20 thoughts on “Liberalism’s continuing moral vacuum”

  1. There is a moral framework to modern liberalism, it just isn’t always consistent and is often taken to its logical extremes. At the heart lies a refusal to exhibit blind patriotism towards one’s country and its leaders, a desire to alleviate the very real physical sufferings of man in this life and not just give to them pious words of good will, a wish to safeguard the freedoms of this country even if it means doing without the illusions of additional “safety” and “security”, a respect for the fragility of the Earth of which we are all stewards and finally, a desire to allow the individual to make decisions regarding their own life, health and relationships, for the good OR for the better, without government intrusion.

    These are all laudable ideals, even though they’re not always executed well: it tends towards a knee-jerk rejection of any American good in foreign affairs, a domestic policy that enables a less-than-virtuous dependency on government, an over-eagerness to avoid common sense in protecting our citizens from real dangers within and an inability to define where individual autonomy should end at times.

    I do hope a liberal comes up that can more clearly define these goals and have the conviction that these ideals are, indeed, worthy of embracing.

  2. James, your view of what constitutes modern liberalism is being propped up with a straw man. On your side are: “a refusal to exhibit blind patriotism,” “a desire to alleviate … physical sufferings,” “a wish to safeguard freedoms … without the illusions of additional “safety” and “security””, “a respect for the fragility of the Earth” and “a desire to allow the individual to make decisions … without government intrusion”

    Therefore, by simple logic, what opposes modern liberalism, i.e., modern conservatism is blind patriotism, efforts to increase physical suffering, the illusion of safety and security, efforts to destroy the environment, and government intrusion in individual decisions.

    In other words your’s is the side of Good and They (the conservatives) are Evil. It doesn’t really surprise me that you hold this view. It is after all the oppinion of Howard Dean, head of the DNC.

    Therein lies a serious problem for liberals. They refuse to take their opponents seriously. Instead liberals dismiss conservatives as evil. Go review Dean Scourtes’ comments on this blog under the thread on the War on Poverty. He immediately begins by stating that anyone who disagrees with him is not a Christian, and, in fact, all conservatives want to do is push “millions of vulnerable, elderly Americans into poverty and destitution.” It’s not that conservatives could honestly oppose liberal government spending on social programs. No, instead they consciously want to make old people (and one could probably add minorities and women into this group, according to the liberal view) poor and destitute.

    Liberals might begin to recover some ground in the battle of ideas when they start taking conservatives seriously. As long as it’s Good vs. Evil in the liberal mind, liberals will lose.

    BTW, the idea that liberals promote the idea that individuals should make decisions without government intrusion is just laughable.

  3. The items I listed are the chief concerns of liberals, or their points of emphasis. Nowhere did I imply that conservative thought was based on the converse of these issues (as you suggested), simply that certain social, economic and environmental concerns were not as prominent in their list of priorities. I also mentioned the risks of liberal thought when taken to extreme, which you must have ignored.

    (But since you mentioned it, show me a conservative site that promotes the protection of wildlife preserves or even our Great Lakes from pollution … I doubt one exists! Instead, you have commentators like Ann Coulter saying that we are to “rape” the planet.)

  4. Dan – Actions speak louder than words. Republicans in the Senate this week rejected an increase of the minimum wage that would have lifted millions of hard working Americans up from below the poverty level. The Senate Republicans also seem likely to pass new Bankruptcy restrictions this week that will make it more difficult for millions of Americans to recover from financial misfortune – including economic setbacks resulting from identity theft, massive medical bills not covered by insurance, and income loss due to service in the national guard.

    There is little evidence that private savings accounts carved-out of the existing social security program will do much to improve the economic security of America’s elderly and much evidence that it will weaken that security. Instead of a defined benefit the elderly would be exposed to the volatility and uncertainty of the stock market. Paying for the President’s proposal would require draining the social security trust fund and borrowing $4.5 trillion that our children will have to pay off.

