May 17, 2013

Contemporary American Liberalism, a brief dissection

I know many lifelong conservatives who either misunderstand American liberalism, or find it utterly incomprehensible. While I have never considered myself a liberal per se, I was at one time sympathetic to many of their causes. My own political views were actually to the left of mainstream liberalism for much of my life, but liberalism has drifted left while I have reasoned my way inevitably to the right. I could say I’ve looked at liberalism from both sides now – but unlike the Judy Collins song, I think I know and understand it pretty well. Here, then, are my general conclusions about how liberalism functions as a movement.

First, like most other groups, liberals are not a homogeneous like-minded mass. They are really three groups that, while distinctly different, operate symbiotically from a political perspective. Far from being equal, these three groups are stratified by class and there is only very limited interaction between them.

At the bottom of the liberal pyramid, we find the people among the lower and lower middle classes that believe they will benefit from a redistribution of wealth. Generally speaking, these people do not perceive themselves as liberals or progressives, though some may self-identify as Democrats. They rarely think about politics in any abstract, ideological sense. Rather, they vote for those that offer them some real, tangible favors. They are entirely practical in this regard. They want material things from the government, and they are unimpressed with the complex ideas of individual liberty, property rights, limitations to government power, etc. Their eyes are on their own immediate interests.

While there was a time when the direct beneficiaries of government charity were few, they have grown steadily more numerous as government has seen fit to compensate for more and more kinds of inequities. To begin with the most inflammatory example, history furnished a ready-made grievance for most black Americans, and the liberal elite have been happy to tuck them under the great paternalistic wing. This alliance is largely opportunistic at both ends. The leaders of the American left do not care about black people as individual human beings. Government policies, by their nature, do not cope well with the unique circumstances of individuals. This is a weakness of all social policies, not merely leftist ones. Leftist ideology though, from Marx on, has always explicitly dealt with people as aggregate classes, ethnic groups, or some other kind of collective.1 They always talk about what is best for society rather than about what is best for the individual. It is the collective which is important. The importance of the individual human being is a bourgeois enlightenment idea – it has never been a socialist one. Consequently, the left treats blacks, and everybody else, as members of a particular group, and it is the group whose history must be redressed – in exchange, of course, for their support in the elections. If you think that wealthy liberals genuinely like poor blacks as individuals, see if you can find some section 8 housing in one of the neighborhoods where the liberal elites live.

The same basic way of carving up humanity is applicable to all sorts of groups. For example, a liberal government created a bureaucratic category of disabled persons and functionally pretends that no one collecting disability is able to work. What else could disability mean? Yet I have known several people on disability, including a couple of my own relatives, and none were so handicapped that they could not have continued to do productive work of some kind. Indeed, it is not unusual for someone receiving disability benefits to be quite active, and even to operate some small business on the side. On the other hand, I know several blind people who are not collecting disability at all, but who manage to support themselves quite well. Disability is, from a social engineering perspective, a construct for the redistribution of wealth and the reorganization of labor. It’s a way to keep unemployment numbers down by removing people from the workforce. From an individual perspective it is, more often than not, a way to get a paycheck without working. Ask and you shall receive. The number of people who have been exempted from contributing to the theoretically all-important greater good of society is now quite staggering. Nine million on disability alone.2

I will skip over the middle tier of educated middle class liberals for now, getting back to them in a moment. It’s always best to tell your jokes either at the beginning or the end – either to set your audience at ease, or to leave them with a laugh. There is nothing especially funny about either the dependent classes or the elites, but the middle classes of liberals are one long running gag.

The ruling elite, those people who enact new laws and feel entitled by their stations to ignore the old ones, is the group with whom I have the least direct experience. Practically none, in fact. I stood on a street corner once as a president passed by in an armored bus with black windows, preceded and followed by an army of well-dressed but intimidating thugs with black sunglasses. On another occasion, I saw my governor at about a hundred yards distance. This is about as close as most of us will ever get to a major political figure. That is significant in itself. The ruling class of the United States today are far more estranged from the general public than the aristocracy of medieval Europe ever was. The medieval lord might live in a castle, but the castle at least overlooked the town. If the lord did not necessarily share in every aspect of the lives of his serfs, he at least could not help but be aware of them. A couple of decades ago, the first president Bush had a telling moment during a campaign visit to a supermarket, when he was surprised and obviously fascinated by the bar code scanner. He had obviously never seen or used one. Why would he have? George H. W. Bush is obviously no liberal, but he is certainly a member of the ruling class and shares in its high degree of isolation from the rest of us. Some of our rulers may come from modest backgrounds, but it is a rare politician, high level bureaucrat or nationally recognized journalist who maintains much active contact with those roots. Official Washington is, in a very importance sense, a nation unto itself.

