What makes a liberal a liberal? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself lately, perhaps because every liberal I meet nowadays seems to ask me how in the world I could be a conservative. My stock answer is that I’d love to be a liberal because, you know, chicks dig the progressives. But also because I’d love to resolve debates with clever rejoinders like “Halliburton!” or “Fox News!” or “Karl Rove!,” and because I’d love to engage in intellectual group hugs rather than confront awkward truths, and because I’d love to show how my heart is in the right place by supporting benevolent-sounding but historically discredited social policies which end up devastating the very communities they’re intended to benefit. So, yes, I’d love to be a liberal . . . except these pesky I.Q. points keep getting in the way.
But I digress.
To consider the question of what makes a liberal a liberal, I’ll need to slide on my special soul-searching goggles and peer deeply into the mental lives of people with whom I disagree, to indulge in amateur psychologizing, to treat wild supposition as fact, to disregard evidentiary standards and analytical decency–in other words, I’ll need to write a Frank Rich column. This is no easy task. Maybe if I were a film critic peter-principled into the realm of political discourse, I’d be more comfortable with foreshortening the argumentative process to a series of thumbs-up/thumbs-down rhetorical moments; instead, I’ve developed the inconvenient habit of substantiating what I say, of grounding inference in specific observation, of keeping broad generalizations to a minimum. For the next half-dozen paragraphs, however, goodbye to all that.
The first factor I’d suggest in the causal chain that leads liberals to their politics is abject failure. People who are frustrated by their lot in life are often drawn to liberal ideas because modern liberalism’s contempt for the free market jibes with their efforts to rationalize their disappointments. This thought was driven home for me last year at the Small Press Book Fair in Manhattan. As you climb the stairwell at the Small Press Center on West 44th Street, moving from small presses on the first floor, to even smaller presses on the balcony level, and then to presses-that-exist-only-to-publish-the-press-founder’s-screed upstairs, you move progressively leftwards. Talk to any author on the upper floors, and he’ll swear that he’s been driven to self-publish because he refused to sell out. He wouldn’t compromise his message for the sake of wealth and success, unlike fill-in-the-name-of-a-popular-writer. Corporate capitalism beats down the true visionary, he’ll tell you, and he’s no company hack. What greater proof of his bona fides than the fact that no mainstream publisher was interested in his work?
But of course the majority of liberals are not abject failures. On the contrary, many have attained a considerable measure of social status and financial clout, which calls to mind another reason liberals become liberals–guilt. Guilt-induced liberalism is most common among the more successful members of historically marginalized and currently struggling groups like blacks and Hispanics, or among members of historically marginalized and currently prospering groups like women and Jews. The trappings of achievement–prestigious job titles, comfortable homes, swollen bank accounts–are a kind of inverse torment for such people, an ongoing crisis of authenticity, a sign of the dissolution of their identity within the marginalized group. They feel compelled, therefore, to demonstrate that their sympathies still reside with the underclass. The cartoonish version of this response is found in hip hop–where ostentatiously thuggish rappers ride around in stretch limos, dripping jewelry and sipping champagne, all the while swearing their allegiance to “the street.” The more insidious version is found in humanities classrooms–where ostentatiously underdressed professors browbeat their students with the message that good fortune in America carries with it the perpetuation of injustice and the tacit acceptance of oppression.
After failure and guilt, a third obvious cause of the liberal worldview is sin. There is, of course, nothing inherently sinful about the politics of liberalism. But in its modern incarnation, liberalism not only takes to heart the Enlightenment values of tolerance and skepticism, it hoists them aloft as intellectual torches and bears them forward in search of the dreaded Frankenstein Monster of moral judgment. Modern liberals deplore moral judgment–except in their collective outrage at conservatives–because they’ve decided, in their own lives, to abandon the doctrinal elements of Judeo-Christian morality in favor of an ethic whose guiding principle is, in the words of noted Shakespearean dunderhead Polonius, “To thine own self be true.” Hence, the liberal mantra, I’m not religious, but I consider myself a spiritual person. Roughly, this translates into: I don’t want to give up on an afterlife, but I don’t want to be judged by the stuff I’m doing. Liberals, therefore, seethe with resentment towards public displays of traditional faith out of fear such faith carries with it an implicit condemnation of their personal choices.
If failure, guilt, and sin are three principal causes of modern liberalism, a closely related epiphenomenon is psychotherapy–i.e., the hiring of a dubiously qualified stranger to serve as a sympathetic sounding board for your anxieties. I’d estimate that among people undergoing psychotherapy, liberals outnumber conservatives by ten to one. (I’ve got no way to document this claim, but, again, Rich Rules.) Liberals, on the whole, don’t like themselves very much, which is why they think self-esteem is a cure all. They perceive, rightly or wrongly, the steady disapproval of other people–especially their parents–whom they reflexively associate with the status quo. It’s the status quo that’s the source of their unhappiness, they conclude. The more theoretically inclined liberals may even point to the inequities of the status quo as evidence that happiness cannot be had in this life. “How can I be content with my lot,” they ask, “when so many others have so much less than I do? If only I weren’t so damn sensitive!” The apparent happiness of many conservatives, therefore, becomes a sign of their callousness. When I recently speculated about the correlation between therapy and left-of-center politics to a therapy-going friend of mine, he thought for a moment and then nodded in agreement. But that wasn’t surprising, he added, since people in therapy tend to be more in touch with themselves and with reality.
Which leads to the final, and perhaps overriding, cause of modern liberalism–genuine compassion. It’s easy enough for conservatives to survey the grab bag of dumb ideas to which liberals attach themselves and conclude that liberalism is the result of a privation, a lack of those pesky I.Q. points I mentioned at the outset. But that’s too glib, even by Rich Rules. Intelligent people are often drawn to dumb ideas because the dumb ideas speak to their hearts rather than to their heads. The roster of world-class intellectuals who failed to recognize the evils of Communism in the last century is a testament to human frailty, not human imbecility. Tyranny, like charity, begins with compassion; this lesson is utterly lost on liberals, for whom compassion is an absolute good. So it’s important to remember that the prime justification of liberalism, at least in the minds of liberals, is almost always fairness. They feel unfairness in their bones. It upsets them. That’s how they know they’re compassionate.
It is the misguided pursuit of fairness that, in the final analysis, drives the majority of liberals to liberalism. It’s a pursuit at which they cannot fail, since it’s never-ending; it’s a pursuit that alleviates their guilt, since it re-connects them with their roots; it’s a pursuit that cleanses their individual sins, since its goal is the common weal. The pursuit of fairness is itself a kind of therapy.
Liberals are entitled to it, however ill conceived the enterprise.