Saving Liberalism: An Appeal to My Progressive Friends


I’ve never liked the words “liberal” or “conservative” to describe people because I’m both liberal and conservative in the historic meaning of the words.

The problem comes when words carry multiple meanings or change over time and end up connotating something far different than when they were first introduced.

Words are sometimes like the proverbial frog boiling in the kettle:  slowly and subtlety they can change over the years and need to be either renounced due to distortion or renewed to their original context.

I want to make an appeal to my liberal, progressive friends today. Liberalism has devolved; It is in danger of becoming nothing less than brute force– which is not liberal.

Will you join with me in saving liberalism?

I’ve been thinking about this subject for some time, and this week I read an article by Michael Barone that expressed my hunches better than I could.

Barone is the senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, and one of the most knowledgeable political pundits in America. He is probably the nation’s leading authority on the political demographics of the United States. Name any county or Congressional District in the nation and Michael Barone can tell you why and how they will vote.

He’s also an independent man who is not an ideologue for either liberal or conservative politics. And he’s spot on regarding the present and extremely dangerous devolution of liberalism.

Here are his recent thoughts after which I will make some suggestions about how liberalism can be saved.

How Obama is Turning Liberalism into an Instrument of Coercion

By Michael Barone

Liberals just aren’t very liberal these days. The word “liberal” comes from the Latin word meaning freedom, and in the 19th century, liberals in this country and abroad stood for free speech, free exercise of religion, free markets, free trade — for minimal state interference in people’s lives.  

In the 20th-century, New Dealers revised this definition by arguing that people had a right not only to free speech and freedom of religion but also, as Franklin Roosevelt said in his 1941 Four Freedoms speech, freedom from fear and from want.  

Freedom from want meant, for Roosevelt, government provision of jobs, housing, health care and food. And so government would have to be much larger, more expensive and more intrusive than ever before.

That’s what liberalism has come to mean in America and much of the Obama Democrats’ agenda are logical outgrowths — Obamacare, the vast expansion of food stamps, attempted assistance to underwater homeowners.

But in some respects the Obama Democrats want to go further — and are complaining that they’re having a hard time getting there. Their form of liberalism is in danger of standing for something like the very opposite of freedom–for government coercion of those who refuse to behave the way they’d like.

Example one is the constitutional amendment, sponsored by 43 of the 55 Democratic U.S. senators, which would cut back on the First Amendment and authorize Congress and state legislatures to restrict political speech [i.e. fund-raising).

The amendment is poorly drafted and leaves many questions dangerously open, perhaps because its sponsors know it has no significant chance of passage.

It also seems animated by a delusionary paranoia: Democrats profess to be afraid that conservatives will be swamped by a flood of rich people’s money, even though rich Democratic supporters have raised more than the other side in recent years.

Nonetheless the picture is striking. Many conservatives wanted to change the First Amendment in order to prosecute flag burning, not the Founding Fathers’ central concern. Today’s liberals, in contrast, want to change the First Amendment to restrict political speech, which is the core value the Founders sought to protect.

Or consider liberals’ recent attitude toward free exercise of religion, made plain in their reaction to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision declaring the Obamacare contraception mandate invalid as a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The RFRA was passed, with three dissenting votes, and signed by Bill Clinton in 1993. It was prompted by a Supreme Court decision upholding the penalization of Oregon Indians for using peyote, which they claimed was a religious rite.

In passing RFRA, liberals and conservatives alike responded as Americans have often done when small groups have claimed laws infringed their religious beliefs: They put a higher priority to a few individuals’ free exercise of religion than they did to widely supported laws of general application.

Thus Congress allowed for conscientious objectors to be exempt from military service in World War II, in which more than 400,000 U.S. service members died. Even in a national emergency, when lives were at stake, Americans were willing to accommodate religious beliefs that a large majority did not share.

Today’s liberals take a different view. They want to make Hobby Lobby’s owners pay for what they regard as the destruction of human life. They spent much time arguing the owners are mistaken (actually, Hobby Lobby had a plausible scientific basis for their belief).

But the point about freedom of religion isn’t that everyone has to agree. On the contrary: Almost no one agreed with the Oregon Indians’ beliefs about peyote. They just thought the larger society should not use compulsion to bar them from practicing their religion.

Today’s liberals seem comfortable with using the force of law to prevent people from doing so.

Or consider the Supreme Court decision in Harris v. Quinn, ruling that care givers for disabled relatives paid with Medicaid funds are not state employees and thus cannot be forced into a public employee union.

Today’s liberals did this in President Obama’s Illinois to channel public money away from low-income care givers and toward public employee unions that do so much to fund and support the Democratic Party. They seem unembarrassed by this crass political motive and indifferent to the plight of the needy.

Today’s liberals seem bent on pushing people around, preventing them from speaking their minds and practicing their beliefs. It’s not just the language that’s changed.

Barone is right. American liberalism has dangerously altered course in the past century–and even in the past six years.

Noah Webster’s original 1830 dictionary summarizes the classical view of liberalism: 

1. To be liberal is to be free to be generous–to give or bestow blessings.

2. To be liberal is to not be self-centered, but have an enlarged mind regarding others and their needs.

3. To be liberal is the embrace literature and sciences (as in a liberal arts education).

4.  To be liberal is to desire to liberate or make people free. The word itself comes from the Latin liber or “free.”

I’m a liberal according to that definition. I wholeheartedly agree with all the meanings.

British jurist John Locke is widely recognized as father of liberalism. In his “Two Treatises of Government” which were first published in 1690, Locke taught that men had God-given rights to “life, liberty and estate (property)”–i.e. people were meant to be free–something no king, religion, or cultural tradition could usurp.

His ideas found Christian expression in the birth of America and the Declaration of Independence, and a fascist form in the French Revolution where two million people died–400,000 of them by execution. Both revolutions were based on the concept of “freedom”–but one was brought about by virtue and principle and the other by bloodthirsty force.

The founders of the American Revolution were all classical liberals, not fascists. Jonah Goldberg in his book Liberal Fascism says this was due to American exceptionalism. “American culture supersedes our legal and constitutional framework. It is our greatest bulwark against fascism.”

Goldberg says that today’s “conservatives are the more authentic classical liberals.” In fact, Goldberg points out that in the past fifty years, it was been conservative leaders that have really carried on the legacy of Lockian liberalism:

“Conservatives were launching an extensive project to restore the proper place of the Constitution in American life [during the latter 20th century]. No leading conservative scholar or intellectual celebrated fascist themes or ideas. No leading conservative denigrated the inherent classical liberalism of the United States political system. To the contray, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, William F. Buckley and other conservatives dedicated themselves to restoring the classical liberal vision of the founders.”

Yet, as Michael Barone laments, today’s liberals are turning their backs on their heritage and are beginning to behave like totalitarian fascists, not true liberals–forcing their ideas and morality down the throats of the American people.

I appeal to my progressive friends to wake up and see that your liberalism is being hijacked by a spirit of force and control.

This is not liberalism. It is coercion or bondage (non-freedom).

It’s the same spirit behind fascism, communism, militant Islam, and ISIS who recently forced all Christians in Mosul, Iraq to either convert to Islam or be killed.

We’re not that extreme yet. Our culture (exceptional Christian heritage) still prevents it. But we’re on our way, and the devolution of liberalism into force or coercion has picked up steam during the Obama years.

Let’s be true liberals through a renewal of faith, freedom, generosity–and true conservatives by preserving our culture through the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution.

This means anchoring ourselves to the Bible–the source of liberal ideals (freedom) as well as conservative ones (wisdom).

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