Wednesday, May 27, 2015

May 27, 2015

By now, it seems apparent that, from the point of view of the viewer hoping for useful information, it doesn’t matter much whether Brain Williams returns to NBC Nightly News. The mixture of disaster and fluff seems to be fixed. The don’t-comment rule on controversial matters still is in place, especially on climate change, regardless of who’s in the anchor chair. On Monday, with Kate Snow, and on Tuesday, with Lester Holt, the first ten minutes were devoted to flooding and tornadoes without a hint that extreme climate events raise a systemic issue, despite comments by interviewees about "historic" or "record" events.

Update 5/29/15

On Thursday, May 28, a reporter said, while discussing the change from drought to floods in Texas, "scientists say climate change is exacerbating the wild swings." There followed a clip of a scientist saying more or less the same thing. This is progress, but those comments took eleven seconds. It hardly justified the caption on Media Matters: "A News Program Explains How Climate Change Affected Texas ‘Weather Whiplash’," but I guess we’re all getting desperate for some mention of the problem in news reports.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

May 11, 2015
Republicans control both houses of Congress. They control 31 state legislatures; 11 are controlled by Democrats, 8 are divided. Among governors, there are 31 Republicans, 18 Democrats, one independent. To put it kindly, Republicans do not have a better record at governance, so this poses a puzzle. Gerrymandering, vote suppression and the influence of unlimited spending are factors, but they do not fully explain why so many Republicans are elected. What causes voters to trust Republicans and disdain Democrats? How have "liberal," and even "progressive" become terms of derision? To sharpen the focus, why have voters in the middle supported Republicans in recent years, but formerly voted Democratic? Why do they now support the party of wealth and privilege? Could they be persuaded to vote Democratic in the future?
Let’s address those questions by looking at what voters are being told by conservatives about liberals; presumably that influences their attitudes.
An indictment of liberals could be found in any number of places, for example Limbaugh broadcasts, but provided two handy lists. Each list set forth a supposed liberal characteristic (in bold, so no one would miss the message), followed by an attempt to justify the label. Let’s see how much insight they provide.
Town Hall list no. 1
The first list[50] was prefaced by this quote, attributed to Greg Gutfeld, one of the members of Fox’s "The Five": "In short, liberalism is based on one central desire: to look cool in front of others in order to get love. Preaching tolerance makes you look cooler than saying something like, ‘please lower my taxes’ " However, oddly,
1. Most liberals are hateful people. The explanation: "Who are the most hateful people you can think of off the top of your head? If you're not a liberal, the first people that probably come to mind are the God hates f@gs lunatics from Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church." Why would a liberal not agree with that? The author seems confused; was Phelps a liberal? Never mind: "What type of human beings would do sick protests at funerals? . . . . Whenever a prominent conservative gets sick or dies, there's an orgy of celebratory hatred on the Left. It happened with Reagan, Tony Snow, Breitbart and every other big name conservative in between." I don’t remember any such "celebration;" I wasn’t even aware that Breitbart was deceased. The author goes on and on, and summarizes it this way: "liberals consider it to be okay because their hate is aimed at conservatives, who are acceptable targets." Liberals are haters? Consider a comment by Ann Coulter: "The riot in Ferguson reminds me, I hate criminals, but I hate liberals more." This is not the only place in the list where projection is at work.
In any case, the message so far is that liberals are hateful people who preach tolerance in order to look cool.
2. Liberals do more than any other group to encourage race-based hatred. This is another defensive argument, and it’s not confined to the author. The Lieutenant Governor of Missouri claims: "There is more racism in the Justice Department than there is in anywhere I see in the St. Louis area. It is the left. It is the Eric Holder and Obama-left and their minions who are obsessed with race, while the rest of us are moving on beyond it."[51]  Moving beyond it seems to equate to pretending that racial bias doesn’t exist.
3. Most liberals are less moral than other people. The explanation of this claim is clumsy and vague, which is odd, because this clearly is one of the major complaints by conservatives against liberals. Leaving aside some padding, the author’s argument comes down to this awkward statement: "Liberals incessantly attack the church and they seldom talk about morals because if they have no morals, then no one can ever accuse them of being hypocrites. This is also why liberals feel so comfortable lying about conservatives." I’ll deal with the real complaints about morals later.
