Liberalism is often successful in preempting the debate . . . so that [objections to it] appear to have become debates within liberalism. . . . So-called conservatism and so-called radicalism in these contemporary guises are in general mere stalking-horses for liberalism: The contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question.
I would even go further and say that, with the exception of libertarian candidate Ron Paul and the radical-liberal Dennis Kucinich, all the candidates ran on the "Liberal Liberal" platform. This became glaringly obvious to me last September when the Republicans in Congress, after initially balking at the bailout package for the nation’s financial system, soon signed on to it, at least in enough numbers to ensure its passage.
You’d never know it from the noise generated by the Liberal Liberals’ Bush Derangement Syndrome, but President Bush is definitely one of their own, as can readily be seen in his advocacy of the Patriot Act, his establishment of the Homeland Security Department, his No Child Left Behind education bill, and his signing the Medicare prescription drug benefit program into law, not to mention his staggeringly bold Wilsonian foreign policy, which makes President Kennedy’s “bear any burden” Inaugural Address sound like George Washington’s Second Inaugural warning the United States against foreign entanglements.
The same with Richard Nixon, another favorite Liberal Liberal target, who also gave us a new cabinet department (the Environmental Protection Agency), supported affirmative action (in the guise of the so-called “Philadelphia Plan”), and even proposed a Family Assistance Plan to give cash outright to the poor. And not to date myself, but does anyone else remember his wage-and-price controls from 1971? Or his claim that “we’re all Keynesian now”?
So how about the patron saint of conservatives, Ronald Reagan? Not only did he not abolish the Department of Education, as he promised on the campaign trail, he also ran up budget deficits of $1.5 trillion over eight years, which sort of takes the wind out of Republican sails now if they want to tack against Barack Obama’s trillion-dollar stimulus package.
I do not deny that elections matter nor that things in our country would have been vastly different (for good or ill) if Al Gore had won in 2000 or John McCain in 2008. But the fact remains: Once a federal program is put into place, it is very, very hard to dislodge. Thus, as soon as political debate is only between conservative liberals (which would include libertarians), liberal liberals, and radical liberals, with no vital force pointing out that it’s possible to opt out of the whole arrangement, then the country will keep drifting left.
This is most obviously the case with social issues, which is part of the reason debate on them is both so heated and so frustrating. For example, I remember when gay marriage was first proposed in the early nineties, which struck me then as no more likely to pass than that goofy bill mooted in the Indiana state legislature in 1897 to give a rational value to pi. (One amusing sideline: it was claimed that 1 Kings 7:23 “reveals” the rational value of pi.) Marriage is first and above all a reality of human nature before society makes it into a legal contract, and attempts to change that reality would be like trying to pass a law to confine the value of pi to a number short enough for John Q. Public’s limited memory. Or so I thought in my benighted youth.
How out of date I am. Of course in the early days of the controversy, voters were given a chance to vote in referenda on gay marriage, which they voted down resoundingly. But as is usual nowadays with these issues, courts meddled, imposing gay marriage in some states, and civil unions in others; and now plebiscites show majority opposition gradually fading. I do not feel particularly passionate on the issue, but the process is worrisome. Think of physician-assisted suicide: Even without direct court intervention, two states have already passed, through referenda, laws allowing the practice.
Nor do I need to mention here that attempts to overturn Roe vs. Wade have so far gone nowhere. But the longer that atrocious decision stays on the books, the greater the danger of liberal creep on abortion too. I myself do not think the Freedom of Choice Actwhich would, among other things, mandate that every medical student be trained to perform abortionswill pass in this Congress. But the very fact that it has been proposed is clearly a salvo in what will surely be an epochal battle. The bill is flagrantly unconstitutional; but that is hardly consolation, since the same holds true of Roe vs. Wade. Liberal creep, in other words, means a slow drift toward coercive liberalism.
The only question remaining, however, is how long this liberal drift will continue before the country slams into reality (political pi, as it were). In that regard, I cannot help but think of Bernard Madoff’s now notorious Ponzi scheme, a display of financial shenanigans I find strangely riveting. The odd thing about Ponzi schemes, though, is that they always fail. Only when the perpetrator is able to arrange to get out of town (and out of the reach of the law) just before the inverted pyramid collapses does it make sense for the schemer to dupe the investors. But whether the perpetrator sticks around too long, or manages to skedaddle out of town in time, the scheme will collapse.
I mention this universally recognized reality (pi anyone?), because Social Security is its own Ponzi scheme. Is not what is supposed to be a government-sponsored old-age insurance program really just a nationwide program to pay early “investors” out of the proceeds of later ones? As with traditional Ponzi schemes, the question is: Who benefits? That is, who gets to “skedaddle” in time? The elderly, of course, provided they die before the whole thing comes down. And given the demographic implosion in Europe, together with a globalized economy (which means recessions can no longer be localized, but all economies sink together), I expect the crisis of Ponzi implosion will hit Europe first, then Japan. But the United States won’t be that far behind, and then comes China.
To conclude with MacIntyre once more: One of the points he kept hammering away at, especially in his books subsequent to After Virtue, is that liberalism is but one tradition among many, with no more inherent claim on the stage of history than have theocracy, monarchy, slave economies, oligarchies, caste systems, and so forth. Yes, liberalism (at least the classical, non-coercive versions) is grounded in natural law, which makes it theoretically exportable to all other societies. But still, John Stuart Mill was born in England, not India, and Thomas Jefferson in America, not Russia.
For that reason, I never did buy Francis Fukuyama’s end-of-history thesis, that once the Soviet empire fell apart universal liberalism became inevitable. Not only did he ignore Islam, but he also failed to foresee interreligious violence in India and other nations, the tenacity of one-party rule in China, the ability of tyrants like Robert Mugabe to stay in power, and the reversion to thug-ocracy in countries like Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.
Speaking personally, I bear no ill will toward Barack Obama, although needless to say I am deeply suspicious of his policies. During the campaign, John McCain half-heartedly tried to paint him as a radical liberal, given his unpleasant past associations with nutters like his shrill pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and unrepentant Weatherman William Ayers, a former bomb-throwing radical liberal. Obama always struck me as too smart to be a truly convinced radical liberal, but his unsavory past does show that he holds to the standard Liberal Liberal line of pas d’enemie à gauche (no one to the left of me is my enemy). Which, if I am right, means we can probably expect more liberal drift from his administration.
But as with my morbid fascination with Bernard “Made Off With My Money” Madoff, I will watch with a jaundiced curiosity to see how long we can keep going like this, drifting ever more gradually, ever more lurchingly, to the left. As Hans Urs von Balthasar told the Protestant theologian Oscar Cullmann shortly before his death: Es kann nicht länger dauern (Things can’t go on like this much longer). Reality catches up with everyone, even liberals.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake.