Bias About Bias

A common and contentious issue is accusations of bias, often in the media but more interestingly in science. But those making perceiving bias can’t agree what they are. Some even see biases in how biases are understood. An example of this is how ideologies are labeled, defined, framed, and measured. I’m specifically thinking in terms of opinion polling and social science research.

A certain kind of liberal oddly agrees with conservatives about many criticisms of liberalism. I can be that kind of odd liberal in some ways, as complaining about liberals is one of my favorite activities and I do so very much from a liberal perspective. But there are two areas where I disagree with liberals who critique their fellow liberals.

First, I don’t see a liberal bias in the social sciences or whatever else, at least not in the way it is often argued. And second, I don’t see human nature as being biased toward conservatism (nor, as Jonathan Haidt concludes, that conservatives are more broadly representative and better understanding of human nature).

* * *

Let me begin with the first.

I agree in one sense, from a larger perspective, and I could go even further. There is a liberal bias in our entire society and in all of modern Western civilization. Liberalism is the dominant paradigm.

As far as that goes, even conservatives today have a liberal bias, which is obvious when one considers how most of conservatism is defined by the liberalism of the past and often not even that far into the past. Conservatives in the modern West are more liberal than liberals used to be — not just more liberal in a vague relative sense, as contemporary conservatives in historical terms are amazingly liberal (politically, socially, and psychologically). Beyond comparisons to the past, the majority who identify as conservative even hold largely liberal positions in terms of present-day standard liberalism.

Being in a society that has been more or less liberal for centuries has a way of making nearly everyone in that society liberal to varying degrees. Our short lives don’t allow us the perspective to be shocked by how liberal we’ve all become. This shows how much Western society has embraced the liberal paradigm. Even the most reactionary politics ends up being defined and shaped by liberalism. We live in a liberal world and, to that extent, we are all liberals in the broad sense.

But this gets into what we even mean by the words we use. A not insignificant issue.

This insight about the relativity of liberalism has been driven home for me. In the context of our present society, using the general population as the measure, those who identify as and are perceived as liberals (specifically in mainstream politics and mainstream media) are really moderate-to-center-right. Sure, the average ‘liberal’ is to the left of the political right, by definition. Then again, the average ‘liberal’ is far to the right of most of the political left (or at least this is true for the liberal class that dominates). Those who supposedly represent liberalism are often neither strongly nor consistently liberal, and so I wonder: In what sense are they liberal? Well, beyond the general fact of their living in a liberal society during a liberal age.

This watered-down liberalism defined by the status quo skewed rightward becomes the defining context of everything in our society (and, assuming the so-called liberals are somewhere in the moderate middle, that still leaves unresolved the issue of what exactly they are in the middle of — middle of elite-promoted mainstream thought? middle of the professional middle-to-upper class?). If social science has a liberal bias, it is this bias of this ‘moderate middle’ or rather what gets portrayed as such. And put that way, it doesn’t sound like much of a bias as described, other than the bias of ideological confusion and self-confirmation, but certainly not a bias toward the political left. As far as leftists go, this supposed liberalism is already pretty far right in its embrace or at least tolerance of neoliberal corporatism and neocon oligarchy. Certainly, the ‘liberals’ of the Democratic Party are in many ways to the right of the American public, with nearly half of the latter not voting (and so we aren’t talking about a ‘liberalism’ that is in the middle of majority opinion).

The question isn’t just what words mean but who gets to define words and who has the power to enforce their definitions onto the rest of society. Liberalism ends up being a boundary, a last line of defense. This far left and no further. Meanwhile, there seems to be no limit to how far our society is allowed to drift right, often with the cooperation of ‘liberal’ New Democrats, until we teeter on the edge of authoritarianism and fascism, although always with liberal rhetoric playing in our ears. The liberal paradigm so dominates our imaginations that we can’t see the illiberal all around us. So, liberalism dominates, even as it doesn’t rule, at least not in a direct and simplistic sense.

With all this in mind, the mainstream may have a ‘liberal’ bias in this way. But it obviously doesn’t have a leftist bias. There is the problem. Leftism has been largely ignored, except for its usefulness as a bogeyman since the Cold War. Mainstream liberalism is as far (maybe further) away from leftism as it is from conservatism. And yet to mainstream thought, leftism isn’t allowed to have an independent identity outside of liberalism, besides when a scapegoat is needed. Ignored in all this is how far leftist is the American public, the silenced majority — an important detail, one might think.

Social scientists, political scientists, and pollsters all the time include nuanced categories for the political right, distinguishing conservatives from libertarians, authoritarians, and reactionaries. But what about nuanced categories for the political left? They don’t exist, at least not within mainstream thought. There is little if any research and data about American social democrats, socialists, communists, Marxists, anarchosyndicalists, left-libertarians, etc; as if such people either don’t exist or don’t matter. It’s only been in recent years that pollsters even bothered to ask Americans about some of this, discovering that the majority of certain demographics (younger generations, minorities, etc) do lean left, including about the terms and labels they favor, such as seeing ‘socialism’ in a positive light.

In social science, we know so little about the political left. The research simply isn’t there. Social science researchers may be ‘liberal’, however we wish to define that, but one gets the sense that few social science researchers are left-liberals and fewer still are leftists. It would be hard for radical left-wingers (or those who are perceived as such within the mainstream) to get into and remain within academia, to get hired and get tenure and then to do social science research. As hierarchical and bureaucratic institutions often run on a business model and increasingly privately funded, present day universities aren’t as welcoming to the most liberal-minded leftist ideologies.

Anarchists, in particular, are practically invisible to social science research. Just as invisible are left-libertarians (many being anarcho-syndicalists), as it is assumed in the mainstream that libertarian is by definition right-wing, despite the fact that even right-libertarians tend to be rather liberal-minded (more liberal-minded than mainstream liberals in many ways). It’s almost impossible to find any social science research on these ideologies and what mindsets might underlie them.

Let’s at least acknowledge our ignorance and not pretend to know more than we do.

* * *

This brings me to the second thing.

Among some liberals (e.g., Jonathan Haidt), it’s assumed that human nature is inherently conservative. What is interesting is that this is, of course, a standard conservative argument. But you never hear the opposite, conservatives arguing human nature is liberal.

The very notion of a singular human nature is itself a conservative worldview. A more liberal-minded view is that human nature either doesn’t exist, not in a monolithic sense at least, or else that human nature is fluid, malleable, and shaped by the environment. The latter view is becoming the dominant view in the social sciences, although there are some holdouts like Haidt.

Mainstream thought changes slowly. The idea of a singular human nature was primarily held by the liberal-minded in centuries past. This is because it was used to defend universal human rights and civil rights, often in terms of inborn natural rights. The Enlightenment thinkers and later revolutionary pamphleteers helped spread the notion that everyone had a human nature and that it was basically the same, no matter if European or otherwise, rich or poor, free or slave, civilized or savage.

As opposed to today, the conservative-minded of that earlier era weren’t open to such thinking. Now conservatives have embraced this former ideologically and psychologically liberal position. Classical liberalism, radical in its opposition to the traditionalism of its day, is now seen by even conservatives as the bedrock tradition of our liberal society.

The very notion of a human nature is the product of civilization, not of a supposed human nature. Prior to the Axial Age, no one talked about a human nature nor is it obvious that they ever acted based on the assumption that such a thing existed. The invention of the idea of a ‘human nature’ was itself a radical act, a reconception of what it means to be human. All of post-Axial Age civilization is built on this earliest of radical visions that was further radicalized during the Enlightenment. Without the Axial Age (and one might argue the breakdown of the bicameral mind that made it possible), there would have been no Greco-Roman democracy, republicanism, philosophy, and science; and so no Renaissance that would have helped inspire the European Enlightenment.

The question isn’t just what is human nature, such as conservative or liberal, individualistic or social, etc. First and foremost, we must ask if such a thing exists. If so, what exactly does it even mean to speak of a ‘human nature’? Those are the kinds of questions that are more likely to be considered by the most liberal-minded, at least in the context of present Western society.

When certain liberals argue for a conservative human nature, I suspect an ulterior motive. The implication seems to be that conservatism is the most primitive and base, uncultured and uncivilized layer of the human psyche. As liberals we must contend with this conservatism and so let’s throw the conservative wolf a bone in hopes of domesticating it into a dog that can be house-broken and house-trained.

This could be seen as turning liberalism into an advanced achievement of modern civilization that transcends beyond a base and primal human nature, as if the difficulties and weaknesses of liberalism prove its worth. Sure, conservatism may be the foundation, but liberalism is the penthouse on the upper floors decked out with the finest of modern conveniences. Liberalism is to conservatism, from this perspective, in the way modern civilization is to ancient tribalism. Whatever one may argue about those earlier societies in relation to human nature, I doubt many want to return to that kind of social order, not even among the most nostalgic of reactionaries.

This is an argument made by Jonathan Haidt in promoting a Whiggish narrative of capitalism, despite his at other times bending over backwards to praise conservatism. Using conservatism as a broad base upon which to build the progressive liberal dream is not exactly what conservatives are hoping for from their ideological movement. This is why Haidt doesn’t grasp that most conservatives don’t want to just get along, for egalitarian tolerance isn’t a conservative-minded attitude.

One might suspect that calling human nature fundamentally conservative is a bit of a backhanded compliment. A wary conservative likely would assume a hidden condescension or else an attempt to butter them up for some ulterior motive. Even with the best of intentions, this seems like a wrong way to think about the ideological situation.

