Monday, October 13, 2014

How Liberals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Big Brother

For anyone around my age who casually follows politics, this fact might seem a little odd and confusing, but not all that long ago, “anti-government” sentiment came mostly from the left. Back in the 1960’s, it was the New Left that threatened the social order and wasn’t on what you’d call great terms with government on any level, given their opposition to the Vietnam War, their views on drugs, and their treatment at the hands of the police (outside of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, most prominently). Accordingly, when the New Left scored something of a posthumous victory as anti-war ultraliberal George McGovern was nominated, the attack against him was not that he’d be a “big-government socialist,” but rather that he believed in “amnesty, abortion, and acid”—all of which would involve less, not more, government interference in people’s lives. Nixon’s 1968 campaign, on the other hand, had focused on a return to “law and order” and appropriately so; it would have been a huge fraud if Nixon had run as someone promising to make government smaller, given his declaration of the “War on Drugs” and generally fascistic handling of his presidency.

The 60’s-70’s period was not entirely an anomaly, either; the American left’s intellectual heritage goes back to Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, among others—all of whom were, to say the least, extremely skeptical about government, and very wary of it gaining too much power. This tradition of distrusting government as an institution continued well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; Henry David Thoreau, a pacifist, abolitionist, and environmentalist, was the one who originally coined the phrase that “the government is best which governs least.” Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain), a radical for his day and age (and, to some extent, by today’s standards as well) wrote in one of his pieces that “the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the nation all the time, loyalty to the government when it deserves it.” His derision of politicians rivals that of Tea Partiers today. Henry George, a popular social reformer of about the same era who helped influence the later Progressive Movement,  promoted limited government while at the same time indicting the inequality of wealth that existed.

This tradition of distrusting the government extended into the twentieth century with figures like Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a staunch proponent of limiting government power, who warned that we should “be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent.” Clarence Darrow, the famed lawyer and another notable liberal, fought tenaciously against every encroachment of government upon the people’s freedoms; he even went so far as to say that “every government on earth is the personification of violence and force.” Pretty much as anti-government a quote as you could ask for. 

 It was, then, not without precedent that the New Left waged its war on “The Establishment”—a war that, while not really successful, managed to bring into the spotlight new issues, such as an opposition to the Vietnam War, a desire to reevaluate “traditional” American values, and a support for drug policy reform, all of which helped propel George McGovern to capture the 1972 Democratic nomination over the sort of Cold War liberal candidates that had dominated the party for the past decades. Rather, the New Left had a long history of high-profile and even relatively mainstream left-wing and liberal figures to draw off of (even if the New Left detested “liberals”, meaning hawkish party insiders like President Lyndon Johnson).

 While “liberalism” from the forties to the sixties often referred to an ideology that was all too eager to suppress civil liberties and start wars in the name of “fighting Communism,” liberals could generally be counted on to be at least slightly less eager to destroy the Bill of Rights, and there were moments when liberals did speak out against the Red Scare that was going on, such as when reporter Edward R. Murrow said that “we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.” And, wisely, from FDR to LBJ, Democratic presidents framed their economic programs in terms of the evils they were intended to avoid—such as corporate oligarchy—rather than trying to portray government as some objectively good institution; on the contrary, despite their, shall we say, checkered records in terms of actually protecting individual rights, these presidents and their allies and supporters were wise enough to portray themselves as being enemies of tyranny (such as when Harry Truman accused his opponent of being a front man for a fascist movement, among other instances). Even when right-wingers accused liberals of promoting some kind of economic tyranny, the response was to paint them as being in line with corporate interests and enemies of the common man, rather than just the government.

After Nixon soared to reelection over McGovern, things fell apart pretty quickly for him, as the Watergate scandal ultimately resulted in his resignation. This and the Vietnam War had shattered Americans’ view of their government. This should have been good news for a left wing that had renewed its anti-authoritarianism with the nomination of McGovern, and, in fact, Jimmy Carter capitalized off of it pretty effectively, notably saying in his acceptance speech for the Democratic Nomination that “It is time for the people to run the government, and not the other way around.”

