Bankrupt Liberalism & Disappointed Idealism

I’ve heard a number of interviews with Chris Hedges (and am now in the middle of reading his book, Death of the Liberal Class). In the above video, he said (from transcript):

And when you, within a society, have a bankrupt liberalism—it’s something Dostoevsky wrote about in Demons and Notes from the Underground at the end of the 19th century—you descend inevitably into a period of moral nihilism, you remove that capacity for change, that mechanism by which change is possible, and so that this legitimate rage, which is being expressed by huge numbers of the dispossessed within the United States, has no outlet through traditional political mechanisms and finds its expression in these proto-fascist movements like the militias or tea parties. And that’s essentially what’s happened. So the tragedy of the liberal class is that it was destroyed and it destroyed itself. And you can’t maintain a civil society in those kinds of circumstances.

There are two issues that this reminded me of.

First, it makes sense to me what George Carlin once said: “Scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” I don’t know if this is always true. Some cynics may have been born as psychopaths and simply lack empathy. Nonetheless, I definitely think this insight applies to liberals.

Second, I think idealism is inherently a liberal trait. Many conservatives consider liberals naive for their idealism. They often may be right, but I think that misses the point. Even though idealism can and does fail, it’s those striving for the impossible that help make the world a better place. I don’t think democracy would be possible without unrealistic idealists challenging the status quo. (As always, it must be kept in mind that my use of liberalism and conservatism are on a spectrum rather than absolute categories.)

There is a different kind of cynicism that is a failure of conservatism, but it’s just the failure of liberal idealism cuts to the heart of democratic society. Anyway, as a liberal, the failure of liberal idealism hits more of a nerve with me. I agree with Chris Hedges that the liberal movement has become disempowered and many liberals have given up on striving for worthy ideals. I’m one of those cynical liberals and that saddens me. There are few liberal politicians who represent my ideals and there is no populist liberal movement that is capable of forcing politicians to represent liberal ideals. It’s hard not to be cynical in a world controlled by people who, at best, see ideals as nothing more than useful rhetoric.

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