A Phantom of the Mind

Liberalism often gets defined narrowly. This is true at least in mainstream American politics, by which I mean the present dominant society with its dominant frame.

It isn’t just conservatives and right-wingers misrepresenting liberalism, as seen with the arguments of Russel Kirk (also, consider Thomas Sowell, whose view of conservative constrained vision is similar to Kirk’s conservative claim of balance, both arguing against the imbalance supposedly expressed by liberal and left-wing extremism). Even certain kinds of liberals will fall into the same trap. Take for example the strange views of Jonathan Haidt.

This wasn’t always the case. In earlier 20th century, liberalism was praised widely by major politicians (including presidents) in both of the main parties. What this implies is that liberalism was seen more broadly at the time.

Consider Eisenhower’s words when he stated that, “Extremes to the right and left of any political dispute are always wrong,” and that “The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.” Yet, in speaking of extremes, he saw liberalism as part of the moderate and moderating middle:

So that here we have, really, the compound, the overall philosophy of Lincoln: in all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with the peoples money or their economy, or their form of government, be conservativeand dont be afraid to use the word. And so today, Republicans come forward with programs in which there are such words as balanced budgets, and cutting expenditures, and all the kind of thing that means this economy must be conservative, it must be solvent. But they also come forward and say we are concerned with every Americans health, with a decent house for him, we are concerned that he will have a chance for health, and his children for education. We are going to see that he has power available to him. We are going to see that everything takes place that will enrich his life and let him as an individual, hard-working American citizen, have full opportunity to do for his children and his family what any decent American should want to do.

Even in his brand of fiscal conservatism, he advocated for the wildest fantasies of progressives (unions, social security, etc) and defended a top income tax bracket at 91%. It is obvious that what he considered conservative back then would be considered liberal today. He was much further to the left than today’s Democratic Party. So, his moderate middle was also much further to the left than it is at present.

What stands out to me in Ike’s worldview is how he perceives liberalism. Political ideologies in the US get defined by governance and economics, which he sees as the territory of conservatism but not of liberalism. Instead, liberalism is at essence about people. Liberalism expresses the human quality of a good society. In that society is created by and for people, liberalism is an atmosphere that permeates the concerns for the public good. It is the broader guiding vision, the moral standard for our shared humanity.

* * * *

Let me return to the narrow view of liberalism. I came across a Clark L. Coleman who argued for the position of Russel Kirk. He writes that,

Kirk’s point is that conservatism is based on a balancing of numerous principles that society accepts as social goods. For example, we balance the need for law and order with the desire for individual liberty. We balance the desire to propagate our Christian heritage, and the benefits of having a religious populace, with the desire for religious freedom and the wariness of the problems of having an established state church. We seek equality under the law, but temper that with the recognition that institutions (church, marriage, military, et al.) must be exclusive to some degree to accomplish their missions. We desire the strength that nationalist feelings produce, but recognize that they lead to a warlike nation if untempered by other concerns, etc. A kind of Aristotelian moderation is central to conservatism.

Whatever that may describe, it isn’t the actual existing tradition of mainstream American conservatism. So, what is he describing? I really don’t get the argument being made. Obviously, this conservatism is envisioned as an ideal state, rather than the mundane reality of politics as it is. But what purpose does that serve? If this conservatism doesn’t accurately describe most self-identified conservatives, then whose conservatism is this? Is it just a conservatism for detached intellectuals, such as Kirk?

Anyway, Coleman goes on to offer the other side. He explains what forms the basis of everything that isn’t conservatism, most especially liberalism:

In contrast to conservatism, liberalism is an ideology in which a particular concept of “fairness and equality” is the principle that trumps all others; libertarianism is an ideology in which “individual liberty” is the principle that trumps all others; and Marxism is an ideology in which a certain definition of class struggle is at the center of all policy decisions and all analyses of the world. Empirical evidence to the contrary means nothing to ideologues; telling them that their One True Principle is insufficient to analyze all public policy would require them to undergo a complete change of world view.