As to "the church," it’s true that liberals criticize conservative, politicized Christians on the ground that they do not, at times, seem to have Christian values, such as compassion for the poor. (As someone put it, there is a suppression of the natural instinct of sympathy). No apology is required for that liberal complaint. However, there are those liberals whose criticism of religion seems obsessive, and certainly not designed for reconciliation; one article is titled "Why We Must Offend Religion More."
4. Most liberals don't care if the policies they advocate work or not. This is nonsense, and the attempt to explain it is simply a recital of debunked conservative fantasies: "[L]iberals don't care whether tax revenues go up after a tax cut, whether high taxes on the rich kill jobs, or how high your gas prices go because they don't want to drill. . . ."
5. Most liberals are extremely intolerant. This again is primarily defensive. There is one specific complaint: "Conservative college speakers usually need extra security because budding liberal fascists often try to shout them down or assault them." Student leftists can be intolerant and sometimes demand enforcement of their views. Point taken, but it doesn’t support condemnation of all liberals; free speech is a core liberal principle.
There is one final argument under this heading, which applies more broadly: "[L]iberals have a fascistic view of tolerance, which really isn't surprising since liberalism and fascism are merely different branches of the same tree." (Another version, from The Daily Caller, is that liberalism is "Totalitarianism Masquerading As Tolerance"). This claim pops up frequently in conservative arguments, sometimes with reference, as here, to Jonah Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. Leaving aside Goldberg’s version of history and the careless use of the terms "fascism" and "totalitarianism," it’s true that the left can be authoritarian, but the accusation here is against liberalism, which isn’t the same thing. (The USSR wasn’t liberal). The liberal tradition, which conservatives cite when it serves their purposes, emphasizes individual freedom. If the far left were a factor in Democratic politics, the conflation of left and liberal might be legitimate; it certainly isn’t now.
Town Hall list no 2
The second list,[52] offered a year later by the same author under the heading "The 12 Unspoken Rules For Being A Liberal," is somewhat repetitious.
1. You justify your beliefs about yourself by your status as a liberal, not your deeds. This one is content-free, merely the accusation that "liberalism. . . allows you to be an awful person while still thinking of yourself as better than everyone else."
2. You exempt yourself from your attacks on America. The argument here is, apparently, that if a liberal were to say that the U.S. is a militarist country, he would really mean that American conservatives are militarists. Leaving aside the notion that liberals are constantly "attacking America," there is nothing surprising or sinister about one criticizing the aspects of American culture of which he disapproves; that may, by implication, be a criticism of the other political camp. However, I don’ t think that it’s true that liberals never criticize themselves or the outcomes of their policies. Self-criticism, even self-doubt, are imbedded in liberalism.This claim really is a disguised form of the complaint that liberals don’t love America or that they don’t believe in American exceptionalism.
3. What liberals like should be mandatory and what they don’t like should be banned. This largely is a duplication of no. 5 above. The author adds this: "It’s not enough for liberals to be afraid of guns; guns have to be banned. It’s not enough for liberals to want to use energy-saving light bulbs; incandescent light bulbs must be banned." This is simply an attempt to evade issues. The liberal position on guns isn’t based on individual timidity; it’s based on the public danger posed by guns. (However, the author has identified a difficult and divisive issue: gun control). Newer light bulbs aren’t a quirky personal preference, they relate to the need to use less energy and therefore less carbon fuel. These complaints return us to the one about a liberal desire to control everything.
4. The past is always inferior to the present. That claim is too sweeping; I’d be happy to return to a time when Republicans weren’t so far to the right. (See my comment on March 23). The author’s better point is this: "Liberals tend to view traditions, policies, and morals of past generations as arbitrary designs put in place by less enlightened people. Because of this, liberals don’t pay much attention to why traditions developed or wonder about possible ramifications of their social engineering." That’s a fair argument, if overstated; we shouldn’t try to reinvent the world every day, and many traditional ways and standards have merit.
5. Liberalism is a jealous god and no other God may come before it. Put that way, the claim is blather. The argument seems to be that liberals are not religious, which probably is true statistically. "Taking your religious beliefs seriously means drawing hard lines about right and wrong and that’s simply not allowed." The notion that liberals do not believe in right and wrong is nonsense. Intruding religion into political issues usually is inappropriate and leads to negative results; religious objection to vaccination is an example. However, this complaint is relevant, in that one of the bases of conservative resentment of liberals is that they denigrate or interfere with religious observance.
6. Liberals believe in indiscriminateness for thought. This one is thoroughly muddled: "Indiscriminateness of thought . . . leads the modern liberal to invariably side with evil over good, wrong over right and the behaviors that lead to failure over those that lead to success."
