Forget the Trump/Cruz Circus: Why Liberals are the Future of America

By James A. Haught | (Informed Comment) | – –

In the chaotic presidential campaign, the remarkable popularity of Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders spotlights a large, not-always-recognized vein of liberal political sympathy in America.

Suddenly, the L-word is popular again — not an embarrassment to be avoided. That’s great, I think, because progressives have been the driving force behind most social improvements in western civilization.

Look at the historical record: In the three centuries since The Enlightenment, democracy, human rights, personal liberties and family well-being have blossomed. Life gradually became more decent and humane. Virtually all the advances were won by reform-minded liberals who defeated conservatives defending former hierarchies, privileges and inequalities.

Conservatives tried to retain slavery, but they lost.

They tried to block voting by women, but lost.
They tried to prevent couples from using birth control, but lost.
They tried to obstruct Social Security pensions for oldsters and the disabled, but lost.
They tried to outlaw labor unions, but lost.
They tried to prevent unemployment compensation for the jobless, but lost.
They tried to block workers compensation for on-the-job injuries, but lost.
They tried to keep stores closed on the Sabbath, but lost.
They tried to sustain Prohibition of alcohol, but lost.
They opposed policing of stock market abuses, but lost.
They opposed food stamps for the poor, but lost.
They defended racial segregation, but lost.
They supported government-led prayer in school, but lost.
They tried to continue throwing gays in prison, but lost.
They tried to defeat Medicare and Medicaid, but lost.
They tried to halt the sexual revolution, but lost.
They fought against equal human rights laws, but lost.
They tried to censor sexy magazines, books and movies, but lost.
They sought to jail girls and doctors who end pregnancies, but lost.
They tried to block liquor clubs and lotteries, but lost.
They tried to prevent expansion of health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, but lost.
They tried to halt same-sex marriage, but lost.

One of my history-minded friends has a long-range political view summed up in three words: Liberals always win. Battles may be ferocious and seem endless, he says, but they finally bring progressive victories. Once a human-rights breakthrough is accomplished, it locks into the roster of democratic freedoms, almost never to be revoked.

The struggle to end slavery was an epic battle. Generations of abolitionist clamor and the horrible Civil War were required, but they finally moved America to a higher level of decency.

Similarly, suffragists strove almost a century before they enabled American women to vote.

And it took a half-century for American couples to win the right to practice birth control. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was jailed eight times for the crime of mentioning sex — but she eventually transformed society. A Supreme Court victory in 1965 struck down contraceptive bans for married couples, and a follow-up victory in 1972 erased them for unwed couples. Liberals won, conservatives lost.

The nonviolent civil rights movement that wiped out Jim Crow segregation and made Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. an American icon was a classic liberal victory.

When I first became a news reporter in the 1950s, conservative Bible Belt morality was enforced by laws. It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. It was a crime to look at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine, or to read a sexy book. (Our mayor once sent police to raid bookstores selling Peyton Place.)

Back then, it was a felony to be gay, and those who were caught were sent to prison under old sodomy laws. Back then, it was a felony for a desperate girl to end a pregnancy. It was illegal for an unmarried couple to share a bedroom. Divorce or unwed pregnancy was unmentionable. Jews weren’t allowed into Christian-only country clubs. Public schools had mandatory teacher-led prayer. It was a crime to buy a cocktail or a lottery ticket.

African Americans were confined to poor ghettos, forbidden to enter white schools, white restaurants, white hotels, white theaters, white swimming pools, white neighborhoods — or white employment. Society had a cruel apartheid system.

That world disappeared, decade after decade. The culture slowly evolved. Sunday “blue laws” were undone. Teacher-led prayers were banned. Gay sex became legal. Liquor clubs were approved. Abortion became legal. State governments became lottery operators. Censorship ended. The historic civil rights movement wiped out segregation. Other conservative taboos and barriers gradually disappeared.

Within my lifetime, morality and customs flip-flopped. Conservative thou-shalt-nots lost their grip on society. Liberals won — yet it happened so gradually that few noticed.

A strong indicator of politics is church membership. White evangelicals overwhelmingly vote Republican — even though the GOP tries to undercut the humane public safety net that mirrors help-the-poor values of Jesus. However, churchgoing has faded greatly, while the young generation ignores religion. Sociologists think the secular trend is unstoppable.

People who say their faith is “none” already comprise nearly one-fourth of the adult population — 56 million Americans — and they seem destined someday to be the largest segment. They’re the largest group in the Democratic Party base. The social tide is flowing away from conservative fundamentalism and its Puritanical agenda, toward liberal tolerance.

All these factors support the liberals-always-win maxim. The progressive worldview is called humanism — trying to make life better for all people — and it’s a powerful current. In 1960, John F. Kennedy said in a famed speech:

“If by a ‘liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reaction, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties …then I’m proud to say that I’m a liberal.”

Now that progressives have won the battle for same-sex marriage and locked the Affordable Care Act into law, the never-ending struggle undoubtedly will shift to new fronts. Maybe legalization of marijuana or registration of pistols or free college will be the next big showdown. Whatever comes, I’m ready to predict the eventual winner.

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

The transformation that began with The Enlightenment is a fact. Amid all the chaos and confusion of daily life, through a thousand contradictory barrages, the struggle for a safer, fairer, more secure, more humane world never ceases.