I’m not familiar with the details of Kirk’s views. I don’t know if this is a fair and accurate presentation. But I do know it is a common view among conservatives, specifically more well-educated conservatives. It is even found among conservative-minded liberals such as Jonathan Haidt, who sees conservatism as a balance of values in contrast to liberals as inherently imbalanced and hence prone to extremism.

This argument is a rhetorical trick, so it seems to me. It’s a strategy of the Cold War. The 20th century was a conflict of ideologies. Those ideologies can be labeled and categorized in various ways, but this version of conservatism gets safely removed from the entire ideological debate. It is a declaration that conservatism is above and beyond all discussion and disagreement. This is a stance of refusal to engage.

I felt irritated by that argument. It felt dishonest. In response to Coleman, I expressed my irritation by saying that, “If conservatism isn’t an ideology, then neither is liberalism. Only an ideologue would make an argument that one is an ideology and the other not. That would be a classic case of projection. It isn’t helpful to make caricatures of and straw man arguments against opposing views, attitudes, and predispositions.”

Coleman responded in turn with a defense that touches on the heart of our disagreement. He writes that, “Your comment does not engage my explanation at all. Kirk’s definition of ideology was standard until the common usage became fuzzy. It is not a caricature or straw man.” He is accusing me of not engaging because I don’t accept his premise, but I don’t accept his premise because it is an unproven assumption.

That is intriguing. Coleman is so confident that his view is right. He claims that it was only later that “common usage became fuzzy”. Even many other conservatives would disagree with that claim. This would include Eisenhower, who began his presidency the same year Kirk published The Conservative Mind. Of course, the likes of Kirk and Coleman would simply assert that anyone who disagrees with them aren’t True Conservatives, a pointless assertion to make but it sure does end debate.

* * * *

Both Eisenhower and Kirk were arguing for balance and against extremism. It was something in the air at the time. Across the political spectrum, many Americans were seeking  a new vision  to unify the country in the post-war era. For certain, conservatives like Kirk didn’t have sole proprietorship of this early Cold War attitude. It was the frame of mainstream debate at that time, rather than simply being one side of the debate.

For a while now, I’ve been trying to disentangle the mess of American political ideologies and labels. It’s been on my mind going back at least to the early Bush administration, at a time when I was studying the social science research on personality types and traits, but my questioning has grown stronger in recent years. I began to articulate a new understanding of what liberalism and conservatism mean, both attitudinally and historically (also demographically). I was forced to think more deeply and challenge my own previous assumptions, because the data I was looking at indicated a much more complex social reality.

It is because Coleman and Kirk take a dogmatically ideological stance that they can’t deal with this complexity that refuses to conform to narrow categorical boxes. I didn’t want to fall into the same trap. I want to fully understand various positions on their own terms, even if not on their own rhetoric.

My own views have shifted a lot over time. More recently, I’ve been moving toward the almost the mirror opposite of the Kirkian position, without even knowing that was what I was doing (as I have little direct familiarity with Kirk’s writings):

It seems to me that liberalism isn’t inherently or inevitably opposite of conservatism, at least in American politics. Conservatism has become conflated with the right-wing in a way that hasn’t happened on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is still a clear sense of distance and disconnection between liberalism and the left-wing for the Cold War turned the left-wing into a scapegoat that liberals felt compelled to disown or else be attacked as commies and fellow-travelers. Liberals have instead for the most part embraced the role of the middle, the moderate. I’ve even sensed that liberals have taken up the role of the traditionalists in defending the status quo which is what traditionalists did in the past. I’ve speculated that conservatives or at least reactionary conservatives attack liberals for the same reason they attacked traditionalists in earlier times. Left-wingers are the revolutionaries and conservatives have become the counter-revolutionaries, meanwhile liberals have sought to moderate between the two.

Much of my thought has been driven by social science research. I’ve sought to make sense of the insight that, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (Skitka et al). That indicates an aspect of the broadness of liberalism. The ease of the liberal-minded to switch ideological positions points to something fundamental to liberalism itself and hence something lacking in conservatism. The liberal worldview is able to cover a larger area of ideological terrain. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it demonstrates how little conservatives understand the real weaknesses of liberalism.

