A while back I received an amusing email from a reader of my essay Leaving the Left, a Bill of Rights devotee (“all ten amendments, no cherry picking”) whose message closed with these words: “Fly the flag — irritate a liberal.” I tried not to laugh when his advice came to mind the other day, as I was standing near the top of the ladder steadied by my 6-year-old son Skyler.
Our mission was to affix hardware to side of the house so we could fly the Stars and Stripes for the Fourth of July weekend. As household tasks go, this one was not exactly Iwo Jima. Even so, it didn’t seem like the right moment to find out whether laughter is an ally of precarious heights.
“What’s so funny, daddy?” Skyler knows that laughter is usually connected with something, and he invariably loves being in on the joke. Fiddling with my tools, I briefly consider responding with a casual “Oh, nothing.” Then I get a brainstorm. Suppose I tell him what actually has me laughing — the honesty option. Why not? “I’m laughing because I remembered a guy who told me that some people might be upset to see the flag flying,” I said.
“Why?” It’s the right question, and I can see where we’re headed. “Because flying the flag makes some people mad.” Recognizing this as a simple rephrasing of my first answer (nice try), Skyler quickly comes back with another Why. Operation Candor, phase two. “Remember when we talked about the American Revolution? Well, it’s like there are two different kinds of people. Those who celebrate the American Revolution on the Fourth of July, and those who … don’t.”
My son thinks for a few seconds. “You mean they don’t like freedom?” Before I can answer, he adds: “Do they live in America?” By now I’m down from the ladder. We’re standing in front of our brightly unfurled liberal irritant. “Yes,” I respond. More silence. “Wow,” Skyler says. Then he cuts to the chase. “Can we go fly the radio airplane before it gets too windy?” We put the ladder away and the rest is aviation history.
It strikes me later, after he has gone to bed, that maybe Skyler didn’t know which of his rapid questions his father had answered with “yes.” Then I realize I’m not sure myself. Yes, people who don’t celebrate the Fourth of July don’t like freedom? Or, yes, the non-celebrants live in America? Maybe yes to both? My son’s response seems right in any case. “Wow.”
“Two kinds of people” goes to the heart of how I now think about the political spectrum, a subject I implicitly raised by writing an essay about exiting one side of the equation: the left. Though I once subscribed to the conventional view of left and right as essentially political terms, about a decade ago it began to seem that these categories more accurately stand for two opposing views of human nature. Today I believe left and right actually represent fundamentally different ways of being in the world, each elemental and self-sustaining in an almost metaphysical sense.
I realize this is a large claim. Extraordinary assertions demand extraordinary evidence. In that spirit, let’s go back to a time before the New Deal, the Civil War, and America’s founding; an era prior to the Renaissance of the sixteenth century, even earlier than the remarkable cave drawings at Lascaux. Let’s think big. Looking ahead to the 230th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence next July, suppose we return to the singular moment, fifteen billion years ago, when the universe itself flared into being.
Blazing with primordial energy never again to be equaled, the cosmos billowed out in every direction, causing the elementary particles to stabilize. Yet this stunning instant was neither an event in time nor a position in space, for the realm or power or source that brings existence is the very matrix out of which the conditions necessary for existence arise in the first place.
If you’re a religious person, that source is God. If you’re not — well, the cosmos just happens. It’s all fundamentally random, it just is, it simply occurs, don’t ask. Philosopher Ken Wilber calls this “the philosophy of ‘oops.’” But that’s another story.
After a billion years of uninterrupted light the galaxies are born, including our own Milky Way. A supernova explosion creates our stellar system and most of the atoms in our body. Four million years ago, an amazing breakthrough takes place. A species called human stands up on just two limbs — on their own two feet, as it were. These became known much later as conservatives. Other humans, eventually known as liberals, wait to be lifted.
The conservative looks around and says, “What a remarkable place — how can I participate?” Surveying the same vista, the liberal declares, “This looks rigged, who can I sue?” (Of course I exaggerate; lawsuits are still a ways off. The liberal’s actual first words are more generic: “Who’s to blame here?” Followed quickly by: “Not me.”)
These strikingly different responses to the primary conditions of existence go to the seemingly metaphysical underpinnings of conservative and liberal worldviews. In one sense, the two stances can be described as ideal types. Even so, empirically competent observers must admit that the two types keep manifesting, recognizably, in the real world of time and space (mammal department, human subsection). So let’s explore their respective attributes.
Conservatives tend to see the world as a place teeming with freedom and opportunity, conditions best advanced by individual initiative and most impeded by governmental action. Liberals, by contrast, typically see a world made up of undeserved inequalities to be remedied, ideally through private service-providing elites and government agencies acting in concert. Over time, the political right became known for emphasizing the importance of order and stability (turns out freedom requires self-discipline), while the left championed change and progress (equality happens faster with social engineering).