7. Intentions are much more important than results. This is another rerun.
8. The only real sins are helping conservatism or harming liberalism. This is a variation on the no-morals charge. "Conservatives often marvel at the fact that liberals will happily elect every sort of pervert, deviant, and criminal you can imagine without a second thought. That’s because right and wrong don’t come into the picture for liberals." Aren’t we awful?
9. All solutions must be government-oriented. This one is a core conservative argument, and it has some merit. However the reasoning here is peculiar: "[W]hy are liberals so hell bent on centralizing as much power as possible in government? Simple, because they believe that they are better and smarter than everyone else by virtue of being liberals and centralized power gives them the opportunity to control more people’s lives. There’s nothing scarier to liberals than free people living their lives as they please without wanting or needing the government to nanny them." We’re back to liberal fascism, along with two complaints not expressly presented: liberals are elitists who flaunt education, and liberals don’t believe in liberty.
10. You must be absolutely close minded. "One of the key reasons liberals spend so much time vilifying people they don’t like and questioning their motivations is to protect themselves from having to consider their arguments." This is an odd claim from folks who don’t believe in science or even facts. "So, a liberal goes to a liberal school, watches liberal news, listens to liberal politicians, has liberal friends . . . . It makes liberal minds into perfectly closed loops that are impervious to anything other than liberal doctrine." Substitute "conservative" for "liberal," and he is describing his own camp.
Another of Town Hall’s columnists similarly engaged in projection while very worked up about the protests of Indiana’s "religious freedom" act. "Nothing upsets progressives like disagreeing with them. Like children throwing a fit because they can’t get the toy they want, leftists become unhinged when confronted with a reality they don’t like." There followed a denunciation of "progressives (liberals, Democrats, or whatever else they call themselves these days)" whose "irrational hatred stems from the insulated world we’ve allowed society to create for them." They are as they are because "it is entirely possible for people to live their entire adolescence and well into adulthood before they are exposed to contrary opinions."[53]
In Man of la Mancha, Don Quixote is reduced to his true self as Alonso Quixana by being confronted by the Knight of the Mirrors, who forces him to see himself as he really is. The exposure theme is apt: conservatives need to look in a mirror.
11. Feelings are more important than logic. Liberals, it is claimed, "base their positions on emotions, not facts and logic . . . " One could think of examples of liberals becoming overheated and of ignoring inconvenient facts, but the claim that they don’t think won’t wash. Again, the argument can be turned around: conservatives base their positions on belief, not facts or logic.
12. Tribal affiliation is more important than individual action. "There’s one set of rules for members of the tribe and one set of rules for everyone else. Lying, breaking the rules, or fomenting hatred against a liberal in good standing may be out of bounds, but there are no rules when dealing with outsiders, who are viewed either as potential recruits, dupes to be tricked, or foes to be defeated." It isn’t clear what that has to do with "individual action."
What can we take away from these lists? The principal message is that conservatives dislike liberals just because; it doesn’t seem much deeper than that. However, several issues were identified, expressly or tacitly — morality, religion, race relations, tradition, guns, big government, liberty, real Americanism— along with a few alleged liberal attitudes: a desire to control ("fascism"), elitism, disbelief in American exceptionalism. Attitudes toward foreign and military policy also are important, but were not discussed except to the extent that they are included in the real-Americanism and exceptionalism points.
So much for conservative attacks on liberals. What of the electorate? Why do they vote for Republicans? Those who vote Republican are not all on the far right. However, as unintentionally revealed in point 10 above, many of them get their ideas, and form their biases, by watching Fox and by listening to conservative talk radio, and also from Republican politicians posturing about Benghazi, or telling them that ISIS will be here tomorrow, or that Obamacare kills jobs and costs $5 million per participant. The supposedly liberal mainstream media do little to dispute these claims, and there is nothing from liberals resembling the flood of conservative propaganda.
There are other factors, including beliefs or attitudes which are widespread and essentially nonpolitical, but which favor conservatives. High on the list is a balanced budget, a belief in the importance of which makes deficit spending, however necessary, a tough sale.
There is an echo of the Sixties in conservative criticism and in popular attitudes. Resentment of the left’s behavior then — anti-Americanism in the opposition to the Vietnam war, elitism, loose morals, inflated egos, disrespect for authority, violence and vandalism — still is present.
