Life among the liberal fundamentalists
By Sam Smith
This article appeared in the November 1991 issue of the Progressive Review.
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About a half dozen years ago, I started hanging out with traditional liberals again. It wasn't that my views had changed, but I had become fascinated with a conundrum of left-of-center politics.
The old liberals, and their natural allies such as the large labor unions, had the power, visibility and ground troops, but were stunningly devoid of ideas. Myriad other progressive groups, meanwhile, were churning out exciting visions and policies, but with few missionaries to spread them, they were quickly lost in the media miasma.
American politics had developed an odd sort of time-warp. The right, of course, played its traditional role as defender of the past. But it was joined by liberals who were doing the same thing, only for a different past.
If the conservatives were opposed to the future, the liberals were just as much afraid of it. The future, meanwhile, happily continued on its way, ever increasing the gap between itself and what liberals and conservatives were talking about.
This problem has much to do with the current state of American politics. The fictional past the right wants to create is simply more appealing to many people than that of the liberals. The reasons for this are several, among them the innate attraction of a world made safe for selfishness. But there is also the fact that much of America has lived long enough only to have experienced the failures of liberalism, but neither the triumphs of the New Deal, Fair Deal and Great Society nor the Great Depression and its precursors.
This alone is enough reason for liberals to develop a new shtick. But liberals have been extraordinarily resistant to change. In a cultural sense, they have become more conservative and less adaptable than the right or the libertarians. They react to neither the new concerns and interests of their natural constituency nor to the new tactics of their opponents.
This is hardly in the tradition of Roosevelt, Truman and Johnson, whose administrations were marked by constant innovation and adaptation. Johnson -- who got more good domestic legislation passed in less time than any other American president -- had phenomenal adaptability. He began one year, 1965, telling civil rights leaders it was too soon for another civil rights bill, and ended that same year with hallmark voting rights legislation.
While scattered liberal lawmakers today push worthy new policies, for the most part liberal solutions are characterized by their dreary familiarity.
Today's liberals seem to lack a sense of politics as war, in which one constantly rearranges the order of battle to win one's ultimate objective. They see politics more as a secular form of religion in which success is judged not by societal change but by the rigor with which the faith is maintained. They are political fundamentalists and, like religious fundamentalists, as far removed from their liberal heritage as Pat Robertson is from Jesus.
As with the religious fundamentalists, the liberal true believers often miss the point. The canon becomes particularized and heavily a matter of style and form. They know how to speak like liberals to other liberals but not how to talk to the rest of the world.
The result is a strange distortion of liberal priorities. Gut issues of immense potential popularity such as health, housing, job creation and education are left by the wayside in favor of issues that, no matter how worthy they may be, are most likely to alienate liberalism from the largest number of Americans. From the 55-mile-an-hour speed limit to abortion, from gun control to affirmative action, contemporary liberals have developed a fetish for issues that annoy people.
Consider abortion for instance. There is no doubt that abortion is an important matter, but how did it become the most important women's issue? Why, for example, is so much liberal attention directed to the abortion question and so little to pay equity or prenatal and infant health care?
Part of the answer is that premature babies can't march in rallies and another part is that their parents are often too poor to take time off to demonstrate. Those American women whose first priority is food, health care or safe working conditions are pushed to the back of the liberal line.
These issues do not have to be mutually exclusive, yet in practice they have tended to become so. This is unfortunate, for a strategy that elevates freedom of choice to the exclusion of other aspects of women's second class status seems to aid neither freedom of choice nor that status. If the battle for choice was fought within the context of women's other political, economic and social problems, the abortion issue might become far less of a lightning rod to the right. At the very least the response of some might change from "I'm against the women's movement because I'm against abortion" to "I agree with the women's movement except for abortion." In politics that's a big difference.
A similar phenomenon has occurred in civil rights. When was the decision made that affirmative action was the sine qua non of civil rights? I don't recall that debate. As with so many aspects of the current liberal canon, it just happened.
In its first decade or so affirmative action worked very well, what with bi-partisan support and only tolerable controversy. But black student enrollment in college, as a percentage of all students, peaked in 1977 and thereafter started to decline.