After a few million years, it became clear that conservatives and liberals had reached strikingly different conclusions about the primary causes of progress, success, happiness, and suffering. These conclusions are still widely held today.
In a nutshell: conservatives generally believe that what’s inside people holds the key, while liberals typically insist exterior factors matter far more. This is to say folks on the right generally usually underscore “subjective” factors like work ethic, character and creativity, personal responsibility and moral development. By and large, conservatives are given to suspicion that the “philosophy of ‘Oops’” doesn’t fully explain the origin and continuing existence of the cosmos, not to mention why taxes more often get raised than lowered. So it’s no surprise that, when it comes to social interventions to reduce suffering and advance happiness, the typical conservative stands up (no pun intended) for equal opportunity for individuals, guided by the premise that every person deserves a fair shot based upon their potential, heart, and merit.
Meanwhile, the left characteristically points to “objective” factors: economic conditions, social institutions, environment, and material development — all in the context of a powerful mantra, “History.”
The left regularly invokes this word to ensure that the offspring of formerly oppressed persons are entitled to declare themselves “historically” oppressed in present time, even when previous objective oppressive conditions have become “history” in the conventional (past tense) sense of the word. Accordingly, preferred left social interventions invariably aim to guarantee equal outcomes for entire demographic groups — with race, ethnicity and gender at the top of the list.
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Thus far I’ve identified “liberal” as synonymous with “the left,” which is operationally true of contemporary American politics. Yet it bears remembering that the spirit of classical liberalism emerged out of the European Enlightenment ideals that eventually gave birth to the freedom quest of the American Revolution. In the same vein, what we today recognize as the political left likewise arose from Enlightenment thinking and gave rise to the French Revolution, a social upheaval that followed a distinctly different course than our own.
Which brings me to my second hypothesis: To understand the fierce dynamics of today’s left-right divide, we need to come to terms with the radically different legacies of the two revolutions, along with their different moral and political trajectories. Only then does it becomes clear how their fundamentally opposed core assumptions, especially about the nature of equality, remain at the heart of major disagreements between liberals and conservatives, more than two centuries later. Let’s zero in on the two revolutions, starting with the American one (known generally as “ours,” except to the kind of people who get distressed when they see American homes displaying the American flag).
In 1776, the U.S. Declaration of Independence proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” Eleven years later at Philadelphia, the core principles of the American Revolution became central to an enduring constitution providing for a national government based on the rule of law, federalism, separation of powers, and individual rights. In 1789, Frances’s Declaration of the Rights of Man declared, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights,” and this became the defining vision of the French Revolution. Five years later, leading revolutionaries assumed dictatorial power in a brutal Reign of Terror that caused the deaths of up to 40,000 people, all in the name of the principles of the Declaration.
By now you’re probably wondering how did two revolutions that began with such similar founding ideals come to such different ends? What factors allowed the American Revolution to bring forth a relatively free economy and limited government, while the French Revolution brought forth first anarchy, then dictatorship? The answer is that the two revolutions rested on profoundly different assumptions about the proper stance of human beings toward the given world. This turns out to be a really big difference.
The architects of the American Revolution believed all human beings possess a free will, along with reason to direct it. They were convinced that unlimited government corrupts its citizens and undermines the virtues necessary to support a republican form of government, virtues including self-reliance and self-restraint. "There is no truth more thoroughly established,” said George Washington, in his first inaugural address, “than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness." For the framers of the Constitution, the pursuit of happiness and the pursuit of virtue are identical. They considered it axiomatic that only a moral people can be a happy people.
By contrast, the architects of the French Revolution subscribed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s belief that human nature is intrinsically good, but when human beings leave solitary circumstances they are corrupted by society. Reason, rather than being an innate human capacity, somehow simply emerged as a reflection of environmental and cultural forces when humans first entered society, Rousseau insisted. All human language and human thought — moral, political, and religious — are merely the shifting and aimless effects of shifting and aimless external causes.
In Rousseau’s world, how are humans supposed to get along with one another? Simple: By abandoning their misguided claims of natural right (including the right to private property) in the name of a social contract based on the good of all. Rousseau put the matter clearly: “People should submit their will to the general will which cannot be wrong and whoever refused would be subject to compulsion, so to express the general will is to express every man's common will.”
If these very different perspectives sound familiar, it’s because they drive many of the great debates in our time. In the ways that matter most, the left chose the wrong revolution. The left said no to Jefferson’s experiment with liberty for the individual and embraced Rousseau’s social equality by force. That fundamental commitment still defines the left.
