Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Left Isn't Liberal

Leftists take great pride in liberalism. Occasionally they claim the word alone supports the platform; that liberalism equates with change; that advancement of liberty demands change, revolution even!; making change a positive political value. The implicit link between "change" and "preferred policy" turned explicit when (after the "liberal" label became unpopular) the American left shifted to a new term--"progressive."

It's all bunk, of course. Liberals don't necessarily support change; conservatives don't necessarily favor the status quo; if liberals embraced all change, they'd backed Bush's substitution of "preemption" for the prior U.S. foreign policy of "containment," as well as his proposed Social Security reforms. Still, as Evan Coyne Maloney observed, this bias infects even apolitical reference materials:
  • Definition of Liberal (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed 2000):
    Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry. b. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded. c. Of, relating to, or characteristic of liberalism. d. Liberal Of, designating, or characteristic of a political party founded on or associated with principles of social and political liberalism, especially in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.
  • Definition of Conservative (Id.):
    Favoring traditional views and values; tending to oppose change.
  • Synonyms for Liberal (Roget’s New Millennium™ Thesaurus (1st ed. 2005):
    advanced, avant-garde, big, broad, broad-minded, catholic, detached, disinterested, dispassionate, enlightened, flexible, free, general, high-minded, humanistic, humanitarian, impartial, indulgent, inexact, interested, latitudinarian, left, lenient, libertarian, loose, magnanimous, not close, not literal, not strict, permissive, pink, radical, rational, reasonable, receiving, receptive, reformist, tolerant, unbiased, unbigoted, unconventional, understanding, unorthodox, unprejudiced. . . altruistic, beneficent, benevolent, big, bighearted, bounteous, bountiful, casual, charitable, eleemosynary, exuberant, free, generous, good Joe, handsome, kind, lavish, loose, munificent, open-handed, open-hearted, philanthropic, prince, prodigal, profuse, Santa Claus, soft touch, softie, unselfish, unsparing
  • Synonyms for Conservative (Id.):
    bourgeois, cautious, constant, controlled, conventional, die-hard, fearful, firm, fogyish, fuddy-duddy, guarded, hard hat, hidebound, holding to, illiberal, inflexible, middle-of-the-road, not extreme, obstinate, old guard, old-line, orthodox, quiet, red-neck, right, right-wing, sober, stable, steady, timid, traditional, traditionalistic, unchangeable, unchanging, uncreative, undaring, unimaginative, unprogressive, white bread. . . bitter-ender, classicist, conserver, conventionalist, die-hard, fossil, hard hat, middle-of-the-roader, moderate, moderatist, obstructionist, old fogy, old guard, old liner, preserver, reactionary, red-neck, right, right-winger, rightist, silk-stocking, standpat, stick-in-the-mud, Tory, traditionalist, unprogressive.
The persuasive linguistic bias has more than merely academic consequences. Two and a quarter centuries is too long, hence anti-Americanism. Change being good, rules must "open to new ideas for progress." Opponents are "uncreative, undaring, unimaginative" or, the equivalent of original sin in the First Church of St. Dowd (Secularist), "unprogressive." Can't blame liberals for trying--it's in the dictionary!

Dictionary or not, this logic is the "root cause" of the gulf between liberal and conservative approaches to law. I'm not talking about forward looking policy making, about which reasonable people can disagree. The issue is hermeneutics: how we interpret and apply law.

MaxedOutMama's recent posts on the Nebraska gay-marriage decision sparked further study of the schism. The court essentially adopted the rationale of decisions in Massachusetts, California and New York that:
  1. Long-standing constitutional and statutory provisions can be re-interpreted to be more relevant to modern sensibilities;

  2. Re-interpretation is not limited by the provision's language or intended scope; and

  3. Judicial re-interpretation may ignore the people as expressed either directly or by the peoples' elected representatives.
Lefties aren't troubled. If words have no fixed meaning, and instead flex like an accordion in sync with the music of the few, progress can accelerate. Blogger Dingo takes this view on an M_O_M comment thread: "Try to show me a law that is completely 100% constitutional. This is all about degrees of grey."