One political philosopher that has forced me to rethink even further in this direction is Domenico Losurdo. He is a Continental European left-winger and a critic of American liberalism. His book on the counter-history of liberalism is challenging for any American, for the framework of his thought can feel alien and perplexing.

In my first analysis of his views, I ended up conjecturing that, “Maybe liberalism is more of a worldview than an ideology, a worldview that happens to be the dominant paradigm at the moment. As such, everything gets put into the context of and defined by liberalism.” I elaborated on this point later on, in a discussion with C. Derick Varn (AKA skepoet), the person who introduced me to Losurdo’s work:

In response to Losurdo, I’ve played around with a broader definition of ‘liberalism’ than even he offers. I see ‘liberalism’ in some ways as the ultimate product of the Enlightenment, the basis upon which everything else is built, the ideology everything else is defined according to or against.

Liberalism isn’t an ideology in the way conservatism, libertarianism, Marxism, etc is an ideology. No, liberalism is the ideological framework for all of those ideologies. It is the paradigm of our age.

This connects to why I don’t see conservatism as the opposite of liberalism. Instead, I see conservatism as the opposite of leftism. Liberalism is both the center and periphery of modern politics.

I’m not sure any ideology has yet fully challenged the liberal paradigm. So, I’m not sure any ideology has yet freed itself from liberal taint. We’ll need something even more radical than the most radical left-wing politics to get the thrust for escape velocity.

Now, that is turning Kirkian thought on its head. And I did so without even trying. My purpose was simply to make sense of evidence that had been perplexing me for years. This conclusion emerged organically from a slowly developing line of thought or rather web of thoughts. It makes sense to me at the moment. It has great explanatory power. Yet like anything else I offer, it is a tentative hypothesis.

* * * *

It is now more than a half century since Kirk wrote about his views on conservatism.

It is true that back then, prior to the Southern Strategy, conservatism was a more moderate political movement and may have played more of a moderating role. However, that is most definitely no longer the case, which implies that Kirk’s view of conservatism was historically contingent, at best. He failed to find the heart of conservatism, whatever that may be.

Still, even in the context of the 1950s, it would be hard to take conservatism as some genuinely non-ideological framing of and balance between the ideological extremes. Conservatism, as Corey Robin argues, has always had a central element of reactionary extremism. Or, as I’ve often said, there is a good reason American conservatism is linked to, rooted in, and identified with classical liberalism rather than classical conservatism or classical traditionalism.

My approach is influenced by a larger view. Both larger in terms of historical time and larger in terms of spectrum of positions. The historical is particularly important to my understanding, and I find myself pairing the historical with the etymological. In a comment from a discussion about liberal bias and the meaning of liberalism, I explored some of the background:

If we look at the history of the word ‘liberal’, it didn’t originally relate to an ideology. The original meaning was related to freedom (liber). The earliest use of it was in terms of “liberal arts”, i.e., free inquiry. Another early use was in terms of a free person, i.e., not a serf or slave or indentured servant. In modern history, the main meaning of ‘liberal’ has always directly referred to being liberal-minded: not literal or strict; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms; etc.

Even in its earliest use, ‘liberal’ meant the same as we mean it today such as being free from restraint, the main difference being that only after the Enlightenment did it take on a more clearly positive interpretation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people would use liberal in the sense of being free of bigotry or prejudice which has the exact same meaning today. All of these basic meanings haven’t changed over the past centuries since it was first used in 1375. It was only in the mid 19th century that liberalism became a politicized term, long after classical liberalism had become a defined ideology. Limiting liberal to a single ideology is a very recent phenomenon and one that has never been agreed upon since a number of ideologies have been labeled as ‘liberal’.

Conservatism, as a descriptive word applied to people, is a much more recent term. It is for this reason that conservatism has a much more narrow context of meaning than liberalism. So, conservatism always has been defined in contrast and reaction to liberalism, specifically within the parameters of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.