Here is a central problem. Anthropological accounts of tribal societies, I’d argue, don’t confirm the hypothesis of a conservative human nature. Outside of the modern Westernized world, I doubt it makes much sense to use a modern Westernized frame like liberal vs conservative. The approach used by theorists of Darwinian psychology has too many pitfalls, misguiding us with cultural biases and leading to deeply unfalsifiable just-so stories. As John Gray stated so clearly, in The Knowns and the Unknowns (New Republic):

“There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party. Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

“Like distinctions between right and left, typologies of liberalism and conservatism may apply in societies that are broadly similar. But the meaning that attaches to these terms differs radically according to historical circumstances, and in many contexts they have no meaning at all.”

For example, in thinking about the Pirahã, I don’t see them as being fundamentally conservative, at least as Daniel Everett portrays them. It appears they don’t particularly care about or, in some cases, even comprehend the worldview of what we call conservatism: need for control and closure, ideological dogmatism and rigid belief systems, natural law and universal morality, family values and the sanctity of marriage, organized religion and religiosity (much less literalism and fundamentalism), rituals and traditions, law and order, social roles and authority figures, overtly enforced social norms and community-sanctioned punishments, public shaming and harsh judgment, disciplinarian parenting and indoctrination of children, strict morality and sexual prudery, disgust about uncleanliness and protection against contagion, worry about injury and death, fear-ridden anxiety and heightened threat perception, dislike toward a lack of orderliness and clear guidelines, etc.

Within their society, they don’t have any kind of hierarchies or privileged positions. They have no chiefs, respected committee of elders, governing body, or political system. Any person could be a temporary leader for a particular activity, but the need for a leader is merely pragmatic and rare. Their society is loosely organized with no formal or traditional roles, such as shaman or medicine man. They lack anything resembling a social institution or social structure. They don’t even have such things as initiations into adulthood, traditions of storytelling, etc. The communal aspects of their tribalism are quite basic and mostly in the background. What holds their society together is simply a cultural identity and personal relationships, not outward rules and forms.

Their way of relating to the larger world is casual as well. They don’t have an inordinate amount of worries and concerns about outsiders or hatred and aggression toward them. They don’t seem to obsess about perceived enemies nor foster a worldview of conflict and danger. The worst that they do is complain about those they think treated them unfairly, such as trade deals and land usage, but even that is talked about in a personal way between individuals. Otherwise, their attitude toward non-Pirahã is mostly a casual indifference and the tolerant acceptance that follows from it.

In some key ways, the Pirahã are less conservative-minded and authoritarian than Western liberals. On the other hand, their society is basically conformist and ethnocentric in a typical tribalistic fashion. And they do have some gender role patterns, including in their language. But their pedophilia is gender neutral, not privileging men, as everyone is permitted to participate in sexual play.

Even within the conformity of their group identity, they strongly disapprove of one individual telling another individual what to do. No Pirahã will tell another Pirahã how to be a Pirahã. And if a Pirahã was unhappy being a Pirahã, I doubt another Pirahã would be bothered or try to stop them from leaving. They appear to have a rather live and let live philosophy.

Pointing out a specific area of social science research, I’m not sure how boundary types would be applied to the Pirahã, in that they don’t think about boundaries as modern Westerners do. They live in such a small world that what exists outside of the boundaries of their experience is simply irrelevant, such that they wouldn’t even recognize a boundary as such. Where their experience of the world stops, that is the edge of their world. There is just what they personally know and then there is everything else. Boundaries are explicitly acknowledged liminal spaces and so extremely fuzzy in their worldview, including boundaries of consciousness and identity. The worldviews of either individuality or group-mindedness would likely seem meaningless to them.

Even pointing out the few areas that could be interpreted as ‘conservative’, I wouldn’t think that would be all that helpful. It doesn’t really say much about human nature in a broad sense. What anthropology shows us, more than anything, is that human societies are diverse and human nature contains immense potential.

Consider all of this from the perspective of the outsider.

Jonathan Haidt came to his understanding partly because of an early experience among another traditional culture, India with its ancient Hinduism and caste system. That gave him a contrast to his liberal view of individualism and convinced him that individualism was lacking in something key to human nature.

I agree, as far as that goes. But I’d simply point out that in the United States the political right is often more obsessed with individualism than is the political left.

It’s American liberals who go on and on about community, the commons, social capital, social responsibility, concern for future generations, externalized costs, environmental protection, natural resource conservation, public parks, public good, public welfare, universal healthcare, universal education, child protection, worker protection, labor unions, public infrastructure, collective governance, group rights, defense of minority cultures, Native American tribal autonomy, etc. And a typical response by American conservatives is to accuse progressive liberals of being collectivists (maybe they’re right about this) while declaring the abstract rights and simplistic individualism of classical liberalism, often mixing this up with fundamentalist religion as though the Christian soul was the basis of Enlightenment individualism and the Biblical God the inspiration for the American Revolution.

Ironically, it is liberals in promoting tolerance who so often end up defending traditional religions and cultures against the attacks by modern-minded conservatives. The latter group, through internalizing libertarian and Objectivist ideologies, have become the fiercest advocates of classical liberalism and hyper-individualism.

Comparison between societies doesn’t necessarily tell us much about comparisons of ideologies within a society. If Haidt had instead spent that time in the Amazon with the Pirahã, he probably would have come to very different views. Plus, it always depends on your starting point, the biases you bring with you. Daniel Everett, who did spend years with the Pirahã, was coming from a different place and so ended up with a different view. Everett was a conservative missionary seeking to convert the natives, but instead they deconverted him and he became an atheist. My sense is that meeting a traditional society left Everett way more liberal than he began, causing him to embrace an attitude of cultural relativism, as inspired by the epistemological relativism of the Pirahã.

What Haidt misses is that Western religious conservatives, especially in the United States, tend to be individualistic Protestants (even American Catholics are strongly individualistic). It’s not that Everett necessarily lost his Evangelical individualism in being deconverted for the traditional society that he met was in some ways even more individualistic, even as it was less individualistic in other ways. The fundamental conflict had little to do with individualism at all. A religious conservative like Everett had been lost in abstractions, based on an abstract religious tradition, but he was blind to these abstractions until he met the Pirahã who found his abstractions to be useless and irritating.

American conservatism, religious and otherwise, can tell us nothing about traditional societies. As Corey Robin convincingly argues, modern conservatives aren’t traditionalists. Modern conservatism was created in response to the failure of the ancien régime. Conservatives came to power not to revive the old order but to create a new and improved order. It wasn’t a movement to conserve but a reaction to what had already been lost. This was clear even early on, as observed by the French counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre when he pointed out that people identifying as conservatives only appeared after revolution had largely destroyed what came before.

Also, keep in mind that individualism and liberalism didn’t appear out of nowhere. Incipient forms of both, as I pointed out earlier, came on the scene back in the Axial Age. Even the India Haidt visited was a fully modern society that had seen millennia of change and progress. Hinduism had long ago fallen under the sway of varying forms of influence from the Axial Age to British Imperialism. And if we are to speculate a bit by considering Julian Jaynes’ bicameral theory, even the hierarchical social orders of recent civilizations were late on the scene in the longer view of vast societal development beginning with agriculture and the first settled communities.

To claim we know the ideological substructure of our humanity is to overlook so many complicating factors, some of which we know but most of which we don’t.

This has been a difficulty in our attempt to understand our own psychological makeup, in how our minds and societies operate. The ultimate bias isn’t political but cultural. Most social science research has been done on the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, And Democratic), primarily white middle class college students. It turns out that very different results are found when other populations are studied, not just countries like India but also tribes like the Pirahã. What we know about ideological groupings, as with human nature, might look far different if we did equally large numbers of studies on the poor, minorities, non-Westerners, independent societies, etc.

It’s not just a matter of what kind of human nature we might be talking about. More importantly, the question is exactly whose human nature are we talking about and who is doing the questioning. WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) researchers studying WEIRD subjects will lead to WEIRD results and conclusions. That is not exactly helpful. And it is even worse than that, as the biases go deep. Our very approach to human nature, identity, and the mind are shaped by our culture. In a WEIRD culture, that has tended to mean the assumption of an autonomous, bounded individual. As Robert Burton explained it (A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind, pp. 107-108):

“Results of a scientific study that offer universal claims about human nature should be independent of location, cultural factors, and any outside influences. Indeed, one of the prerequisites of such a study would be to test the physical principles under a variety of situations and circumstances. And yet, much of what we know or believe we know about human behavior has been extrapolated from the study of a small subsection of the world’s population known to have different perceptions in such disparate domains as fairness, moral choice, even what we think about sharing. 16 If we look beyond the usual accusations and justifications— from the ease of inexpensively studying undergraduates to career-augmenting shortcuts— we are back at the recurrent problem of a unique self-contained mind dictating how it should study itself.

“The idea that minds operate according to universal principles is a reflection of the way we study biological systems in general. To understand anatomy, we dissect one body as thoroughly as possible and draw from it a general grasp of human anatomy. Though we expect variations, we see these as exceptions to a general rule. It is to be expected that we see the mind in the same light. One way to circumvent this potentially misleading tendency to draw universal conclusions whenever possible is to subdivide the very idea of a mind into the experiential (how we experience a mind) and the larger conceptual category of the mind— how we think about, describe, and explain what a mind is. What we feel at the personal (experiential) level should not be confused with what a mind might be at a higher level— either as a group or as an extended mind.”

