Contemporary Liberalism Defined

I think of myself as a liberal, but what does that mean, exactly, to call oneself a liberal?

In thinking about this, I’ve come to some tentative answers (liberals are always at least a bit tentative). First, being a contemporary liberal has something to do with having a white-collar management sensibility.

As a teacher, this mentality suits me perfectly. And so, as a teacher and a liberal, I think of myself as a grown-up; a pragmatist; a professional. However deluded this might be, I like to think of myself as someone who copes with the world as it is, maturely. Hillary Clinton’s public persona is an example of the liberal persona, which is admittedly rather pinched emotionally.

So liberals like Hillary and I are tentative, managerial, and pinched (at least in public).

What makes us so unpleasant and unhappy?

Well, I think it’s because we see ourselves as referees of the whole fucking world: we want everyone to play fair and get what’s coming to them–and we feel like someone should be watching that this actually happens, so we try to do it, and make noise when we notice something. The slogan, “The whole world is watching,” is born of this democratic liberal impulse. We imagine ourselves as watchdogs speaking truth to power.

So why would anyone ever want to join such a wound-up, nosy, uptight, and patronizing tribe?

I think it’s because we ask the right question, and try to answer it thoughtfully. Here’s the question: How should we organize our collective lives in a world where global competition and diversity are high, many players (such as corporations and banks) are large and powerful, global warming is real, and authority is always in contention?

Liberals like me, being pragmatic manager and coping types, answer this question in two key ways (and these just happen to be ways that often win majorities in elections):

1. Government should function as a counterweight to global forces. In the New Republic (12/6/2012), John Judis writes that President Obama’s “Democratic coalition, like all coalitions, is held together not just by complementary interests, but also by a common worldview.” That worldview is concerned with competition and diversity. Thus Judis writes the following:

The current Democratic philosophy reflects the outlook of the professionals who began joining the Democratic Party as early as the late ’60s. It was most clearly articulated by Clinton during his presidency and has been updated by Obama. This philosophy envisages the United States as part of a global marketplace. It seeks to provide Americans with the training to compete in that marketplace, as well as sufficient economic security to cope with the hardship that competition can bring. This vision entails funding education, scientific research, and technological innovation, but also strengthening and expanding the New Deal’s safety net. […] Moreover, Democrats are winning increasing support for a socially liberal agenda, particularly among women and young voters.

The socially liberal component is part of liberals’ concern with global competition: an insular and narrow culture that despises freedom of speech, religious diversity, immigrants, hippies, gays, and pot smoking is simply not well positioned for success in the increasingly tolerant, urbanized, and global marketplace.

So American liberals like me don’t reject capitalism and globalism–indeed, we want them turbocharged and running smoothly. We just think that Big Capitalism needs Big Government as a counterweight to it. Small government in a world of big corporations and powerful global currents–from international financiers to China to global warming–is Utopian.  The brake must be tapped on behalf of vulnerable American citizens sometimes–as in the bailout of General Motors–and liberals mean to tap that brake.

By contrast, here’s the contemporary far right agenda with regard to government (as identified by Francis Fukuyama):

[It is] rule by and for the rich. . . . [It is] a state of affairs in which the rich influence government in such a way as to protect and expand their own wealth and influence, often at the expense of others. . . . [T]his influence may be exercised in four basic ways: lobbying to shift regulatory costs and other burdens away from corporations and onto the public at large; lobbying to affect the tax code so that the wealthy pay less; lobbying to allow the fullest possible use of corporate money in political campaigns; and, above all, lobbying to enable lobbying to go on with the fewest restrictions.

Liberal like me oppose this.

What’s the second thing that makes for a contemporary liberal?

2. Liberals have absorbed the implications of Darwin and want government to take these implications into serious account.

This might seem like an odd claim, but let me defend it. I have not met with a better definition of what liberalism is and has digested over the past century and a half since Darwin wrote The Origin of Species (1859) than the paragraph below from Jonathan Rauch’s book, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (Chicago 1993). In the passage, notice evolution’s centrality (57):

Liberalism’s great contribution to civilization is the way it handles conflict. No other regime has enabled large and varied groups of people to set a social agenda without either stifling their members differences or letting conflict get out of hand. Bertrand Russell once said that “order without authority” might be taken as the motto both of political liberalism and of science. If you had to pick a three-word motto to define the liberal idea, “order without authority” would be pretty good. The liberal innovation was to set up society so as to mimic the greatest liberal system of them all, the evolution of life. Like evolutionary ecologies, liberal systems are centerless and self-regulating and allow no higher appeal than that of each to each in an open-ended, competitive public process (a game). Thus a market game is an open-ended, decentralized process for allocating resources and legitimizing possession, a democracy game is an open-ended, decentralized process for legitimizing the use of force, and a science game is an open-ended, decentralized process for legitimizing belief. Much as creatures compete for food, so entrepreneurs compete for business, candidates for votes, and hypotheses for supporters. In biological evolution, no outcome is fixed or final–nor is it in capitalism, democracy, science. There is always another trade, another election, another hypothesis. In biological evolution, no species, however clever or complex, is spared the rigors of competition–nor are the participants in capitalism, democracy, science. No matter who you are, you must conduct your business in the currency of dollars, votes, or criticism–no special fiat, no personal authority.

Rauch is writing as a libertarian, not a liberal, and as such (to echo the Talmud) his ears do not seem to be hearing what his words are saying. Rauch’s evolution-based libertarianism is always in danger of arriving at Nietzscheanism. Nature, after all, consists of powers in conflict, and, as Nietzsche observed, it is beyond good and evil; it is amoral. Liberals and libertarians–both belonging to the liberal tradition–have absorbed the contingency and competition at the heart of existence that Darwin first made scientifically explicit, but liberals aren’t glib about the wreckage that results. In this sense, liberals are realists: they notice both the creative and destructive powers at work in evolution. They don’t reject competition, but try to ameliorate it in a way consistent with human dignity. They see that human organization entails real trade-offs between growth, liberty, and equality, and they recognize that it is not just the independent shark that bears a successful evolutionary strategy, but also the cooperative bonobo. Liberals thus try to take into account the fact that human beings are evolved tribal primates and not independent swimming predators. And that this world is hard and complicated. And that even Nietzsche could not bear it perfectly, but might have managed to flourish and write a bit more if he’d been enrolled in, say, Obamacare.


EPILOGUE: Here’s how Rudiger Safaranski, in his biography of Nietzsche, concludes his account of Nietzsche’s life:

On January 3, 1889, just after Nietzsche left his apartment [in Turin], he caught sight of a carriage driver beating his horse on the Piazza Carlo Alberto. Nietzsche, weeping, threw himself around the horse’s neck to protect it. He collapsed in compassion with the horse. A few days later, Franz Overbeck came to collect his mentally deranged friend. Nietzsche lived on for one more decade.

Nietzsche’s philosophical history ended in January 1889. Then commenced the other history, the history of his influence and resonance.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Contemporary Liberalism Defined

  1. Anonymous says:

    Contemporary liberals are not truly liberal in the classical understanding. Actually, modern-day libertarians and true conservatives are more liberal than the frauds that flaunt that meaning around like they do other people’s money.

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