I was rereading a few articles by Joe Bageant. He wrote about many topics, but one stood out to me this time: liberalism. He sometimes uses liberals as the contrast to the stories he tells about his fellow Appalachians from his hometown. I realized he was using liberal in a specific sense, not uncommon in the US, at least in the mainstream.
I was reminded of how many different liberalisms there are, most of them having to do with the dictionary definition of the word as liberal-minded. In my previously reading another author, Domenico Losurdo, it took quite a bit of struggle to grasp his European perspective of liberalism, which I came to realize included and emphasized what in the US would be called conservatism. Maybe Losurdo is onto something, as I discovered looking at Pew results showing a significant number of Americans self-identify as conservative even as they hold stereotypically liberal views across the board, socially and economically.
Bageant was certainly not using a European perspective or thinking about complicating survey results. He never clearly defines what he means by liberal, but it became clear through his usage. He seemed to be using the category, in the American context, as representing people with all or most of the following:
1) White, ancestrally and/or culturally WASP, identified with the dominant culture and social order.
2) Native-born American, with unconscious or unadmitted tendencies toward nativism and ethno-nationalism, their loyalty ultimately being to the status quo of white America, multiculturalist rhetoric aside.
3) Mainstream, born into privilege along with relatively more power and influence, a part of the system and invested in the system.
4) Gatekeepers of the mainstream, defenders of the status quo, middle-to-upper class economic elite, well-educated intellectual elite, salaried professional employees in academia, media, and other respectable fields.
5) Secularists and atheists, critics of the lower classes and low culture.
6) Democrats, partisan voters, politically involved as activists, leaders, politicians, pundits, and talking heads.
It is the stereotype of the liberal elite. As a liberal, I don’t fit much of that. I question this stereotype, popular both on the far right and the far left. I’m not arguing that only I, as a liberal, get to define liberalism. My point is just that there is more to liberalism than a stereotype.
One of the problems is that many people who get labeled by others as liberal don’t self-identify as liberal nor necessarily hold strong liberal views, maybe even holding some rather illiberal views. I like to use Obama as a case in point. He doesn’t claim to be liberal. Liberal rhetoric aside, he doesn’t act overly liberal. If liberal rhetoric is all it takes to be liberal, then most people in this post-Enlightenment world are liberal. That doesn’t seem helpful in understanding liberalism.
There are many Americans, like myself, who identify as liberal or who otherwise consistently hold strong liberal views. Most of these people probably don’t fit the stereotype of liberalism. There are working class liberals. There are even poor liberals, some of whom are homeless or unemployed. There are liberals in prison and in ghettoes. There are liberals in rural farming states. There are disenfranhised liberals and radical liberals. All kinds of liberals in all walks of life.
I might go so far as to argue this is the silent majority of liberals. They aren’t the liberal elite and so they aren’t heard. The average liberal gets less attention than the average conservative, because the mainstream narrative portrays the average American as conservative. But polls don’t support this assumption, this stereotype of a liberal elite versus the conservative masses. In many ways, the masses are more liberal than the elite.
It was unfortunate that an otherwise insightful thinker like Bageant fell into that trap of political rhetoric. He was asking about how do we get the poor and working class to become better educated and informed. A good question, if framed correctly.
What Bageant didn’t note was that there are and always have been many liberals like me. I’m well read and put a lot of effort into undersanding the world, but I’m not an elite of any kind, especially not an intellectual elite. My mostly working class family arose out of poverty in recent generations and, working class myself, I’ve lived below the poverty line before and don’t live far above it now.
There is a whole new generation that has been hitting adulthood during this new century. They are more well educated and have more access to info (including alternative sources) than any generation in history. They also have high rates of unemployment and poverty. It is becoming ever more common to find people with college degrees working minimum wage. Relevant to the discussion here, this young generation is also more liberal than previous generations, whatever they may label themselves.
I’m not sure what Bageant thought about these people. Most young whites in many Southern states are also quite liberal, according to the data. Many of the bought Obama’s hype, but they are hardly a partisan stronghold of Democratic loyalty. In writing about his hometown, what Bageant doesn’t talk about are the younger generation, many of whom have left behind that world but have not forgotten it.
Bageant’s Scots-Irish kinfolk aren’t represntative of most poor and working class Americans. They are a sub-population under great stress, a population with a specific history and culture. Generalizations shouldn’t be based upon them. They aren’t the heartland. They are just one of the many dark corners, places growing ever darker as the following generations merge on the socially liberal big cities and metropolises.
In speaking of liberalism and conservatism, we need to look beyond the stereotypes of the past, whether or not those stereotypes ever corresponded to reality.