"Liberals" and "Conservatives"
In one of his recent daily diatribes, Rush Limbaugh used as a takeoff point some commentator's statement that it is essential to elect a Democrat in order to prevent President Bush from filling the expected vacancies on the Supreme Court, that "only the courts can save liberalism." Limbaugh said, "[H]e's right [that only the courts can save liberalism] because the American people will never elect it. They will never vote for it, not on a national basis, not when they know that it's what's being offered." He went on:
Liberalism has to mask itself and camouflage itself. [Liberals] can't even be honest about their label. They call themselves "progressives" or "moderates" or what have you to hide what they really are. Call 'em a liberal and check their reaction. They freak out and panic because you've correctly identified them. If you go look at some of the things that have become part of the fabric of our society, you won't find that a majority of those liberal type things have found their way into our society via ballot box or the votes of the elected representatives of the people, but rather by activist judges in the federal court system...The courts are the last chance for liberalism, because it does not win in the minds and hearts of the people. It just doesn't.
Limbaugh is often provocative, even when he's wrong. Here he's partly right -- right in that a) liberal-minded people within both major parties have become afraid to use the word "liberal" to describe their political or economic views and b) liberal-minded members of Congress too often have taken the "easy way" out, looking for judges to do their legislating for them.
Limbaugh is wrong in using the word "liberal" as a noun rather than as an adjective. Former Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy, now 88, explained this in an essay titled "A Place for Liberals to Hide," The New Republic (06.13.1983), reprinted in Required Reading - A Decade of Political Wit & Wisdom 106-09 (1988):
[O]ne may be a liberal Democrat or a liberal Republican, a liberal Catholic or a liberal Presbyterian, but never a pure "liberal." This was a posture I had taken up in the late 1950's, when "liberal," having just achieved status as a noun, was being festooned with derogatory prefixes. J. Edgar Hoover, in those days, was warning against what he called the "pseudo-liberals," William F. Buckley, Jr., was writing about the "illogical liberals," and others spoke and wrote about the "egghead-liberals," the "crypto-liberals," and so on.
Limbaugh is also wrong in using the term in a pejorative way. In doing so he slanders all good people, because I know of no good people who don't in some way marry both liberal and conservative traits. In a lecture delivered at the Masonic Temple in Boston on December 9, 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson referred to the two impulses or traits or voices within us as "two metaphysical antagonists" and argued that "each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine." The "wrong" of being a "pure" liberal or a "pure" conservative is in thereby committing oneself to reflexively choosing one of two opposing equally-compelling interests or truths or forces -- for example, young over old, or old over young. I dealt with this precise issue in a different context, appellate judging, in my essay entitled, "The Voices of a Judge -- The Judicial Opinions of Chief Justice Peter S. Popovich of the Minnesota Supreme Court," The Judicial Career of Peter S. Popovich (MN. Justices Series No. 10, 1998):
Those who think simplistically and without proper regard for the intended role of the judiciary in our system of government think that being a judge is just a matter of voting for or against a particular issue, as if the judge were a kind of legislator who listens, then votes. Robert Frost, who was a renowned college teacher as well as poet, used to tell his students that thinking is more than simply voting or taking sides on an issue. Deciding appeals in the great common law tradition requires more.
One of the things required is the recognition that life isn't always a simple matter of choosing good over bad, that there are complexities, gray areas, conflicts of good versus good. 'Anybody can decide a question if only a single principle is in controversy' (Justice Felix Frankfurter), but the world of truth is contradictory. 'Mad contradictions flavor all our dishes' (Ralph Waldo Emerson). For every truth, there is a counter-truth: individual rights and majority rule; freedom and order; fifty states and one indivisible nation; religion and secularism; change and stability; privacy and knowledge; new truths and old ones; discretion and rule; mercy and justice; and so on.
If 'the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function' (F. Scott Fitzgerald), then one of the tests of a first-rate appellate judge, when these 'great antinomies...present themselves like gladiators for our favors,' is the ability to 'discover the precise issue in controversy, the precise consequences of one decision or another, and the possibility of an accommodation by deflating the isms and narrowing the schisms' (Professor Paul Freund)."
Robert Frost said, "Life sways perilously at the confluence of opposing forces" such as Justice and Mercy or Change and Stability. One might also say that life is even more perilous if one is interested only in Change or Youth, on the one hand, or Stability or Age, on the other. As in the case of any antinomy, it is when the two opposing concepts are in tension with each other that creative thinking and acting occur.
Every farmer in Minnesota knows what Emerson meant when he said that "Nature loves crosses" -- because the remarkable vigour that emerged from the crossing of different breeds of corn to achieve hybrid corn exemplifies Emerson's principle. Every American in his heart knows the same -- that the crossings of oceans and the merging of different peoples with different attitudes and values, liberal ones and conservative ones, created an amazing country of remarkable vigour, one never seen before in history.
How do I describe myself? I say I am a liberal-minded, independent-thinking, progressive, fair-play, balance-the-budget, Constitution-loving, peace-and-prosperity "Eisenhower Republican."
Did I oppose the so-called Patriot Act? I guess that's the liberal-minded civil-liberties-loving part of me. Or is it the conservative-minded part of me that doesn't like the idea of Big Brother executing secret warrants of people's houses and requiring librarians and bookstores to disclose people's personal reading habits?