There are several things to note about this. First, affirmative action, at colleges at least, apparently stopped working. Secondly, the decline began under the same laws that spurred affirmative action's growth. Thirdly, this change appears to have commenced even before the Reagan administration.
Of course, when Reagan came in and began a systematic assault on civil rights, affirmative action took repeated additional beatings. And the real blow was Reagan economics. Affirmative action, which had done so well in an expanding economy, became a dramatically new issue (and one easy to demagogue) when it was played out in a contracting job market.
But by this time, affirmative action had become, to many liberals, not merely another tactic in the civil rights struggle (or a temporary expedient as LBJ saw it) but a basic right. Thus the liberal's duty was not only to defend this right but to expand it. That the changing economic circumstances and empirical factors might suggest changing tactics, that the very success of affirmative action would almost inevitably lead to questions of specific fairness, did not occur to the liberal leadership.
Of course, it is argued, as with abortion, that it was not liberals who made affirmative action an issue. But the evidence suggests that liberals and civil rights activists were just as happy as the rightwing to use affirmative action as a major battleground. At the very least it saved the trouble of coming up with a new approach.
Rather than altering the focus of the civil rights struggle -- while holding on to affirmative action gains already made --- the liberals cheerfully played the right's game: affirmative action became civil rights just as abortion became feminism.
And what has happened -- if not as a result, then at least more than coincidentally? Incredible success by the right, defeats by minorities, the most reactionary Supreme Court in half a century, and a stunning loss of moral direction by the civil rights movement that culminated in this year's civil rights bill, legislation well described in the June 24 Nation:
This year, the keepers of the civil rights cause could come up with no slogan catchier than "The burden of proof in antidiscrimination lawsuits should be on the employer!" It probably appealed to lawyers (273 members of Congress, most of them with some legal education, voted for the proposition) but it did not start a prairie fire of enthusiasm in the country. And it is there at the grass roots that a civil rights movement must grow to change policy in Washington. . .
Democratic leaders. . . had no political foundation for their civil rights bill. They gave members no programs for economic development, for instance, to serve and mollify anxious constituents worried about minority affirmative action. . .Civil rights this year ended up as an argument between potential electoral candidates about lawsuits. It's been a long slide since the brave days.
The problem with pushing affirmative action during a tight job market was simply that the issue had become one of competing equities. One could not make the argument for it without implicitly appearing to say it is all right for some white males not to get jobs.
A similar tension of competing equities surrounded school bussing: integration of schools vs. maintenance of neighborhood. Here again, liberals and civil rights activists wanted to speak only of one equity and refused to give even token recognition to parents' well-founded attachment to their neighborhoods and community schools.
Opposition, they felt, could come from only one source: racism. The dilemma was never given credence and intense bitterness developed without, it now appears, compensatory results.
In one striking exception to the national school bussing furor, DC civil rights leader Julius Hobson -- a statistician by trade and a Marxist by inclination -- sued the local school system in the sixties not on the basis of race but on the basis of economic inequity. The result was a court ruling ordering equal per-student spending among the city's schools, a law that stands to this day. Bussing never became an issue, except for a voluntary city-suburb bussing program that was cancelled by the majority black DC school board as degrading. Now, over 20 years later, equal-spending is seen as fair and non-controversial while bussing programs are still in the courts.
When I mentioned my reservations about the emphasis given abortion and affirmative action the other day to a national activist, prominent in both civil rights and women's issues, she nodded and said, "The problem is that they are not healing issues." Here was the crux: such issues have a high potential to divide and exacerbate, and create a fertile field for the demagogue. And, just as important, their emphasis has not been politically successful.
If affirmative action and pro-choice were the only arrows in the liberal quiver, their priority might be understandable, but consider just a few of the issues that have gotten short shrift at the same time:
» The de facto segregation of Congress.
» Housing segregation that has still left 30% of black Americans living in almost complete racial isolation.
» America's massive failure in pre-natal and infant care.
» Pay equity issues for women.
» Working conditions for both women and minorities. Where is affirmative action on sweat shops and in the farm fields?
» The substantial anti-minority and anti-women effects of zoning and city planning.
» A mass of federal and local laws that create unreasonable barriers to minorities and women starting new businesses or running them at reasonable cost.
