The first part of this piece was a commentary on the NPR station in my region. The second part of it I added subsequently.
(The radio commentary can be heard here: www.publicbroadcasting.net/wmra/news.newsmain/article/0/3507/1776933/Civic.Soapbox/No.True.Patriot.)
No True Patriot
Many conservatives nowadays have been persuaded that the liberal approach to governance deserves no respect, that it is something alien to the real America and that “No compromise!” is an appropriate stance to take when dealing with liberal proposals.
No true patriot should support this dismissive attitude—not if patriotism requires honoring the vision of our nation’s founders.
Our founders did not give us a government of ayatollahs, possessing some exclusive truth. Rather, they gave us a democratic process by which we as a people can search together for our best way forward.
They believed that out of that conversation –out of the competition in the marketplace of ideas—we the people, endowed with the capacity for reason, could reach good decisions.
Over generations of that competition of ideas, roughly half the American body politic has embraced the liberal approach to the organization of society—a mixture of market forces and government policy, a belief that government has a necessary role to play in shaping our society.
This has been no fleeting whim. American liberalism has unfolded with great continuity: Obama’s health care reform is of the same cloth as FDR’s Social Security and LBJ’s Medicare.
Liberalism is an enduring part of America’s body of thought and values, just like the persistent principles of American conservatism. To treat either as unworthy of respect, as an alien element suitable only to be fought and defeated, is to betray our founders’ concept of how the will of the people is to emerge from the democratic process.
To hate liberalism is to hate a part of America’s heart.
It is also to ignore American history. When some conservatives bewail the loss of the America they grew up in, what is that America they’re hankering for? Chances are, the America they long for is one in which the liberal spirit was ascendant.
If it is conservatism that has dominated for the past thirty years, surely it was liberalism that was dominant from the beginnings of the FDR presidency in 1933 onward for some four decades. And that time of liberalism’s ascendancy may also have been the time of America’s greatest glory.
Was there ever an era of greater achievement than after the triumph of World War II, when America led the creation of a wise international order. Never was America more beloved in the world than in the era of the Marshall Plan, which revived war-torn Europe and saved it from communism. Never did America invest more wisely in its people than with the G.I. Bill of rights, building a strong middle class.
It is because of the fruits of American liberalism that the old are not destitute, that the sick are not left untended, that the children of the poor are educated, that whole races are not condemned to second-class citizenship.
That’s why no true patriot should show contempt for the liberal part of America’s political life—not if a patriot is someone who takes pride in the glories of his country.
The foregoing is what I would say to the decent conservatives I know who have been persuaded to adopt that contemptuous attitude toward liberalism. But an important question remains: What of the persuaders? Why has today’s “conservative” political leadership sought to inculcate this scorn in its followers?
Here’s my take.
Imagine that you are part of a political force that does not want to be bound by the American political ideal in which different factions find ways to cooperate to meet the nation’s challenges.
Imagine that you don’t want to pay a political price for trying, even with the nation in crisis, to make the president from the other side fail. Imagine further that you want to seem righteous, not despicable, if you try to prevent the “other side” from having any record of achievement by repealing whatever accomplishments you were not able to block.
Imagine above all that your goals include transferring power and wealth from average Americans to those already powerful and wealthy. And that you judge that you can achieve such a goal only by dividing groups of Americans against each other so bitterly that the American people will be unable to act together, on the basis of their shared values, to protect their common interests.
For all these purposes, it is hard to conceive of a more effective strategy than to persuade your followers that the people on the other side of the political divide are so beyond the pale –so un-American as to border on being betrayers of the nation– that no good can possibly come from dealing with them in any cooperative way, that complete enmity is the patriotic position.
Andy Schmookler, author of the prize-winning book The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution, is running for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the most Republican district in Virginia.