The very belief that the mind can be explained by the mind is a particular worldview. In the context of WEIRD populations being biased toward such a belief, Burton brought up an interesting point (pp. 50-51):

“If each of us has his/ her own innate ease or difficulty with which a sense of causation is triggered, the same data may generate different degrees of a sense of underlying causation in its readers. Though purely speculative, I have a strong suspicion that those with the most easily triggered innate sense of causation are more likely to reduce complex behavior to specific cause-and-effect relationships, while those with lesser degrees of an inherent sense of causation are more comfortable with ambiguous and paradoxical views of human nature. (Of course, for me to make any firm argument as to the cause of the authors’ behavior would be to fall into the same trap.)

“Unfortunately for science, there is no standard methodology for objectively studying subjective phenomena such as the mind. One investigator’s possible correlation is another’s absolute causation. The interpretation of the cause of subjective experience is the philosophical equivalent of asking every researcher if he/ she sees the same red that you do. The degree and nature of neuroscientists’ causal conclusions about the mind are as idiosyncratic as their experience of love, a sunset, or a piece of music.

“There is a great irony that underlies modern neuroscience and philosophy: the stronger an individual’s involuntary mental sense of self, agency, causation, and certainty, the greater that individual’s belief that the mind can explain itself. Given what we understand about inherent biases and subliminal perceptual distortions, hiring the mind as a consultant for understanding the mind feels like the metaphoric equivalent of asking a known con man for his self-appraisal and letter of reference.”

* * *

Here are some further thoughts about liberalism and such.

Maybe our very view of liberal bias has been biased by the ‘liberal class’ that dominates, defines, and studies liberalism. I don’t doubt that there are all kinds of biases related to our living in a modern liberal society as part of post-Enlightenment Western Civilization. But this bias might be wider, deeper, and more complex than we realize.

This class issue has been on my mind a lot lately. We live in a class-obsessed society. Sure, we obsess about class differently than the Indian caste system, but in some ways we are even more obsessed by caste for the very reason that it stands in for so much else, such as how castes include factors of ethnicity, religion and social roles. Class, in American society, has to do so much more ideological work to accomplish the same ends of maintaining a social hierarchy.

Maybe this is why class ideology gets conflated with political ideology, in a way that wouldn’t be seen in a different kind of society. Calling oneself a liberal in our society only indirectly has anything to do with liberal politics and a liberal mentality, as many who identify as liberal aren’t strongly liberal-minded about politics while many who are strongly liberal-minded about politics don’t identify as liberals.

The word ‘liberal’ doesn’t actually mean what we think it means. The same goes for ‘conservative’. These words are proxies for other things. To be called liberal in America most likely means you are part of the broad liberal class, which typically means you’re a well-educated middle-to-upper class professional, no matter that your politics might be moderate-to-conservative in many ways. A poor person who is liberal across the board, however, will unlikely identify as a liberal because they aren’t part of the liberal class. This is why rhetoric about the liberal elite has such currency in our society, even as this so-called liberal elite can be surprisingly more conservative than the general public on a wide variety of key issues.

What we forget is that our society is highly unusual and not representative of human nature, not in the slightest. The American liberal class is the product of a society that is based on Social Darwinian pseudo-meritocracy, late capitalism, plutocratic cronyism, and neoliberal corporatism. As I argued earlier, even American universities are hierarchical, bureaucratic institutions. And the Ivy League colleges still use class-based legacy privileges, which is important for maintaining the American social order as most politicians are Ivy League graduates as are many who are recruited by alphabet soup agencies (e.g., CIA). The larger history of Western universities precedes Enlightenment liberalism by centuries, not having been designed with leftist ideologies in mind.

Yet we consider universities to be refuges for the intellectual elite of the liberal class. That is only true in terms of the class social order. The majority of the liberal-minded, of the socially and politically liberal won’t find a refuge in such a place. In fact, the most strongly liberal-minded would rarely fit into the stultifying regimented lifestyle of a university. To be successful in a university career would require some strong personality traits of conservative-mindedness, although some have argued that was less true decades ago.

As such, liberalism in the United States has taken on so much meaning that has directly nothing to do with liberalism itself, specifically when talking about the role of liberalism within human nature. Consider other societies. In feudal Europe or the slave American South, being liberal (psychologically, socially, and politically) would have had nothing whatsoever to do with class; and if anything, being too liberal in such societies would have been harmful to your class status and class aspirations.

During the American Revolution, it was actually among the lower classes that were found the most liberal-minded radicals and rabblerousers. Thomas Paine, a self-taught working class bloke and often dirt poor, was on of the more liberal-minded among the so-called founding fathers. The more elite founding fathers were too invested in the status quo to go very far in embracing liberalism and many of them became or always were reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The working class revolutionaries who fought for liberalism didn’t tend to bode well, either before or after the revolutionary era. It took many more generations before a liberal class began to develop and, even then, the most strongly and radically liberal would often be excluded.

This is the point. A liberal class hasn’t always existed, despite liberal-minded traits having been part of human nature for longer than civilization has existed. The status quo ‘liberalism’ of the liberal class in a modern capitalism of the West is the product of specific conditions. It’s a social construct, as is ‘conservatism’. The entire framework of liberal vs conservative is a social construct that makes no sense outside of the specific society that formed it.

Environments are powerful shapers of the psyche, of attitudes and behavior, of worldviews and politics. All of Western civilization has become increasingly liberal and large part of that has to do with improved conditions for larger parts of the population, such as improved health and education even for the poor. In direct correlation with rising IQ, there is increasing liberalism. How class plays into this is that the upper classes see the improvements before the lower classes, but eventually the improvements trickle down or that is what has happened so far. The average working class American today is healthier, smarter, better educated, and more liberal than the middle class was in centuries past.

So, even class can only be spoken of as a comparative status at any given point in history because it isn’t an objective reality. The liberalism of the American liberal class, as such, can only be meaningfully discussed within the context of its time and place. This is more about a social order than about political ideologies, per se. That is most obvious in how conservatives embrace the liberalism of the past, for conservative and liberal have no objective meaning and there is no objective way to measure them.

Environments effect us in ways that involve confounding factors, and most of us inherit our environments along with other factors from our parents (epigenetics connecting environmental influences to new generations, even if a child was raised in another environment). Think about cats. For whatever reason, cat ownership is much more common in the Northeast and the Northwest of the United States. And as these are colder regions, people are more likely to keep cats inside. But this habit of having cats as indoor pets is a recent development. It has led to a rise in toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection — as I’ve discussed before in terms of psychology and ideology:

“When mapped for the US population, there is significant overlap between the rate of toxoplasma gondii infections and the rate of the neuroticism trait. Toxoplasmosis is a known factor strongly correlated with neuroticism, a central factor of personality and mental health. When rates are high enough in a specific population, it can potentially even alter culture, which is related to ideology. Is it a coincidence that liberals have high rates of neuroticism and that one of the areas with high rates of toxoplasmosis is known for its liberalism?”

Are New Englanders a particular kind of liberal simply because that is the way they are? Or if we corrected for the confounding factor of cats and toxoplasmosis, would we find for example that there is no causal relation between liberalism and neuroticism?

Environments aren’t always inherited, as it can change quite easily. Will a New England family that moved to the South still show increased rates of neurotic liberalism several generations later? Probably not. Most of this isn’t intentional and parents are often perplexed about why their children turn out differently, oblivious to the larger conditions that shape individuals.

My conservative parents raised me in a liberal church and in some liberal towns. And maybe more importantly, they raised me with cats in the house. It wasn’t genetic determinism and inborn nature that made me into a neurotic liberal. Still, the potential for neuroticism and liberalism had to be within me for environmental conditions to make it manifest. And indeed I can see how my neurotic liberalism is just an exaggerated variation of personality traits I did inherit from my conservative parents who are mildly liberal-minded.

Then again, I did inherit much of my broader environment from my parents: born in the United States, spent my formative years in the Midwest, grew up during the Cold War, went to public schools, encouraged to respect education from a young age, my entire life shaped by Western culture and capitalism, etc. So, my parents’ conservatism and my liberalism probably has more in common than not, as compared to the rest of the world’s population and as compared to past societies. Parents and their children share a social order and the way that social order shapes not just people but all the world around them. And in many cases, parents and their children will share the same basic position or place in society.

That is the case with my family, as contact with the broad liberal class has influenced my conservative parents as much as it has influenced me. The same goes for the Midwestern sensibility I share with my parents. My parents’ Midwestern conservatism seemed liberal when our family moved South. And my liberalism is far different than what goes for liberalism in the South. Had various lines of my family remained outside of the Midwest, the following generations would probably have been far different. Choices to move that were made by previous generations of non-Midwesterners led to my parents and I being born as Midwesterners.

Then, even later on living in the South, my parents and I couldn’t shake how growing up in the Midwest had permanently altered us, more powerfully than any political ideology (although less so for my dad, maybe because his mother was a Southerner). This is why it is often easier for me to talk with my conservative parents or to conservative Iowans than to talk to the liberals of the liberal class from other parts of the country.

Context is everything. And this gets me wondering. If all confounding factors were controlled for, what would be left that could be fairly and usefully identified as political ideology?

