JFK, Little Bit Muddy: A Liberal Definition of Liberalism

(Part three of four: one, two, three, and four)

All of that was just preamble for what most intrigues me about such endless debates.

What gets me thinking about all this are the underlying issues, the fissures forming. This situation of conservatives defending a liberal like JFK demonstrates how much these labels have changed. As I’ve often noted, the entire political spectrum of the American public has shifted under our feet. This changing social reality sends all the politicians and pundits into a high-drive frenzy, not unlike the strange behavior of animals before an earthquake.

JFK was a pragmatic moderate. I must admit that I don’t get the equating of moderateness/moderation solely or even primarily with conservatism. Certainly, JFK hasn’t changed in the last 50 years since he died. It is the political context that has changed. Older conservatives are discovering the entire world they once knew is fast disappearing. In response, they latch onto any figure that symbolizes America’s past glory days. Having died in office, JFK makes the perfect screen to project upon. His bipartisan tendencies toward compromise (typical of Democrats) lacked ideological purity and so it is easy to cherrypick, as Stoll does, the aspects one likes while disregarding the rest.

I touched upon my core understanding in a comment to Klobas’ review:

Besides, even liberals become more hawkish during hawkish times, as research has shown. Following 9/11, liberals who saw more repeated video of the attacks early on became stronger supporters of the war hawk policies of the Bush administration. Those liberals who initially only heard radio reporting remained more skeptical/wary/resistant of hawkishness. […] 

It is irrelevant that JFK went part of the way with the war hawks. Liberal Democrats went part of the way with the war hawk Bush administration, but that didn’t mean that all the Democrats were really conservatives pretending to be liberals. Obama has followed the Bush war policies without much change, but that doesn’t mean Obama is a conservative pretending to be a liberal (although I’ve always questioned to what extent Obama is a liberal since he has never identified as such; nonetheless, the real issue is that conservatives consider Obama a liberal despite is not being a dove).

JFK wasn’t any more of a war hawk than many other Democratic presidents and politicians. I don’t know if that necessarily makes him a liberal, but it is hard to see that as evidence of him being a conservative.

My worthy opponent in that discussion, S. Freeman, made a decent argument to the contrary and he does so with an amusing story:

Parts of your response remind me of the story of Little Johnny and the mud puddle. Little Johnny asks his mother if he can go out to play with Little Billy. Little Johnny’s mother says no because they are about to go off, and Little Johnny already is dressed. Ultimately, she relents with Little Johnny’s solemn promises to be careful and stay clean. A few minutes later, Little Johnny returns, covered in mud from his waist down. As his mother scolds him for breaking his promise and getting into the mud, Little Johnny explains he and Little Billy were running when they saw they were running toward a large mud puddle. In trying to avoid the puddle, their feet got tangled up and both boys went flying. Little Johnny’s mother was not impressed and continued to scold, to which Little Johnny said, “But Mother, I just fell half way into the mud puddle. Little Billy is fell completely in and is covered in mud from his face to his toes. The point is, while Kennedy may not have “gone all the way” with the war hawks, and while there may have been many war hawks at that time (I was alive then, and remember those times well, including Kennedy’s highly incendiary rhetoric and his baiting Khruschev at their summit. Your argument is Kennedy only got a little bit muddy while the warhawks were covered completely in mud. It may to you and to other readers, but to me, it just does not pass the “mud” test. Had he been less reckless, less belligerent in both rhetoric and action, I might agree with you. But Kennedy, in his less than 3 years in office, had more confrontations with the Soviet Union than did Eisenhower in his entire 8 years in office. Kennedy’s hands just are not as clean as you tend to present them.

That way of looking at the world demonstrates a fundamental distinction between liberalism and conservatism, specifically in the context of liberal-mindedness and conservative-mindedness. As a liberal-minded fellow, I don’t think in dualistic terms of either muddy or not muddy. There is a big difference between a grown man who gets a little muddy while simply going about his work and little boys jumping in mud puddles.

My suspicion is that JFK would more likely understand this liberal-minded viewpoint than he would the conservative-minded either/or dualistic thinking. JFK didn’t get a little bit muddy because he believed in the principle of being muddy. A strong defense, like tax cuts, was a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

What the likes of Stoll and Freeman don’t understand is that liberals are more accepting of being a little bit muddy. Heck, this is that very famous moral relativism that liberals are always getting accused of by conservatives. Most liberals acknowledge it is a muddy world, but they tend to see that as less of an excuse to embrace an ideology of mud and foresake one’s duty to try to remain as clean as possible under muddy conditions.

As I’ve argued many times this can be both a strength and a weakness. I briefly mentioned it in my discussion with Freeman when I spoke of the divergent liberal responses to 9/11. Here is what I was speaking of:

Liberals who gleaned most of their news from television in the days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks increased their support for expanded police powers, bringing them closer in line with the opinions of conservatives, a study by a UW-Madison researcher shows.