Also, resistance to or resentment of change enter into the picture. This is different from the more general issue of respect for tradition. Finally, fear is a significant factor: fear of terrorism, fear of another 9-11, fear of the Other.
Here’s an attempt to deal with those problems for liberals and Democrats, in some cases accepting, in others rejecting the conservative claims. The comments are in no particular order, and there will be some duplication, as the issues overlap. The terms "liberal" and "conservative" will be used with tedious regularity; I have avoided substituting "left" and "right" and haven’t often used those terms, because I want to focus on (relatively) mainstream views. At the end, and to some degree as we go along, I’ll make a stab at a program for winning back the center.
Real Americanism. Complaints that liberals do not believe in American exceptionalism, or are not patriotic, or hate America (or, more mildly, do not love it) are variations on a broader theme: liberals are not real Americans. To some degree this is an instance of a universal conservative theme, as liberals are more likely to see flaws in the culture and more likely to be internationalists, whereas conservatives tend to be defensively tribal.
It’s true that examples of anti-patriotic behavior can be found on the left, such as the silly decision by the student government at the University of California, Irvine to ban the display of all flags, including the American flag, which "has been flown in instances of colonialism and imperialism." All flags, the students believe, "construct paradigms of conformity and set homogenized standards." Incidents of this sort might remind people of the flag-burning Sixties, but they are rare, and in this case juvenile, so we have to look elsewhere.
A major issue is support for the military. An article[54] on Salon captured the essence of this problem for liberals. The author, a professor of history, quoted a man who had grown up in modest circumstances. His family was the kind that liberals would like to think of belonging to their camp, ordinary folk, not wealthy. However, there was one inconvenient fact: "[T]here was one thing George trusted completely—his nation’s military power and the good that it did. With all his heart he believed the United States was on the side of justice and freedom and all our wars were noble. . . . ‘I was raised in a family and neighborhood of extreme patriots.’ " He learned in Vietnam that America was not always noble, but many have not accepted that, even after Iraq and Abu Ghraib.
The caption on Salon — which probably wasn’t the author’s doing — implied that Vietnam and subsequent wars have completely destroyed any claim we might have to national virtue: "America’s not a force for good: The truth about our most enduring — and harmful — national myth. Our exceptionalism is a lie, and only an honest accounting of our actual history will allow us to chart a new path." Puncturing the balloon of exceptionalism is a worthy project, and reduction of the influence of the military — on foreign policy and on the budget — is important, but going to the opposite extreme is unwarranted, and offers conservatives an easy target.
A problem with the complaint about Americanism is that conservatives frequently express a far more negative opinion of their country than liberals. How many times have conservatives denounced some aspect of modern American life, in effect charging that we are really bad people? Consider the not-infrequent claim that God has punished America for one sin or another, for example that Hurricane Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans was God's punishment for a proposed gay pride parade, or that God withdrew his protection against the 9-11 attacks because of America’s multiple sins. Mike Huckabee claims that "[w]e’ve lost our way morally." Yet they react to liberal criticism by demanding respect for our exceptionalism. The "real" America seems to exist only on some plane of imagination, unrelated to reality, vaguely defined, useful primarily as a rebuke to any liberal policy or practice.
This country often has been a force for good, but often has not been. It can and should be again. Both sides need to learn and accept that.
The real-American chant has been especially loud during the Obama administration, and accusations against him have gone far beyond partisanship or even rationality. For example something called The 1776 Coalition asked us to vote on this proposition: "Is Barack Obama intentionally seeking to destroy America?" Dick Cheney chimed in with this: "if you had somebody as president who wanted to take America down, who wanted to fundamentally weaken our position in the world and reduce our capacity to influence events, turn our back on our allies and encourage our adversaries, it would look exactly like what Barack Obama’s doing."[55]  Liberals need to make clear that they believe in a strong America, but that strength (and security) do not consist exclusively in shooting people, and that among the threats to those ends are people like Cheney. The basis for many of the attacks on Obama clearly is racism, which will take us to a later topic.
Fear. One reason that the appeal to military solutions, or to other "national security" measures, is so successful is the level of fear among many Americans: a fear of invasion, or terrorism, or a Muslim takeover. Ironically, the most recent exercise in fantasy-driven paranoia, the notion that the U.S. military is going to invade Texas, asks people to fear the agency they usually are told to trust to protect our freedom.
Conservative politicians and pundits, who sound so macho, seem to be afraid of everything, and they persuade the public to be afraid. We would be well advised to remember Franklin Roosevelt’s words: "So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is. . . fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." Certainly there are dangers, but remembering FDR’s advice would help to expose and dissipate false dangers and lead to more sensible reactions to real ones.
