Liberalism and untrustworthiness
By Daniel M. Ryan
One of the more amazing developments in American politics is the extent to which "liberal" has become a bad name. Contrast it with Canada, where an entire party is named the Liberal Party. A parliamentary system places a greater premium on rhetorical skill than a congressional system, yet Canada's Conservatives have done little better than Liberal-bashing: knocking the Liberals back to what they are, basically. There's been nothing like the American conservatives' success at making "liberal" a label of shame. Rather than sticking to their guns, American liberals have attempted to rebrand themselves as "progressives." If an American uses the term "liberal," it's almost a sure thing that (s)he isn't one.
The overall tone of the conservatives' counter-rout focuses on one theme: liberals are untrustworthy. There's always an air of "stay away from them – they're no good." Mostly gone are the good old days when liberals were pegged by conservatives as good-hearted but impractical. Nowadays, a liberal – particularly, one who plaints about the decay of the public square – is sized up as Lucy proffering the football to Charlie Brown.
In a sense, the conservatives have caught up with a certain yesterday. It was only a half-lifetime ago when conservatives were routinely demonized, often with underlying stereotypes that were crude enough to have come from a Ph.D. in gutterology. Bill Buckley's early writings contain enough nuggets to confirm that today's opprobrium is the result of today's blowback.
If the liberals who bemoan current partisanship are serious, they have a fair bit of fence to mend. Below is a list of unflattering liberal characteristics that liberals tend to deny but are quite evident to a non-liberal:
Mark Steyn's insightful piece, The Vanity of Big Government, nails an awful lot of current liberalism. That vanity is rooted in intellectual vanity, which used to be described more politely as impracticality. Liberals tend to be people of words. There's a natural tendency for people to assume their strengths make them a cut above the ordinary fellow, and to be blind to the downsides that reintroduce them to the ranks of the ordinary. Liberals can be described as "besotten by theory," but that phrase really means they're resistant to admitting their mistakes. When has a liberal, instead of using the "people aren't ready for it" dodge, ever admitted that the people were right and (s)he was wrong? Given that self-criticality is one of the eternal credos of the intellectual life, what better stamp of intellectual vanity can there be than a supposedly intellectual liberal who can't concede mistakes without blaming someone else? In that neck of the woods, a blame-absolving "mistakes were made" is actually a cut above!
One of the better-known tropes about the Victorian age is that its modesty and decorum was too much to ask of folks, some of which turned to debauchery in rebellion at being stifled. This might not be accurate, because the Victorian goal of moral uplift was an attempt to clean out the open debauchery in the eighteenth (and early nineteenth) century. Rather than being an indictment of the Victorian goal, the presence of debauchery could merely indicate that the reformers missed some. If there's any criticism of the Victorian age that fits, it would be the overreliance upon "I refuse to recognize it" as a deterrent. The same thing could be said about American partisanship. Nineteenth-century journalists, and intellectuals at their level, were notoriously partisan. Despite protestations that nothing of the sort exists in liberal strongholds like Hollywood, universities and the media, there is evidence of an aggressive partisanship when conservatives merely criticize the denizens of those fields. I'm tempted to say that the aggressive defensiveness is at the same level as the more open aggressiveness directed at the regular business sector. As long as liberals refuse to recognize their own partisanship, which does show when a howl arises over the little 'authoritarian' that wasn't there, they might as well be America's answer to the Victorians of modern stereotype.
Yes, it's there and it shows. Granted that a liberal tends not to be a physical bully, but there's an obvious moralization streak that surfaces when a regular bully would get snarly. Not in all liberals, of course; some have a streak of the intellectual bully.
There's nothing inherently wrong with categorizing, but liberals are well known for taking it to the point where it turns into "structured deafness." The technique in question is used by people who have to deal with others who sometimes become abusive – a social worker, for example. Categorizing someone's yelling as merely a disguised complaint, or as frustration or whatnot, can keep the ears from being bent out of shape. It is needful when a more heart-to-heart approach would lead to getting burned out. Trouble is, it also screens out the substance. Anyone who wonders what Rush Limbaugh was driving at when he says that liberals value method over substance need not wonder anymore. To the extent to which it bleeds into condescension, I suggest gently, it also runs the risk of sliding into something else. Something that does not elicit resentment, but fury.
It doesn't take an Oxonian cynic, or a semanticist, to postulate that "social justice" is little more than a euphemism for payoffs to favored interest groups. All it takes is looking at when the phrase is used, what's suggested in consequence, and how much money is churned out. When it comes down to it, a liberal is a Johnny three-note: tax; spend; regulate. There oughta be a tax, there oughta be a disbursement; there oughta be a law. (Note how many liberals inaccurately assume regulated industries are unregulated when something goes wrong.) "Complex" basically means detail-oriented. The limitations of "Johnny Three Rote"'s methods show most clearly in foreign policy.
It may be unfair for me to say that liberals are three-tool wonders. If so, then this above item should be definitely counted as the fourth. It's the one that makes a liberal so easy to stereotype as some kind of a weakling. It shows in a very definite partiality that leads to favored groups having their complaints taken as truths without checking matters on the other side. Again, this limitation is most evident in foreign policy, although it recurrently shows in domestic policy. I'm pretty sure that a Jewish neoconservative could expound on this point with some choice words.
Liberals really can't be faulted for believing what they believe, but they can be faulted for ducking out of a proper failure analysis. It's a question worth asking: how much of today's races to the bottom are the consequence of yesterday's "progress?" It's worthwhile noting in this context that religious injunctions and taboos, not to mention so-called dogmas, often function as blockers of moral hazards.
When a liberal uses the term "inequality" it means that the liberal's ginning up for either Punishment or Payoffs. The liberal either wants the economically successful punished, more government cheques cut, or both at the same time. The near-monomaniacal insistence leads one to suspect a kind of fanaticism underneath, and there are some grounds for that suspicion. When it comes to status, once the velvet glove of pity is removed, a liberal is often an elitist. Given point #4, it's perhaps inevitable they would be so. The typical form of liberal elitism is credentialism, a kind of guildism, which blends into the kind that posits a government employee as better than a plain citizen. The more basal level is a kind of narcissism which claims that people who hold liberal sentiments are superior to those who do not. The latent elitism in liberalism is evident in the rise of the so-called über-liberals. They don't have to worry about that "something else" I elided over in point #4.
The above list is one that can be derived, although not easily, from watching liberals and ruminating over conservative complaints about them. Granted that I'm a Canadian America-watcher; as such, I have an outsider's vantage point combined with blind spots that would be obvious to an American. Nonetheless, when all of the above points are put together, an impression is left of a liberal as being a kind of bully. No wonder that Lyndon Johnson was so lionized by liberals before he became an embarrassment.
Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.