In the absence of personal experience, I can only make inferences about the thinking of the elites based on their statements, their reported behavior, and the public policies they advocate. Their actual statements are the least compelling of the three. All major politicians now are surrounded not only by a cordon of security, but also by a buzzing swarm of campaign managers, media consultants and the like. This is to say, they are surrounded by people whose goal is to turn all of their utterances to some political advantage, either by encouraging pompous grandstanding, or some comforting, well-crafted species of baby-talk. Politicians don’t tell you what they believe, but do their best to shape what you believe. This is incompatible with any notion that their function is to represent you. Rather, your function is to support them. Their consultants are nothing more or less than a specialized group of advertizing experts, who want to sell you a narrative or a candidate rather than a product. The policy or the persona is the product. It is a mistake, though, to think of members of the ruling elite as habitual liars. It is perfectly possible that they maintain at least a normal level of honesty among themselves. They lie to us because the lies are impersonal, and because they are supremely confident that they know best, and any abuse of the truth that will convince us to go along enthusiastically or at least quietly is just a normal part of political life. They treat us, at best, like children. The only vestige of power still in the hands of the public is our tenuous hold on the elections, but in a culture that values emotional reactions and charisma over substance, elections are more of a beauty contest than an expression of the popular will. One can only elect a candidate who represents one’s interests if the candidate’s views are both known and consistent. The system that has evolved makes it unlikely they will be either.

I haven’t delineated the differences between the liberal ruling elite from their nominally conservative, Republican counterparts because, frankly, the differences are minor. Bill Clinton can be chummy with the Bushes because they both see themselves in essentially the same way. To use George junior’s own inane, quasi-folksy term – they are “the deciders.” The great experiment of the United States, in which, to use Thoreau’s rather more articulate phrase – “that government is best which governs least” – is over. Republicans talk about freedom and conjure up the image of the rugged individualist, but most don’t really take it seriously. What they want is not a diminution of government size or power, but merely it’s redirection to favor a somewhat different agenda. Likewise, most Democrats only talk about the preservation of privacy and other civil liberties. They do so only to avoid alienating the more educated members of their base by moving toward authoritarianism too quickly. They know well that they will never be subject to any oppressive laws themselves, and that sweeping government powers would make governing easier.

The American ruling class is, in one sense, uninteresting. Anyone with even a moderate knowledge of history can see that they are nothing new. Humanity has been burdened with such people since the dawn of civilization. The details of the methods are new, but the motives and attitudes are timeless. The liberals at the top of the current political heap are not egalitarians. They are people who enjoy the exercise of power, and feel that some natural superiority on their part entitles them to mold the rest of us like so much human clay. They recognize, to some degree, that they are constrained by the dictates of their own public narrative – which is to say that, to the extent that elections still matter, they must still dance the egalitarian dance to the satisfaction of their base – but their goal is not to serve that base, but to serve their own ambitions – utopian, avaricious or otherwise. Nothing much to see here. Let us move along.

It is now my pleasure to present the class that I know best – that class from which, in fact, I sprang. (“Stumbled” might be a better word – or perhaps “escaped after a protracted struggle.”) Middle class liberals are not an absolutely uniform group either. They range from upper middle class professionals (lawyers, doctors, professors in schools beneath the Ivy League, et al.) to lower middle class union workers and school teachers. Still, within this broad swath of people there are some common characteristics.

The first point of similarity is one of simple identification with the ideology’s core narrative. Middle class liberals see themselves as part of a continual moral and material progress upward. The newly revived term “progressive” is probably a more apt term than “liberal” – a term which once connoted nearly the opposite of what it connotes now. Contemporary liberals see themselves as good because they want society to continually be made better. Conservatives, by contrast, are suspicious of dismantling institutions that experience has proven to work. Though this distinction is simplistic to the point of childishness, it is still quite illustrative. The core liberal belief is that the aggregate direction of change is always toward improvement. By destroying established tradition, they believe they will get a better society when the dust settles. For this reason, they tend not to worry much about the consequences of change, provided that change is being driven by members of their own team. To them, progress it the inevitable consequence of upheaval. Unfortunately for them, history fails to confirm this outlook.