Fear affects other issues. For example, one of the reasons for opposing Obamacare is the story, long discredited but still pushed, that there are death panels.
Economics. As noted above, certain beliefs, such as the virtue of a balanced budget and the dangers of a large national debt, together with a resentment of taxes, put liberals in a bind before the discussion starts. Step one might be to point out that deficits are not caused only by liberals, and under George W. Bush were caused by pandering to the rich. A better case needs to be made for the virtue of temporary deficit spending during recessions; tell people that it will preserve their jobs. Also point out that the current downturn began on Bush’s watch and was cured, to the extent that it has been, primarily by Obama. Democrats have a much better economic record, but few people realize that.
At the same time, liberals need to acknowledge that deficits and debts cause problems, and offer ways to cut spending. The obvious place is the military/security budget.
Much of the economic argument, at the level of the average voter, is a matter of job security and prosperity. Not only have liberals been unpersuasive in these areas, Mr. Obama’s approach to the pending trade agreement has been wrong on every level, and certainly has done nothing to persuade voters that Democrats are on the side of working people.
The tax issue should be restated as one of tax fairness, which would push the burden upward. Let conservatives bleat about "liberty," but make clear whose liberty they mean. Tell people just how great the gap is between the 1% — or the .1%, or the .01% — and everyone else, and point out the CEO-to-worker pay differential.
The Democrats must return to their roots and quit playing footsie with banks and hedge funds and with rich people and corporations who stash money offshore. Yes, that’s a problem in the Citizens United era, but the option is to continue to have no distinct image on economics. Re-empowering labor unions is another worthy goal.
None of this will be easy nor, in terms of enactment, possible in the short term, but the case needs to be made now.
Big government. There is a tendency for liberals to look to the government, just as there is a tendency for conservatives to prefer private enterprise. However, the position of the latter goes beyond preference: voters are prodded to fear or despise government. Running against the government — as in the Rand Paul slogan, "defeat the Washington machine" — is a common ploy even for those who are part of it. Merely denigrating government makes no sense, any more than arguing that private enterprise is inherently bad.
A more useful and honest conservative complaint would be that the federal government, or other levels of government, should not be doing certain things, or should do them better, but that would require a serious look at needs, priorities, methods and outcomes. Whether the government should have a given function always is a fair question, as are government inefficiency, or overreach, or cost, but it can’t be answered simply by complaining that a solution is "government oriented," nor by pointing to the size of government; in the twenty-first century, government necessarily is large.
Many complaints do target specific governmental agencies or functions, but tend to do so in a scattershot fashion, merely deploring their existence. An example is found in a posting on Tea Party Nation (discussed below in connection with race relations). Under the heading of "fundamental transformations" the writer deplored "[t]he mistake of 1789, the national bank, the war of northern aggression, the Federal Reserve, deficit spending, social security, cronyism, . . . the list is as long as the pages stored in the congressional library." The first item, presumably referring to the Constitution, is a departure from the usual conservative theme of its sadly neglected perfection.
An aspect of conservative criticism of government is that it infringes on liberty. In the abstract, that is a classical liberal argument, but too often it is limited to, or converted into, a defense of business against regulation. Any given regulation is fair game, but the dire effects of regulation are greatly exaggerated. Capitalism works only when supervised, another argument not made well or often enough by liberals.
However, there are real issues regarding liberty.
Liberty. There always is a danger that a government will infringe on individual freedom. The principal concern in recent years has been surveillance or, put more bluntly, spying on the public. Attention was focused on this by the so-called USA Patriot Act, enacted in a state of panic in October, 2001. However, domestic spying has been an issue for many years and has continued under Obama; no consensus has appeared as to the proper limitations. This is an area in which conservatives and liberals should have similar goals, but the national security (fear) factor always seems to override liberty considerations.