* * * *

An issue that has been gnawing at mind for longer than almost any other single issue is a particular inconsistency in conservative thought. I’ve come to call it symbolic conflation, which is just to say that conservative identity uses symbolic rhetoric that obscures its own real meaning and purpose.

This isn’t meant as a dismissal, but more as a sociological assessment. As I argue about symbolic conflation, it plays a far different role in society than does the liberal approach. I tend to see conservatism and liberalism as psychological predispositions and social phenomena. They are patterns of cognitive behavior, both individual and collective. “Liberals,” in challenging conservatives, “want to loosen up the social order, but they don’t want to pull out the lynchpin.” As I further explain:

This is why liberals can be more conservative than even conservatives, moderating the extremes. The reason conservatives rule to the extent that they do so is because liberals allow them.

Social order is a strange thing. It would seem even stranger that conservatives take social order for granted more than do liberals. I suppose this is the case because for conservatives social order always has to largely play out on the level of unconsciousness.

None of this is meant directly as a criticism of conservatism. Conservatism can be used in the service of beneficial social orders just as easily with destructive social orders. The deal conservatives and liberals have is the following. Liberals won’t do an all out assault on the symbolic conflation that holds social order together and conservatives will incorporate liberalism into the social order so as to strengthen it. Whether this is a good deal, whether this is symbiosis or codependency (certainly not opposing ideologies in a simplistic sense) is another matter. I offer it just as an observation and analysis of how society seems to operate.

In thinking about this inconsistency, I realize how it connects back to the Kirkian theory of conservative balance. It also occurs to me that this goes back to Edmund Burke. The critics of Burke complained about his inconsistency, something I’ve discussed before. That is important since many conservatives, Kirk included, have seen the Anglo-American conservative tradition as having its roots in Burkean politics. Kirk is using Burke’s claim of balance as a defense against inconsistency:

[O]ne who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.

I guess Kirk isn’t necessarily offering anything new.

* * * *

Going by Coleman’s explication, there are two basic ways of thinking about ideology.

The first definition is as a system of beliefs (or ideas). But that isn’t what Kirk’s conservatism is concerned with.

That brings us to the second definition which, “roughly, is a set of one or two principles from which an adherent attempts to see all of life, and which he refuses to broaden even when empirical evidence indicates that his one or two principles are insufficient for deciding correctly all the great matters of life.” Ideology, in this second sense, is directly related to the ideologue as in a true believer who is dogmatic, narrow-minded, and rigid.

The problem with that view is that what is being described is precisely liberal-mindedness. By definition, liberalism is generosity of mind and spirit. Conservative’s are being haunted not by some dark shadow cast by liberal ideals, but by their own imaginings. They project their own fears onto all other ideologies, while denying their own ideological culpability.

If one thinks too long on all of this, conservatism begins to seem like smoke slipping through one’s fingers. Burke was a progressive reformer who belonged to the party on the political left, but was remembered by most for his reaction against the French Revolution. He never settled into principled position that defined his politics. By his own admission, his politics was the shifting of a boat on an ocean.

All in all, Burke was more like a mainstream Cold War liberal reacting to (real and perceived) enemies of the state and of the status quo. Maybe Kirk himself was just another one of those liberals being pulled by fear. Maybe that is what Anglo-American conservatism has always been about.

That reminds me of the quote by Irving Kristol. He said that a neo-conservative, the central form of modern American conservatism, is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” There are a number of things interesting about that.

First, he defines neo-conservatism using the same Burkean argument as Kirk, as here described:

an ideology but a “persuasion,” a way of thinking about politics rather than a compendium of principles and axioms.[12] It is classical rather than romantic in temperament, and practical and anti-Utopian in policy.

Second, I sense genuine insight in the admission that conservatism has its origins in liberalism. The liberal in reacting to fear becomes a conservative, but conservatism as such only exists in the reaction. That fits the social science research about liberalism.