When feudalism was the dominant paradigm and ruling social order, it simply seemed like reality itself. It was assumed that social and class position were built into human nature. This is one of the earliest sources of racial thinking. The aristocracy and monarchy assumed (based on pseudo-scientific theories and observations of class, ethnicity, and animal husbandry) that feudal serfs were a separate race, i.e., a sub-species. It turns out that they were wrong. But if they had had the ability to measure various factors (from personality to ideology, from physiology to health), they would have noted consistent patterns that supported the belief that the social order was based on a natural order. It was a dogmatic ideology that was systematically enforced and so became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What if our own society operates in a similar way? Class-based opportunities and disadvantages, privileges and punishments socially and physically construct a shared experience of reality. A cultural worldview then rationalizes and encloses this in a mythos of ideological realism. The sense of identity is framed by this and those who inquire into human nature already have their sense of human nature constrained accordingly. Unless they are confronted by a truly foreign society, their worldview will remain hermetically sealed.

* * *

How many in our society, even among the well-educated, ever manage to escape from this blindered habitus? Not many. Only as the culture itself shifts will more people within the culture be able to explore new undestandings. This will then lead to new biases, but one could hope those biases will be more expansive and flexible.

Bias is inevitable. But we have the added problem of being biased in our perception of bias. It’s impossible to fully discern one’s own biases while under their influence, although we can gain the awareness of our predicament. The fact that we are beginning to question the biases of our culture indicates that we are beginning to shift outside of them. It will take at least a few more generations, though, before we can understand this shift and what it means.

Give it some time and liberalism will mean something entirely new. And the conservatives of the future will embrace the liberalism of our present. Some of what we now consider radical or even unimaginable will eventually be normal and commonplace. There will be different sets of biases framed in a different worldview and dominated by a different paradigm.

Most people in the future likely won’t even notice that a shift happened, as it likely will be gradual. They’ll assume that the world they know is in some sense how the world has always been. That assumption will shape their sense of human nature, how they think about it and study it, probably in ways that would surprise us. But one thing is for sure. They’ll look back on our debates about ideological natures and biases in the way we look back on the simplistic and misguided rhetoric of feudalism that defined the classes as separate races.

One thing that is safe to assume is that our society is wrong about most things we’ve taken as obvious truth. The realization of such uncertainty is a step toward new understanding.

Poised on a Knife Edge

“To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
~ Edmund Burke

I spent much of the day looking back at old posts. My purpose was to find my various writings on the revolutionary era, specifically in relation to the American Revolution. I was doing so in order to link to them in the post I just wrote, about democratic republicanism in early America.

In my search, I came across a post from several years ago. It is sort of a rambling book review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, the topic being the relationship between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. What caught my attention was the comments section. I sometimes put more into the comments section than I do in the post itself. A longtime friend and reader of the blog left a comment, which is partly what led me to go off on some tangents there.

As one of my responses, I quoted at length from Corey Robin’s writings. One quote came from the first book I read by him, The Reactionary Mind:

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Robin explains what Burke meant by the moral imagination, explains why such power exists and what nullifies it. That is why I began this post with the quote by Burke. Here is the fuller context from the 1759 text (“A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful”, Part Two, Section III – Obscurity):

To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion.

It’s not just the power of the mind. Moral imagination is what extends power over people, the emotional grip of distant or hidden authority, human or otherwise. Sublimity and fear, awe and terror.

But this misses the subtlety of this power. Moral imagination is everpresent, the pervasive force that puts blinders on our vision, hypnotizing us into a reality tunnel and sometimes full epistemic closure. As Burke puts it, this forms the wardrobe of our moral imagination, from which we clothe our experience of the world. This wardrobe holds the social constructs of the mind, the ideologies and narratives of society, the customs and norms of culture. It is just there, all around us, enclosing us, a familiar presence, and yet near impossible to see directly, most often barely glimpsed at the periphery of our awareness. It’s power is in its simultaneous obscurity and presence, the unseen depths of unconsciousness with an undertow that can be felt.

Also in the comments section, I pointed to the connection to another writer: “I noticed in these passages that ‘horror’ was mentioned a few times. Corey Robin even made reference to horror movies/films and “delightful horror.” What came to my mind is something that Thomas Ligotti said in an interview. He was discussing monsters. He explained that no story can ever have a monster as the protagonist, for then the sense of monstrosity would be lost. The monster has to remain other and the evil vague. That is what gives a horror story its power to horrify.” That stood out to me most of all. There is a simple reason for this, as I had just recently mentioned Ligotti (in relation to True Detective) to this same friend when he came to visit me. I had forgotten about these comments. Reading them again, I saw them in new light. That involves a more important reason for these comments interesting me. Ligotti was making a deeper point than mere commentary on horror fiction. The most horrifying other is that which is unseen and that is its power over us.

This all connects back to the ongoing development of my own theory, that of symbolic conflation. But I forgot about an earlier post where I brought Burke into the context of symbolic conflation. It was for a different reason, though.

In that post, I explained Burke’s role as an outsider and how that positioned him as a purveyor of symbolic conflation. The moral imagination is all about this, as symbolic conflation is the beating heart, the meeting point of the imagined and the real. The centrality of the outsider status also brings into play the reactionary mind, according to Corey Robin, for the outsider sees most clearly the threat of boundaries being transgressed and all boundaries are ultimately boundaries of the mind. A symbolic conflation is a wall that both marks and establishes the boundary. It makes the boundary real and, in doing so, defends the authority of claims about what is real.

This is the moral imagination of fear. It is a visceral fear, the embodied imagination. A symbolic conflation requires a grounding within bodily experience, fight and flight, pain and illness, pleasure and guilt, punishment and death. It relates to what I call the morality-punishment link. It also offers possible insight into the origins of the reactionary mind. The conservative, as I argue, is simply a liberal in reactionary mode. The conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by their own moral imagination. Their minds have been wrapped in chains of fear and locked shut by symbolic conflation, the visceral experience of a story that has become their reality.

This is a potential existing within everyone, not just those on the political right. But this potential requires specific conditions to become manifest. Liberalism and the conservative reaction to it is an expression of modernity. This dynamic isn’t found in all societies. It is a cultural product and so there is nothing inevitable about it. Other cultures are possible with other ideological mindsets and other social dynamics. For us moderns, though, it is the only reality we know, this endless conflict within our collective psyche.

Maybe unintentionally, Edmund Burke offers us the key to unlock the modern mind. Knowing this key existed is what he feared the most, for then the human mind and its potential would be laid bare. Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.

The near cosmic morality tale of ideological conflict is itself a symbolic conflation. There is always a story being told and its narrative force has deep roots. Wherever a symbolic conflation takes hold, a visceral embodiment is to be found nearby. Our obsession with ideology is unsurprisingly matched by our obsession with the human brain. The symbolic conflation, though moral imagination, gets overlaid onto the brain for there is no greater bodily symbol of the modern self. We fight over the meaning of human nature by wielding the scientific facts of neurocognition and brain scans. It’s the same reason the culture wars obsess over the visceral physicality of sexuality: same sex marriage, abortion, etc. But the hidden mysteries of the brain make it particularly fertile soil. As Robert Burton explained in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Kindle Locations 2459-2465):

our logic is influenced by a sense of beauty and symmetry. Even the elegance of brain imaging can greatly shape our sense of what is correct. In a series of experiments by psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel, it was shown that “presenting brain images with an article summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to other articles that did not contain similar images. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination and credibility of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images.” The authors’ conclusion: “Brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.” *

The body is always the symbolic field of battle. Yet the material form occludes what exactly the battle is being fought over. The embodied imagination is the body politic. We are the fear we project outward. And that very fear keeps us from looking inward, instead always drawing us onward. We moderns are driven by anxiety, even as we can never quite pinpoint what is agitating us. We are stuck in a holding pattern of the mind, waiting for something we don’t know and are afraid to know. Even as we are constantly on the move, we aren’t sure we are getting anywhere, like a dog trotting along the fenceline of its yard.

* * *

* D. McCabe and A. Castel, “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition, 107( 1), April 2008, 345– 52.
(For criticisms, see: The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images, The Neurocritic.)

Confused Liberalism

Here are some thoughts on ideological labels and mindsets in the United States. I had a larger post I was working on, which I may or may not post. But the following is bite-sized commentary. Just some things to throw out there.

These views are not exactly new to my writing. They are issues my mind often returns to, because I’m never quite satisfied that I fully understand. I can’t shake the feeling that something is being misunderstood or overlooked, whether or not my own preferred interpretations turn out to be correct.

The two thoughts below are in response to this question:

What do we mean when we speak of liberalism?

* * *

We live in a liberal society, in that we live in a post-Enlightenment age where the liberal paradigm is dominant. But what exactly is this liberalism?

What I find interesting is that conservatives in a liberal society aren’t traditionalists and can never be traditionalists. They are anti-traditionalists and would be entirely out of place in a traditional society. These conservatives are forced to define themselves according to the liberal paradigm and so their only choice is to either become moderate liberals or reactionaries against liberalism.

Even if they choose the latter, they still don’t escape liberalism because our identities are shaped as much by what we react to as by what we embrace. In some ways, we become what we react to, just in a distorted way. That is why reactionary conservatives use liberal rhetoric, often unconsciously.

Ironically, the illiberalism of such reactionary politics is only possible in a liberal society. And, sadly, that reactionary politics has become the dominant ideology in a liberal society like this. The liberal and the reactionary are two sides of the same coin.