The broader complaint is that liberals ("fascists") want to control every aspect of life. To some extent, this is another form of the argument against government, and is subject to the same rebuttal. However, it has a social form. A column in a recent Seattle Times complained about political correctness, an effort to outlaw certain expressions. The author didn’t explicitly tie this to liberalism, but the reference to "soccer-mom socialists" gave a strong hint. Under the third heading of the second list above, the Town Hall author said this: "There’s an almost instinctual form of fascism that runs through most liberals. It’s not enough for liberals to love gay marriage; everyone must be forced to love gay marriage." (This complaint will carry over into the discussion of religion). Leaving aside the exaggeration, there is some truth to this; liberals do tend to moralize annoyingly about their social policies, and insist that everyone agree with them — as do conservatives. The campaign for gay rights seems to some to go beyond that to a celebration of a lifestyle that conservatives deplore. Some of the more adolescent liberals delight in flaunting whatever will stir up conservatives. On the other hand, conservative reactions to homosexuality often are excessive, the insane California initiative to allow shooting them taking the prize. More restraint and civility on both sides would improve debate as well as lower the volume. Liberals have more to gain by that than conservatives, as mainstream voters often are socially conservative.
"Liberty" is an easily misused notion. It is dear to hyper-libertarians, to nullifiers, to the gun lobby, to businessmen who don’t like regulation. The recent Indiana religious freedom law was a misuse of the concept of religious freedom; the milder federal law is also. Community is not communism, working together and living together in peace are crucial and sometimes they cannot be entirely voluntary. Conservative "liberty" arguments sometimes simply are deceitful. Right-to-work laws promote liberty (to be underpaid); defeating Obamacare will increase liberty (to be uninsured). That misuse must be exposed.
Individualism is a related topic. Conservatives have an edge here in that they emphasize it in their political arguments and it resonates with many voters. It sometimes comes down to an attitude of "I worked for what I have, and don’t want to support others who won’t work." Liberals could point out that the greatest freeloaders are those who don’t pay fair taxes, who stash assets offshore, who export jobs to get cheap labor, etc. Also, programs such as Obamacare help working people keep their homes rather than losing them to medical bankruptcy.
Religion. Before turning to religious attitudes in general, we should look at the Supreme Court’s use of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, because it has changed the terms of the debate. The Hobby Lobby case arose because the Affordable Care Act requires certain employers, including the plaintiffs, to provide health insurance, and regulations require policies to cover contraception. RFRA requires strict scrutiny of a law which, even indirectly and unintentionally, affects "religious exercise," but it provides no meaningful definition of that term. The result in Hobby Lobby was this: the ACA violates the RFRA because the former requires an employer to provide contraceptive coverage, which some unidentified employee might use, and the employer has a self-proclaimed religious objection to contraception; that objection is, apparently, an "exercise of religion." The Indiana law was worse, applying to actions by private citizens as well as to government. Many conservatives, including some purporting to speak for religion, supported the Indiana Law. The Court gave them the excuse, but these laws are bad policy, allowing virtually anything to be claimed as an exercise of religion.
This is an example of a broader controversy, the use of religion to define or obfuscate political issues. An egregious example is the quotation of the Old Testament to claim that nothing need be done about climate change. This carries over into the discussion of science. 
Some conservatives, especially those on Fox, like to proclaim that there is a war on faith, or more specifically a war on Christianity. Here’s Bill O’Reilly: "If you are a Christian or a white man in the USA, it’s open season on you." Bobby Jindal (there is "an alliance between Hollywood elites and corporate America assaulting the rights of Christians") and Ted Cruz (gay people are waging a "jihad" against believing Christians) are other recent peddlers of this idea.
Sometimes the war is on Christmas. Most of these complaints are nonsense, but there is some annoying liberal foolishness, such as requiring "merry Christmas" to be replaced by "happy holidays." Whether certain decorations may be used is another example. Liberals should lighten up; this is not a Christian country in the political sense claimed by many conservatives, but it is Christian by culture, and suppressing expression of that strikes me as silly, unnecessary and bad social policy.
Conservatives complain that liberals interfere with the exercise of religion. This debate has gone on for many years; an example of the issues is the ban on prayer in schools. There is no formula to determine how rigid or wide the wall of separation between church and state must be, and any given instance is fairly debatable. However, this nation is not a theocracy, something conservatives deplore if Muslim.
One reason that liberals react badly to pronouncements based on religious belief, specifically Christianity, is that too often supposedly religious beliefs seem to be identical to conservative political ideas. Here we have the converse of the previous issue: there the problem is intruding religion into politics; here it is the politicization of religion. Liberals need to respect religious belief and practice, but make clear that ours is a secular society, and has been from the beginning, conservative history to the contrary notwithstanding.
Religion often is employed in arguments about morality, so let’s look at that next.
