The Dangers of Liberal America

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.

 

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4 thoughts on “The Dangers of Liberal America

  1. Great analysis. There’s so much here, but something you might elaborate on in the future is the concept of groupthink and how it affects classroom environments. Especially in states like Maryland and Texas where students are surrounded by one specific worldview for the most part.

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  2. Interesting article. I agree that millennial liberals generally need a better understanding of social, political, and economic conservativism to support or criticize those policies. However, one quibble. I don’t think the anti-federalist vs federalist comparison lines up as presented. More power to the people doesn’t necessarily mean more state control but a more horizontal (as you put it) connection between the people and the federal and/or state government. Programs supported by social liberals such as universal health care or marriage equality represent natural rights which are deserved by all Americans and so should be enforced by the federal government. In this way there is a closer connection between the federal government and the people.

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  3. I’m curious as to the support of your idea that socialism has a focus on homogeneity, and your inference that it promotes racism (?). While Denmark has a large issue with racism, it’s somewhat unsupported that this has anything to do with socialism, and more to do with the small, majority Danish population (89%). The US has a huge issue with racism, yet we have (arguably) extremely limited socialist policies. Socialism promotes equality- Denmark, while having problems with racism, (as does every other society) also has the lowest poverty rates in the world for their minority groups. I would argue that that is the effect of socialism. If you could give some examples as to how exactly socialism promotes racism, that would be great, I think your analysis is confusing correlation with causation.

    Otherwise, very interesting read.

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  4. I enjoy your discussion of the “interesting paradoxes” that accompany liberal claims to the superiority of horizontal power structures. It does seem paradoxical when American liberals disparage other points of view, or treat them as sub-standard or irrational. As you put it, “Many on the left hypocritically chastise the right’s inability to compromise without acknowledging their own unwillingness to understand conservative viewpoints.”

    The liberal credo is one of acceptance and equality, that’s true. But I would push back against the idea that holding this ideology makes all criticism hypocritical. After all, we have to be able to criticize some things, right? I think it’s perfectly consistent for a liberal to be a proponent of marriage equality, for example, and a harsh critic of DOMA. More generally, I think liberals can be all for letting everyone have their say, but at the same time condemn and criticize people who seek to limit power and influence to the hands of a few. Condemning certain points of view as irrational or immoral does not make the liberal a hypocrite; in fact, having certain points of view you refuse to tolerate is part of what defines ones own point of view in the first place. Nobody can be truly accepting or understanding of everyone’s opinions. To hold liberals to that standard is to critically misunderstand their arguments. Furthermore and finally, to accuse outspoken liberals of performative contradiction on the basis of such an assumption is to straw-man the liberal position.

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