Liberal-progressives have, for too long, allowed the Republican right to frame the issues in the debate. This put Liberals always on the defensive. It is time to re-assert all of the human values that are the cornerstone of liberalism and that, deep down, are the principles of America.
Liberalism starts with a view that society should address certain needs.
Liberalism begins with a view of the obligations of society and government, to address human and social needs. As a practical matter, each individual is unable to address homelessness or child or elder abuse, or the unavailable of medical care as it may apply to a specific person. Government, federal, state and local, is the mechanism by which society fulfills its obligations. This is to be distinguished by the addressing of societal and individual needs by private non-governmental entities, such as church or secular charities and organizations.
Hubert Humphrey expressed his (and my) personal view of how governments are to be viewed and judged,
“The test of Government is how that Government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”
Being a liberal does not prevent variations in individual opinions.
What does a Liberal believe in? That is a tough question, because every self-professed (self-confessed?) Liberal has individual and sometimes differing ideas of that which defines him or her. Moreover the inability of a Liberal to assert inflexible positions makes it difficult to characterize views.
I do not like to keep quoting others, but Garrison Keillor, expressed his views on the essence of liberalism:
“We don’t let people lie in the ditch and drive past and pretend not to see them dying. Here . . . if your neighbor’s car won’t start, you put on your parka and get the jumper cables out and deliver the Sacred Spark that starts their car. Everybody knows this. The logical extension of this spirit is social welfare and the myriad government programs with long dry names all very uninteresting to you until you suddenly need one and then you turn into a Democrat.”
What then, specifically, do most Liberals believe?
As I have noted, liberals do not necessarily have a uniform set of beliefs, suitable to be condensed into a ten-second sound bite. We do not go for slogans or categorical statements. Our weakness is the lack of absolute certainty that characterizes the far right. Essentially there are, however, core principles that are accepted.
An individual has the right to his or her beliefs.
Government has the obligation to preserve and protect an individual’s rights to speak freely, worship as he or she may wish or not to worship if that is the choice. There are limits to these rights where they might infringe on the equally protected rights or the safety of another but those limits are to be defined strictly. If my “choice” is to worship with deadly snakes, that is my prerogative; if I insist that a child handle deadly snakes, that is another story.
Rights of individuals should not be limited by the religious views of the majority. Every child is entitled to a public education in a public-funded school. Religious doctrine should not be taught and, certainly, not to the exclusion of secular instruction. If you insist your child be taught the Bible is literally true in all respects, then your child needs to attend a non-public school. If you want your child to be free to offer public prayers whenever the urge strikes, or if you wish the teacher or school official to publicly pray, your child belongs in a religious school. The prayer that is acceptable or commonplace to you may be offensive to another. For example, a Christian prays through and in the name of Jesus; to a Jew or Muslim, this is anathema.
Private behaviors should not be limited or denied based on others’ concepts of morality or religious precepts. For example, abortion is a personal decision to be made by a woman, with consultation if she so decides, with clergy, the father or anyone else she chooses. It is not to be determined by government or outside interest groups. Government cannot be homophobic. An individual’s sexual orientation should not impact rights under the law. Should marriage or civil unions between those of the same gender be prohibited? If you remove the religious or biblical arguments that are suggested, it is difficult to argue against those rights. Is marriage solely for procreation? Then refuse a marriage license to women who have had a hysterectomy or who are in their 60’s. If the intent is to strengthen the principle of marriage, then how does one explain a 50% divorce rate? If we are that concerned about the importance and sanctity of marriage, stop glamorizing celebrities who have baby after baby sans marriage.
Government should enforce individual rights.
Having rights in a vacuum is interesting but worthless unless government enforces those rights. An individual has the right to equal treatment under the law regardless of race, color of skin, religion, national origin, gender, sexual preference or any other characteristics. The people who need this protection, for the most part, are those in the minority, those whose beliefs or lawful behavior offend the majority. After all, the majority need no special protection; the person who needs protection stands on the street corner spouting radical and unpopular views or the homosexual who wants to receive all of the benefits of marital status heterosexuals receive, including health coverage, pension rights or inheritance rights.
Government must assist those in need.
Each of us has an obligation to help the weak and oppressed. In a complex world, that obligation on individual members of society is undertaken by Government in our stead. The poor, homeless, weak, defenseless among us need protection and special care. Government, at its best, provides that care and protection. For example, laws prohibiting child labor, regulations for safety in nursing homes, prohibitions against child, spousal or elder abuse are all examples of society protecting those in need of such protection. Government should be there to alleviate loss caused by natural disasters, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes. A number of individuals cannot support themselves because of being unqualified for employment physical or mental infirmity. Government should protect those individuals by providing education, therapy, job training or sustenance.
Sometimes, government has no role and should butt out.
To some extent these principles will overlap. Some choices made by individuals may not be consistent with the choices made by others. For example, I may choose to go to a strip bar or a “X-Rated” establishment. I may act in a manner others consider immoral. So long as my choices, as an adult, do not cause harm or take advantage of another, especially a person weaker than I or a child, I should not be restricted by Government. (There is a difference between government restrictions and those of a non-governmental entity; if my employer, private organization to which I belong or my wife objects to my behavior, action may be swift and unpleasant – but that is a private matter.) When government over-steps its role and interferes with personal decisions, chaos results. In the recent Terri Schaivo case, the local, state and federal governments were manipulated by religious interest groups; every organization and entity involved lost credibility and respect as a result.
Miscellaneous beliefs of this Liberal.
Liberalism is not monolithic. We all have personal views on a number of topics. This lack of solidarity is a weakness in confronting the far-right conservative. The latter is so darn certain of everything. As for me, I believe, in addition to the foregoing,
•that there should be reasonable regulation of firearms, especially handguns;
•there should be a complete abolition of capital punishment. Most advanced countries have either abolished the death penalty or have restricted it use. The United States allows capital punishment, along with such admirable countries as China, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea. What great company; and
•taxation should be used to encourage certain behavior and to discourage other behavior. For example, deductions for income tax purposes are designed to promote home ownership (mortgage interest) and charitable giving; other tax laws could be used to discourage use of controlled substances. Legalize marijuana and tax the stuffing out of it. I do not support the use of drugs, but acknowledge that marijuana use is endemic. To devote millions of law enforcement dollars to fight a war on drugs is not cost-effective. I would suggest semi-legalization with strong regulatory enforcement, as in liquor laws. Again, tax’em, as well as on cigarettes to discourage use.
•A policy to other nations that would accord our allies respect and consultation. We would reject “preventative” war and unilateral adventures, except where our national interests were directly and imminently challenged. We would use our force when necessary but after preparing our citizens for the sacrifice that will be required. President Bush stated that Americans were sacrificing as a result of the war against terror. He cited the lines at airports, the taking off of shoes. This is a far cry from the sacrifices during World War II: gas and meat rationing, restrictions on using electricity, even the inability of women to have silk stockings due to the manufacture of parachutes.
What must liberals do?
First and foremost, we must stop being defensive. We must not allow conservatives to frame the debate. We must present our views forcibly and coherently in every forum possible. Our candidates should reject a negative view of liberalism and not allow conservative candidates to use slogans to avoid issues. We must challenge, challenge and challenge again efforts to demonize liberals.
On a personal note, I will not allow myself to become a narrow-minded conservative. I resolve to keep my mind open to other views. That’s what a liberal does.