    The projected revenue shortfall in the social security progam over the next 75 years is $3.7 billion. By contrast the revenue shortfall resulting from making the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent will be $11.1 trillion, and roughly half of that goes to the wealthiest one percent of tax payers.

    I challenge you Dan, to explain how giving a tax cut to the most materially comfortable and affluent one percent of Americans is more consistent with Christian morality than shoring up a program that provides economic security to millions of elderly Americans.

    I stand by my comments because the Conservative economic initiatives described above stand in direct opposition to the Christian moral imperative to lift people out of poverty. Instead they operate to lock people into poverty more firmly.

  5. Dan’s point is that contemporary liberalism offers no ideas, but merely critiques of conservative ideas. It’s the same point Martin Peretz made in his recent article in TNR.

    As for equating liberalism with Christian moral principles about poverty (which you do obliquely in your last paragraph), motives and concrete results are two different things. Many unreconstructed liberals assume that their declarations of concern for the poor are sufficient to grant them a hearing. Listening to them however, you find the shopworn ideas of the Great Society that are largely grand scale failures.

    An article by Michael Novak “Reagan and the Poor” confirms my point.

  6. Thanks, Dean for helping me make my point. Tap a liberal and at some point in almost any discussion you will eventually hear: “We’re good, they’re evil. Do what we want and there will be peace and prosperity for all. Except for the evil rich. They’re evil so they deserve neither peace nor prosperity.”

    Father, I don’t even think modern liberalism offers critiques of conservative ideas. Modern liberalism merely engages in ad hominem attack of conservatives. Dean’s comments are a perfect example. Republicans did not oppose the increase in minimum wage from any principled position. In the liberal mind conservative opposition is due to simple greed, i.e.,evil motives.

    The idea that modern American liberalism = Good Christian thinking is just nonsense. Thank God that an ever growing majority of American voters are seeing through the garbage that Dean et al are shoveling. If even 20% or 30% of black Americans see through Dean’s baloney Democrats will never win another election.

  7. Fr. Hans writes: “Dan’s point is that contemporary liberalism offers no ideas, but merely critiques of conservative ideas.”

    A couple of points. First, it’s not that liberalism doesn’t have ideas, but that the ideas of liberalism are largely already incorporated into the society.

    Second, ideas aren’t cheap or easy; they take time and money to develop. We have to look at the right-wing propaganda empire that has been constructed over the last 40 years and at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Look at all the think tanks, journals, foundations, etc., that have been cranking out stuff for years, often funded by a handful of wealthy benefactors. These provide employment for right-wing thinkers and pundits who are then deployed out into various media outlets, and you have other people who are moving in and out of foundations, politics, and media. The whole propaganda enterprise often works closely with the Republican party, so you end up with a tremendous coordination of message, and suddenly it seems like all of these people all over the country are coming with with the same idea all at once. And in a sense they are — not because the idea is necessarily good, but because the propaganda system is so effective.

    There is nothing at all like that on the liberal side. Oh, you have the occasional foundation or journal, but far less money and almost no coordination.

  8. Jim says, “First, it’s not that liberalism doesn’t have ideas, but that the ideas of liberalism are largely already incorporated into the society.”

    Jim is right. In 1980, Republicans ran on a platform that included such things as abolition of the Department of Education. There was a real sense in the 1980s that not only could big government be rolled back, but that even many New Deal programs so hated by Conservatives could be sent to the scrap heap of history. Does anybody remember that, besides me?

    Those were the days, weren’t they? Now, of course, Republicans don’t do such things. Social Security has to be saved, not rolled back. Medicare has to be expanded, not cut down to size. Education? We need MORE money and control from Washington, not less. Heck, everybody knows that! Just ask President Bush!

    Government subsidies for farmers? Everyone’s for those, Republicans and Democrats alike! Nation building and using the U.S. military as ‘meals on wheels?’ Hey, that’s something we can all support!

    The victory of liberalism has been almost total. We now have the farce of a center-left party competing with a slightly more leftist party. Fiscal discipline? Limited government? State’s rights? Forget it! Those things are so Barry Goldwater.