It’s possible that, as Corey Robin theorizes, all of conservatism is defined by reaction. The supposed mugging could be literal or metaphorical. The point is that the conservative is responding to something with fear, even if it is only in their own imaginings. Some people find themselves temporarily in reaction while others get permanently stuck. The latter are what we call conservatives.

Permanent reaction is a strange way to live one’s life, for reaction isn’t anything in itself. An independent non-ideological conservatism is a phantom of the mind.

More Thoughts on Ideological Confusion

Richard Hofstadter wrote of pseudo-conservatives. Sam Tanenhaus has taken this idea up with his realist versus revanchist conservatives. In the time between these two thinkers, Henry Fairlie was a British journalist who lived in America for the last part of his life. He began his writing career before Reagan and Thatcher came to power. It is interesting to read Fairlie explaining conservatism in that earlier time, a conservatism that once was more trusting of government than capitalism.

Fairlie called himself a Tory, but his Toryism made him closer to a Democrat. American conservatives often trace their tradition back to Edmund Burke who was a Whig and he was a liberal for his time. Burke argued against British imperialism and for the rights of Catholics. This would be the equivalent of an American politician arguing against American imperialism while arguing for the rights of Muslims, a hard thing to imagine a Republican doing.

There is lots of ideological confusion. While Tea Partiers point fingers at supposed RINOs, another group of conservatives have taken the left’s criticism of false conservatism and made it their own. Many moderate Republicans have seen their party taken over by the Tea Party which  is really just the inevitable result of the Southern Strategy. Conservatives liked how this strategy initially won them power, but they have come to question the price they paid for power.

Two books I’ve read this year offer moderate and moderating conservatism as true conservatism: The Founding Conservatives by David Lefer and Constitutional Conservatism by Peter Berkowitz. I don’t find their arguments overly convincing, but I just like that there are conservatives making such arguments. Of the two, Lefer makes the most original argument, partly basing his definition of conservatism on the example of John Dickinson. The only problem is that, if Dickinson is a conservative, most Republican politicians aren’t conservatives and many Democrat politicians are.

The other perspective is that of Corey Robin with his reactionary conservatism. He doesn’t see this as false, but as the real deal. He includes Burke among these reactionary conservatives. I’m sympathetic with this view. Burke after the French Revolution is like Reagan after the Cold War began, reacting not just to liberalism but more specifically their own liberalism or former liberalism. I suspect reactionary conservatives are often nothing more than liberals who become cynical about change? This makes them cynical liberals for sure. I don’t know that it makes them conservatives, reactionary or otherwise.

I must admit I’m fond of the notion of conservatism as moderation. However, this seems less about conservative ideology and more about conservative-mindedness. I’ve commented about the fact of American liberals being rather conservative-minded, defending what traditionalists once stood for.  This distinction between conservatism and traditionalism is important, but maybe it has less to do with conservatism. Such things as moderation and radicalism seem less to do about specific ideologies. Robin is maybe wrong to solely identify conservatism with reaction.

I honestly don’t know what conservatism is or could be under different conditions. I’d like to believe in a moderate and moderating conservative. People sometimes ask what do conservatives seek to conserve? The main problem I have with Lefer and Berkowitz is that they have a limited knowledge of history. If you don’t know the past, you might repeat what is less-than-desirable but you also won’t know what could and should be maintained. This is how conservatives constantly fail or even actively threatens traditional.

This brings me to two other books: Liberal Beginnings by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson and The Magna Carta Manifesto by Peter Linebaugh.

Conservatives like to make a misinformed distinction between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Progressive liberalism goes at least back to Thomas Paine’s “Agrarian Justice”, and it was Paine who inspired the US Constitution by suggesting Americans needed their own Magna Carta. Paine came of age when the enclosure movement was hitting hard those who were dependent on the commons. Besides food riots, one thing this led to is the first labor unions. The world during Paine’s life was the beginning of our modern political order.

Someone like Paine wasn’t simply attempting to create something new. He was trying to save what was being destroyed, the commons along with the rights of Englishmen. This relates to a long English tradition going back to the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Liberalism arose not just in envisioning new liberties but in defense of old liberties. Such things as the commons are what modern conservatives would like to conveniently forget. Conservatives want to pick and choose what they want from the past and discard the rest.