This outlook is inconsistent with our Constitution and with democracy in general. and vitiates the role of the legislature. It's profoundly il-liberal:
  1. Inflexibility is strength: America was founded, as John Adams said, as "a government of laws not men." Meaning that meanings -- and justice -- depend on words, not the perceptions or prejudices of the decision maker. This is particularly true where the relevant legal principle derives from the Constitution. The Framers made our Constitution relatively hard to change -- amendments and alterations only through various super-majorities. Relatively immutable Constitutions promote continuity and protect the rights of the minority. In other words, the scheme fosters freedom.

    The left's approach tramples these principles. Indeed, today's liberals seem to believe the Constitution teaches that the Founders were wise, implying that superior wisdom (theirs, of course) should prevail today. The Founders were indeed wise--but that's the wrong lesson. Instead, they recognized that:

    • unanimity is impossible, and . . . [t]he Founding Fathers didn't have all the answers.

    • Instead, they created a process to address disagreement--a relatively immutable Constitution, a Congress with limited Federal powers, separation of powers, a list of untouchable rights, and an expectation that state legislatures would reflect the will of their own citizens, without regard to those in other states.

    • [Such limited] Federal power devolve[d] decision making to the lowest possible unit of government, such as states or municipalities. This tends to ensure that citizens have the maximum possible ability to monitor and participate in policy determinations, making law and regulation the responsibility of legislative and executive bodies most closely connected to those directly affected.

    So the liberals' embrace of a "living Constitution" is a radical and wholly inconsistent departure from the principles on which America was founded. Moreover the left's hypocritical: if words and principles are elastic, how can any position -- abortion, gay marriage, etc. -- be a non-negotiable litmus test?

  2. Vagueness imperils freedom: Our Constitution was carefully drafted to be both durable and patently clear; legislative drafting aspires to the same goals. But if the meaning of words has wings, how can lawful be distinguished from forbidden? If Constitutional powers are murky, separation of powers is destroyed. With everything up for grabs, liberals trade the certain and consistent for the quixotic and volatile. This transforms Constitutional government into a Lewis Carroll character (Though the Looking Glass (Chap. 6):
    `When _I_ use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'

    `The question is,' said Alice, `whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

    `The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'
    M_O_M correctly demolished such reasoning, and its underlying implications, which I've addressed elsewhere, as demoting the will of the people and elevating judges to a legal priesthood. M_O_M says it's "the vary definition of tyranny;" it's also anything but the "Republican Form of Government" guaranteed by Article IV, Section 4 of the Constitution.*

    A profound change, says M_O_M:
    There has been a definite change in jurisprudence. Many call it "judicial activism". When creating a new class of rights you do generate odd case law that is expansive and wobbly.

    If all laws are unconstitutional, then we have created a judicial tyranny in which those with the most money, determination and friendly judges win. Is that your idea of what our government should be?
    Conservatives reject this approach -- even were we word "master" -- for reasons once crucial to, and celebrated by, liberals. See Lanzetta v. New Jersey, 306 U.S. 451, 453 (1939) ("[It] is a well- recognized requirement, consonant alike with ordinary notions of fair play and the settled rules of law; and a statute which either forbids or requires the doing of an act in terms so vague that men of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application violates the first essential of due process of law.").

  3. The death of democracy: The overall effect of the liberal theory of words is "the end of majority rule." The Constitution e established a legislature representing the people. Legislatures make laws, a process requiring study, debate and a vote. The principle check on legislators is the second Tuesday in November: the people vote to select their agent, and can revoke the agency at the election.

    Modern liberals turn the Constitution on its head. Though the legislative process was codified in the very first Article, liberals attach little legitimacy to the vote. Though Congress (and state legislatures) were tailored to resolve disputed and controversial issues, liberal elitists are condescendingly contemptuous of popular opinion, certain they may and must substitute their judgment for the views of the (less "capable") majority. After all, opponents of progress are "hidebound, . . . inflexible, . . . obstinate, . . . red-neck, right, right-wing, . . . timid, . . . unchangeable, unchanging, uncreative, undaring, [and] unimaginative." Roget said so.

