Thursday, July 23, 2009

Picking Sides: Track Records

As a typical wishy-washy progressive I have a lot of sympathy for the "can't we all just get along," "we're all on the same team," kind of thinking. I get the appeal of "middle-way," "moderate," some might call it "fence-sitting" rhetoric. Even more, I appreciate attempts to forge a third path through the wilderness that is not on this tired spectrum. At times I actually genuinely hold a strong opinion that would be difficult to classify as Liberal or Conservative, but then no one is a complete caricature.

Furthermore, I reject the truth of binary generalizations and question the utility of labels so historically flexible as to mean exactly the opposite thing in different times and places. You can't put me in a box! Dammit!

But isn't the very fact that I feel the need to put so many qualifiers at the start of this post sufficient evidence of which box I belong in? (Hint: it isn't the one with the Nazi.) One thing that really annoys me is the apparent need of many liberals to disavow their liberalism. So this post is about one very good reason, among many, to be proud of being a liberal. It's about track records.

In current debates framed in binary liberal vs. conservative terms there are strong arguments and even more passion on both sides. If an impartial observer wanted to determine which side was right, one reasonable strategy would be to analyze similar debates through history and see which side had more often been vindicated.

Here are some examples:

Slavery - Liberals win. Slavery is bad.
Suffrage - Liberals win. Women can vote.
Civil Rights - Liberals win. Segregation ends.

Who would want to defend the historical conservative position on any of these issues now? Contemporary conservatives certainly don't, because they have conceded that liberals were right in those instances. What makes them so certain that liberals are now wrong?

Not every battle has a clear cut conclusion, but can anyone name a major social issue that conservatives have won - by which I mean their moral vision has been vindicated as the correct one by society in retrospect?

The track record of liberalism certainly isn't without blemish. Liberals have started wars and profited at the expense of the poor. I am just as cynical of liberal politicians as any other, but if we're evaluating the quality of an idea in comparison to its competitors liberalism comes out looking pretty good. There are many thoughtful, wise, good conservatives, but that doesn't change the fact that as an ideology it is also a refuge for racists, mysoginists, and fascists.

What I will never understand is how being a "liberal" has come to be something to be ashamed of, whereas belonging to the same ideological milieux as Machiavelli, Rasputin and Cheney, is a source of pride.


Heather W. Reichgott said...

To make things even more complicated, how about the way political characterizations shift with time?

Lincoln was a Republican, for example.

In the Nixon era, conservatives were in favor of safe-sex education all over the world (especially in countries with very high birth rates), as well as distribution of contraceptives. Liberals were nervous about this, because many people thought it was a sort of eugenics project to keep the browner peoples of the world from reproducing too much. How things change.

Aric Clark said...

Yeah, the terms are wildly elastic.

Still, it is reasonable to associate ideas such as abolition, suffrage, & civil rights with liberalism. What comparable moral improvements can we credit to conservatism?

Heather W. Reichgott said...

um... Prohibition? Sabbath observance?

Seriously though, it's an interesting observation you've made, esp. since moral uprightness is such a big deal to conservatives. Even in the realm of moral issues more beloved by conservatives (sexual issues, say, or crime) I can't think of an actual successful improvement brought about by conservative policies.

Doug Hagler said...

I feel like I should be fair and even-handed, but I don't want to be at the moment. For now, I want to mention more liberal victories and vindications:

Child labor, environmental protection, consumer safety, various consumer bills of rights, trust-busting

And there are also victories that conservatives would see as defeats:

Welfare for the desperately poor, basic health care for children, waiting periods for firearms...I could go on

Of course, from the point of view of some conservatives, it is Obama who is the Nazi Fascist. While Aric's line of argument is one I clearly would adopt, it isn't one I'd expect a conservative to buy.

Really, I'd love to see a conservative list what s/he thinks are conservative moral victories and vindications...

Aric Clark said...

Heh, I expected my critical approach to trigger that very commendable liberal desire to be "even handed". But seriously, I'm having a hard time coming up with one serious moral social improvement wrought by conservatives...

You're right, Doug, that conservatives wouldn't buy this argument entirely, but I'd like to know what the response is. Are they going to say that Abolition of Slavery was not a moral improvement? Are they going to say that there are other more important moral acheivements made by conservatives - if so what are they? etc...

Doug Hagler said...

I could imagine conservatives wanting to claim world wars I and II and calling them moral victories. Maybe even the Revolutionary War, though that war was clearly fought for liberal values as well. A conservative might argue that our drug laws are a moral victory, or that building more prisons and being "tougher on crime" is a moral victory. Maybe re-instating the death penalty could be seen as a moral victory by a conservative, or inventing the War on Terror.

I might buy pointing to specific actions taken to make welfare harder to genuinely abuse, though most of these measures simply cut off support for desperately poor single mothers and their kids. I also personally agree with some limitations on abortion that have been passed since Roe v. Wade.

The problem, of course, is the difference in what is meant by the word "moral". But yeah, I'd love to see a list...

Here's an interesting list of 'best conservative movies'

Aric Clark said...

The thing is that I don't accept any of those things (World Wars, Prisons etc..) as moral victories. Actually the opposite. And I realize that there are probably many things that liberals would consider moral improvements that Conservatives would disagree with, but that is why I used the examples I did. I think most conservative agree that slavery is bad, women should be allowed to vote, and civil rights are good. If there are any conservatives out there who think we should disenfranchise women and renew chattel slavery - speak up.

Still, good imagination Doug to come up with anything.