Some time ago I wrote about Conservatism At Its Worst. It’s now time for me to share my brief critique of liberalism. To be more precise, I’m talking about liberalism in the present era, in America.
My mind immediately returns to 2009-10 when I was serving as Pennsylvania’s Secretary for Community and Economic Development. The worst of the financial crash and what is commonly referred to as the Great Recession was upon us. Unemployment was high, asset values had plunged and economic activity was anemic at best.
To my mind, the first priority for government was obvious: jobs. People need work, for both financial and psychological reasons. Yet it didn’t seem to me like the Obama Administration and Democratic-controlled Congress shared this view.
Rather, they pushed their policy agenda as though unemployment wasn’t sky high. Their stimulus bill was woefully inadequate and misdirected. They used the opportunity to advance the causes of special interests that had co-opted the party, and seemed oblivious to fostering conditions for job-creating economic activity. They pushed through a deeply flawed health care bill designed more to placate drug companies, insurance companies and shareholders than to address the basic problem. And the Administration did nothing to hold accountable the white-collar elites (criminals who long ago learned the benefits of campaign contributions) who had brought the financial system to its knees through their fraudulent and deceitful practices. In short, the party that is supposed to be the party of the working class proved it had become captive to Wall Street and progressive special interest groups — i.e., to money.
The Republicans were even worse, favoring, as they always seem to, fat cats and the top 1 percent. But I don’t expect party leaders on the Right to care about the working class. I do expect progressives or liberals to care. Suffice it to say they came up short.
I wasn’t totally surprised by any of this. For quite some time, I realized national politics had become a money game, and that those without the money to play didn’t have much of a say in the matter. And that Congress was filled with many very small people — people devoid of vision and ideas but skilled at getting elected and reelected by artful manipulation of the electorate and rampant gerrymandering.
My other grips about liberalism concern its simplistic solutions. Too often, they think the solution to every problem is to increase taxes and redistribute money (not that there isn’t a role for redistribution mechanisms). Too often liberals seem blind to the insidious effects of handouts and oblivious to the role of incentives. And seem delusional about the basic character of humans. In that vein, they seem to think (or pretend, I’m not sure) that people are better than we are. Liberals’ solutions often seem premised on the integrity and good character of all (sans fat-cats, of course). It’s fantasy. At its worst, it’s simply vote buying. And paternalistic and condescending.
The Left also went all in with coastal urbanites and largely abandoned rural, Southern and Rust Belt voters, as well as those who didn’t embrace the party’s social agenda. Again, liberalism lost sight of the centrality of meaningful work and respect for all people, even the ones who might hold views the elite (rich, highly educated people) or social liberals deem deplorable.
Finally, liberalism embraced globalism and militarism as if it were puppets of multinational corporations and the defense establishment. Again, no one seemed to care about the workers. Or the growing inequities of proportions unseen for 100 years.
None of this is to suggest a progressive’s task is an easy one. The world is a harsh and unjust place. Unfairness and injustice permeate our systems, structures, institutions and laws. Protectionism and redistribution mechanism reward the privileged.
I share the progressive’s desire to foster a more just world and not to allow people’s lust for more wealth and power to dominate the public square unopposed. And I share liberals’ realization that unconstrained capitalism yields much injustice and sows the seeds for civil strife. But I don’t share the view that the solution is simplistic redistribution, or solved by identity politics.
Justice work is a complicated task, one fraught with unintended consequences for well-intended solutions. Which is fine, for the degree of difficulty is but a challenge not an impenetrable barrier. Yet too often the progressive’s solution is geared not to the best outcome; rather, too often it is geared to the “solution” that will ensure the uninterrupted flow of financial support to the party or reelection of the incumbent, or to solutions that merely supplant one problem for another. In short, today progressives suffer from that which also afflicts the Right: lack of character, vision and compassion.
At its core, the election of the mean-spirited megalomaniac who presently occupies the White House was, in part, the consequence of liberalism’s abandonment of the working class and their inability to advance solutions that appealed to the working class as opposed to only the special interest groups that lined the party’s coffers. People could sense the political leaders cared more about raising money to ensure their own reelection than the people. Reacting by electing a charlatan was foolish, yet it was predictable.
In the world of capitalism, there is capital (ownership) and labor. The Right, despite its artful and successful strategy to convince workers that its policies are pro-labor, are all about capital. If liberalism is to reclaim the mantel of labor, it must stop demonizing capital and recognize the crucial and important role it plays in advancing the general welfare. And it must advance solutions that don’t do more harm than good and that aren’t designed simply to move money from one hand to another.
In short, liberalism must represent a path forward grounded in a bold, practical vision grounded in respect and dignity for all, including those born without privilege and who simply want to be treated fairly and not be forgotten or constantly beaten down by the hammer of wealth and privilege.
I’m not holding my breath.