    The result is to exalt courts over congress Blind to this redaction of the Constitution, today's liberals rarely seek voter or legislative majorities. Instead, the party of "one-man, one-vote":
    push ever-expanding list of issues too important for debate, relying on judicial decrees imposed without regard to the will of the people. Ironically, therefore, the Democratic Party's notion of democracy is anything but democratic.
    And of course anything but liberal.
Conclusion: From its conception by the Greeks, democracy entrusted citizens with the power to alter the laws and structures of government. America's English heritage added the rule of law, confining state power to a priori rules so as to safeguard against arbitrary outcomes in individual cases. Liberalism's great contribution was an insistence on individual rights, with a limited government centered on defending those rights. Today's liberals distain democracy, invent definitions and meaning, treat the individual's right to opinion as tissue paper, and abandon process and neutrality for result-oriented rule. They shortcut the rule of law headless of danger--obviously if text is elastic and interpretation freed from fairness, liberal principles are at risk as well.

American representative democracy was founded by "the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty." Limited Federal government recognizes that one size won't fit all. It encourages diverse experimentation. And its no straight-jacket: The Constitution isn't permanent--it can be amended. Unlike diamonds, statutes aren't forever--they can be repealed. And administrative rules aren't everlasting--they can be (and usually are) modified at the next open meeting.

Today's liberals are certain their solutions are superior to the process established by the Founders. So certain that they discount, ignore and overrule general election and legislative votes with which they disagree. But American's are guaranteed the vote. If constistent with the Bill of Rights, the right to vote encompasses delay, confusion and flat-out error. That's because the Constitution enshrines the liberty of being wrong. As evidenced by Roe, Lawrence, Roper and the gay marriage cases, today's left is dedicated to eradicating that civil right.

The left may be "avant-garde, . . . unconventional, . . . unorthodox, [and] progressive." Just don't call them liberal.


MaxedOutMama unearths sanity at Democratic Underground. I'll concede the left still has a few good men (Hentoff for example). But as M_O_M acknowledges, the reasoned are a minority in the present progressive, Deaniac, anyone-who-disagrees=Hitler universe. As an example, DU recently polled its inmates about Al Qaeda. The results (small sample size): 19 percent thought it a "real terrorist organization;" 22 percent said it was a "once real terrorist organization that the administration is now using to get what they want;" and 59 percent insisted Al Qaeda was a "completely fictional organization." More evidence that lefty opinion on 9/11 and global terror stems from late-night cable re-runs of "Capricorn 1."

And, M_O_M, us neo-cons are gentle sorts; I'd never shoot you.

More from M_O_M: "can I claim that the liberal left is in control of the Democratic Party nationally? At this point, no. Carl has me crawling on my belly to avoid the overwhelming fusillade of link-fire whistling over my head. I think it's a temporary aberration, but only time will tell."


* The Supreme Court read this clause to be unenforcable, Luther v. Borden, 48 U.S. 1, 42 (1849), contributing to the elasticity of meaning.


MaxedOutMama said...

Carl, very interesting and it's going to take some time to read and understand.

One thing struck me:
"Lefties aren't troubled. If words have no fixed meaning, and instead flex like an accordion in sync with the music of the few, progress can accelerate."

This sounds an awful lot like a criticism of the proposed EU constitution that I read on EU Observer yesterday. And yes, that formulation combined with a system that puts a lot of decision-making power into the hands of the few is profoundly il-liberal.

@nooil4pacifists said...


Yes, I think il-liberalism is spreading throughout the Blue State-Euro alliance: "While the Supreme Court strains to re-make U.S. into Europe, the EU's aping American liberals by dumbing down the legislature to divert decisions to courts." The left on both continents (plus the European right) gave up on democracy. The common thread is elitism and paternalism: if you believe elections don't produce acceptable outcomes (impatience with the will of the people may be Europe's only remaining faith), then democracy's a distraction; too slow and unpredictable.

The two most famous English-language distopias described similar tyrannies originating in opposite political corners. Orwell's 1984 depicted the dictatorship of socialism; though Huxley's Brave New World incorporated some socialism, the message was directed toward the triumph of materialism, of consumerism, of markets and lifestyles so free that humanity became enslaved.