    The Republican Party has now become the Democratic Party of Mayor Daly. Tough on crime, conventionally Christian in morality (mostly), tough on defense issues, and with a taste for ever bigger, ever more costly programs.

    The Democrats? They aren’t much different on most issues from the Republicans. The major differences are that the Democrats can’t let go of their pet issues that so infuriate so many Americans. If the Democrats could let go of abortion and gay rights, they could be back in business, even in the Red States. After all, just how different are the views of a ‘centrist’ Republican like Rudy Giuliani and a ‘centrist’ Democrat like Harry Reid? Not much, except that Rudy’s position on abortion is even more extreme.

    So, I tip my hat to Jim and all the liberals in the U.S. They did it, they won. Even the Republicans have bought into their programs. We’re all into big, intrusive government now, and there is probably no going back.

    And that is why the ad hominem attacks from BOTH sides are getting so vicious. The Republicans have gone so far left that they are stealing all the Democrat’s core issues. There is very little to fight about, other than personal attacks. It’s like a family feud that just keeps getting nastier.

  9. Glen, I still think you put too much faith in politics. Political parties function within a cultural matrix which restricts and compromises them for the most part (a good and necessary check and balance, IMO), and most often pushes them into the middle. But to conclude that there is really not a dime’s worth of difference between them, or that the differences are so slight that they don’t amount to much, simply isn’t true.

    If you are arguing that Republicans can go the way of Democrats, you won’t get an argument from me. But if you are arguing that there would be no substantive difference between a George W. Bush presidency or an Al Gore presidency for example, well, do you really believe this is accurate, especially after such events as 9-11?

    Yes, liberals have dominated the culture, and the Democrats are captive to the ideology of the cultural left and contribute to perpetuating it. Democrat defeat however, won’t turn the cultural tide although it will slow the decline (abortion, euthanasia, the culture of death ideology, etc.). Political parties cannot reverse this decline, but moral conservatives can, and right now they find a home in the Republican Party — an appropriate development given that in American culture many moral issues are ajudicated in the public square of which politics is part.

    I think a lot of those conservatives would share your complaints about Republicans. I don’t think they would agree that there is no substantive difference between the parties, however.

    OTOH, if your complaint is primarily libertarian, which is to say economic (Republican deficit spending, etc.) rather than moral/cultural, Robert Locke has an interesting article on the dangers of reducing these pressing questions to solely their economic dimensions in the latest issue of “The American Conservative” titled “Marxism of the Right.

  10. Fr. Hans writes: “So all the people who voted Republican are unwitting victims of this vast, right-wing, propaganda machine? If this is all liberalism can offer it will continue losing elections.”

    Of course not. But saying that the conservatives have all the good ideas and the liberals don’t is kind of like saying that Americans have good automobiles and the Guatemalans don’t. We have good autos not because we’re intrinsically better, but because we’ve spent 100 years and hundreds of billions of dollars figuring out how to make automobiles, and the Gustemalans haven’t.

    It’s the same with ideas. Wealthy financiers and/or their foundations are the starting point. The think tanks are the research labs, if you will, where the ideas are developed. They are tested and developed in the journals. Ideas that survive and catch on are spread by pundits and commentators. Conservative thinkers are groomed in the think tanks. And so on.

    I’m not being sarcastic. Quite the opposite. The right wing has done a brilliant job of developing, marketing, and distributing their ideology, and they are reaping the benefits.

    To the extent that liberals don’t appear to have good ideas it’s not because they have a defective philosophy. It’s because they haven’t spent the time and resources developing an infrastructure in which ideas can be developed and marketed and thinkers can be groomed. You don’t put something like that together overnight.

  11. Professorate is 90% Liberal

    Jim Holman types:
    To the extent that liberals don?t appear to have good ideas it?s not because they have a defective philosophy. It?s because they haven?t spent the time and resources developing an infrastructure in which ideas can be developed and marketed and thinkers can be groomed. You don?t put something like that together overnight.


