone else seen as sacrificing democracy for profit. In Teddy Roosevelt’s day, throw in the robber barons of the Gilded Age, a cadre of millionaire monopolists that exploited factory workers, farmers, and immigrants for cheap labor while bribing government officials for free land and non-existent oversight. Populists cater to the people against the elites, and in 2016 these elites were the official party establishment.
The ‘people’ and ‘elites’ will change depending on circumstances. Left and right wing populists are different in the policies they choose to support. Right-wing populists are unique in that (and this will sound familiar) they point to a specific group to blame for the “people’s” problems. In 1930s Germany it was the Jews. In some parts of Europe today, populist politicians point to Islam as the enemy of the people. And in the United States, Trump has blamed immigrants, more specifically ‘brown’ immigrants, for America’s economic and cultural blight.
Now that I’ve attempted to define the competitors, we will turn to progressivism. It will not happen in this post but rather many. I also hope to explain how “liberalism” became such a filthy word in certain conservative circles. I have not yet figured it out myself, but I am on the case. It could be as simple as this: Republicans could not come up with a better term and “progressives” did not have that same derogatory flair.
As depressing as 2017 was there were also signs of hope. The Trump Administration is steadfastly deconstructing the federal bureaucracy under the guise of deregulation. This will eventually be felt by those the President claimed to champion. His advisors are appointing conservative justices to the courts, which is not necessarily a negative. The negatives are the incompetent ones. This too will have an impact. And then there is the tax “reform” bill and attempts to repeal Obamacare that will result in greater income disparity and higher health insurance costs. Trump and his cabinet may believe they have the mandate to deconstruct the administrative state (which for those who have heard this term but wonder what Steve Bannon means, it is the government bureaucracy), and they may do a lot of damage. But citizens have come to expect certain services from their government. When those disappear, progressives will have to build it back and sometimes, starting from a clean slate is easier than reforming an existing institution.
Who will do the rebuilding? Look to the resistance. When the 2017 Women’s March drew millions of protesters in hundreds of cities around the world, political analysts wondered aloud whether the “movement” against the Trump Presidency would last beyond a few weeks. After it reached that milestone, those same analysts asked whether the movement could impact electoral politics and the Democratic party. The first few special elections were a disappointment, but then came Virginia and Alabama. More significantly were the local and state elections that saw reliably red districts turned to blue. In one state house district in deep red Oklahoma, an openly gay Democratic woman beat the heavily favored Republican challenger.
It is possible that this is just typical off-year minority party victories in response to a deeply unpopular president. But I suspect something more significant is at play. The increase in civic action and awareness is unlike anything I have seen in my lifetime. But unlike previous liberal uprisings, the resistors are channeling their anger into productive causes and organizations with progressive objectives. It’s almost as if we needed Trump and everything he embodies to wake up the progressive beast.
So I think we might be on the cusp of a new and great progressive wave, spurred to action in response to the slow decades-long conservative march to roll back not just the Obama Presidency, but as much progressivism as possible, some of which dates back to 1900. And while yes, we need to keep our eye on Trump and his enablers, we need to spend as much or more time on what we want to replace him. I worry that we are focusing too much on Trump the child and not on Trumpian policies and their supporters. His policies are Republican policies and those will not go away with a Trump impeachment or re-election rebuke. We need to find and champion the alternative, and that is progressivism. Stay tuned.