Europe and America are edging closer to Orwell and Huxley. As for which continent is which distopia, I've got some suspicions. But, if preserving democracy is the goal, I also know it hardly matters.

MaxedOutMama said...

True, it doesn't. It really doesn't.

It doesn't matter the name you slap on the ideology you use to suppress dissent, because we know what the end result is going to look like, and it is ugly.

As the Muslims march for freedom, we ponder dictatorship.

Anonymous said...

You've made a powerful case here, Carl.
As MOM says, there is a lot to think about.

Anonymous said...

In a very real sense the conflict between Left and Right (terms that date from the French Revolution) are the Left's desire to replace Liberté with Egalité. Fraternité has not been heard from.

@nooil4pacifists said...

Dave, you're exactly right about liberty vs. equality, as I've noted many, many times: "Trading liberty for equality turns nations into nursery schools--and citizens into children. It's insulting and unworkable--literally. Just look at France."

Still, don't you think the gay marriage movement covers Fraternité?

Anonymous said...

> M_O_M says it's "the vary definition of tyranny;

trivial, but: wrong "very"

Anonymous said...

A reading of Orwell's 1984 that results in the conclusion that the dysfunction he describes is a "dictatorship of socialism" can only be performed by someone sitting well in the back rows of Fascism. Not only is the idea of a Socialist Dictatorship an oxymoron, it has nothing to do with 1984. Just because the citizens of Orwell's world were all brutally and intellectually oppressed in an equal manner is not reflective of a socialist regime. My only guess is that same right-wing equation was made in that hypothesis to substitute socialism for Communism. Communism is a dictatorship. Socialism is a means of distributing wealth. It may incorporate a centralized government but it is not dictatorial.

If thereby the Fascist cum NeoCon triangulation of Anything That Threatens the State = Bad, and Bad = Socialism, therefore Anything that threatens the State = Socialism kicked in a little to hard to make the trials of sufferings of Winston Smith seem like a socialist regime, maybe then I can understand.

However, I realize no one here has probably read Marx or Engels but since I notice we like to use the 9th grade book report tactic of baselining our arguments on dictionary definitions perhaps someone would have at least looked it up in their same American Heritage dictionary and recognized that Marx stipulates that socialism is the stage between Capitalism and Communism where the dictatorship of the proletariat is still not fully formed.

Socialism is simply a government where the all products and labors of a society as a whole are redistributed as policy in an attempt to maximize the benefits of each member. At a minimum, why not grab onto Ayn Rand's tag line of "From each according to their ability. To each according their need."? Now, if you want to make an argument that pure Socialism is a useless fairy tale and could never be achieved without slipping into a Communistic state, so be it. History provides more then enough examples to back up that argument. The line between the two is agreeably very blurry but it takes a extra rightward leaning kink in the ol' logic tree to somehow confuse Socialism and Fascism.

So. Back to Orwell. How exactly is the removal of freedoms, rights and even linguistic options a socialist agenda? How are forceful restrictions on actions, travel, and even thought a way to effectively redistribute wealth and benefit? A government that measures its ability to convince its population that 2 + 2 = 5 (optionally read: 9/11 + fake WMD threat = War Justification) as a barometer of success and enforces these repressive policies with brutal punishments and intrusive monitoring has no basis on Socialism. Or even Communism for that matter, and certainly not Democracy. What can you call this other then Fascism? The benefit of the state above all else at what ever sacrifice needs to be made at an individual level. The State exists only to protect and sustain itself and the citizens are modulized units that are put to work for that purpose.

That is Orwell's 1984. That is Fascism in such a far-flung extremist demonstration that it can only be achieved in fiction.

I'll stop now to allow the one-train of political thought to continue. While absurd political punditry is the new national pastime, I just couldn't let such a grave literary blunder go unchecked. Although it does raise an interesting question: Can Fascists tip so far right that they even begin to recognize clear examples of Fascism as a threat and their own close-minded defense mechanism automatically engage to somehow label it as Bad, I mean Socialism, I mean Evil? A rather neo-conservative rendition of Ouroboros when one stops to think about it.