» De facto transportation segregation at both the national and local level. Nationally, air transportation is favored while rail and bus transit are allowed to languish. Locally, mass transit is tilted towards the needs of white suburbanites and is a major although consistently ignored factor in the hardening of urban ghettos.
Some of these issues lack pizzazz, some are extremely complex, but in such issues will be found real solutions, healing solutions, to the nation's problems of discrimination and inequity.
For example, is it possible to envision an America functioning with ethnic decency, while still accepting the isolation that zoning, real estate practices and transportation promote?
Is it possible to create a fair and equitable society and leave untouched the traditional urban structure that was designed for men to go to work and women to stay home?
What good will affirmative action do for the center city black or hispanic who has no way of getting to the job in the first place?
Is abortion our best answer to the poor woman who can't afford to raise a child?
Is freedom of choice really more important than freedom from disease, injury, death in the workplace?
As it stands, the unspoken assumption is that those who oppose policies like affirmative action are racists. And even when it's not assumed, it is often what is felt by those not in the liberal camp.
If liberals listened, they might find ways to recast affirmative action so that "the sons of Jamaican physicians or wealthy Cuban businessmen" (to quote one critic) did not get a free ride out of it. They might hear the inner monologue of much of the criticism -- help those who actually need help but not because of some genetic factor such as race or sex. They might be more sympathetic to the pressures felt by lower-class white Americans. They might note that nearly every successful social program in this country has been applied either universally, as with social security, or based on real economic status, such as Head Start. These are the programs that Americans support, even when -- as in the case of Head start -- over two-thirds of the beneficiaries are minorities.
Yes, there is paranoia about affirmative action; yes, there is exaggeration based on anecdotal evidence; and, yes, people ascribe the wrong causes to their social and economic suffering. But the fear, hyperbole and faulty understanding can not be erased -- nor the cause they hinder advanced -- by treating them as some sort of silly psychosomatic illness that is best ignored or impugned as just short of a hate crime. The fears may be wrong-headed, but they are just as real as if they were based on fact.
If liberals were listening, they might inject some economic criteria into affirmative action. They might couple their pro-choice efforts coupled with equally strong demands for decent child care and improved working conditions for women. And lesser issues -- gun control, speed limits and so forth -- might be put on hold or downplayed. There are, in fact, far more options than most liberal leaders realize.
Not only does the current liberal establishment skew its priorities, it actively avoids the sort of issues that once made liberalism a powerful force.
The most dramatic example is national health insurance. Even the American public is ahead of the liberals on this one. There are national politicians willing to push it (or "a single payer system" as they gingerly prefer to call it) -- including to varying degrees, Senators Bob Kerrey and Wellstone. But to date they have gotten little prodding from traditional liberal activists, the drive coming from health-oriented progressives of a more grass roots variety.
Similarly, the liberal establishment has been consistently AWOL in the War on Drugs. The most mean-spirited, corrupt, unconstitutional, anti-minority, dangerous and stupid domestic policy of recent times has been broadly condoned if not actively supported by this establishment. The liberal participation in this war has been at best a display of gross cowardice and at worst borders on ideological treason.
The liberal establishment has cooperated with, winked at or hidden from, repeated assaults of the Reagan and Bush administration on the Constitution and democratic principles.
The liberal establishment has shown virtually no interest in the decentralization of power, it has encouraged the excessive litigiousness of America, it has spawned and protected the infamous system of PACs, it has ignored the reasonable concerns of small business, it has been indifferent to government waste and corruption (most dramatically in the Congress which it controls), and it has shied away from reforms in the democratic process.
In short it has betrayed its own visionary, vigorous and pragmatic past, turning instead into a timid, shadow of itself, a political tableau rather than a political force. In many ways it has been the best friend Reagan and Bush ever had.
There is still much vigor to real liberalism. Its essence, the practical solution of real problems, is still practiced in many places. But as you move up the ladder of liberal power, the voices become more cautious, the ritual more routine, the rules more prescribed. And as this happens, the critical thinking that is at the center of liberalism at its best, gets replaced with a catechism. You find yourself no longer in politics making things happen, but in a sanctimonious church where nothing does.
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