Once upon a time, not so long ago, both the Democratic and Republican parties had a conservative and a liberal wing. They had their differences, of course, but the parties and their members were at least on speaking terms, by which I mean that there was basic agreement in their world views. For example, both accepted that free markets were the best way to organize the economy; the disagreement was on the margin, on how good competition was at reining in businesspeople, and thus how much regulation the government should impose. On down the list of issues, conservatives and liberals, regardless of party, pretty much agreed on the basics and disagreed on the details.
That description is a gross simplification, of course, but it does capture the big picture of a nation concurring on the essence of the issues, while constantly and often vociferously disputing the details. It was a good arrangement. And, of course, good things never last.
Leave aside what happened on the right for another day. What happened on the left is, I think, much more interesting and far-reaching.
A radical strain of leftism appeared at the left’s founding during the French Revolution and, due to its ruthlessness and ability to inspire with its messianic message of liberty, equality and brotherhood, quickly gained the upper hand. By the time it burned itself out, the aristocracy was almost destroyed, the church was dispossessed, millions had died in a global war, France was ruined and bankrupt, and another Louis was on the throne. Not a successful beginning.
Lesson unlearned, the radical’s message continued to inspire the thinkers who developed socialism, and Karl Marx’s and Friedrich Engels’ “scientific socialism,” aka communism, in particular. Another round of revolutions in Europe in 1848-49 was crushed, but radical leftism had taken root. World War I ended the old order in Europe and brought about the triumph of the socialists, with variations ranging from left-leaning parliamentary democracies like Great Britain to the Bolshevik “dictatorship of the proletariat” in Russia — in reality, the brutal dictatorship of Vladimir Lenin and his successors.
America blithely ignored it all. In a way, this most-radical of Western nations, which at its founding had rejected the age-old model of monarchy, aristocracy and established religion in favor of political and religious freedom, self-government and a severely-limited tangle of checked and balanced governments, was inoculated to European radicalism. Every man, regardless of station (excepting the slaves, of course, until 1865), had a real chance of getting ahead. Even if he didn’t get rich, he largely controlled his own destiny, and the ethos of social equality suffused the culture. Every American had a stake in his nation, unlike the disenfranchised people of Europe, who proved the point by flocking to “the land of opportunity”.
And thus, by the beginning of the 20th century, America’s politics were dominated by what we now call conservatives and liberals, who, in spite of their differences, rejected socialistic radicalism and shared the national culture. Perhaps the best expression of this was the passage of the civil rights laws of the 1960s, which was accomplished by a coalition of moderate and liberal Republicans and Democrats over the strong objection of many conservative Democrats and a handful of far-right-wing Republicans.
But the march of the radicals through American institutions, particularly its elite universities and colleges, continued, and its effects are now being felt. The American left has divided into a “liberal” wing and an “illiberal” wing, with the “illiberals” — the children of abstract theorizing that radically departs from the old cultural consensus — at least appearing to be ascendant.
In a frightening departure from normal, the predominant political groupings are talking past one another, each failing to understand the other, using the same words to convey different concepts. To conservatives and old-style liberals, the radical left, with its rejection of capitalism, open hostility to religion, talk of privilege, identity politics, intersectionality and micro-aggression, and equating free speech with violence, seems to be descending into a nightmare world of atomized, sexualized, racialized tribal politics, a Hobbesian battle of each against all that can’t end well.
So here’s to the liberals, in the original sense of “lovers of freedom,” a sentiment that we conservatives are happy to share. It turns out we share much more than that, in spite of our differences, because we share an understanding of what our culture is about. And here’s to hoping that they can rescue the left from the madness of the “illiberals,” who seemed hell-bent on destroying that culture. On that point, at least, we stand as allies.
Kenneth D. Gough of Elizabethton is a semi-retired businessman.