The Corner

Labels & Liberals

I am very sympathetic to Charles Murray’s desire to split off the merely wrong “liberals” from the more sinister (my adjective) “progressives.” I’m also immensely flattered by his kind words for my book. But I also know that he is a good liberal in the classic sense and so he has no problem with good faith disagreement.  He writes:

As a libertarian, I am reluctant to give up the word “liberal.” It used to refer to laissez-faire economics and limited government. But since libertarians aren’t ever going to be able to retrieve its original meaning, we should start using “liberal” to designate the good guys on the left, reserving “progressive” for those who are enthusiastic about an unrestrained regulatory state, who think it’s just fine to subordinate the interests of individuals to large social projects, who cheer the president’s abuse of executive power and who have no problem rationalizing the stifling of dissent.

Every libertarian I know indulges an occasional moment or two of melancholia over the fact that they lost the word “liberal” to the left and must carry around the label “libertarian” — a term that clanks off the American ear like a steel wrench bouncing off sterile a concrete floor. Even Friedrich Hayek didn’t like the word, preferring “Old Whig.” (I searched in vain, but I could swear I read an interview in which Hayek complained about how “un-euphonious” the term libertarian is). A great many conservatives think we are all “classical liberals.” Hayek would have largely agreed, as he famously argued that America was the one place where one could be a conservative and still be a champion of liberty (that’s because American conservatives conserve classically liberal institutions). 

Now, if Charles could get everyone to agree to his taxonomy I’d be more than happy to go along. I certainly agree there’s a distinction between the two factions of the left he describes. I usually just use liberal versus leftist.   But liberal and progressive is more than fine by me. Either way, though, I think there are two problems with Charles’ idea.

First, leftists refuse to raise their hands when called upon as such. Over the last ten years or so it has become very difficult for those of us on the right to tell the players apart in the opposing league. It used to be that there were, to name a few,  conservative Democrats, progressive Democrats, vital center liberals, moderates, Scoop Jackson Democrats, McGovernites,  Naderites, Jesse Jackson Democrats and DLC Democrats.  On the more explicitly ideological side, and going further back, there were also socialists, Communists, this, that and the other kind of Marxists, Stalinists, Trotskyites, and anti-Communist liberals and anti-anti-Communist liberals.  I love reading about the vicious splits between and among American socialists and American communists in the 1930s or the particularly venomous hate the 1960s left had for 1960s liberals. But today, such distinctions are very hard to find on the left.

Today, the spirit isn’t so much pas d’ennemis à gauche (no enemies to the left) as is its a rejection of labels altogether.  They think ideological commitments are something only crazy people have – and by crazy people I/they mean rightwingers. They all say they’re just fact-finders and empiricists, problem-solvers and non-ideologues determined to do good things. When people on MSNBC say they are “progressives” they don’t mean they ideological descendants of Comte or Croly, they mean they are the good guys (in a non-heteronormative way, of course).

The second problem is that even if you could get everyone to wear a sandwich board laying out their ideological commitments like today’s specials, it wouldn’t matter. Because they all get along! Question about the prominent liberals Charles Murray had dinner with: Have they openly complained about all of the horrors their progressive confreres have unleashed upon the country? If this distinction is as real as Charles says it is, why hasn’t the left been roiled with ideological and factional squabbles the way conservatism has been over the last few years? Where is the Occupy Wall Street vs. establishment brouhaha to correspond with the Tea Party vs. establishment “civil war”?

We talk a lot about fusionism on the right, but the real fusion has been on the left. Barack Obama’s intellectual lineage comes directly from the 1960s left (Ayers, Wright, Allinsky, Derrick Bell, SANE Freeze etc). But he is an altogether mainstream liberal today. To the extent mainstream liberals complain about Obama it is almost entirely about tactics and competence. When was the last time you heard a really serious ideological complaint about Obama from, say, EJ Dionne or the editorial board of the New York Times? I’ll go further. When was the last time you heard liberals have a really good, public, ideological fight about anything? I’m sure there have been some interesting arguments between bloggers and the like. But I can’t think of anything – on domestic policy at least – that has spilled out onto the airwaves and op-ed pages in a sustained way. The Democratic Leadership Council – once committed to moving the Democratic Party rightward — closed up shop in 2011. They muttered something about accomplishing their mission, but that was basically sad office talk over cake and packing crates. Al Gore was once considered a conservative Democrat, but he moved to the left and has stayed there. Hillary Clinton was once a committed leftist. She moved toward the center for entirely mercenary reasons. But by the time she got there, the tide of her party receded leftward leaving her on a lonely atoll with her pile of Wall Street lucre.  John Kerry was the most liberal (or progressive) member of the senate in 2004, and he was his party’s nominee for president. In 2008, the same could be said about Obama and, well, you know how that story goes.

The best way to get the measure and value of ideological distinctions is to see what the ideologues are willing to fight for, in public, at some reputational risk. On the right today, those metrics are on full display. Not so on the left. Everyone gets along, all oars pull in the same direction. And what disagreements there are – between liberals and leftists or liberals and progressives – they’re overwhelmingly about tactics or insufficient zeal toward “common goals” and they are kept to a dull roar.  I’m all for drawing the distinctions Charles wants to draw, but they only become meaningful when liberals and leftists are willing to admit them. 

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, will be released on April 24.

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