This is quite the conundrum for the liberal and reactionary alike. Both are chained together, as they pull in opposite directions.

* * *

There are a large number (how many?) of self-identified liberals who aren’t strongly liberal-minded and maybe a bit conservative-minded, aren’t consistent supporters of liberal politics, are wary of liberal economic reforms, are unsure about the liberalism of human nature, and/or doubt a liberal society is possible. These kinds of ‘liberals’ are their own worst enemies. They make it easy for the political right to dominate, for the authoritarians and social dominance orientation types to gain and maintain power.

I’ve come to a suspicion. It’s not just that many of these supposed liberals aren’t particularly liberal. I’d go further than that. Some of them, possibly a large number of them, could be more accurately described as status quo conservatives. But this isn’t to say that some liberals aren’t strongly liberal-minded. My thought goes in a different direction, though. Maybe the crux of the matter isn’t self-identified liberals at all.

Self-identified liberals have proven themselves easily swayed by the rhetoric of reactionaries, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Because of this, the label of ‘liberal’ has become associated with weakly liberal positions and what are sometimes illiberal attitudes. Liberalism has become identified with the liberal class and bourgeois capitalism, with mainstream society and the status quo social order, with a waffling fence-sitting and Washington centrism.

My thought is that most liberal-minded people (specifically in the US) don’t identify as liberals and never have. Instead, the strongly liberal-minded have taken up other labels to identify themselves: independents, non-partisans, social democrats, progressives, leftists, left-wingers, socialists, democratic socialists, communists, communalists, communitarians, Marxiststs, unionists, anarchists, anarcho-syndialists, left-libertarians, etc. Pretty much anything but ‘liberal’.

This is where mainstream thought goes off the rails. The most liberal-minded tend to be ignored or overlooked. They don’t fit into the mainstream framework of ideological labels. These strongly liberal-minded people might be a fairly large part of the population, but they can’t be seen.

We don’t have the language to talk about them, much less study them. We have nuanced language to distinguish people on the political right and this nuanced language is regularly used in collecting and analyzing data. Pollsters and social scientists are often careful to separate conservatives from libertarians, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Such nuance is rarely seen in mainstream thought about the political left.

It seems, in the mainstream, that it is assumed that ‘liberals’ can be taken as mostly representative of the entire political left. This is based on the assumption that leftists in the US are so small in number and therefore insignificant and irrelevant. But if we define leftists as all those who are to the left of the liberal class found in the Democratic Party establishment and the mainstream corporate media, we might discover there are more leftists than there are so-called liberals. And if many of those leftists are far more liberal-minded than the self-identified liberals, then how useful is the social science research that uses self-identified liberals as a proxy for all liberal-mindedness?

All is Lost

This election, for many Democrats, wasn’t only about a candidate.

Hillary Clinton was not just a candidate but their candidate. Not just a Democratic candidate but the Democratic Party itself. The Clinton New Democrats have defined and controlled the party for decades. And Hillary Clinton has become the face and voice of the party establishment, of the Democratic worldview. Many Democrats, especially women, have looked to her as a leader long before she ran for the presidency.

What ended was an era. It felt like a stake to the heart of what was left of the progressive vision. It was a loss of a promise, a loss of the guarantee that no matter how bad it could feel at times the United States was fundamentally good and getting better. Democrats didn’t just lose an election. Their entire sense of reality was demolished and their vision torn out by the roots.

How could someone like Donald Trump win? It is incomprehensible to these good liberals. Trump stands for everything they fear and hate, the type of old school bigotry-spewing demagogue and misogynist that this country supposedly left behind when we entered this new century. These Democrats see themselves on the side of good. How could they lose? It was supposed to be impossible for someone like Trump to come to power. All the mainstream media, all the experts, all the polling said it couldn’t happen.

Now, having put all their faith in Hillary Clinton, they’ve been profoundly demoralized and publicly shamed. Their entire sense of the world has been shaken. They are asking themselves, what country is this that I live in? Simply put, they are shocked, maybe traumatized even, and they find themselves in a state of mourning. Nothing will ever be the same again. In their anguish and despair, they’ve gathered in public places to comfort one another, to protest, to have the opportunity to speak and be heard. They want to be reassured that they are not alone, that there are others who understand and share their sadness, their fears, a jumble of emotions and doubts.

Those on the outside see it as a strange response. It’s an election, like many elections before. There are always losing candidates and bad feelings among those who supported those candidates. Also, this isn’t the first time a party has been so severely challenged. In fact, this country has faced many periods of worse conditions than this. Objectively, the stolen election of 2000 was a far more important failure, and yet most partisan Democrats were oblivious of its significance at the time (and most remain oblivious). Nor is this as bad as the Whig Party losing power in being replaced by the Republican Party, Republicans losing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt for three elections in a row, Richard Nixon’s presidency ending with the Watergate scandal, etc.

We haven’t experienced an assassination, civil war, revolution, coup d’etat, or societal collapse. It was just another election, nothing particularly shocking about that. Elections happen on a regular basis. That misses the point, though. It’s easy to be dismissive. This wasn’t a normal election, in so many ways.

It’s slowly dawned on me how this has impacted partisan Democrats and why that impact has been so powerful. When they look upon someone like Trump and his ‘deplorables’, the good liberals feel disgust, an unmoderated and overwhelming disgust. To be fair, Pew found that 55% of voters in general state that they feel disgust about the campaign. But Pew also found a clear difference in Democrats taking it more personally: “Clinton backers – particularly highly educated ones – have more difficulty respecting Trump supporters than the other way around.”

This disgust response is not a rational assessment of the problems we face but a visceral reaction that knocks their legs out from under them, hits them in the gut, hurts their heart, etc. For many of them, it makes them physically ill, in the way that smelling puke can make you puke. And I wouldn’t be surprised if many Clinton supporters took a sick day after the election.

Why is that?

J. Scott Wagner, in his new book The Liberal’s Guide to Conservatives, offers an explanation that seems to fit. In differentiating the two main ideological predispositions, he explains the disgust response (Kindle Locations 4767-4778):

“I think conservative disgust ties in with the strange, strong evidence of conservative strength in the sense of smell, where the disgust response long ago originated in humans. They seem to have a way of “sniffing out” situations, and then use appropriate, mild levels of disgust to set a boundary that doesn’t just max out all at once, like liberal disgust. The emotional reaction is muted. Some research has shown conservatives with broadly higher levels of specific types of brain activity than liberals when disgusted, yet reporting the same perceived level of disgust: this may mean that they’re used to interpreting and dealing with greater impacts from disgusting events without being as emotionally affected.[ 145] It feels to me as if mild levels of disgust are so common for them that they learn to live with it, so that it doesn’t overwhelm them unless there’s a strong reason to be disgusted.

“When I’m around liberals who are disgusted, it’s hard to miss. With conservatives, in situations like business or casual social situations, it can be hard to detect, yet the effects can be dramatic, at least over time. Their politeness often takes the form of being reserved, after all, so what they’re thinking and feeling doesn’t spill out as readily or clearly, even if they’re experiencing disgust.”

Wagner is right about his assessment. And he is right that this fits into the issue of boundaries and boundary types, a topic I’ve discussed with him before in this blog. Liberals can’t simply shut off disgust or compartmentalize it, at least not to the extent that conservatives are so easily able to do. About emotional unpleasantness, liberals “can leave the experience with a much worse feeling than the conservative does; more emotionally affected” (Kindle Locations 3267-3268).

This is because liberals tend toward being thin boundary types. There is less division and distance between aspects of a liberal’s life and experience. This applies as well to perception of time, as the past is never entirely past for the thin boundary type. As such, an election doesn’t just end. Also, the results aren’t limited to the boundaries of politics. Thin boundaried liberals take it personally. I could hear this in the words that liberals spoke after Trump’s election. They immediately jumped to the personal effect they imagined this would have on people they personally know and care about. The potential harm that could follow from bigotry let loose is real to them, as if it has already happened to them personally.

So, it wasn’t a mere lost election. The world they know, feel, and experience is threatened. And the worldview they held no longer makes sense, no longer applies to what this election has shown the world to be. It may not be the literal end of the world, but it is the end of their world, that is to say the world that they have become personally invested in and fought for. It doesn’t matter that, as someone like myself might argue, that the good liberal dream has never been a reality. Nor does it matter that Hillary Clinton was never actually the person they believed her to be. What has been destroyed is a hope and a promise, the sense that the world was moving toward something better.

Naive as it may seem, good liberals genuinely believed in the good liberal vision, no matter how many inconvenient facts critics and doubters pointed out. It wasn’t that the good liberal vision always succeeded and perfectly matched reality. The point was they had good intentions and that, however slow it took, real progress was being made. They saw themselves on the right side of history, a moral arc that bent toward justice. But now they feel as if they’ve been abandoned and all is lost.

When the Ancient World Was Still a Living Memory

I often discuss the historical period beginning with the Enlightenment thinkers and ending with the early modern revolutions. There are many obvious reasons for this focus, as in many ways it is the origins of the world we live in. But for the same reason, it was also the end of the world that came before.

That is what makes it so fascinating to read the words of those who were alive then. They were well aware of what was being lost. It was still within living memory, such as the last remnants of feudalism still holding on even as revolutions were remaking society. The costs of change were clearly understood and many thought it necessary to compensate in some way for what was being lost (e.g., Paine’s citizen’s dividend) or at the very least to acknowledge its passing.