Reality is under no obligation to adhere to anyone’s beliefs. A religious belief in progress is no better a predictor of the future than any other magical belief. The historical record indicates that civilizations rise and fall due to many subtle factors, and that rapid change has at least as good a chance of being negative as it does of being positive. Things don’t just get better and better because you feel good about your ideology. The story of civilization is substantially a chronicle of unintended consequences – of unhappy things that happened on the way to somebody’s idea of utopia.

The second thing that bonds middle class liberalism together is a misguided notion of altruism. This can have different motivations depending on the circumstances of the individual. If one is a materially successful liberal – not a member of the political elite, but in the top 5 or 10% of the population economically – altruism in the form of coughing up a little more in taxes, or just having the proper attitudes toward the least successful members of society, gets you off the moral hook. You can be rich, which your ideology tells you is a kind of sin – and yet have a clean conscience through the secular tithe of taxation and a politically correct thought or two. I can only imagine many lawyers find their politics a useful balm to sooth the atrophying vestiges of their consciences. At the other end of the spectrum, in the liberal lower middle class, the additional tax tithe and political correctness elevates your station through association with the elite. Perhaps you cannot change the world like Bill or Hillary Clinton – but you can help! You can have a little piece of their high holiness through your modest sacrifice and right (or rather left) ideas.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not opposed to genuine human sympathy. The world would be a wretched place if we were all unflinching Randian egoists. What I am opposed to is letting a government or an ideology manage and codify our natural human sympathies for us. If someone takes a certain share of my income by force and tells me they are doing good with it, this does not constitute a moral action on my part. Only voluntary actions can be moral. Likewise, if I feel a politically correct sense of pity toward some underprivileged minority whose members I only rarely or superficially encounter, I do not make their lives any better. Words and thoughts are cheap. This isn’t altruism at all – it is just a thinly disguised exercise in good old fashioned subservience and conformity. How often does the average liberal ask: “So – how are these social policies really working out?” “Is there less poverty now than there was 40 years ago?” “How well do my representatives actually embody my ideals?” Some do, of course, but most are content to play the my-team-vs-their-team game which is the default pattern of human interaction wherever recognizable groups of any kind exist. Liberals don’t love all human beings – they love the people that their culture elevates and hate the people that their culture vilifies. In this way, frankly, I suppose the liberal middle class really isn’t very interesting either. A mob of followers and wannabes that are the willing tools of an elite. Nothing new under the sun.

What is peculiar (though not unique) about the contemporary liberal middle class is their enthusiasm for undermining their own actual best interests. It does not benefit them to have a greater and greater share of their income doled out to a growing number of entitled victims. Neither does it benefit them to grovel at the feet of their own leadership. Virtually all of the productive capacity of society lies in the knowledge and abilities of the dwindling middle class. Despite this theoretical power, they are progressively wrung dry by the elite, who use their wealth to pay both the poor and themselves while contributing rather little useful work themselves. Politically speaking, the middle class is the most naïve component of the liberal movement.

The lengths to which the middle tier of liberals will go to defend their narrative are both tragic and amusing.  I can think of no better illustration of this than the comments of a liberal friend. He once told me that he knew perfectly well his leadership was lying to him, but he’d concluded that this wasn’t a particularly serious problem. He felt that because his leaders always said the right things that they would eventually have to do the right things as well. Stunned, I countered with the argument that Joseph Stalin always said the right things, while happily sending millions to the gulag. I needn’t have bothered. My friend’s position was neither rational nor amenable to argument. It was, in fact, the perfect political analog of battered woman syndrome – the victim’s belief that, although the abuser has beaten her repeatedly in the past, his words prove that he really loves her and that eventually he will change. The only rational response – no, to forgive abuse is to encourage more abuse, and to believe in change occurring spontaneously under such circumstances is self-destructive – is rarely worth the effort of expressing. Against a truly magical belief, mere reason struggles in vain.

It is bitterly ironic that contemporary liberalism has identified itself so closely with science, and yet divorced itself so completely from external epistemic standards. So confident are most middle class progressives that their ideology is grounded in science that they endow liberal policies of all sorts with an aura of infallibility they do not merit. At least the religious realize their understanding of the world is based on faith – the liberal has a faith-based worldview he thinks is factual because, here and there, it has a veneer of scientific structure and the approval of scientists.