A genuinely moderate and moderating conservatism would not be so blithe about the past. It isn’t just that they dismiss important traditions. They don’t even bother to learn the history that would inform them about why these traditions matter. I have a natural inclination toward moderation, but it seems to me that moderation can only exist to the degree that knowledge is embraced. I want to conserve what is good in the world because that is the first step to increasing the good.

If what goes for conservatism is somehow false, it is because it has become a hollow label.

Is Reactionary Conservatism Conservative?

I’ve written about this topic quite a few times before. I don’t have any grand insights to add to my previous commentary. I just find myself constantly perplexed by American conservatism.

One particular thing keeps coming back to my mind. America has no tradition of traditional conservatism. This has been more or less true going back to colonial times, but definitely true at least by the revolutionary era. The Europeans who immigrated to America mostly came from traditionally conservative societies and communities, although modern liberalism was already beginning to take hold in certain countries such as Britain and the Netherlands. The important part is that these people were usually leaving traditional conservatism behind on purpose, sometimes even being forced to leave by the defenders of traditional conservatives of their homelands.

The Enlightenment eventually led to the demise of traditional conservatism in  the West. What replaced it was reactionary conservatism. This took hold earliest in America because there was no other conservatism to compete with it. But what exactly is this reactionary conservatism? Is it even conservative in any basic sense?

Traditional conservatives were the strongest opponents of classical liberalism, most specifically laissez-faire capitalism. Modern conservatives have come to embrace many of the major issues that classical conservatives opposed. Conservatives no longer even promote conserving such as the precautionary principle which goes back to the origin of the word itself.

They don’t resist change, but react against it. In reacting, they oddly end up embracing so much of what they reacted against. There is no core set of beliefs or values to reactionary conservatism. It just depends on what they happen to be reacting against at the moment?

Being predisposed to the liberal worldview, it doesn’t bother me that liberalism lacks any core principles. I’ve always thought of liberalism as more of an attitude, a mindset. Liberalism is all about changing with the times, all about embracing the new and different. But that isn’t how conservatives think of conservatism… which makes reactionary conservatism a very odd beast.

Am I not fully grasping what conservatism is all about? Maybe I’m doing what conservatives tend to do by pushing the idea of the idea of a genuinely conservative conservatism of the past. Maybe conservatism has always been reactionary. If one were to seek an origin of conservatism, one would have to look to the most traditional of societies which are hunter-gatherer tribes. Even the traditional conservatism that existed when the revolutionary era came was far away from tribal societies.

All of civilization was built on largely liberalizing forces. The merging of cultures and syncretizing of religions in such civilizations as the Roman Empire. Civilization is fundamentally liberal in bringing local people into an increasingly cosmopolitan world.

By following the strands of conservatism back in time, do we find a beginning point of conservatism? Or does the entire idea of conservatism simply unravel?

Conservatism & Liberalism: What is their relationship? What do they mean?

I have a basic question that connects to many related questions.
Anyone who has an answer(s), please share.

Does being illiberal or even anti-liberal inevitably mean being conservative?

Or to reverse it:
Does being conservative mean being illiberal or anti-liberal?

Basically, the question is:
Are liberal and conservative completely opposite categories, inherently oppositional even?
Are they mutually exclusive?

* * *

I know of conservatives who are relatively liberal-minded and liberals who are relatively conservative-minded.
Are such people contradictions? Are they misguided?

When a liberal uses illiberal methods, are they still being liberal and can what they achieve through such illiberal methods actually be liberal in essence or in purpose?

Former progressives who became the first neoconservatives, at what point did they stop being liberals? Or were they ever really liberals?

