Dana Busgang, Goucher College:
A few days after Barack Obama’s re-election in 2012, BuzzfeedNews posted an article titled, “Welcome to Liberal America.” The article not only celebrated Obama’s re-election, but the triumph of a democratic senate, as well as a social shift to the left.
“But the 2012 election marked a cultural shift as much as a political one. Ballot measures that had failed for years — allowing the marriage of two men or two women in Maine and Maryland; legalizing marijuana in Washington state and Colorado — were voted into law. The nation’s leading champion of bank regulation, Elizabeth Warren, handily defeated moderate Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts, and the nation’s first lesbian senator, Tammy Baldwin, was elected in Wisconsin. Even climate change, which was absent for nearly the entire campaign, came roaring back with Hurricane Sandy and was the subject of endorsements for Obama and harsh attacks on Romney.”
I recall reading this article with excitement; the prospect of a socially liberal general populace, coupled with a revitalized Obama (the poster boy for progressive change) gave me hope for four years of growth. Unfortunately, the past three years have been plagued by gridlock, shutdowns, and aggressive partisan rhetoric. Although many on both sides claim that the system itself is broken, it is important to recognize that our systems’ founding intention was to be a representation of our republic. Therefore, perhaps, it is not the system that is broken, but the populace of the republic.
As a center-left student at an overwhelmingly liberal institution, I have witnessed Facebook rants about conservative stupidity, and overheard conversations where students claim they just don’t understand how someone could possibly endorse the Republican Party. As a Political Science major who can recognize that our dichotomous party system does not accurately depict the plethora of American ideology, and as an IR student who has studied the theories that inform our global structure, I have a message to offer my fellow millennial liberals; liberalism isn’t quite what you think it is, and you are only contributing to the gridlock you abhor so much.
In different academic fields, the definition of “liberalism” changes. The free market, and a focus on individuals as the decision makers characterize Adam Smith’s economic liberalism. Some theories, such as International Relations theory, place a huge amount of confidence in international institutions such as the United Nations, whereas other theories place confidence in the democratic state itself, claiming democracies rarely enter into conflict with one another.
Political and social liberalism holds values such as equality and liberty in the highest regard. American liberalism, however, is slightly different than all of these. Liberals in this country, most of them aligned strictly with the Democratic Party, are characterized by their social priorities (most recently, gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose, recreational marijuana) and their belief in a larger government that provides more public services, i.e. Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. In this fashion, American liberalism closely resembles a version of socialism, rather than true liberalism. Some point to Denmark as the example of a well-functioning socialist state, however, they often ignore the xenophobia and racism in Danish society that stems from socialism’s focus on homogeneity.
The key word for students at Goucher these days is horizontality. They want a transparent administration, a stronger student voice, and for everyone’s feelings to be not only heard but also validated. Now, aside from my own personal diatribe regarding a club I am involved with that sometimes pushes horizontality to the point of stagnation, creating a campus environment where people feel safe is not a negative thing. However, this effort to create a “safe” place where students have more power raises a few interesting paradoxes. First, this is not a safe space for everyone. Conservative students have expressed that they do not feel comfortable sharing their political and social beliefs for fear of backlash. This does not showcase liberal values such as inclusion and equality.
The second paradox goes back to the founding of our nation. In the early days of this country, there were two ideological groups battling over the very essence of our republic. The Federalists, headed by Alexander Hamilton, favored a strong central government. The anti Federalists on the other hand, feared a too strong federal government, and instead wanted to give the power to the people by investing more power in the states. Currently, our federalism gives more power to the national government, much to the ire of the Republican Party. Although they are not exactly the same, the Republican Party and the anti-Federalists share a disdain for a strong national government, and favor more power in the hands of the people. Which, it seems, is also the request of my fellow millennial liberals (here at Goucher, and beyond). So which is it, millennial liberals? Do you want a federal government that gives you health care, mandates that all states should accept gay marriages, and provides you with a stronger welfare system? Or do you want more power in the hands of the people (most easily represented by the states)?
I am not trying to say that liberals in America are misguided in their political and social aspirations—many of them I personally agree with. However, it is important to realize the dangers that can stem from the social homogeneity that liberal socialism encourages. It is also important to recognize the cleavages between American liberalism, and economic, and political liberalism. Modern American liberalism has pushed some liberals to identify as fiscal conservatives, as they recognize that economic freedom (the free market economy fathered by Smith) is more important than individual liberties, or they think providing social services oversteps government’s role. Many on the left hypocritically chastise the right’s inability to compromise without acknowledging their own unwillingness to understand conservative viewpoints. You don’t have to agree with them, but it is essential for liberals to embrace the values behind our ideology (of equality and liberty) and learn about where Republican ideology comes from. So to my classmates, I suggest a little more tolerance, education and understanding of American conservatism, and the foundation of American liberalism. Perhaps this can help break the gridlock in Washington, and return trust to American governance.