Liberals and Social Change

LIBERALS AND SOCIAL CHANGE….Over at The Corner, Jonah Goldberg recounts his bloggingheads.tv debate with Bill Scher:

Scher seems to really believe that liberalism ? as actually practiced over, say, the last century ? doesn’t stand for imposing public policies on democratic majorities that don’t want them….Having not met a smart liberal who actually believes this in a very long time, I was kind of flummoxed by how to respond to it.

Golly. Bill didn’t accept this characterization of liberalism? That’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?

I don’t have the patience to listen to an entire bloggingheads.tv conversation, but this claim struck me as so peculiar that I listened to a couple of minutes of it to see if maybe Jonah had just misrepresented himself in a hastily written post. Nope. He says it directly: “The idea that liberalism in America hasn’t been about shoving things down people’s throats is just factually untrue.”

Well, it’s certainly true that liberals, almost by definition, push for social change more than conservatives. And most social change doesn’t gain majority support overnight. Still, Jonah’s caricature is absurd as a definition specifically of liberalism, as opposed to a definition of anyone fighting for social change, whether progressive or reactionary. Every political movement worth the name starts out trying to convince the public about one thing or another, and sometimes they succeed and sometimes they fail. When liberals succeed (civil rights, gay rights), the country eventually comes around. When liberals fail (busing, gun control), the country doesn’t.

What’s more, several of Jonah’s examples don’t even make sense. Courts as liberal, anti-democratic creatures? Judges are appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress, and Earl Warren in particular was appointed by a Republican president and confirmed by a Republican Senate. Civil rights? That wasn’t imposed by a minority. It was the final victory ? after many decades ? of a majority finally imposing its will against an obstructive minority. The American with Disabilities Act? It was signed into law by a Republican president. Most of Jonah’s other examples (gay marriage, affirmative action, opposition to the death penalty) are liberal positions that have had mixed success precisely because liberals haven’t been able to widely impose them on an unwilling populace. Some liberals continue to fight for these things and some don’t. That’s politics.

And conservatives have some unpopular notions of their own. A ban on abortion? That’s not too popular, but that doesn’t stop the Christian right from continuing to push for it. Terri Schiavo? Stem cells? The estate tax? Tearing down environmental regulations? Opposition to raising the minimum wage? Pretending that global warming doesn’t exist? Privatizing Social Security? In all these cases ? just like liberals ? conservatives try to use elections to get their way, and if that doesn’t work they try the courts, and if that doesn’t work they use executive orders. They use every lever of power available to them, just like any political movement.

In the end, though, you have to win elections. If conservatives continue to do that, they’ll be able to move the country closer to their vision of an ideal society. If liberals win, they’ll try to do the same. I don’t really see the problem here.