That is different today. We live in a world fully changed. There is little if any living memory of what came before, although isolated traces linger in some remote places. This relates to the disconnection I see among so many people today, across the political spectrum, but it stands out most for me among liberals I observe. Liberalism has embraced modernity and so forgotten its roots, the historical development and radical thought that made it possible. Blindness to the past makes for a lack of vision in the present.

All of this was brought to mind because of something I just read. It is a Jacobin article by Alex Gourevitch, in response to Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin’s 2011 book, The Reactionary Mind. Gourevitch writes that,

“[I]f liberalism were really committed to the view that the individual is “metaphysically” prior to society, that would almost single-handedly eliminate the French liberal tradition, from the proto-liberalism of Montesquieu, to the sociological liberalism of Benjamin Constant, to the holist liberalism of Emile Durkheim. Constant’s famous speech in 1819 distinguishing the liberty of the moderns from that of the ancients was explicitly based on an appreciation of the social origins of modern individualism. “Ancient peoples,” wrote Constant, “could neither feel the need for [modern liberty], nor appreciate its advantages. Their social organization led them to desire an entirely different freedom from the one which this system grants to us.” Social organization “leads” and systems “grant.” No “metaphysical” priority of the individual there.”

Benjamin Constant was of French ancestry. His family had fled religious persecution and so he was born in Switzerland, but he returned to France as an adult. He was one of the first people to identify as a liberal and he was involved in the revolutionary fervor of the times, although he sought moderation. What interests me here is that it was the French Revolution that led to the abolition of feudalism in that country. Feudalism was still a major force at the time, although it was on the wane across Europe. When Constant wrote of the ancient world, he surely was speaking from the firsthand experience of the persisting ancient social order in the world around him.

Many thinkers of that era wrote about the past, specifically of Western history. They were literally and experientially closer to the past than we are now. Feudalism, for example, had developed from the landholding tradition of the Roman Empire. The influence of the ancient world was much more apparent at the time and so they could speak of the ancient world with a familiarity that we cannot. For us, that earlier social order is simply gone and at best we could read about it in history books, not that many will ever bother to do so. It’s not a living reality to us and so doesn’t compel our interest, certainly not our moral imaginations.

What Liberalism Has Become

Liberalism, an endlessly perplexing beast. What exactly is it?

One interesting perspective is that of Domenico Losurdo. As a Italian left-winger, he doesn’t share the biases of mainstream Anglo-American thought. He takes liberalism as a larger worldview that appears to include even what Americans think of as conservatism. It’s not just a narrow ideology limited to a political party or social movement but an entire system, a paradigmatic worldview.

I found this a strange interpretation at first. It has since grown on me. This both explains the often reactionary nature of liberalism (anti-radicalism, anti-communism, etc) and explains the often liberal tendencies of conservatism (individualism, free markets, etc). They really are two varieties of the same post-Enlightenment social order, mainstream liberals and mainstream conservatives working in tandem to maintain the dominant system and worldview.

A main focus of mine has been on conservative(-minded) liberals. It’s common here in the Midwest, as part of the cultural norms. I particularly associate it with Democrats who are or were raised working class, typically having spent formative years in areas that included unionized factory towns and small farming towns.

It’s a weird mix of social liberalism and social conservatism, of workers’ rights and work ethic. It’s about taking care of those who deserve it, the emphasis being on who gets perceived as worthy and who doesn’t. In the Midwest, this takes shape through a heavy emphasis on family and community. But on social issues, it is mildly libertarian in having a live and let live sensibility, such that being perceived as lazy is worse than being perceived as gay. In the South, a person is praised by a statement that, He’s a good Christian. It’s different in the Midwest where the praise, instead, will be that, He’s a hard worker.

I personally associate it with the Midwest because that is where I’ve spent so much of my life. But I imagine it might be similar in other areas outside the South, such as the Northeast.

This isn’t a form of conservatism that is spoken about much in the mainstream. You won’t find it regularly discussed in the dominant spheres of politics, academia, and the media. It is a liberalism on the ground that remains largely hidden in plain sight. Few in the mainstream, left or right, want to acknowledge its existence. It doesn’t fit the established social and political narratives.

Still, some scholarship touches upon it, if you look for it. It’s fairly well known, for example, that mainstream liberalism when it was most dominant in the past more than relented to conservative tendencies, including working class racism such as in labor organizing and communist witch-hunts. Conservative liberalism often took the form of liberalism for whites, men, and the economically well off while maintaining a reactionary stance toward everyone else.

There was a class component to this, not just about working class but the right kind of working class, respectable and not radical (in a recent post about fascism, I quoted Barbara J. Steinson: “From its beginning in Indiana the Farm Bureau made it clear that the organization was composed of respectable members of the farming community and that it was not a bunch of radicals or troublemakers”). In the past, this was the working class aspiring to be middle class with hopes that their children would go to college and become professionals (and, yes, in the Midwest many farmers also sent their kids off to college). They sought bourgeois respectability, to be the right kind of people.

College-educated professionals have existed for centuries and they’ve played a pivotal role in the past. But something changed when college suddenly became available to large numbers of people. The once small professional class became significantly large. That new generation of mid-20th century professionals formed what others have called the liberal class (related to the recent category of the creative class, i.e., the knowledge workers). They are the ones that made it, the members of the self-perceived meritocracy.

Over time, this liberal class has become more and more disconnected from the working class they came from, specifically as upward mobility declined. The liberal class has increasingly turned into an inherited rather than achieved social status. The line between working class and middle class has become drawn sharply. There is no longer a respectable working class, according to mainstream society. Those who aren’t able to escape their humble beginnings, at best, might deserve pity and not much more. It is assumed that the losers of society represent a permanent underclass of Social Darwinian inferiors, the trash of society. The working class aspiring to middle class has been left behind, as I noted in a post about the demographics of supporters of the main presidential candidates:

“It would be reasonable to assume that Trump’s supporters have felt these changes in their lives, as have so many other Americans. Many people characterize these people as the white working class, sometimes even portraying them as outright poor and ignorant, but that is inaccurate. They aren’t that unusual. In fact, they were once the heart of the middle class. Their status in society has been downgraded. They have become the new broad working class, the downwardly mobile and the trapped. They are outraged because they’ve lost hope that the world will get better for them and for their children and grandchildren, and they are likely correct in their assessment.”

It’s not just that those people once were part of the middle class or perceived themselves as such. These people represented the broad base upon which was built the progressive movement, labor organizing, and the New Deal. These people proudly inhabited the vast stretches of suburbia, once the location of the American Dream but now a reactionary backwater. They are the despised losers of the neoliberal order. The good liberals look down upon them, as liberalism takes a Hamiltonian turn.

This liberal class is the focus of Thomas Frank’s new book: Listen, Liberal. I read some of it, but I quickly realized it wasn’t a book I needed to read. I’m already familiar with the subject.

It’s not new territory. Still, it’s important as it is presenting the issues in an accessible form that is getting widespread public attention at a time when it is needed more than ever. It’s part of a debate that finally is entering mainstream awareness. Frank is one of those authors that the liberal class can’t ignore and so his message is able to hit its mark. A thousand more academic tomes could describe the same problem in greater detail and they would be mostly ignored. What is needed is a popular writer who can communicate the obvious in straightforward language, and that is what Frank achieves. He simply explains what everyone should already know, if they were paying attention.

My curiosity was more about the response to Frank’s book. It’s only been out a couple of months and already has hundreds of reviews available online. One review that interested me is by Wojtek Sokolowski, “Excellent yet wanting“. One thing that the reviewer clarifies for me is that, despite his criticisms of the liberal class, Frank is coming at it from a liberal angle of attack. He isn’t a radical left-winger opining on the failures of liberalism. Rather, he is a disgruntled liberal. There are limitations to the liberal analysis of liberalism, as the reviewer points out:

“Yet this moral explanation and moral remedy that Frank offers is somewhat disappointing when we consider the fact that similar transformations occurred in socialist and social democratic parties in many European countries as well. This coincidence cannot be simply explained by the change of heart of the people leading those parties. We must look into the structural determinants.”

Structural determinants have always been a major weak point for liberalism, even among many liberal critics of liberalism. Standard liberalism by itself can’t go very far. There are old radical strains of liberalism that do deal more with the structural aspect, but you would hardly know that from the mainstream media and mainstream politics. Liberalism, at least in its primary American form, is a defanged ideology. And, though Frank is no radical, he would like to give some bite back to the political left. But it’s not clear that he succeeds.

The reviewer of Frank’s book asks, “What structural elements are missing from Frank’s narrative, then?” A great question and, in response to it, a great answer is offered:

“One clue can be found in his bibliography – despite impressive documentation of his claims, his bibliography misses a rather obscure, to be sure, work by Walter Karp titled “Indispensable Enemies”. This book attempts to answer the same question as Frank’s work does – why the US political parties do not represent the interests of their constituents – but the answer it provides emphasizes the structure of the party system rather than preferences of their leaders. Karp’s explanation is a variant of what is known as Robert Michels’ “iron law of oligarchy” which in essence claims that the leadership of an institution is first and foremost concerned about its own power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. In case of US political parties, the party bosses are more concerned with keeping their control of their respective parties than with winning elections, and they tacitly cooperate by excluding any challenge to their leadership by dividing up their respective turfs in which they maintain their respective monopolies. Paradoxical as it may sound, such behavior is well known outside politics where it is referred to as oligopoly or niche seeking.

