On Liberalism

On Liberalism

One of the questions that I get asked rather frequently is something along the lines of, “What is it that liberals want?” Despite how it may appear on the face of it, this question is actually more complicated than you might think. For starters, while I consider myself to be a liberal, in the modern American context, I would never presume to think that I can speak for all liberals. Or even a handful of them. The modern American Left is as richly diverse as the population of the country itself. There are many different goals for the American Left.

It’s easy to write off liberals as just the other side of the political spectrum; that they are the opposite of conservatives. To some extent, this is true. Conservatives and Liberals are, by definition, opposition parties. They are on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, and for many, the most striking example is in the area of taxation and budgetary spending.

However, this is an oversimplification of the matter, and fails to take several factors into account. For one thing, pigeonholing entire sectors of the American voting public into the baskets of lower taxes and higher taxes does a disservice in that it ignores what one or the other might want to spend the taxes on. It also ignores that both groups frequently favor taxation, just on different groups and in different forms. The modern Republican Party, for instance, has no problem shifting the tax burden onto the middle and working classes by way of sales taxes, or shifting the burden into future generations by high amounts of deficit spending.

The modern Democratic Party tends to explicitly favor tax increases, but on the wealthiest of Americans or on corporations, so as to alleviate the tax burden on the working and middle classes. They also favor higher taxes as a way to avoid deficit spending, which only creates problems for the future. This is after all, where the term “tax and spend” comes from. But, it’s not just about raising money and then spending it. Part of the difference between liberals and conservatives is what they want to spend the money on.

Typically, Republicans favor spending on national defense, or at least spending on high dollar contracts with manufacturers such as Boeing and Lockheed. Republicans also frequently dislike spending on social programs. Liberals on the other hand, would like to see that public money spent on social programs. These programs often include education, public works, a stronger safety net, and so on.

But, it’s not just about the money. Modern liberals in America tend to favor a wide range of policy goals that are not necessarily tied to the public spending. Some of these goals are often written off as identity politics, such as equal rights legislation. Most liberals in America tend to favor strong legislation that protects the rights of historically marginalized groups, such as African-Americans and other people of color, the disabled, the elderly, the LGBTQ community, and the poor. These protections often include a focus on freedom from discrimination, such as in the workplace or in law enforcement. They tend to focus on discrimination in the market, such as housing or restaurant and retail.

This contrasts from the typical conservative viewpoint that this is not the role of government, but that these types of things are better left to the market. The idea is that if a business of township is unfair, that people will stop patronizing them, or living there, and this will force the correction. History shows us that this very rarely, if ever, works. For every group of people that boycott Chic-Fil-A, another group will make it a point to eat there. When it comes to localities, well, it’s hard to make the argument that people should be forced to become political refugees in their own country, especially this country.

Also in the rights department, there is the issue of voting rights. Liberals in America tend to favor strong voting rights and easy access to the polls. There is, of course, the reality that when there is higher turnout, Democrats do better. But it isn’t just about politics and scoring a win. Liberals tend to favor voting rights as something that is fundamental to the rights of men. This issue tends to get framed in such a way by conservatives, who are more often than not the champions of legislation that roll back access to the polls, as that liberals want non-accountability in voting. But, this isn’t true.

Conservatives have a tendency to frame the narrative in such a way that they are the ones protecting the integrity of the institution. They are the ones that want accountability. They want to require identification to vote to ensure that no one is voting twice, or that dead people aren’t voting, or to protect from any number of other electoral boogie men. The reality is that voter fraud is almost nonexistent in America. Many states have conducted their own investigations into the matter and frequently come to the conclusion that fraud occurs so rarely (and that many of the questionable cases often are found to be honest mistakes), that even when someone casts a fraudulent ballot, there is no measurable effect on the election.

In Ohio, for instance, an investigation found that in 2016, the questionable ballots totaled 0.001462% of the total ballots cast. In addition to questionable ballots being incredibly rare, the risks are too high for the payoff. Fraudulent ballots cast by non citizens is grounds for immediate deportation. Fraud in the case of citizens is a felony and not only can result in significant jail time, but a felony conviction can result in loss of voting rights, period.

Another factor that is rarely discussed in this area, is that many Democrats are not opposed to voter identification, per se, but are opposed to the way that it is often implemented. Requiring an ID to vote isn’t itself a problem, but where many liberals draw the line are the requirements for the ID itself. In Alabama, for instance, after they enacted specific voter ID laws, they closed nearly all of the places where one can get an ID suitable for voting. This places an undue burden on their citizens. In Texas, there is the issue with women’s IDs. The IDs display a married woman’s maiden name. The voter rolls do not. The voter rolls must match the ID. There are other instances where a college ID with a picture is not valid, but an NRA membership card that does not feature a picture is valid.

