As a lifelong Democrat and erstwhile liberal, I’m sorry to have to admit this-but I’m afraid a lot of Democrats and liberals have not been exactly gracious about their defeat in last November’s congressional elections. I grant that Newt Gingrich, who gives no quarter to either liberals or Democrats, may be hard to swallow; but the role of the loser in American politics is traditional and well-defined. You have to smile, say that the people have spoken, wish the winner the best of luck in the difficult days that lie ahead, etc. You don’t have to mean any of this, of course, and every gracious word plus your smile can be totally insincere. But you really are expected to say things like this, even when the winner is someone you simply can’t stand.
I thought President Clinton did not do badly acknowledging defeat at a press conference the day after the great defeat. By contrast, the New York Times, instead of congratulating the new Speaker and his party, labeled Gingrich an “authoritarian” in its lead editorial two days after the election. As the psychologically literate understand, the word “authoritarian” is a polite code word for “fascist.” As we have been told since the Nazi era, authoritarian personalities are those whose moral and mental composition renders them ripe for a fascist political style. The Times would have us understand that Gingrich does not stand in the tradition of Jefferson, as he pretends, but in the tradition of Mussolini and Hitler. The new House of Representatives, in this view, will be a kind of ongoing Nuremburg rally, with the Republican majority acting as a “rubber stamp” (as the Times puts it) for the Fuehrer’s agenda.
I doubt any other Gingrich-bashers have been able to equal the Times in its truly magnificent degree of ungraciousness, but many have made a good try. Since the election I have heard prominent liberals describe the new Speaker and his supporters as “morally arrogant” and “self-righteous” enough times that I have come to suspect these are part of his name, like a warrior from the Icelandic sagas: Newt the Self-Righteous.
My aim, however, is not to defend Speaker Gingrich and prove that he is meek, gentle, and kind. I suspect making such a case would be a formidable task. I am more interested in the mentality of the critics. To call someone morally arrogant and self-righteous seems to imply that the accuser is at least relatively free of these imperfections. But have American liberals been notable for their lack of self-righteousness and moral arrogance?
When I was a child growing up in Rhode Island I thought that people in Rhode Island did not have an accent. People in Boston, forty miles up the road, had an accent (plus a few odd words). When they wanted soda, they asked for tonic, which they pronounced “tawnic.” People in New York City definitely had an accent, as did people from the South. And of course people from England had an accent (probably a phony one, resulting from speaking pretentiously all the time). Naturally, immigrants from Italy and Portugal had accents, but that was not their fault; and besides, their children who grew up in Rhode Island turned out to be accent-free. Then one day, after I had grown older and wiser, it dawned on me that there is no such thing as speaking without an accent, not even for people who have the privilege of growing up in Rhode Island. This was a great discovery, the first step on the never-ending road toward transcending ethnocentrism.
Cultural liberals who accuse the cultural right of wanting to “impose its values” on everyone else remind me of myself as a child. They are like people who imagine that in this wide world they alone are accent-free. According to its self-image, the cultural left alone does not impose values. Instead it allows everyone to live by his or her own freely elected (or freely constructed) values. Hence the cultural left will not impose its values relative to abortion, sexual orientation, family forms, suicide, etc. Neither the state nor public opinion should tell anyone whether to abort or not, whether to be gay or straight or bisexual, whether to marry or to cohabit, whether to marry homosexually or heterosexually, whether to have children in or out of wedlock, whether to commit suicide or to go on living. What could be more neutral? What could be more free from a desire to impose one’s values on others?
But of course neutrality itself is a value. If Jones says, “Marriage is good and cohabitation wicked,” Jones is expressing a value. And if Smith says, “Cohabitation is good and marriage wicked,” Smith is expressing a value, though a different one from Jones. But if Robinson says, “Both marriage and cohabitation are permissible,” then Robinson too is expressing a value, albeit a different one from either Jones or Smith. Jones favors marriage, Smith favors cohabitation, and Robinson favors choice.
If Jones and his friends arrange society so as to favor marriage and discourage cohabitation, Jones and friends are “imposing” their pro-marriage values on the rest of us. If Smith and his friends arrange society so as to favor cohabitation and discourage marriage, then Smith and friends are “imposing” their pro-cohabitation values on the rest of us. And if Robinson and his friends arrange society so as to favor free choice between marriage and cohabitation, then clearly Robinson and friends are “imposing” their pro-choice values on the rest of us.
Now it may be that choice is a better social value than either marriage or cohabitation. But that is not the issue here. The point is that choice is a value, and the people who try to maximize choice in American society (i.e., the cultural liberals) are trying to impose their values on the rest of us. Perhaps they are right to do so; for the time being I have no wish to dispute that point. But the difference between them and the cultural conservatives is not that the conservatives are trying to impose values on society while the liberals are not. The difference is that the conservatives are trying to impose one set of values, while the cultural liberals are trying to impose another set. If the liberals want to defend the values they are trying to impose on others, let them do so by saying, “Our values are better than your values; therefore society should live according to our values, not yours.” Let them not do so by dishonestly saying, “We never try to impose our values on others; therefore you shouldn’t either.”
In other words, liberals speak with accents just like everybody else. Admittedly, this may seem obvious to some readers. What is obvious to me is that many of our fellow citizens, like that boy in Rhode Island, have yet to make this great discovery.
David R. Carlin, Associate Professor of Sociology at the Community College of Rhode Island, served as a Rhode Island State Senator from 1981 to 1992 and was a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1992.