    Liberals have the resources of thousands of colleges and universities. What do you think the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado is besides being the home of Ward Churchill? What about all of the “women’s studies” departments and “peace studies” departments? At a local branch of a State University that is an entity called the “Gay Lesbian Transgendered and Bi-Sexual Studies Center.” It is funded by the University and it produces articles, seminars, and courses. The GLBT Center has a suite of rooms on campus and is allowed to bring in speakers who uniformly argue for the normalization of their bizarre sexual practices. You don’t call this a Leftists think tank? Excuse me.

    Talk about blind. Look at the projects that the Ford Foundation funds. It gives major support to liberal causes.

    I can’t believe Holman actually believes what he just wrote.

  12. Personally, I would like to see greater intellectual diversity on campuses across the country and for an avoidance of some of the political correctness going on. Nevertheless, we should note several differences between academia and the conservative think tanks:

    a) In academia, the peer-reviewed journal and the scientific conference are two important tools for keeping research honest. They allow scholars to confront their opponents and argue out their differences in sometimes brutal and extensive debate. No such policy exists for think tanks. Think tanks must be debated in the media, a severely limited forum (dealing in sound bites) which provides them with a great deal of intellectual cover.

    b) In academia, scholars have an important arbiter in the National Academy of Sciences, which comprises many of the nation’s — indeed, the world’s — most respected scientists. Think tanks, on the other hand, submit their work to the general public, who are usually unqualified to give an expert critique of the study.

    Let us also not underestimate the role of these institutions and ignore who funds them. Where “Ford and Rockefeller concentrate on projects like global food security, economic development, and human rights, the conservative foundations focus largely on channeling money to like-minded organizations whose research, publications, and outreach programs are designed specifically to influence US policy and the media. Of the top 25 think-tanks listed by media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting in terms of media visibility in 2001, the Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation ranked second and third?each with more than 2,000 separate media citations?and AEI fifth.”

    “The Smith Richardson Foundation, funded by Vicks VapoRub money, gave $1.16 million to AEI in 2000, of which $125,000 went toward a study on US foreign entanglement led by none other than the State Department’s John Bolton. AEI fellows include Richard Perle, head of the quasi-government Defense Policy Board, Irving Kristol, the grand-daddy of neocons, and Michael Ledeen, a fellow Reagan appointee and the first executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA). Ledeen has been leading the call for putting Iran next on the US’s hit list. Former AEI fellow Michael Rubin, who was also affiliated with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, joined the Pentagon this month to help shape a post-Saddam Iraq policy. AEI’s board includes Lee Raymond, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, and William Stavropoulos, chairman of Dow Chemical Co.”

    “The current president of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Michael Grebe, also sits on the board of overseers of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, where National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was formerly provost. Of the $101 million-plus that had been raised in a funding drive by August 2000, nearly 70% came from its well-heeled Board of Overseers, which boasts among its members Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Mellon Scaife, an heir to the Mellon family’s industrial, oil and banking fortune.”


  13. Missourian writes: “Liberals have the resources of thousands of colleges and universities. What do you think the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado is besides being the home of Ward Churchill? What about all of the ‘women’s studies’ departments and ‘peace studies’ departments?”

    Well, sure, there are a lot of liberals in academia. Academic liberals publish academic journal articles that are read by other academics.

    Liberals also publish books. Let’s say that a book written by an academic liberal is a smashing success. That means the author has a few book signings, talks for 10 minutes on CSPAN, and the book sells 100,000 copies. That’s probably as many people who listen to Rush Limbaugh every day in eastern Wyoming.

    Or you have the occasional radical feminist scholar whose five or six on-campus devotees can be identified through unshaven legs and hairy armpits. Big deal.

    In other words yes, there are a lot of liberal academics, but many of these have little influence on the larger culture. And economics and business departments tend to be more conservative. I haven’t noticed many recent MBA graduates talking about Heidegger’s ontology and its relationship to ecofeminist theories of pornography.

  14. What Country Do You Live In? Little Influence on the Larger Culture?

    Of course, they have an influence on the culture. The graduates of the liberal arts curriculums are hired by government and newspapers. They go on to Law School and want to change the world through judicial fiat. They consider the electorate a collection Neanderthals whose culture needs to be improved. I went to Law School with these people, don’t tell me about “no influence.” They are judges now. SHUDDER.

  15. RE: Number 10: Glen – Having grown up in Chicago (My Dad actually grew up several blocks from the Daley’s) I can report that the phiolosophy of the Republican party is very different from that of either the late Richard J. Daley or Richard M. Daley, the current Mayor. It is true that both Daley’s share a patriotism and moral conservatism that is also strongly present in the Republican party. The son of the current Mayor Daley, for example is serving in the military and may go to Iraq.

    However, on economic issues both Daleys have favored they type of of Roosevelt-era New Deal economic intervention that the Republican party has always bitterly opposed. During the early 20th century social worker Jane Adams marvelled at the ability of the Democratic party to gain the loyalty of the new immigrant voters arriving in Chicago. There was no mystery however. While the Republicans offered new immigrants little more than moral bromides, Democratic patronage provided them with jobs on the police force, and sanitation department.

    The great public works programs of the New Deal helped create more jobs for the urban masses and put in place the vital infrastructures that keep the cities running – the sewer, highway and mass transportation systems. During the sixties and seventies new deal type federal assistance helped cities ameliorate the deep pockets and concentrations of poverty and crime that had appeared in the cities.

    The policy of the Republican party was to encourage the flight to the suburbs as a way to reduce the voting strength of the cities. As mayors both Daley’s were aggressively oppossed to such a policy. The cities have always been the bastion of the Democratic party, because cities depend on a federal government that is an active partner is maintaining cities as desirable places to live.

    In the last Presidential election every major city voted overwhelmingly Democratic. The interests of cities and mayors like the two Richard Daleys are aligned with the Democratic party, and not with the policies of the Republican party which are aggresively hostile to the interests of urban Americans.

  16. Why People Leave Big Cities

    People leave Big Cities because the schools are terrible. People leave to protect their children from a poor education. The education is poor because the classrooms are zoos. The good teachers cannot teach because society has vitiated their authority over children. The schools of Washington D.C. now have to be patrolled by uniformed police. Disruptive students reign over teachers and those students who come ready to learn. It is nearly impossible to remove incompetent teachers because of the protections built into teacher’s contracts by the unions. We have a double monopoly. The government exerts a near monopoly on education and the teacher’s union exert a second. Without competition and accountibility the situation degrades.

    People leave big cities because they are dangerous and living in them is like living in an armed camp. The only secure residences in a big city are those with 24/7 doormen and heavy locks and surveillance cameras. The criminal justice system has been hamstrung and it is the activity of the police that is criminalized, rather than the killers, thieves and rapists.

  17. Re Post 11:

    Father Hans,

    I am not sure why you think I am putting too much faith in politics. I haven’t asked the Republican Party to save my soul, improve the moral climate of the nation, or spread brotherly love. All I want is for the Bush Administration to live up to the principles the Republican Party is supposed to stand for. Nor are my objections merely economic. Libertarians, in my opinion, often make a severe mistake in ignoring cultural and moral issues in their attempt to reduce everyone to some kind of universal abstract known as ‘economic man.’ Neo-cons make the same blunder by universalizing ‘democracy man.’

    In any event, since I am not a Libertarian, I found the article you supplied to be interesting, but not highly relevent to me.

    Just to summarize, here are the things I think the Bush Administration should be doing:

    Economic – Major tax reform is needed, not cosmetic tax cuts. Abolish the corporate income tax, eliminate loopholes, and adopt a flat tax or a consumption tax. Quit printing dollars that are causing currency devaluation. Force China to end its peg to the dollar which is eroding our jobs base. Reduce and elminate as many business regulations as necessary to help the U.S. become competitive again in the global marketplace. THESE ARE ALL POLITICAL GOALS. None of these are on the Bush agenda.