Morality. Oddly absent from our Town Hall author’s discussion of morality are the major conservative concerns under that heading: abortion, sexual mores, homosexuality and gay marriage. As to the last, events and opinions have moved rapidly and across a surprisingly broad spectrum, which has left behind not only conservatives but some moderate liberals who would have preferred civil unions. The present consensus is not going to change, and this is an area in which all that can be said is that the dissenters must accept the situation.
Abortion is an agonizingly difficult issue to deal with and, if peace ever is to be achieved, there must be a compromise. That is hindered by the extreme conservative position, equating contraception with abortion, and some conservative proposals aim more at shaming women than preserving life. However, in general liberals are, at this point, more uncompromising than relatively moderate conservatives, essentially demanding no restrictions, and resolutely avoiding any human-life issue.
As to sexual mores and practices, conservatives are again, at least to some extent, fighting inevitable change. Also, this is an area in which they play the part they assign to liberals, of trying to control other people’s lives. One policy, opposing contraception, seems self-defeating: more contraception would mean fewer abortions. However, some liberal web sites have played into the morality argument by running a constant stream of sex-related articles, some of them graphic, so many that a reader might wonder whether that’s all that liberals think about.
Guns. There is, indeed, a significant difference of opinion on this issue. Many liberals, including this one, would support a severe limitation ownership of handguns and assault rifles. No doubt such a program, or even meaningful registration requirements, would result in resentment among many in the middle, especially in rural areas. Some of the fear is based on propaganda — Obama is coming for your shotguns — but there is a genuine issue and a real problem which seems to defy solution.
The Supreme Court again has tilted the argument to the conservative side by its inventive interpretation of the Second Amendment. The Court transformed support for militias into a right to have a gun in the home for protection. The pro-gun forces have stretched that into a right to pack heat anywhere. Congress and many state legislatures are not likely to do anything useful. Ballot initiatives could be a way forward, as with the one recently adopted in Washington dealing with background checks.
This issue relates, in a dangerous way, to the liberty/anti-government arguments. One cited reason for being armed is to defend against the government, and the Second Amendment is alleged to stand for that right; Ted Cruz has adopted that argument. Guns, extreme libertarianism, hatred of government, the fantasy of nullification add up to a menace greater and closer to home than any Muslim.
NRA propaganda has poisoned this debate. Somehow the illusion that guns mean safety must be replaced by the fact that they are dangerous.
Elitism. Liberals are derided in part because they are an "elite." Oddly, in this view those who are the most interested in helping ordinary folk, e.g., by increasing the minimum wage, are elitists, not those at the top of the socio-economic pyramid, who don’t want to pay their fair share. One reason for this is that Democrats have backpedaled in the economic area to an extent that they no longer are seen as being on the side of the middle class.  
Dan Quayle often is credited with redefining "elitism," and saddling liberals with the epithet, by attacking the "cultural elite." That phrase helped cement the image of liberals as out of touch. Quayle’s Murphy Brown attack defined the elite as Hollywood types with loose morals. Another trope has been the "intellectual elite": people who, confident of their superior knowledge, tell us what to do; "fascism" again. The issue is partly regional: residents of the Northeast or the West Coast allegedly are unsympathetic toward real Americans from the heartland. Any tendency of liberals to talk down to people or to dictate must be avoided. Democrats won’t win elections unless voters think that they’re the same sort of people.
One odd spinoff from the intellectual-elite complaint has been a tendency among conservative politicians and pundits to denigrate science, as if it were a liberal plot.
Science. Global warming, more generally climate change, is the most important issue here. The overwhelming consensus is that the climate is changing, for the worse, in ways not explicable by natural cycles, that it is caused in significant part by human activity, and that immediate action is required. Conservatives resist those findings, to the extent of prohibiting discussion of climate change. The problem is not that conservatives are unintelligent, but that accepting certain facts, or theories, is inconvenient. It is so because they run counter to naïve, literal interpretations of the Bible, because addressing the problem would require government action, and because solutions might step on the toes of some large businesses. The mainstream media are complicit in that they report one natural disaster after another without drawing the obvious conclusion. This is an issue on which conservatives simply must be shown to be irresponsible.
Race. Race relations remain a major flash point. Recent actions and comments by police officers around the country reveal how deep the divide is. Racial stereotypes mix with anti-government sentiment in claims that minorities are lazy and want to live off welfare. There is lingering resentment of busing and affirmative action programs. Fear again is a factor, fear of supposedly violent blacks, fear that white control will erode. Rioting in the aftermath of racial incidents offers Fox material and increases fear and resentment.