(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail. This essay is drawn from his latest book, Hurrah for Liberals

hurrah_-197x300 [click to order]

10 Responses

  1. The secular trend may be unstoppable in the US, UK, and France, but globally the percentage of non-religious is expected to decrease in the coming decades. Muslims will eventually outnumber Christians. In the USA, religious people will be mostly non-white. Progressives will get stuck in a white, secular bubble, unless they relearn religious tolerance. They’ll need to work with Hispanic Catholics on economic justice issues, even though they may disagree with them on social issues. And they’ll need to relax around religious progressives. Religious does not mean conservative, and secular does not mean liberal. Ted Cruz does not define religion anymore than Charlie Sheen defines secularism.

  2. This is a great post and very true. Let me suggest a few more liberal goals:

    Let’s have a universal set wage that everyone gets paid – no, I don’t mean minimum, I mean let’s deep six the military and give everyone 18-social security age a set stipend to live on every month as Finland has started to do.

    Let’s make food free and open public cafeterias a la Brazil so that no one goes hungry.

    Let’s make national a generous family leave law for those with new borns.

    Let’s stigmatize dirty energy and have a Marshall Plan for solar, wind, and tidal energy.

    Let’s have a permanent national Center for Peace (and name it after our greatest post-presidential statesman, so the Carter Center for Peace), that will work on diplomatically resolving conflicts and building prosperity in conflict regions with the same resolution and commitment with which we make war via the Pentagon.

    Let’s morph Obamacare into single payer.

    Let’s get rid of all these damn guns and outlaw the NRA.

    And the capstone, as always . . .

    pars Republicana delenda est!

    (Though it seems to be doing a pretty good job of destroying itself on its own these days – Hooray! Progress!)

  3. One of the biggest issues of our time is the takeover of the economy by big financial institutions and ever-increasing wealth inequality. I don’t see much difference between leading liberals and conservatives on that. Other than Sanders and a few left (not liberal) commenters, who is talking about it?

  4. What’s missing here is the great fact of power: the polarization of wealth that has marked all private property systems since ancient times in the absence of strong redistributive measures. The first wave of capitalists overthrew those paltry measures of the feudal era, and peasants turned into proletarians entirely dependent on an alien cash economy. Free-market liberals in countries like Britain were often enemies of the great struggle by the poor to create new redistributive mechanisms, from unions to progressive taxation. Class revolution was a successful blackmail threat for a century. The most useful bourgeois liberals were the ones like Theodore Roosevelt who used that blackmail threat to cajole their conservative brethren into concessions, more as necessity than a deep liberal commitment to equality of outcome. The distinction between liberal (Whig, laissez-faire) and progressive (social democrat) was for a moment clear.

    Things seem to have slipped considerably in the last 40 years. That faction of greedy corporate tycoons who have no conflict with social equality and freedom of lifestyle are back in charge of “liberalism” with their campaign cash, while unions no longer have comparable resources to affect elections. But the victories of these deregulatory liberals enrich their right-wing brethren too, and that money goes to empower right-wing campaigns against every imaginable form of equality. We’re going to have to fight this fight all over again.

  5. James Haught seems to equate secularism with liberalism. Than he quotes Dr Martin Luther King Jr, who had a PhD in theology, and was religious to his core.

    • Progressive liberal activism is zealously advocated in Ann Arbor, Michigan where the Green Party in voting precincts often outpolls Republicans.

      Nevertheless, certain religious denominations – such as Quakers – have been at the forefront there of liberal causes such as Palestinian self-determination. Black Baptist ministers there have been vocal on progressive civil rights issues such as curtailment of police brutality.

    • A good point. The author in fact fails to mention just how integral religion has been for winning the vast majority of the liberal victories he mentions. The dismissal of religion generally by the Left is a mistake that needs rectification.

  6. The case of the civil war is interesting. The abolition of slavery was only accomplished over the biggest pile of dead bodies the US has seen in war, and that some 80-90 years after it was a done deal in Europe.

    So liberals always win, in the sense that all progress that has been made in the past is an example of progress that was successful. I applaud the positive spirit of this article, but the example of slavery is not one that makes you think our society is inherently progressive.

    Liberals always win, after an extra long time is spent making half-assed unsuccessful efforts.

  7. Liberal Democrats in the U.S.:

    -tried to pass the Equal Rights Amendment but lost;

    -tried to oppose the federal death penalty law eventually signed by G.H.W. Bush but lost;

    -tried to keep Medicaid-funded abortions but lost;

    -tried to decriminalize marijuana but lost;

    -tried to oppose U.S. involvement in Afghanistan but lost;

    -tried to get the Iranian hostages released but failed;

    -entered the U..S. into WWI;

    -entered the U.S. in the Vietnam War;

    -entered the US in the war in Kosovo;

    -inaugurated Operation Mongoose to destabilize a popular socialist regime in Cuba;

    -failed to close Guantanamo detention facilities;

    -failed to pass effective gun control legislation.

    Liberal Democrats in the U.S. have been ineffective at attempts to pass much progressive legislation and further have not hesitated to voluntarily enter military conflict or covert action situations to promote a foreign policy agenda.

  8. Our country has lurched so far to the extreme right, the 2016 “liberal” is the equivalent to a 1954 Eisenhower/Nixon Republican.

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