“Karp’s thesis offers a much better explanation of the abandonment of the working class and middle class constituents by both parties than the preference for meritocracy claimed by Frank. Even from Frank’s own account of the Democratic Party’s ‘soul searching’ in the aftermath of Humphrey’s defeat in 1968 it is evident that that the emerging party leadership was not afraid of losing a series of elections (McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis) before they could cement their hold on the party under Clinton. Clearly, a party whose leadership’s main goal is to win elections would not make such a cardinal mistake as losing elections for 20 consecutive years by abandoning their core constituency. Likewise, Obama’s abandonment of the “hope” promise led to a spectacular loss of both houses of Congress and numerous state legislatures, but that did not persuade the party leadership to change the course. Au contraire, they are determined to keep the course and undermine any challenge to the party leadership (cf. Sanders). This is not the behavior of a general who wants to win a war (cf. Robert E. Lee), but of one who wants to keep his position in his own army (cf. George Brinton McClellan).”

I have never before come across that exact explanation, although the general idea is familiar. It cuts straight to the heart of the matter. So much that didn’t make any sense suddenly makes perfect sense. I had been intuiting something like this for a while now. Early on in the campaign season it occurred to me that the establishments of both parties might rather lose the election than lose control of the respective party machines. But why might that be the case? Karp suggests a reason and I find it compelling.

As this campaign season goes on, I find this kind of viewpoint every more compelling. Standard narratives no longer make any sense, assuming they ever did. In particular, the actions of the Hillary Clinton campaign and the DNC only make sense when you think of a political party as a bureaucratic organization that first and foremost seeks to maintain its own existence, just as those who control it seek to maintain their power. All else is secondary. The blatant resistance to reform is a result of this, blatant not just in the party machine itself but also through its representatives in the mainstream media. The entire elite, public and private, works together so closely that they operate as a single entity.

Everyone knows that Clinton is the weaker candidate against Trump. She is one of the most unpopular candidates in US history. Everyone knows the only reason she did so well was because of a political establishment backing her, a media biased toward her, and a system rigged in her favor. Everyone knows that Sanders would have easily won the nomination if there were open primaries not excluding Independents. Everyone knows Sanders would win vastly more votes than Clinton in a general election.

So, if the DNC and Clinton don’t care about risking a Trump victory, why is it the responsibility of everyone else to bow down to their corruption out of fear? If Clinton gave a shit about either the Democrats or the country, then she would step down and hand the nomination to Sanders who is the only candidate certain to beat Trump. If she is that egotistic about winning and that cavalier toward the threat of Trump, then more power to her. But the point is she doesn’t care about any supposed threat from someone like Trump, a decades old friend and crony.

The elections are irrelevant except as controlling them represents power.

Corey Robin brought in another element to this, careerism. He posted about it on Facebook, in linking to a recent WP article that mentioned an old LRB piece by him. In that piece, he concludes that:

“The main reason for the contemporary evasion of Arendt’s critique of careerism, however, is that addressing it would force a confrontation with the dominant ethos of our time. In an era when capitalism is assumed to be not only efficient but also a source of freedom, the careerist seems like the agent of an easy-going tolerance and pluralism. Unlike the ideologue, whose great sin is to think too much and want too much from politics, the careerist is a genial caretaker of himself. He prefers the marketplace to the corridors of state power. He is realistic and pragmatic, not utopian or fanatic. That careerism may be as lethal as idealism, that ambition is an adjunct of barbarism, that some of the worst crimes are the result of ordinary vices rather than extraordinary ideas: these are the implications of Eichmann in Jerusalem that neo-cons and neoliberals alike find too troubling to acknowledge.”

I find it sad that liberalism is so caught up in careerism, along with the bureaucracy of party politics. There is an obvious class element to this, as careerism is the defining feature of the professional class, which has come to be seen as the liberal class. This society is becoming a technocracy where the highest praise to give someone is that they get things done. Pragmatic realpolitik is what rules. Constrained by this worldview, liberals end up being more conservative than conservatives. Liberals are now the ultimate defenders of the status quo.

That is what it means to live in this liberal age.

Non-Identifying Environmentalists And Liberals

According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is about half of what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a young teenager. Yet the other polls show that Americans are more concerned with environmental issues than ever before.

This is similar to how fewer Americans identify as liberal precisely during this time when polls showing majority of Americans hold liberal positions on diverse issues. Older labels have lost their former meaning. They no longer resonate.

It isn’t as if Americans are becoming anti-environmentalist conservatives. Quite the opposite. It’s just that an increasing number of Americans, when given a choice, would rather identify as progressive, moderate, independent, or even socialist. In fact, the socialist label gets more favorable opinion than the Tea Party label, although libertarianism is gaining favor.

Young Americans are the most liberal of any age demographic, in terms of their politics. They are more liberal than even the supposed liberal class, despite the young not self-identifying as liberal. They are so liberal as to be leaning leftist.

Conservatives are mistaken when they put too much stock in ideological labels and too little stock in substance of views. Their confusion is understandable. Many pollsters have had a hard time keeping up with changing labels, not initially realizing they needed to offer choices beyond the standard binary of liberal or conservative.

Not all of this can be blamed on pollsters, though. There was enough polling data to show major shifts were afoot. Some pollsters were able to discern that Millennials had a majority positive opinion of the ‘socialism’. That interesting fact of public opinion began showing up about a decade ago, but apparently few in the mainstream were paying attention until Sanders’ candidacy came along.

The older generations are shocked. As children of Cold War propaganda, they unsurprisingly have a knee jerk reaction to the word ‘socialism’. More interesting is that these older Americans also dislike libertarianism. For the young, socialism and libertarianism are two expressions of their growing extremes of liberal-mindedness.

So, it’s more of a divide of generations than of ideology.

Central to this are environmental concerns. Most older Americans probably assume they will die before major environmental catastrophes happen, allowing them to shut these problems out of their minds and pretend they aren’t fully real. Younger Americans, on the other hand, realize they’ll be forced to deal with these problems they’re inheriting.

* * *

Americans’ Identification as “Environmentalists” Down to 42%

Americans’ Concerns About Water Pollution Edge Up

U.S. Concern About Global Warming at Eight-Year High

For First Time, Majority in U.S. Oppose Nuclear Energy

Opposition to Fracking Mounts in the U.S.

In U.S., 73% Now Prioritize Alternative Energy Over Oil, Gas

Privilege of Being a Liberal

The hardest thing for garden variety American liberals to grasp is what a truly politicized and hateful place much of America has become—one long mean ditch ruled by feral dogs where the standards of civility no longer apply. The second hardest thing for liberals is to admit that they are comfortably insulated in the middle class and are not going to take any risks in the battle for America’s soul not as long as they are still living on a good street, sending their kids to Montessori and getting their slice of the American quiche. Call it the politics of the comfort zone. (Joe Bageant)

In my last post, I spoke of the thankless task of being a liberal. Now I’ll talk about the privilege.

One of the most obvious factors of the liberal demographic is its position in American society. Liberals on average are among the wealthiest and most educated of Americans. In their class privilege, they are only second to libertarians. On top of that, there is race privilege as well, since most liberals (like most libertarians) are white. All of this while living in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, a country that of course has had a white majority for centuries.

That is some major privilege. I don’t simply mean that in the sense of, check your privilege. This is also a privilege in the sense that offers resources and opportunities, maybe not unlike how some consider it to be a privilege to make a living as an artist or a privilege to live in a time of peace. Being a liberal is a rare and fortunate condition. Self-identified liberals represent a narrow spectrum of society. Most liberals are professionals in specialized fields. This is why one can accurately speak of a liberal class, not just a liberal movement or liberal ideology.

I know this personally, as a liberal among liberals. I don’t exactly live in the lap of luxury these days, as my lifestyle is now working class and severe depression is a constant struggle. Still, all in all, my life has been a thousand times easier than the majority of Americans.

I grew up in a middle class family, although our class status fluctuated a bit. My parents were highly educated professionals who ensured I got everything I needed growing up. I didn’t worry about anything as a kid, other than the typical kid stuff. My parents were teachers who were able to help me with my learning disability in a way few poor kids would ever be lucky enough to experience. At one point, I went to a wealthy suburban school where I got cutting edge help with my reading and memory issues—that suburb by the way is known for having been a sundown town that kept poor blacks out.

After that and while still young, my family moved to a fairly wealthy liberal college town. It’s where I live now, after having spent time elsewhere in the country. This town is fairly white and was even moreso when I was a kid. I had the privilege of being racially oblivious, as race issues didn’t negatively impact me nor did I have to see or recognize their negative impact on others. I lived in a bubble, a comfortable protected world. I didn’t have to worry about poverty, homelessness, underfunded schools, violence, crime, police brutality, racial profiling, school-to-prison pipeline, or any other crap that other less fortunate kids had to deal with.

It was an easy childhood, not that I realized it at the time. I could go where I pleased and do almost anything I wanted. It wasn’t always a happy childhood with my school problems, but damn it could have been far worse—and it is far worse for so many others.

