Liberalism Then and Now

By | 2019-03-10T17:31:42-07:00 March 10th, 2019|
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If you go back just a few decades, here is what liberals believed:

  1. Everyone should be judged as an individual. To see someone as a representative of a group is to stereotype him.
  2. People have a right to privacy, which means that what they do in their personal lives isn’t relevant to their public and work lives.
  3. Free speech is the basis of a free society.
  4. Journalists should act as nonpartisan watchdogs monitoring the halls of power.
  5. Western civilization is the story of freedom and equality spreading to more and more people in the world.
  6. The United States is a city on a hill.
  7. Scientific findings should be examined on apolitical grounds of validity and method.
  8. One must accept the results of fair elections.
  9. The best art transcends politics.
  10. We must stand up for the working man.

Those positions weren’t controversial back then, but they are worse than controversial now.

Here is what 21st-century liberals believe:

  1. Everyone should be judged as a member of an identity group.
  2. Anything you say on Facebook may be sent to your employer with a demand you be terminated.
  3. Speech is violence. Free speech must be curtailed so that historically disadvantaged peoples won’t be further harmed.
  4. Journalists must become partisans when they object to the politics of the persons they cover.
  5. Western civilization is a legacy of white supremacy.
  6. The United States was built on slavery and genocide.
  7. Scientific findings must be judged by their political implications.
  8. The election of someone who is abominable must be overturned.
  9. All art is political, and the best art reinforces progressive goals.
  10. The working man in America is a drain on innovation and dangerous to the environment.

One remarkable thing about these reversals is that liberals who supported the former have switched to the latter without apology or concern. College professors who once insisted that sexism in hiring stop and men and women be judged impartially don’t hesitate to agree that women should receive favorable treatment. Liberals who previously affirmed that social science research demonstrated that racist beliefs were false have no problem with activists demanding that studies which have reached politically incorrect conclusions be suppressed. Democrats who favored a southern border wall 10 years ago oppose it now because the context has changed—and context is everything.

It’s not that liberalism has changed, though. We now see that liberalism never was a specific set of beliefs. It was a disposition, a certain pliable and progressive attitude toward things.

If you thought liberals prized freedom of conscience as a bedrock principle, after seeing the Little Sisters of the Poor hauled into the Supreme Court by the beloved Obama Administration you realize that liberals were ready to abandon that principle as soon as the winds of propriety blew in another direction. The prime liberal virtue is flexibility, not liberty or dignity or equal opportunity. We have problems, they maintain, not because people hold the wrong opinions, but because they hold those opinions too firmly. If everyone would just lighten up and relax and pull back a little, tensions would ease, polarization would decrease, and we could get along. The great enemy is dogmatism of any kind.

Changing one’s mind, then, isn’t a sign of cynicism or mendacity. It’s maturity, in the liberal’s eyes. Conservatives who accuse them of hypocrisy and think they’ve scored a point are wasting their breath. The only thing that will sway a liberal to change his mind is the premonition that the winds are shifting once again.

Liberals have favored leftist breezes in the compromise game, to be sure, but that’s only because leftists control the wind machines of Hollywood, academia, Silicon Valley—the popular culture writ large. They loathe and fear Donald Trump because they sensed, quite accurately and from the start, that he would undo the concessions of the recent past and make the future more adversarial.

Trump puts liberals in a hard spot. Other Republicans, ever-conceding one issue after another, pleased liberals who found leftists pushing them on a dozen fronts in the Obama years. A soft Republican leadership helped liberals pacify the Left and keep the status quo more or less intact. President Trump ruined the whole set-up. The solution to the liberals’ Trump problem, however, isn’t removal of the president. His ascent signals too many people fed up with liberal flexibility (and leftist aggression). Liberals better change their “art of the deal” if they want the establishment house they’ve built since the mid-20th century to survive.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

About the Author:

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-2005) he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.