Wednesday, December 13, 2023

#347 / Illiberal Progressives


That is Gerard Baker, pictured. Baker is Editor at Large of The Wall Street Journal. In today's blog posting, I plan to comment on one of Baker's columns. The image I have selected to top off today's blog posting, however, is associated with an older article, published by Politico on February 13, 2017. In that 2017 article (to quote the article itself), Baker "mounted a vigorous defense of his newspaper's Donald Trump coverage, pushing back aggressively on months of internal criticism that the venerable broadsheet has been too soft on the real estate mogul and reality television star turned 45th president of the United States."

Whatever may have been the case in 2017, the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal are no longer quite so vigorous in their defense of our 45th president. It appears, in fact, that the newspaper's commentary on Trump's recent indictments have led The Wall Street Journal to become at least somewhat aware that Donald J. Trump is an unstable and erratic personality. Those of us who believe that our former president should never be elected to anything, ever again, are hopeful that The Journal is going to take that position, too, and that it will do so explicitly, as the upcoming 2024 presidential campaign takes shape.

Baker himself, however, at least as evidenced in his latest "Free Expression" column, continues to be rather "soft" on Trump. On July 11, 2023, Baker's column was titled, "Don't Blame Liberalism for Illiberal Progressives." In that column, Baker seems to claim that Donald Trump has a meritorious political philosophy "if you squint hard enough."
What I thought particularly noteworthy in Baker's recent column, though, was not this comment on Trump. It was Baker's effort to associate The Wall Street Journal and its political perspectives with "liberalism." Most people would probably say that there are basically two political perspectives, or polarities. There are "liberals" and there are "conservatives." There is "the left," and there is "the right." At least in the twentieth century, the Republican Party has generally been thought of as the "conservative" party, the party on "the right." The Democratic Party has generally been thought of as the "liberal" or "progressive" party, the party on "the left." The Wall Street Journal has been on "the right," on the "conservative" side, at least as we have formerly characterized its political leanings.
It seems that Baker might want to reframe that characterization. For instance, he wants to convince his readers that those Democratic Party types (I'm one) aren't "liberals" at all. Liberalism is actually just fine, Baker appears to contend, and "liberal democracy," in particular, while it is "ailing," is what we all ought to be striving for. "The left" is attempting to claim "liberalism" for its own, but that is really not the case.
Here are a few of Baker's latest thoughts, as extracted from this recent column: 
There may be something to this [claim that "market extremism" and "pursuing freedom for freedom's sake" has had bad impacts on our society] but I think it fundamentally misses the much more immediate challenge our ailing liberal democracy faces. It isn’t some inherent flaw in liberalism itself, but a familiar threat from the authoritarian tendency of the left in the West’s political culture. The instinct of so-called progressives to impose statist and collectivist solutions to society’s problems is well established, but in the past decade or so a redefined ideology of progressivism—in cultural and economic terms—has emerged in ways designed to look like an extreme liberalism but which are in fact the direct opposite.
Take the most obvious current battleground in the so-called culture wars—the battle over human sexuality.
On the face of it, this looks like Exhibit A for the case of those who say we have taken liberalism to its most self-destructive point. We have elevated individual choice to the level at which we are told we can actually reject our biological sex, and that this freedom is so expansive that it must be extended to prepubescent children.
But if you dig beneath the rhetorical surface, you see that this isn’t really about extending freedom at all. The real objective here isn’t to emancipate children as young as 10 from the shackles of convention, but to remove parents’ freedom to determine what is best for their children. This effort to undermine the institution of the family serves the larger purpose of transferring authority for children away from parents to the state.
Why do they do this? Because families are obstacles to the left’s ambitions. They are the most important building blocks of genuinely free societies. This conception of the family as an obstacle to the superior will of the collective is rooted in traditional Marxist ideology, not liberalism.
We see the same in the battle over what children are taught in schools. The left’s leading advocates in the media consistently frame the debate on the teaching of radical ideas about sex and race to young children as “book-banning,” conjuring images of brownshirted Republicans gleefully throwing innocuous story books on some giant bonfire. But remember what this is actually about. In one of those rare moments of revelatory candor in political debate, Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia in 2021, told Glenn Youngkin, his Republican rival: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
This “It Takes a Village” idea again frames itself as liberal, but it is in fact classically illiberal. It fits also with the modern orthodoxy that we must be indoctrinated to see ourselves not as individuals with agency over our own lives, but merely as scarcely autonomous component members of some larger identity group.
This modern cultural collectivism is accompanied by an ever more aggressive economic collectivism. When Barack Obama memorably told American business leaders “You didn’t build that,” it was a restatement of the subjugation of the idea of individual agency to statist responsibility (emphasis added).
I am increasingly impatient with those who advance the idea that those with whom we disagree are "wrong," with the corollary being that such persons must be overcome, vanquished, and driven out. There are, of course, different views, but "the truth" is all too often found on "both sides," not just one. Is it really the case that members of the Democratic Party, or those who have been called "liberals," or those who are "progressive," or who are on "the left," are properly characterized as persons who believe that "statist responsibility" should replace "individual agency"? Is it accurate to say that "leftists" want to "transfer authority for children away from parents to the state"? And, on the other side, could it really be true that those on "the right" want to liberate individuals from all social responsibility and to eliminate any right of "society" to decide what the rules should be for individuals?
Distinctions and differences, when used to segregate and separate us, are totalitarian in their instinct. Our "politics" is not correctly understood to be a "fight" between "left" and "right," and "right" and "wrong." "Politics" should be understood as a conversation about what we should do. In that conversation, as we all need to realize, what we decide to do today, we might decide to undo tomorrow. We should welcome our differences. And why? Well, because we might want to consider alternatives, in the future. Seeking to extirpate those with different views is not in our self-interest. 

For any readers who would call themselves "liberal," does that seem right to you?

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