Did I oppose the use of torture in interrogating detainees? I guess that's the liberal-minded civil-liberties-loving part of me. Or is it the conservative-minded part of me that wants our country to adhere to the Golden Rule and doesn't want to set a precedent that will justify other countries in mistreating our citizens if/when they are detained in time of war?
Did I oppose the resolution giving the President blank-check authority to invade Iraq on the flimsiest of evidence? I guess that's the liberal-minded child-of-the-Sixties part of me that opposed the Viet Nam War. Or is it the conservative-minded part of me that respects the lessons of history -- including the lesson that it was the blank-check Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that paved the way for President Johnson's pursuit of war policies that led to nothing good and the loss of 58,000 American soldiers?
Some excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Conservative:
The battle of patrician and plebeian, of parent state and colony, of old usage and accommodation to new facts, of the rich and the poor, reappears in all countries and times. The war rages not only in battle-fields, in national councils, and ecclesiastical synods, but agitates every man's bosom with opposing advantages every hour. On rolls the old world meantime, and now one, now the other gets the day, and still the fight renews itself as if for the first time, under new names and hot personalities.
...There is always a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact. It affirms because it holds. Its fingers clutch the fact, and it will not open its eyes to see a better fact. The castle, which conservatism is set to defend, is the actual state of things, good and bad. The project of innovation is the best possible state of things. Of course, conservatism always has the worst of the argument, is always apologizing, pleading a necessity, pleading that to change would be to deteriorate; it must saddle itself with the mountainous load of the violence and vice of society, must deny the possibility of good, deny ideas, and suspect and stone the prophet; whilst innovation is always in the right, triumphant, attacking, and sure of final success. Conservatism stands on man's confessed limitations; reform on his indisputable infinitude; conservatism on circumstance; liberalism on power; one goes to make an adroit member of the social frame; the other to postpone all things to the man himself; conservatism is debonair and social; reform is individual and imperious. We are reformers in spring and summer; in autumn and winter, we stand by the old; reformers in the morning, conservers at night. Reform is affirmative, conservatism negative; conservatism goes for comfort, reform for truth. Conservatism is more candid to behold another's worth; reform more disposed to maintain and increase its own. Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory. Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry. It makes a great difference to your figure and to your thought, whether your foot is advancing or receding. Conservatism never puts the foot forward; in the hour when it does that, it is not establishment, but reform. Conservatism tends to universal seeming and treachery, believes in a negative fate; believes that men's temper governs them; that for me, it avails not to trust in principles; they will fail me; I must bend a little; it distrusts nature; it thinks there is a general law without a particular application, — law for all that does not include any one. Reform in its antagonism inclines to asinine resistance, to kick with hoofs; it runs to egotism and bloated self-conceit; it runs to a bodiless pretension, to unnatural refining and elevation, which ends in hypocrisy and sensual reaction.
And so whilst we do not go beyond general statements, it may be safely affirmed of these two metaphysical antagonists, that each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine.
That which is best about conservatism, that which, though it cannot be expressed in detail, inspires reverence in all, is the Inevitable. There is the question not only, what the conservative says for himself? but, why must he say it? What insurmountable fact binds him to that side? Here is the fact which men call Fate, and fate in dread degrees, fate behind fate, not to be disposed of by the consideration that the Conscience commands this or that, but necessitating the question, whether the faculties of man will play him true in resisting the facts of universal experience? For although the commands of the Conscience are essentially absolute, they are historically limitary. Wisdom does not seek a literal rectitude, but an useful, that is, a conditioned one, such a one as the faculties of man and the constitution of things will warrant. The reformer, the partisan loses himself in driving to the utmost some specialty of right conduct, until his own nature and all nature resist him; but Wisdom attempts nothing enormous and disproportioned to its powers, nothing which it cannot perform or nearly perform. We have all a certain intellection or presentiment of reform existing in the mind, which does not yet descend into the character, and those who throw themselves blindly on this lose themselves. Whatever they attempt in that direction, fails, and reacts suicidally on the actor himself. This is the penalty of having transcended nature. For the existing world is not a dream, and cannot with impunity be treated as a dream; neither is it a disease; but it is the ground on which you stand, it is the mother of whom you were born. Reform converses with possibilities, perchance with impossibilities; but here is sacred fact. This also was true, or it could not be: it had life in it, or it could not have existed; it has life in it, or it could not continue. Your schemes may be feasible, or may not be, but this has the endorsement of nature and a long friendship and cohabitation with the powers of nature. This will stand until a better cast of the dice is made. The contest between the Future and the Past is one between Divinity entering, and Divinity departing. You are welcome to try your experiments, and, if you can, to displace the actual order by that ideal republic you announce, for nothing but God will expel God. But plainly the burden of proof must lie with the projector. We hold to this, until you can demonstrate something better.
Post-campaign addendum: When a conservative is for the 'little guy' & the liberal is not (06.23.2005).
Copyright (c) 2004 by Burton Randall Hanson. Prepared & published by candidate on his own behalf and at his own expense. Candidate may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com. Candidate does not solicit or accept contributions or endorsements.