However, after four ineffectual years (due largely to bad luck more than any fault of his own), Carter was ousted by Ronald Reagan, claiming to represent some kind of “small government conservatism.” His time in office was characterized by anything but a reduction in government, as spending increased, wars were started, terrorists were armed in foreign countries, the military-industrial complex spun out of control, and civil liberties were put in danger by measures such as Executive Order 12333, which the NSA uses to this day to justify its domestic spying.

In the decades after Reagan’s presidency, Republicans have continued to claim they support limited government while promoting an increasingly fascistic agenda. And for some reason, liberals have decided not to challenge their absurd claim to be for small government. Instead, they’ve embraced it and, apparently, believe it themselves—take Forward Progressives, a popular liberal website where “anti-government” is used frequently as an epithet against Tea Partiers, or when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid compared them to early twentieth century anarchists on the Senate Floor.

There are a couple problems with this, the first being that it’s not true. There’s no conceivable way a movement that endorses the sort of radical social conservatism and theocracy that the Tea Party does can be called “anti-government”—Tea Partiers dislike government run by Democrats, but not government as an institution (unlike Jefferson, Paine, and actual anarchists). They were all too happy to rally behind Rick Santorum, whose “small government” views included supporting a ban on hardcore porn and talking about the dangers of free speech, and Herman Cain, who thought cities should be able to ban mosques from existing within their borders.

The second problem with pro-government liberalism is that it’s a strategically idiotic stance to take. Americans would be lunatics to trust their government at this point, and, accordingly, they largely don’t. There are about a thousand valid reasons to hate the United States government, so trying to smear your opponents by calling them anti-government is about as likely to be effective as attacking them for being pro-puppy. When Tea Partiers try to use George Orwell against liberals, the correct response would be to point out how there’s nothing more Orwellian than a group of ultra-reactionary theocratic social conservatives saying they stand for “freedom” and “limited government,” not just saying, “oh, that’s silly.”

The third problem is that reinforcing the idea that liberalism is in favor of government actually impacts the views that liberals have. A Washington Post poll from last year showed that liberals support the NSA programs by a 2-1 margin (a greater level of support than they enjoy from conservatives or moderates); only about a third of liberal Democrats believe what should be an obvious truth, that the government is a threat to their freedoms (just about every other ideological group believes so at a higher rate), and thirty-two percent (based on a Pew poll from 2013) believe the absurd idea that government will do the right thing “most or all of the time.” Allen Clifton, a self-described progressive, recently busied himself complaining about how everyone is trying to make the police look bad and it’s not fair, even defending a police officer who decided to arrest a man for talking to him while he was writing a ticket (the man was trying to tell the officer that his son, who was receiving the ticket, is autistic). He attacked those criticizing the police as “anti-government” (predictably) and “far-right.”

There’s this thing liberalism is supposed to be about: liberty. It’s sort of what the word is named after. It’s a bit lacking in a lot of the modern movement. Even when it comes to the issues where liberals are promoting freedom from government interference, a lot of them can’t seem to admit it—gay marriage is about tolerance and equality, abortion and contraception are about women being treated fairly, etc. That’s not to say that those aren’t good points, but they essentially hinge on the idea that actions should be permitted because we want to be nice to the people doing them.

While it’s absurd that Tea Partiers are ready to claim we’re headed toward a tyranny when President Obama does virtually anything, that doesn’t mean that It Can’t Happen Here and it’s silly to worry about government tyranny at all, as some liberals have argued, or at least implied, including President Obama. Obviously, there are liberals who this description doesn’t fit at all (Glenn Greenwald, most prominently), but those are people outside of what we might call mainstream liberalism, and they know it. The idea at the core of liberalism—that government’s role should be to protect and assist its citizens, not oppress them—has been violated time and time again by those claiming to be liberals. But what we’re looking at here is something fundamentally different, and perhaps more dangerous: an attempt to redefine liberalism as an ideology that loves big government (as evidenced by numerous love-letters written by liberals to big government, sometimes disturbingly literally) and scoffs at those who think tyranny could actually happen in the United States. That’s not an ideology that deserves to call itself liberalism. And it’s not one that’s smart on any level in the country we live in today.

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