When Reagan was the president of a union (Screen Actors Guild), was he a liberal or was he merely a conservative responding to the liberal social scene of Hollywood during a relatively liberal era? When he attacked commies in the union, was he acting as a liberal or as a conservative? Is Obama a liberal even though he is seemingly more conservative than Reagan on some issues? Should we call Reagan a liberal now because the spectrum has shifted so far right? How can Reagan’s Emersonian optimism be considered conservative? Since today only liberals have majority support for compromise, what does that make Reagan who was often one of the strongest proponents of seeking compromise?

What about Goldwater who started movement conservatism and who introduced Reagan to the GOP? In later years, Goldwater attacked right-wingers and considered himself a liberal. How could Goldwater have called himself liberal when he is the one who helped push the spectrum so far right?

Many right-wingers have taken claim of ‘classical liberalism’, some even going so far as saying that their right-wing version of ‘classical liberalism’ is the original ‘liberalism’ and so the only real ‘liberalism’. Are they at least partly correct? Are right-wing classical liberals (or at least some of them) more liberal than the Democratic neoliberals and those who support them? If some right-wingers have embraced liberalism to varying degrees and many Democrats have forsaken liberalism to varying degrees, where does that leave liberalism itself?

Who gets to decide who is or who isn’t a liberal, who is or who isn’t a conservative?

Are such labels merely relative? Do they or don’t they have any fundamental meaning?

What does it centrally mean to be liberal? What essence of liberalism can’t be sacrificed in order to maintain a basic and meaningful identity as a liberal? Is speaking of a true ‘liberal’ just to fall into the trap of No True Scotsman fallacy? If ‘liberal’ is just a relative label with no fundamental meaning, what is the point of using it besides simply satisfying the desire for a group identity?

* * *

Let me return to my original question and put it another way.

Does a conservative in a liberal society automatically have to be against that society? Or is there a way for a conservative to maintain his conservatism in a liberal context without merely being a reactionary? What does being a conservative mean in the modern world where everything traditional has become forgotten, obscured, obsolete, deligitimated or simply unpopular? If conservatism has become an entirely reactionary phenomena, what does that make liberalism in response: anti-reactionary, non-reactionary or what?

On a related note, what is the relationship between conservatism and traditionalism? Corey Robin discusses this in his book, The Reactionary Mind. Looking back over these past centuries, some of the people who most effectively attacked traditionalists were conservatives. If modern conservatives aren’t traditionalists, whether or not they are overtly antagonistic to it, then what are they?

I’ve often wondered about the role of liberalism. It seems to me that liberalism isn’t inherently or inevitably opposite of conservatism, at least in American politics. Conservatism has become conflated with the right-wing in a way that hasn’t happened on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is still a clear sense of distance and disconnection between liberalism and the left-wing for the Cold War turned the left-wing into a scapegoat that liberals felt compelled to disown or else be attacked as commies and fellow-travelers. Liberals have instead for the most part embraced the role of the middle, the moderate. I’ve even sensed that liberals have taken up the role of the traditionalists in defending the status quo which is what traditionalists did in the past. I’ve speculated that conservatives or at least reactionary conservatives attack liberals for the same reason they attacked traditionalists in earlier times. Left-wingers are the revolutionaries and conservatives have become the counter-revolutionaries, meanwhile liberals have sought to moderate between the two.

Has this caused liberals to lose their sense of a coherent identity? By disconnecting from the left-wing, did liberals cut themselves off from their own roots? By teaming up with neoliberal Democrats, have liberals permanently sullied their reputation?

* * *

I ask about all of this as someone who used to identify as a liberal, but has stopped doing so, at least for the time being. As a label, is ‘liberal’ even worth trying to save from all the conflation and confusion? Has it lost all useful meaning? I’ve noticed a number of books written this past decade that attempt to ressurect the original or core meaning of liberalism. Is it a lost cause? Or, even if not entirely lost cause, is it worth the effort? Some have taken a different tack by calling themselves ‘progressives’ instead. Is that any better, any more useful, any more clear in meaning?