In contrast, heavy newspaper reading by liberals was related to lower levels of support for expanded police powers and for limits on privacy and freedom of information, basically reinforcing the differences between liberals and conservatives, says Dietram Scheufele, a journalism professor who conducted the study.

“TV pushed the two groups together in their thinking about post-9/11 policies, such as the Patriot Act. It made liberals more conservative. It took them away from what they initially believed and pushed them more toward a more conservative law-and-order stance,” Scheufele says.

The study, soon to be published in the journal Mass Communications & Society, is based on a survey of nearly 800 residents of Tompkins County, N.Y., in the fall of 2001, shortly after the attacks. Its results have been validated by two subsequent national surveys.

The survey showed that among liberals who watched little television, about 20 percent favored more government police powers. But about 41 percent of liberals who were heavy viewers of TV news supported such measures – much closer to the 50 to 60 percent of conservatives who supported greater police powers, regardless of how much TV news they watched.

The gap between conservatives and liberals widened, however, among heavy newspaper readers.

About 39 percent of light-reading liberals backed restricting freedom of speech in the days after the attacks, versus 31 percent who were heavy newspaper readers. Among conservatives, about 66 percent favored the limits, and nearly 70 percent of heavy readers backed the restrictions.

“Newspaper reading tended to reinforce partisan leanings, partly because it is more selective, readers have more options and seek out their own viewpoints,” Scheufele says. “By contrast, TV coverage is very linear, doesn’t offer any choice and was more image driven. You saw the plane hitting the building time and time again.”

I more thoroughly discussed this issue in a post of mine from last year. That post goes a long way in explaining why liberals easily get confused with conservatives, especially during times of fear and anxiety. One of the talents of liberals is the ability to act like conservatives. As quoted in that post, the psychological reasons for this are summarized well in a paper by Jost, Federico and Napier:

Given that nearly everyone wants to achieve at least some degree of certainty, is it possible that conservatism possesses a natural psychological advantage over liberalism? Although answering this question is obviously fraught with challenges, several lines of research suggest that this might be the case. First, a series of experiments by Skitka et al. (2002) demonstrated that “the default attributional position is a conservative response,” insofar as both liberals and conservatives are quick to draw individualistic (rather than system-level) conclusions about the causes of poverty, unemployment, disease, and other negative outcomes, but only liberals correct their initial response, taking into account extenuating circumstances. When a distraction (or cognitive load) is introduced, making it difficult for liberals to engage in correction processes, they tend to blame individuals for their fate to the same degree that conservatives do. Skitka et al. (2002) therefore concluded, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (p. 484; see also Kluegel & Smith 1986, Skitka 1999). Research by Crandall & Eidelman (2007) takes this general line of reasoning even further, showing that a host of everyday variables associated with increased cognitive load and/or increased need for cognitive closure, such as drinking alcohol, lead people to become more politically conservative. Both of these lines of research are consistent with the notion that conservative styles and opinions are generally simpler, more internally consistent, and less subject to ambiguity, in comparison with liberal styles and opinions (e.g., Tetlock 1983, 2007; Rokeach 1960; Tetlock 1983, 2007). A third reason to suggest that conservatism enjoys a psychological advantage over liberalism comes from research on system justification, which suggests that most people (including liberals) are motivated to adapt to and even rationalize aspects of the status quo, that is, to develop and maintain relatively favorable opinions about existing institutions and authorities and to dismiss or reject the possibility of change, especially in its more radical forms (Jost et al. 2004a). Studies show that justifying the status quo serves the palliative function of increasing positive affect, decreasing negative affect, and making people happier in general, but it also undermines support for social change and the redistribution of resources (Jost & Hunyady 2002, Napier & Jost 2008a, Wakslak et al. 2007).

In my post, I could easily have been speaking of Cold War Era liberals like JFK when I wrote this:

As a movement, liberalism rarely ever suffers from the condition of being too liberal for conditions have to be perfect for the liberal predisposition to fully manifest. Such perfect conditions don’t come around that often and they tend not to last very long. In moments of peace and prosperity, the general public can forget about possible threats and their emotional response becomes dampened, a contented optimism taking its place. Such a moment occurred after the Great Depression and once again after WWII, but after those brief moments conservatism ruled during the Cold War Era and into the post-9/11 Era. Liberals have at best hunkered down and at worst given their support to the conservative agenda (pushing deregulation, dismantling the welfare state, building up the military, going to war against Iraq, supporting the Patriot Act, maintaining Gitmo, empowering the executive branch, etc). Sadly, the liberal movement doesn’t make much of a worthy enemy for the conservative movement. Conservative leaders just have to say “Booh!” and liberal leaders run for cover.

The Cold War Era was far from meeting the perfect conditions necessary for full manifestation of liberalism. There is no contradiction for a liberal to be a “little bit muddy” during such liberal-unfriendly times. For good or ill, that is precisely what liberalism is all about.

(Continue reading: part four)

5 thoughts on “JFK, Little Bit Muddy: A Liberal Definition of Liberalism

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