Attitudes toward President Obama have been influenced by racism from the outset; signs, e-mails, birther stories and other attacks have revealed shocking levels of racial resentment and hatred. Ted Cruz has managed to blame the President for the present state of things: "He could have chosen to be a leader on race relations and bring us together. And he hasn’t done that, he’s made decisions that I think have inflamed racial tensions that have divided us rather than bringing us together."[56]
There isn’t much to say here except that this must stop. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools."[57]
It would help if conservative pundits would own up to the problem rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. Here’s Greg Gutfeld again: he denounced the shooting of Walter Scott, but said "I didn't see a black man killed by a white cop. I saw a man shoot another man in the back." Color blindness is an admirable ultimate goal for interpersonal relations, but at this point pretending that race does not enter into situations like that shooting is dishonest and an impediment to progress.
Immigration. Controversy on this issue overlaps previous topics in two ways: resentment against immigrants is partly racial, and the increasing numbers of Latinos feeds white fear of lost domination.
A recent posting[58] on Tea Party Nation reveals an even more existential fear: western culture will collapse. It hits all the high points: creeping Islam (bringing sharia), immigrants who never will assimilate (and likely will vote Democratic), the folly of the Fourteenth Amendment in granting citizenship to anyone born here (the "anchor baby" complaint). Rep. Steve King agrees with the last point, and is pushing a bill to end birthright citizenship. That sort of attitude stands in the way of a rational solution.
There has been a tendency by liberals to ignore any problem created by immigration, and to treat the issue simply as a matter of human rights. Accordingly, they sometimes dismiss concerns about border control as anti-Latino bias, which often they are. However, border control is a legitimate issue, for security reasons among others, and should be part of any comprehensive immigration reform. Democrats will not persuade voters that they are job protectors if they are seen as backing unlimited immigration.
Change. Common to several of the topics is a conservative resistance to, or fear of, change. This is not unique to conservatives; they have company in thinking that the culture is ugly, that good jobs and middle-class prosperity are disappearing. However, the feeling seems to be more intense among conservatives, which leads them to vote for people who purport to stand for old-fashioned values, but that expectation isn’t always fulfilled. As Thomas Frank put it, "Vote to strike a blow against elitism; receive a social order in which wealth is more concentrated than ever before in our lifetimes, in which workers have been stripped of power and CEOs are rewarded in a manner beyond imagining."[59]
It’s certainly true that change for its own sake is a foolish policy, and that much change, natural or contrived, is not for the better. Those advocating new and different policies should be sensitive to tradition and to the resistance to change. New policies can be structured in familiar ways; change can be slow rather than abrupt. However, a political philosophy shouldn’t be based on resistance to all change, and sometimes it seems that that is what contemporary American conservatism amounts to.

Where does all of this leave us? There is no single solution to liberals’ image problem, and conservative propagandists will continue to stoke the fires. However, at the top of the agenda must be a determination to make the Democratic Party liberal again on economic issues. Ironically, Democrats can reconnect with the middle by being less centrist. There is a temptation to bend with the wind, to be more "centrist," to avoid being tarred as dangerous leftists. Democrats need to admit that economic centrism is conservatism-light. Liberals and Democrats should continue to be in the lead as to equal rights, but they need to tamp down the rhetoric on so-called social issues, take a hard look at what they seem to be advocating as lifestyles, and concentrate on progressive economic policies — a decent minimum wage, strong unions, expanded Social Security, financial regulation, federal spending for infrastructure, rational tax policy, disincentives to ship jobs overseas — along with climate control. Much of this cannot be turned into legislation during the Republican ascendancy, but these issues must be pushed relentlessly.
Real Americanism should be advocacy of policies which make us stronger. Liberals actually have the better arguments here, but they will need to be recast in more patriotic terms. Bringing jobs back is a good example. Much is said about a new populism. If it materializes, it should somehow engender a sense of common purpose and effort.
There are issues as to which many in the political middle will resent the liberal position, but they nonetheless must be taken on. Gun control is one; cutting back on military adventures is another. Persuade people that those policies are in their interest: saving money as to the latter; saving lives as to both. Eventually the voters will realize who’s on their side. I hope.


50. about_liberals/page/full


52. n1687730/page/full


Christian Appy, excerpted from American Reckoning; about_ our_most_enduring_and_harmful_national_myth/



Speech at St. Louis, 3/22/64. Oxford Dictionary of Thematic Quotations, 86


59. What's the Matter with Kansas? p. 7.
Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day