The point that liberals make here, is not that voter ID is necessarily unfair, but that the types of ID are unfair. Further, it costs money to purchase an ID. If a state wants to require an ID to partake in a Constitutional right (cashing a check and buying cigarettes are not Constitutional rights) then the state should cover the cost of the ID. At least, that is the liberal argument there.

Of course, modern liberals favor other policy goals. Another area that often attracts strong liberal support is that of the environment. To put the matter simply, most liberals favor strong legislation that regulates what a company, or a person, can dump into the environment. This includes emissions, such as carbon, and includes things like dumping waste into areas where the risk of seeping into groundwater is high. Liberals also tend to favor investment in renewable and clean energies. The specter of climate-change aside, the reality is that fossil fuels are dirty and their mining and production often pollutes the water, ground, and air. As time goes on, nonrenewable energy sources will also become more scarce and the price will continue to rise until they become cost prohibitive for the average consumer.

Other areas that liberals tend to strongly support are fundamentals of our constitutional system. These include, but are not limited to, freedom of political speech from interference and censorship by the government, a free and independent press, freedom of religion for all belief systems, rights to due process, equality under the law, and the separation of Church and State. It always gives me a good laugh when armchair conservative activists claim to be opposed to anything liberal, as a) they likely don’t even know what that means, and b) the implication is that they favor authoritarianism to the degree that the revolution was fought over.

Before I wrap this up, let me set some myths straight though, for the record.

Freedom of speech, as understood by the Constitution and often advocated by modern liberals, is not freedom from consequence. The First Amendment applies to the federal government, and thanks to the Fourteenth Amendment, it is incorporated into state and local governments as well. This simply means that the government, at any level, cannot censor you or prosecute you for political speech. It does not mean that your employer has to put up with you if you are a bigot in the workplace or if your behavior negatively impacts them as a business. Ironically, this last point is something that conservatives, you would think, would love. It allows a business or employer to think about how the market would react to these actions and allows them to make their decisions based solely on the value of their bottom line.

Freedom of the press is an extension of such freedom of political speech. The Framers knew the value in an independent press to hold government accountable. Having split from an authoritarian regime where speech, especially the press, was able to be censored, the Framers wanted a free and independent press. If political actors don’t want the press to report on their negative dealings, they would do well not to engage in them. This of course cuts both ways. There is nothing that requires the press to hold government accountable, just as there is nothing that requires the press to only print favorable reports about government. Consumers of news, again a market based point here, are free to choose their news outlets. If they don’t like that, say, The Washington Post is reporting that Trump is under investigation for obstruction of justice, they are free to tune into Fox or read Breitbart. If the public truly wants a news outlet to behave in one way, the sales and revenue will dictate that the press behave that way.

Freedom of religion for all belief systems and the separation between Church and State is another area that, on its face, seems pretty straightforward. However, religion is, and has been, a politically charged issue. Simply put, the government cannot create a religion, cannot create laws that favor a religion, or require that citizens worship in any particular way. That’s about the gist of it. Sure, there are some laws that overlap with religious doctrine, such as don’t kill or steal. But these laws are beneficial to society regardless of the religions that any given members adhere to. So long as your religious adherence does not harm society or individuals in society, you are free to practice as you wish. If your religion states that homosexuals should be killed, you won’t be able to do that. Because murder is a crime. If your religion states that you have to eat seafood on Friday, well, you’re free to do so. Just so long as you don’t try to require the rest of us to eat seafood, too. After all, there are some religions that teach against eating certain seafood.

Lastly, there is the matter of due process and equal protection under the law. This is another area that has become politicized over the years. Due process, in a simplified manner, means that you have the right to a trial, you have the right to a bail (unless you are a flight risk), you have the right to face your accuser, and you have the right to not self-incriminate. Equal protection means that if a matter of law applies to some people, it applies to all people.

In the area of due process, this is one of the planks of the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a sizable portion of the population in this country that believes, rightly or otherwise, that their due process is often violated. For example, a kid is suspected of stealing a cigarillo and then he allegedly punches a cop. Is he shot to death on the scene? What if the kid shoots up a church and plants bombs in his apartment? Is he tased into submission and then given a trial?

Bonus points if they take him to Burger King first.

In the area of equal protection, if marriage is recognized as a right, and it comes with certain government benefits, such as tax incentives, is it right to deny some people the right to marry and not others, so long as both parties in the marriage are legal and consenting adults willing to sign the necessary contractual documents?

This is, of course, not a definitive list of things that liberals want, and what those things mean. But, it’s a start. The next time that your uncle asks you at the Fourth of July cookout just what it is that liberals want, you can start here. While the conversation may be terse and uncomfortable, it’s best to open the dialogue. There might be some overlap there. There might be a place for common ground and a space to start a real communication. After all, we’re never going to get anywhere if we don’t try. And that’s the last thing on the short list that liberals want: Diplomacy.

Image credit Chicago Tribune


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