As I said, I still live in this liberal college town. It’s a nice place to find oneself. There are plenty of jobs. Because of the university, research centers, hospitals and writers workshops, this community was barely touched by the economic recession and housing construction didn’t even slow down. There is a constant influx of state and federal funds supporting the good life we have here. Within walking distance of my apartment, there are numerous healthcare centers and public services, recreation centers and parks and trail systems, public and university libraries and also bookstores, museums and art galleries, and so much else. I’m surrounded by people who are economically well off and well educated. Even many of the bus drivers, taxi drivers, janitors, postal workers, bartenders, bakers, etc have college degrees. This is a hell of a town to be working class, even if like me you don’t have a college degree.

This is what it means to be of the liberal class. It’s not just college towns and wealthy suburbs. There are tech hubs like the Bay Area in California and Boulder in Colorado. There are other creative class cities like Portland, Oregon. There are the gentrified neighborhoods in all of the big cities. Then there are the expat communities abroad.

It’s not just the wealth, not just the resources and opportunities, not just the lack of overt racial oppression and other disadvantages. It’s a whole system of privileges and unearned benefits that makes the liberal lifestyle possible. This is what the liberal worldview is built upon.

Take health as an example. Most liberals take for granted being healthy. This is because most liberals spent their lives with access to nutritious food along with clean water and air, access to parks and recreation centers and gyms, and most importantly access to regular healthcare and dentistry. Liberals don’t have to worry about living in food deserts or having to travel long distances to find an emergency room for some untreated condition. This doesn’t just contribute to physical health but also to cognitive development. Consider major heavy metal toxic exposure—being free of this in childhood is no small privilege. Such toxicity, along with malnutrition and undernourishment, will stunt cognitive development and lower IQ, not to mention cause a whole host of physical and psychiatric ailments. And such illnesses and impairments can even be measured in terms of dollar amounts of lost income across the lifetime.

This isn’t to say no liberal has ever struggled and known hard times. I’m an example of that. I’ve dealt with learning disability and severe depression. I’m working class and at times have lived below the poverty line. Yet I almost always had the resources and opportunities to deal with my problems, no matter how hard they were. There were people around me to offer help or to lend me money. I’m certain that, if I had been born a poor minority, I would not have survived this long with what I’ve dealt with. I realize that, as shitty as my life can seem, I know little of what it means to struggle against impossible odds and feel like the whole world is against me. I understand just enough to realize how much worse life is for those less fortunate and advantaged.

It is a privilege to be a liberal and of the liberal class, even on the lower end of the liberal class. With privilege comes responsibility. No one born into this privilege earned it. Immense humility and moral obligation is in order. Instead of judging the less fortunate for doubting the liberal dream, liberals should seek to ensure all of their fellow citizens have similar access to resources and opportunities. Make that liberal dream a reality for everyone.

Thankless Task of Being a Liberal

As a liberal, I feel bad for liberals. It’s tough thing to be. There is so much going against you.

There is the long dark history of liberalism that left-wingers like to throw at you. Ya know, the whole Whiggish history of Manifest Destiny and the rest of the endless hypocrisy, from noble slaveholders espousing elegant pleas for liberty to the comfortable middle class explaining meritocracy to the poor. We liberals are known for failing our own ideals, not that left-wingers are any better nor right-wingers for that matter. But everyone likes to blame liberals in this age of supposed liberalism, whatever liberalism is supposed to mean, something even liberals have a hard time trying to understand.

Worse still, liberals are delicate hothouse flowers. We flourish under perfect conditions, blooming ever so beautifully and yet on such a rare occasion. We liberals hold great ideals and offer forth inspiring visions. We are dreamers of what others claim impossible. But our imaginations wilt under less than perfect conditions. Standing strong against adversity isn’t one of the strengths of the liberal constitution.

The medicine of our own hope turns to poison. We are supremely effective at self-sabotage, fully capable of switching from idealism to cynicism, willing to compromise with any evil for the “greater good.” We liberals know how to make the best of a bad situation, no matter how bad it gets. We just want everyone to get along.

We liberals can’t handle fear or even the slightest stress. When we experience cognitive overload or cognitive impairment, even mere imbibing of alcohol, our brains shift into conservative mode. Research has shown numerous examples of this. In order for liberalism to function, it requires perfect conditions and immense cognitive capacity.

I understand why so many liberals turn to snarkiness. It’s a defensive maneuver, an attempt to hold at bay all that brings the liberal down. But snarkiness ends up being as self-defeating as the rest.

What else is the liberal to do? If the liberal takes their own ideals seriously, so many others will mock them or dismiss them as being unrealistic. Liberals begin doing the same, arguing that the only way to defend liberalism is to give into the criticisms against liberalism. Maybe liberalism really is weak and pathetic, the liberal starts to wonder. Maybe we have to play the same corrupt game, if we want to win.

This is how the liberal dream slowly fades away. Liberals forget what was so great about the dream in the first place. Were we ever so naive to believe in it? With experience, we learn of the hollow rhetoric of politicians. Yet every once in a while the old inspiration hits us and for that moment we believe something else might be possible.

Yet even then, it’s challenging for us liberals to say what liberalism is or could be about. If we no longer had any excuses for failure, what would we do? If we fought hard for our principles and won that fight, what would the world look like? If the liberal vision were unleashed, what could be accomplished?

What is liberalism? And what would happen if we liberals took it seriously? If liberals don’t fight for liberalism, who will? Then again, if most liberals fought hard and fought to win, would they still be liberals? What if, instead, liberalism isn’t what it appears to be?

Why are there so few liberals at the bloody frontlines of the battle for justice and freedom, so few liberals in ghettos, prisons and refugee camps? Why does liberalism usually only attract those living comfortable lives? Why is it so often that the first thing liberals are willing to sacrifice is their own liberalism?

These are the questions liberals should ask. Few will. This is the shame of being a liberal.

A Liberalism That Dominates

Why do people think they can vote for a politician to represent them and then not be morally responsible for what that politician does in their name?

I’m specifically thinking of politicians with known political records. In such cases, voters can’t reasonably plead ignorance. One has to assume that they approve of the choices made by their preferred political representative. If that is the case and it is hard to interpret it otherwise, this speaks badly for most voters across the political spectrum.

Do these people honestly wonder why politicians do bad things when they vote for politicians known for doing bad things? Or are these people simply disconnected from reality, disconnected from the larger world of consequences where real people are harmed?

That last question points to a real possibility. Those who are most harmed by our government are those who don’t or can’t vote: the poor who are shut out of the political system, minorities who experience voter suppression, felons who are disfranchised, undocumented immigrants who never had voting rights, and foreigners who have no influence over our government. But those aren’t the people I’m focused on here. It remains to explain those who can and do vote.

I’m unconvinced that the voting public doesn’t know they are supporting politicians who harm so many other humans, large numbers of them being their neighbors and fellow citizens. I know ignorance is rampant. But with internet and social media, knowledge of government actions and political records is hard to avoid. To not know this kind of thing at this point requires a particularly virulent form of willful ignorance. Even then, in order for that ignorance to be willful what is being ignored has to be acknowledged at some level of awareness, even if subconsciously.

Another explanation is lesser evilism. I have considered that in great detail as of late. It is the rationalization often given for why people vote the way they do. I don’t doubt that people are easily manipulated by fear-mongering. And I don’t doubt that political campaigns and PR companies are highly advanced in the techniques they use to manipulate voters. Still, that isn’t a fully satisfying explanation.

What if we take at face value how people vote? Maybe they aren’t voting for a lesser evil. Maybe it is no mere unintended side effect the harm done by the politicians who represent them. Maybe, just maybe voters really do get exactly what they want. I’ve resisted that conclusion for a long long time. It is the most demoralizing possibility that I can imagine. But it is starting to seem compelling.

My thoughts here have been largely elicited by listening to supporters of Hillary Clinton. Her political record is well known and widely discussed. It is easy to find out all the details of her political career. What bothers me is that much of what she has supported over the years and decades has led to horrific results, both in terms of decisions she has made in official political positions she has held and what she helped promote in working with her husband in his political career.

Clinton has been extremely active in promoting a particular worldview and social order. And to be honest one has to admit that it isn’t entirely inspiring: cutting welfare, mass incarceration, tough-on-crime policies, war hawk policies, promoting the overthrow of governments, etc. All of this corresponds to the money she gets from speaking fees and donations to campaigns and to the Clinton Foundation—from: prison industry, corporations, particular foreign governments, etc. She does the bidding of those who pay for her services. All of this is out in the open.

Maybe people who support her (and politicians like her) know fully well what she stands for. Maybe these voters completely understand what they are buying with their vote. Maybe they are intentionally aligning themselves with certain powerful interests. Maybe they want politicians who, from their perspective, will do what needs to be done.

It might seem like hypocrisy. Supporters of Hillary Clinton often claim to be liberals and progressives. So, how can they support her illiberal and reactionary policies? Yet maybe this misses the point.

The purpose of politicians in a democracy is to represent voters. If we take this as being genuinely true, then it indicates politicians are doing what voters want them to do. The confusion comes from there being a difference between what people say they want and what they actually want. That is what politicians are for, as they will do what voters want them to do, even though voters can’t admit that is what they want them to do. Politicians allow for plausible deniability, a disconnect between the voting public and government action.

We live in a liberal age. But we rarely think about what this means. What really is liberalism? Why do conservatives speak the rhetoric of liberalism and invoke liberal values? And why do liberals so often act like conservatives? Considering this, what exactly is this liberal order that dominates our minds and lives?