    Security – Close the borders to illegal immigration. Kill the TSA and the Department of Homeland security, and use the Department of Defense to actually defend the United States. Let all pilots carry guns on flights. Elminate most visas from Muslim nations that have terrorism problems. Elminate Muslim immigration in total. THESE ARE ALL POLITICAL GOALS. None of these are on the Bush Agenda.

    Foreign Policy – End the occupation of Kosovo and of Bosnia. Protect the Christians in Iraq and grant them autonomy. Refrain from destabilizing Syria. Keep Turkey out of the EU. Force a better settlement for the Cypriot question. End most forms of foreign aid and stop pushing Macedonia to make ever greater concessions to the Albanians. Withdraw most U.S. troops based abroad, and stop trying to build nations at U.S. tax payer expense. THESE ARE ALL POLITICAL GOALS. Again, none of these are on the Bush agenda.

    Domestic policy – Reign in judicial activism by any means necessary. Restore the issues of abortion and marriage to the states, where local standards can prevail. Restore a proper balance of federalism by reducing the scope of the central government. Drill for more oil domestically. End corporate welfare. Stop using anti-trust law to punish successful companies. GET WASHINGTON OUT OF EDUCATION!!!! Again all political, and not on the Bush agenda in a meaningful way.

    This, to me, is a conservative agenda. It is neither purely economic, nor is it purely foreign-policy related.

    Bush is nowhere close to this agenda, and never will be. In fact, he is on the exact opposite side of most of these issues.

    As for the Dime’s worth of difference, what has Bush’s performance since 9/11 done to distinguish him in any way from the Democrats?

    Let’s review his steps, shall we?

    Since 9/11, Bush has:

    1) Created the TSA – originally Bush opposed this boondoggle, but then he caved to the Democrats and federalized baggage screening. At one fell swoop, he created a massive new bureaucracy that has done little to actually improve security, created a new class of Democratic voters, and blown massive amounts of tax payer money. Would Al Gore have done anything differently?
    2) Created the Department of Homeland Security – originally Bush opposed this boondoggle also, but then he caved to the Democrats on this too. Instead of using the Department of Defense to actually protect America, Bush re-orged a bunch of bureaucracies and then declared that we are all a whole lot safer. Would Gore have done anything differently?
    3) Invaded Afghanistan – Democrats led us into WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Do you really think that President Gore would have NOT gone after Osama? Of course he would have.
    4) Invaded Iraq – Democrats LOVE nation-building wars. Johnson said that the War in Vietnam was the foreign equivelant of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Wilson wanted to make the world safe for Democracy. Scoop Jackson and other superhawks were all Democrats. Would Gore have gone after Saddam? Hard to say, but trying to pretend that Democrats are pacifists is simply silly. On the other hand, since the jury is still out on how much of a good thing liberating Iraq really has been, it may turn out that we would have been better off under a more circumspect and less messianic Al Gore.
    5) Kept guns out of the hands of airline pilots. Under the TSA’s stupid rules, only 44 airline pilots in the whole country are allowed to carry guns when they fly. Would the anti-gun Democrats have been much worse?
    6) Outlawed racial profiling. Arab males can’t be shown any special attention when screening for potential terrorists. Would the politically correct Dems been any worse?
    7) Tried to push Turkey into the EU. Would Gore have done more to try and destabilize Europe by adding Turkey?
    8) Kept our borders wide open, while proposing an amnesty plan for illegals already here. Would Gore have been worse?

    Fine, there are cosmetic differences between the two parties on some issues. Democrats back gay rights openly, and Bush appoints practicing homosexual ambassadors quietly, and behind the scenes. Democrats openly rally for killing babies, Bush simply enables the process to continue by pretending he is powerless against the almighty Supreme Court. The Democrats want to keep social security as it is, Bush wants to take a socialist scheme for wealth redistribution and make it work better.

    Father Hans – what am I wrong about? Where are the real, red meat issues that are so important and on which Bush is so right, that I am supposed to simply ignore all of his many failings and fall all over myself in supporting him?

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