One Meaning of Liberalism

I have a reputation among my friends and family as a rather aggressive liberal. I don’t deny that reputation, but I also don’t wholly accept it. As I recently explained to a family member, I try not to bring up politics in a conversation, but if someone else brings it up, I’m am more than willing to join in.

To me, however, politics does not mean partisanship. I am not a registered member of either of the major parties: I am not a Democrat, nor am I a Republican. I’m a registered member of the Vermont Progressive Party, the most successful third party in the United States. “Founded by the activists who helped to elect Bernie Sanders as the Mayor of Burlington” in the early 1980s, the Vermont Progressive Party now boasts 10 local officials throughout the towns and cities of Vermont, three state senators, eight state representatives, and two statewide officeholders (Vermont’s Auditor of Accounts and Vermont’s Lieutenant Governor).

So when it comes to talking about national politics (which is usually what I’m talking about with people), I don’t have a dog in the partisan fight.

While I’m not a Democrat or Republican, I am, in fact, a liberal. But when you take away the context of the national parties, the question becomes: what does it mean to be liberal?

The concepts that ring out the most are social justice, economic justice, a rigorous commitment to the facts, and a willingness to engage with the complexity of historic and systemic context.

Justice is at the heart of being a liberal. The pre-emininent philosopher on the topic, John Rawls, lays out two principles of justice: first, that there must be “equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties,” and second, that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and attached to positions and offices open to all.”

The first principle means that everyone in the society has the same rights and obligations, regardless of who they are or where they come from. The second means that any difference in those rights or obligations must be acceptable and open to all; for example, if the President of the United States gets to have the pomp of the Marine Corps Band playing a song every time he walks into a room, it’s because we want to have the best of the best take that position and offering such pomp is one of the ways we try to entice them, and that’s okay, provided that the office is open to everyone.

In the context of social justice, it comes down to what Rawls famously calls the “veil of ignorance,” where you are asked to construct a just society of which you will be a permanent member without knowing anything about yourself — your race, gender, sexuality, ethnic background, intelligence level, physical ability, vigor, wealth, etc. In such a situation, you would probably design a society that is as fair as possible, since there is a reasonable chance that you would be among the least advantaged members of that society.

In practical terms, that means looking at today’s social and economic issues as if you were a member of the disadvantaged class. If you are a White person, you must imagine our criminal justice system as if you were a Black or Latino person. If you have a place to securely lay your head at night, you must imagine the nighttime worries of a homeless person. If you are a member of the financial services or advanced technology industries, you must imagine the depression of someone whose entire economic life has revolved around a coal mine. If you can comfortably sustain a medical emergency in your family, you must imagine the strain of a hospital visit for someone who doesn’t have health insurance. If you are free from the crippling hunger of addiction, you must imagine what it feels like to be so driven to score your next fix that you’re willing to demolish your closest personal relationships, including those with your children. If you can walk into a public restroom without any thought about which door is right for you, you must imagine the difficulty of someone who sees the male or female symbol as not representing their lived reality.

In such situations, where you are among the underprivileged, how would you design your society? Would you design a dog-eat-dog system, or would you design a society that was as fair as possible for everyone involved? Any reasonable person would attempt the latter.

When a situation arises — the protests at Standing Rock, for example, or Justice Gorsuch’s case of the frozen trucker, for another —  liberals attempt to imagine the viewpoint of the underprivileged member(s) of the conflict and develop their stances accordingly.

However, liberalism is not as simple as rooting for the underdog because along with social and economic justice, there is also a rigorous commitment to the facts and a willingness to engage with the historic and systemic context. Without these two elements, you’d have a knee-jerk liberalism that refuses to acknowledge any reality outside of its own.

I strive to not be a knee-jerk liberal, and whatever success I have is a function of my dedication to education, edification, and engagement. I seek out alternative viewpoints, try to read as widely and as deeply as possible, and focus as much as I’m able on questions surrounding the right and the good, knowing that there are no easy solutions to any of the conflicts facing  societies today.

There is no easy solution to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict. No easy solution to the war-mongering North Korean dictatorship. No easy solution to the Syrian civil war. No easy solution to the ramifications of a globalized economy. No easy solution to the economy’s dependency on oil. No easy solution to America’s withdrawal from imperial obligations. No easy solution to the clash of liberal Western democracies with fundamentalist ideologies. No easy solution to technology’s conquering force. No easy solution to the problems facing public education. No easy solution to gun control. Etc. Etc.

But the liberalism I aspire to accepts this complexity and says that the only way forward to a better society lies in grappling with issues in a reasonable and enlightened manner, acknowledging grievances, accepting historic realities, and finding, through democratic conversations and a willingness to compromise (not on principle, perhaps, but in fact), solutions that are acceptable to all.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world be as one.”