liberalism: something that one grows into, not out of

I received an email castigating me for being liberal:

"Regarding your liberal viewpoint - I consider it to be like braking with your left foot. It's novel and different, but sooner or later you outgrow it."

My initial reaction was to pen a dismissive response to this conservative condescension, perhaps quoting Christopher Hitchens: "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence." ("Mommie Dearest," Slate, 20 October 2003) Upon further reflection, I decided to write a more considered response. Bear with me as I address the three problems in the criticism above: the automobile analogy, the novelty accusation, and the maturity argument.

"like braking with your left foot"

This analogy is so inapplicable to political ideology that I hardly know where to begin. Its main flaw is the presupposition that there is exactly one right way (the Right's way, of course) to do something, and that any attempt otherwise is definitionally incorrect, improper, or (perhaps) sinful. "That's the way we always did it" is hardly an empirical position; if it were, we would still be--to stick with automobiles--hand-cranking the starter motor and manually adjusting the choke as we drove (slowly) on dirt roads.

It would also take us much longer to get anywhere, if we could get there without road signs, AAA maps, and GPS; if we could tolerate driving long distances without climate control, power brakes, and power steering; and if we survived the trip without ABS, seat belts, and airbags. This brings me to my next point:

"novel and different"

It behooves us to remember that every advance in human knowledge, every miniscule bit of progress from the status quo, every invention that improved our quality of life, was--in the beginning--novel, different, and untried. Only the liberal dissatisfaction with life as it is, our idealism that it can be better, and our willingness to ask questions and strive for improvement has made our (liberal) American experiment in freedom possible. Accordingly, here are some liberal Quotes of the Day:

"Is it not the glory of the people of America, that, whilst they have paid a decent regard to the opinions of former times and other nations, they have not suffered a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience?" (James Madison, Federalist 14) "I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Samuel Kercheval, 12 July 1816)

"Nothing is wiser than that all our institutions should keep pace with the advance of time and be improved with the improvement of the human mind."
(Thomas Jefferson, letter to Isaac Harby, 6 January 1826)

"you outgrow it"

Since liberalism is as much a methodology as an ideology, I'm unconvinced that one could "outgrow" it without foregoing necessities like skepticism and critical thinking (although perhaps not everyone considers those things necessary). Because liberalism relies on analyzing arguments rather than simply accepting or rejecting them based on preconceptions, it can lead to conservative conclusions--if warranted by the facts. The liberal-heart/conservative-brain trope to which many I'm-more-mature-than-you conservatives refer (often misattributed to Winston Churchill, with many variants) is unsupported, as it relies on two errors.

The first error is the association of conservatism with intelligence, or sometimes with education. Liberalism is actually somewhat correlated with higher education, as one would expect when previously sheltered students are exposed to thoughts and arguments that differ from those of their family and neighbors. From the 2005 Pew study:

Liberals have the highest education level of any typology group: 49% are college graduates and 26% have some postgraduate education. But the Enterprisers also include a relatively high percentage of college graduates (46%), although fewer Enterprisers [Pew's name for the far-right typology] than Liberals have attended graduate school (14%).

The second error, the conflation of conservatism and maturity, is factually questionable at best. One recent study (mentioned here at LiveScience) observed exactly the opposite, that liberalism is something that one grows into rather than grows out of. "[N]ew research has debunked the myth that people become more conservative as they age:"

By comparing surveys of various age groups taken over a span of more than 30 years, sociologists found that in general, Americans' opinions veer toward the liberal as they grow older.

"All the evidence we have found refutes the idea that as people age their attitudes become more conservative or more rigid," said Nicholas Danigelis, a sociologist at the University of Vermont. "It's just not true. More people are changing in a liberal direction than in a conservative direction."

[Caveat: I've only read the LiveScience article and the abstract, so I'm off to the library to find the whole paper!]

If calling my general outlook "liberal" is supposed to frighten me into silence or equivocation in the face of conservatism's (claimed, but unproven) superiority, it has not worked. In a very real sense--despite my lack of wealth, notoriety, and power--I am one of conservatives' worst nightmares: I am a liberal who is not afraid to be called by that name because I know what it means--and the meaning of liberalism has nothing to do with the caricature that conservatives use for their villainous vilification. Even a casual reader of this blog will note that when I attack conservative positions, I do so by confronting errors with facts. (In fairness, let it be remembered that I also criticize Democrats and other putative liberals for their failures; for example, I did so yesterday in reference to the FISA scandal.)

[typos fixed]


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