Liberals have been attacked both by conservatives and right-wingers on one side and by left-wingers on the other side. Does liberalism merely mean center-left? Isn’t there so much more to liberalism than merely not being on the right? Left-wingers don’t just attack liberals. Many of them have also attacked social democrats and municipal socialists. To me, liberalism can include all forms of liberal-minded versions of left-wing ideology or policy. I suspect that certain more radical left-wingers don’t dislike liberalism per se, rather they dislike the liberal-mindedness whether in service of mainstream politics or left-wing politics. Many left-wingers can be quite conservative-minded, research even finding that communists in communist countries measured very high on Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Also, keep in mind how easily socialist rhetoric was used in service of fascism, even convincing some left-wingers to support it.

I suspect the fundamental issue isn’t so much ideology and more to do with attitude. Someone holding Lockean ideas in the 18th century was liberally challenging the status quo, but someone today holding Lockean ideas is illiberally defending the status quo. Maybe an ideology can’t in and of itself be considered liberal or not, rather how it is held and for what purpose. Even though relatively speaking all modern politics is liberal compared to a millennia ago, it would be far from useful to call a modern right-winger a liberal.

I gave up on labeling myself liberal because of the confusion. However, the confusion was intentionally created by those hoping people like me would abandon it. I’m essentially letting them win, not only letting conservatives win but also letting the conservative-minded left-wingers to win. The conservative-minded, whether on the right or left, have for the time being won the battle of defining the terms. I could try to fight back in defense of ‘liberalism’, but I’m not sure I want to. Am I wrong for giving up too easily?

* * *

Here is a one defender arguing for why the fight is still worth fighting (Why I call myself a liberal by Wiesman):

“As usual the conventional wisdom here is wrong.  Liberal didn’t become a bad word because conservatives started attacking it.  They’ve always attacked us.  Liberal became a bad word because, unlike in that wonderful West Wing clip, liberals started running away from it.

“Liberals started calling themselves “progressives” instead.  A truly short-sighted decision.  Did they think this would make it stop?  Probably not, and they probably didn’t care at the time.  Bullies don’t back down when you run away and change your name.  Bullies back down when you stand up and say, “Yeah, I’m a liberal.  Problem?”

“And of course this whole “progressive” label is now being attacked by right-wing bullies like Glenn Beck.  It’s needlessly muddled the debate about things like progressive tax rates.  ”Oh, it’s a progressive tax rate.  And progressive means liberal.  So, I’m against that, I guess,” says the conservative making $50,000 per year.

“Progressive tax rates aren’t liberal.  They’re what Adam Smith advocated for in Wealth of Nations.  They make sense.  (Okay, so maybe they are liberal then, but that’s beside the point.)

“Anyway, I started thinking about this again, partially because of that Lawrence O’Donnell post I made and partly because of what my conservative friend in Ohio said to me at the end of his message:

“I have always been a registered republican. I will never agree with liberals but I will be voting democrat from here on out.”

“This is a guy who works as a policeman, a protector of the people, paid for by the people, and who believes that people have a right to band together and collectively bargain for their livelihood.  And yet he also believes that he will never agree with liberals.  At least one of these statements does not belong!

“This is our fault.  We have lost control of what the word liberal means because we haven’t defended it, and when you don’t stand up for yourself, you can’t blame people for thinking your ideas are not worth standing up for.”

* * *

By writing this post, I don’t mean to argue for liberalism or to dismiss any genuine criticisms. I’m truly just questioning. I was wondering about the relationship between political liberalism and psychological liberal-mindedness (partly in response to my previous thoughts about my parents who are self-identified conservatives and yet are relatively liberal-minded in many ways, less so than myself though).

If one is strongly liberal-minded, why not simply call oneself a ‘liberal’? Why do we let others define the terms we label ourselves with? It seems obvious to me that liberalism should automatically imply liberal-mindedness. In my mind, to the degree someone isn’t liberal-minded is the degree to which they aren’t a liberal, and to the degree someone is liberal-minded is the degree to which they are a liberal. Political liberalism is simply the attempt to manifest liberal-mindedness in the real world of political action.

Part of me wants to defend liberalism in this way, but another part of me feels like there isn’t any point in trying. I remain undecided.