In his book The Quest for Cosmic Justice, Thomas Sowell defines the debate as one between justice and cosmic justice. A hallmark of justice (as defined by classical liberalism and by contemporary conservatism) is a commitment to applying the same rules and standards to everyone. By contrast, contemporary liberalism (and classical socialism) jettisons this principle and demands specific interventions to equalize prospects or results. The left’s true goal is not justice but cosmic justice, understood as the relief of all misfortune. Key word: all. The late Harvard political philosopher John Rawls summed up the mission with these telling words: "Undeserved inequalities call for redress."
Once upon a time, liberals of the left kind openly embraced Rawls’ mission; but for political reasons the left has lately learned to whisper. Why? For one thing, liberals cannot explain exactly who gets to determine which inequalities (there are many, thanks to nature) are to be remedied, and by what criteria. Rather than change their thinking about these questions, the left increasingly chooses to change the subject.
Remember when our nation’s former co-president (“Buy one, get one free”) contrived her proposed federal takeover of America’s health care system behind closed doors? These days, Hillary doesn’t openly endorse the nationalization of health care. Instead, she does photo ops with Newt Gingrich on the need for “a new health care consensus.” She also wants us to know she has an active prayer life, believes in family, and respects people with pro-life views. It’s not that Senator Clinton no longer holds a cosmic-justice agenda; she’s simply concluded (with good reason) that most of us prefer justice the old-fashioned way, American style.
Hillary and other leading Democrats have finally begun to figure out that whenever the issues are presented clearly, the American people invariably cast their lot with the Founders’ core belief that individuals are competent and capable of making, or learning to make, the most important political, economic, and ethical decisions that shape their lives, and the lives of their kids. And the American people likewise invariably reject the primary staple of left ideology: that individuals, being helpless pawns of powerful external forces, require the constant tending of left caretaker elites.
“Because ordinary Americans have not yet abandoned traditional justice, those who seek cosmic justice must try to justify it politically as meeting traditional concepts of justice,” Sowell shrewdly observes. “A failure to achieve the new vision of justice must be represented to the public and to the courts as ‘discrimination.’ Tests that register the results of innumerable inequalities must be represented as being the cause of those inequalities or as deliberate efforts to perpetuate those inequalities by erecting arbitrary barriers to the advancement of the less fortunate.”
Thus the full measure of the left’s existential dilemma begins to shine forth. On the one hand, these elites — fueled by their perverse emotional need to play savior — must shore up their client base using the Sharpton Strategy (frenetic rhetoric geared to solidify patterns of learned helplessness in demographic clusters of self-congratulatory victims) and the Durbin Doctrine (all cultures are equivalent; on any given day America’s no better the worst).
Ah, but wait. Having noticed recent electoral trends (for starters, seven out of last ten presidential elections won by the GOP), the left elite has the additional burden of attempting to scale Mt. Hillary (seeking to sound calm and centrist when speaking to national audiences) without appearing to break a sweat. The resulting confusion and incoherence of this fundamentally disingenuous strategy are consistently more entertaining than any reality show contrived in Hollywood.
For starters, there’s the Democrats’ employment of Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff to teach them how to “frame” their ideas in a way that makes “We know better than you do what’s best for you” sound kinder and gentler. Here’s an example of Lakoff’s counsel to the party of Dean: “Values win elections. Conservatives know theirs. Do you know yours?” To which the old-school DNC invariably responds in unison: “Yes! We favor taxes! Universal, cradle-to-grave health care! End America’s occupation of Iraq!” Lakoff sighs. “I think what you really mean is: We favor investments in the future. We value wellness. We support the troops.” Rousseau would be proud.
Then there’s Thomas Frank’s plaintive quest (in What’s the Matter with Kansas) to find out why so many Americans keep against their own darned interests! Now, how does Mr. Frank know that’s what those wacky Kansans are doing? Because Sunflower State voters keep going to the polls with “divisive social issues” in mind, when they should be remember how the market is actually stacked against them.
“Not long ago, Kansas would have responded to the current situation by making the bastards pay,” Frank writes, nostalgically. These days the poor slobs are more concerned about unaccountable schools and protecting their kids from objectionable cultural influences. Oh, for the festive days of old-fashioned class warfare…
And let’s not forget Susan Estrich, earnest apostle of identity politics. This is the quaint doctrine that says you’ve got to be black to say anything about blacks; gay to know anything about being homosexual; a woman to explain anything about women. It so happens that within each demographic domain lurk subtle degrees of authenticity. Estrich (a woman, who therefore knows) recently got into a well-publicized dustup with Los Angeles Times op-ed editor Michael Kinsley (a male, who therefore cannot) for not publishing enough essays by women. Upon completion of a gender tally, it turned out Estrich had neglected to count some Kinsley-commissioned articles by (conservative) women because those women didn’t write with “women’s voices.” So there are women, and then there are Women. It was probably the second group that Helen Reddy heard roar, and that Hillary would prefer not to be identified with anymore.