The association of a political movement with science tends to have a corrupting influence on both. It gives political positions credibility they do not merit, while is undermines the credibility of science. Take the recent case of Diederik Stapel, the well-respected Dutch sociologist. He spent the greater part of his career inventing sociological mechanisms and supporting them with data he invented out of thin air. Since his work supported the general narrative of western liberalism, it escaped serious scrutiny for decades. It was peer reviewed, of course – but by peers who were in general sympathetic, and who knew quite well the consequences of bucking the culture. Consider, by contrast, the case of Charles Murray. Murray’s landmark work, The Bell Curve, brought an immediate storm of academic attack for showing that, as groups, blacks and Latinos performed significantly poorer than whites on intelligence tests, and for asserting that genetics could not be ruled out as a contributing factor to the disparity. Whether Murray and his co-author Richard Herrnstein where ultimately correct or not is not at issue. The point is that scientists who excoriated Murray in the popular press were heroes, whereas Stapel’s credibility was taken for granted.

I have digressed somewhat. Let’s return to my main topic, which is the interplay between the three classes of liberals.

In its roughest, most general outlines, the socio-economic mechanism of contemporary American liberalism is as I outlined earlier: the elites harvest the productive effort of the middle class to maintain their own status and to buy the support of the dependent classes. The elites win economically in more-or-less the same way elites always win economically – they own the game – and they entrench themselves politically by buying the support of a large class of dependents. This part of the mechanism is as old as Rome, at least. The dependent classes win to the extent that they can live a poor but not a desperate life without having to do any real work for it. They lose in that tax pressure suppresses the economic activity that would allow them to rise from a state of dependency more easily if they wanted to – as some of them certainly do want to. Their rise from dependency would be of no real benefit to the liberal elite – in fact quite the opposite. They are perfectly useful where they are. Although this may sound cynical, consider what would have to be true were it otherwise. The leaders of the left would have to be so altruistic as to be willing to give up a near-certain source of political support simply because it helped some individuals not personally known to them. Individuals whose culture is as alien to that of the elites as a Kalahari bushman’s is to you or I.

The middle class loses. The leftwing middle class wins the fantasy moral victory of feeling it is on the side of the angels. The conservative middle class just loses.

The problem with this game, even from the perspective of the current winners, is that it can’t go on forever. We have reached a point in history where both the socio-economic mechanism outlined above and a variety of material factors (mostly involving resources shortages of one kind or another) are eroding the middle class engine that powers the system. The crash of 2008 and a gradually shrinking economy that has followed has pushed a huge number of productive working people into a condition of non-productive dependence. Since at least 2008, we have had largely a fictitious economy built of currency debasement and dishonest government statistics. The shrinking middle class can carry no more burdens. Certainly, they cannot offset in taxes the 40% of the budget that the government prints out of thin air. Sooner or later there are just going to be more balls in the air than the juggler can handle, and people are going to discover the hard way that they cannot eat promises or dreams – which is all the government will have to offer them. Many people now feel this intuitively, but not very many look too closely. It’s a frightening sight. And if they did look – what could they do?

Yes, I know that I am generalizing in exactly the same way. Old habits die hard. I do not claim that absolutely every liberal fits neatly into my formula. What I am struggling to paint is a portrait of a crowd in its most general outlines. It is only an aggregate form created from the shapes of many individuals, who are themselves undoubtedly unique in many respects. I do not claim the portrait fully subsumes the beliefs of all those that it contains, or that their individual lives or characters are altogether irrelevant.

2  To be fair, if I may be forgiven the use of a liberal holy word, the economy has become so structurally distorted that there would not be enough jobs to go around now if, by magic or necessity, everybody wanted one. I deal with that in more detail elsewhere.


  1. The secret service are well dressed "thugs" in sunglasses? Have you ever met one? I have a friend who is secret service, and I work with them frequently. I think they are dedicated and generally honest guards and law enforcement personnel. Being the kings guard is an old and honorable profession. It does not make one the King, nor does it make one guilty of the kings bad decisions (excluding death camp guards and thier ilk).
    Yes I realize I picked one line from your diatribe and indeed one that was not pertainent to your point, but you pushed a button of mine.

    You say you escaped from being a middle class what? What would you describe yourself as now?

    1. There is nothing wrong with the existence of Secret Service, or with their role of protecting public officials. And true, there are Secret Service people who are good, honest people -- perhaps even the majority of them are. I know one myself.

      The problem begins when they dress to intimidate and start to view the crowd as the enemy. I do not blame them for the actions of those they protect, but for contributing to the psychological barrier between the public and the people who are supposed to represent them. If they look like thugs, pose like thugs, and inspire the same fear as thugs -- then they function as thugs.


      I avoid describing myself as anything. At this moment in time, I am aligned with the conservatives, but only so long as they chart a reasonable course. Being blindly loyal to ANY identity is a pretty reliable way of being wrong.