But nothing beats the left’s perennial attempt to displace Rush Limbaugh from his preeminent place in talk radio. Of course, this should be a cakewalk, given the liberal refrain that Limbaugh is chiefly an entertainer rather than a systematic political thinker — and their insistence that most Americans favor liberalism, so long as you don’t ever use that awful word. All any reasonably competent liberal (make that “progressive”) radio host needs to do is give voice to an alternative vision! Let’s see how it’s been going.
“Hello, I’m Mario Cuomo. Today I’ll make the case for increasing taxes on the rich. True, that probably includes you and your spouse, but keep an open mind while I talk about why being selfish is un-American…”
“Howdy, this is your old friend Jim Hightower. It’s all pretty simple. We break up all the big, powerful corporations that don’t care about people. And we give everybody free lifetime health care, except the super rich, who have already caused enough problems…”
“Al Franken here. OK, yes: Michael Moore did compare the terrorists with our Founding Fathers. But he meant it in a very specific way. See, the insurgents are oppressed — just like the Ohio voters who had to wait in line. Also, did I mention what a big fat idiot Rush Limbaugh is?”
* * *
The final chapter of The Quest for Cosmic Justice is titled "The Quiet Repeal of the American Revolution.” That’s what’s at stake, but it’s not going to happen. Not as long as men and women who understand that the true meaning July 4, 1776 is alive and well in the recognition that
· a government without limits inescapably descends into tyranny;
· the proper role of federalism is to create safe conditions for the states to experiment in creating conditions in which culture and economy may freely evolve;
· the only alternative to interpreting the Constitution to mean what its words say in the plain language of the time in which they were written is to reduce our nation’s guiding charter to the status of the Framers’ unfinished to-do list, and thus to subvert the rule of law.
As a set of principles for self-governance by free people, these are rather impressive — no doubt due to 15 billion years of trial and error. I mean this quite seriously. I began with reflections about the originating power that brought forth the universe because I genuinely believe America’s remarkable experiment with democracy cannot in the final analysis be understood apart from that force. Oh, I know the conceptual dangers of discussing a few hundred years of human history against the canvas of cosmic time; but there are also risks in settling for explanations that don’t rise to the grandeur of certain occasions. And continuous self-government by self-aware beings strikes me as one of the grandest imaginable.
For starters, I confess I don’t find it easy to believe that the individualized consciousness that democracy depends on — and which the cultural left works so hard to stifle with its collectivist war against self-responsibility — simply “emerged” in some happenstance way, as Rousseau imagined. It’s just too close to the Philosophy of Oops, the banality of which Ken Wilber rightly mocked. Ours is a universe that differentiates, giving rise to enormous novelty and creativity at every level of existence. One of the most remarkable expressions of that process is consciousness — the emergence of moral mammals called humans: aware of their surroundings and their relationships with others, but also aware of their own awareness, including promptings from the inner voice called conscience and an ineffable connection with the very Spirit of Life. How amazing is that?
The Revolutionaries of 1776 clearly understood the integral relationship between individual consciousness and the nature of democracy, which depends upon free thinking moral agents with the capacity for the rational and moral renewal of self and society. So it seems altogether fitting that America last weekend again celebrated the continuing vitality of these ideas with fireworks filling the sky with explosions of light and sound. The fireball that originated the universe soon gave way to the first generation of stars, and eventually to our ancestors who stood on two limbs and later used their hands to shape tools. Before long they unleashed the Sun’s energy stored in sticks and learned to use fire to advance their projects. In due course that original creative source took the form of self-governance that depends on the consent of the governed while also providing for the equal protection of each citizen.
How amazing is that?
Amazing enough to want to soar. Yesterday my son and I walked to the top of his favorite hill, where we had no control over the direction or force of the wind, the barometric pressure, or the heat of the noonday sun. For over an hour, and despite some close calls, Skyler managed to navigate his remote-controlled airplane without losing it to either the gusts from above or the unforgiving ground below. As his father watched, it seemed the boy had figured out that the most important part of a good flight is setting sights high, and staying with it.
The men who risked their lives by signing the Declaration of Independence knew the same is true of a good fight. They fought with inexorable determination, and their battles are now ours. The Framers grasped that happiness can never be guaranteed, any more than flight conditions at the top of a hill. What matters is the right of individuals to pursue happiness. Maintaining a government that places freedom at the center of its concerns and enforces the law only to defend that liberty is what’s at stake.
“Remember now what you are about to fight for.” So Washington told his troops on the eve of their victory at Trenton. The fight now belongs to all Americans who intend to bequeath to their children and grandchildren a free and lawful nation dedicated to fostering the deepest and best impulses of the human spirit. The Founders’ dream lives on when we keep choosing the right revolution — the American one — and making it real every day. I’ll meet you there.
Keith Thompson is a northern California independent journalist and author. His work is available at www.thompsonatlarge.com.