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Liberalism opposes absolutism

[Cross-posted from Heidi Li’s Potpourri]

In current American discourse, liberal is all too often equated with Democrat and conservative with Republican. But there are relatively illiberal Democrats and relatively liberal Republicans. Liberalism is a brand of thought that long predates the existence of the United States of America and both of its current political parties, each of which has had episodes of illiberalism and contains strands of illiberalism today.

Although liberalism is usually seen as the dominant ideology of the Western democracies, with its roots in Enlightenment thought, there are many variations and hybrids of its doctrines. Nevertheless it is clear what liberalism is opposed to: namely, political absolutism in all its forms, be they monarchist, feudal, military, clerical, or communitarian. In this opposition it attempts to ensure that individuals and groups can resist any authoritarian demands. In practice, this has most commonly meant a split between (on the one hand) a public world and a private world where rights are defined, the most common of which are to private property, and (on the other) the free exercise of religion, speech, and association. [source]

Liberals traditionally resisted absolutism in social and civic life as well as politics directly, believing, along with John Stuart Mill, one of the founders of modern liberalism, in the value of experiments in living.

In opposing absolutism, liberalism places an emphasis on the autonomy of the individual. Autonomy here means the individual’s ability for and right to self-direction constrained only by the need to permit similar autonomy for others. Liberalism is a concept with a history in political theory and philosophy dating back at least to the Enlightenment. In the current political environment in the United States of America many people have lost track of the defining features of liberalism, and the particular strand of it that is American liberalism. The founders of this country were strongly influenced by European Enlightenment thought, and our Constitution bears that stamp.

It is entirely unsurprising that as liberals many liberals rejected Barack Obama as a Presidential candidate or find his performance as President-elect wanting. From the perspective of a strong liberal, Mr. Obama does not share, or does not share fully enough, liberalism’s commitment to the realization of individual autonomy particularly in the face of powerful forces that tend to work against it. Some indications of Mr. Obama’s illiberalism:

  • His twenty year membership in a church whose pastor endorsed anti-Semites like Louis Farrakhan and preached doctrines favoring the use of terrorist violence against individual civilians.
  • His willingness to disenfranchise the individuals who voted in Michigan’s and Florida’s primaries.
  • His vote to provide immunity to companies that aided and abetted government eavesdropping and spying upon individual U.S. citizens.
  • His refusal to object to mobocratic measures taken on his behalf that enabled him to claim the Democratic Party nomination (e.g. his silence on the Democratic Party’s disregard for its own rules and procedures for selecting a nominee).
  • His bent toward creating mechanisms that conflate the political with the civic and the social, particularly when the conflation advances his personal political identity (e.g. house parties to carry his personal movement forward under the banner of mybarackobama; the use of invented seals to collapse preexisting government institutions – e.g., the office of the president – with his own political machinery – e.g., “the office of the president-elect”).
  • His elevation to the spotlight of a woman-bashing, gay-hating cleric.

Liberalism does not mistake toleration (e.g. social and political freedom for woman-bashing gay hating clerics to practice their religion) for endorsement, tacit or otherwise. Liberalism does not short-circuit procedures meant to protect individual interests and rights in the name of a specific preferred outcome (e.g. finagling pre-established publicly promulgated procedures that, however inconveniently, failed to produce a nominee for the Democratic Party at the end of June).

Liberalism does not applaud the herd mentality.

“The majority, being satisfied with the ways of mankind as they now are (for it is they who make them what they are), cannot comprehend why those ways should not be good enough for everybody; and what is more, spontaneity forms no part of the ideal of the majority of moral and social reformers, but is rather looked on with jealousy, as a troublesome and perhaps rebellious obstruction to the general acceptance of what these reformers, in their own judgment, think would be best for mankind.” On Liberty, John Stuart Mill (1859), Chapter III, On Individuality as One of the Elements of Wellbeing

29 Responses

  1. Love, love, love this post Heidi. The detailed historical context makes the definition of liberalism very clear. Of course, you are only going to confuse the herd with all those irritating facts and deep thoughts.

    Thank you.

  2. Heidi Li unleashed !!! That piece ought to be in major newspapers !!!

    And Fif .. if they cant hear the moos of the cows and the baahs of the sheep , they simply do not know where to turn … and the lesser instincts take over and they look for shirtless celebrity leaders , FIF you SO crack me up……..

  3. Heidi, I just checked out your new site, and it looks great. Looking forward to a year of richly written posts and activism focused on the 51% goal.

    swan: all hail the Pecs-Elect! 🙂

  4. Heh

    Had their been a liberal for me to vote for this cycle I would have done so. There wasn’t. I chose instead to vote for who I felt was the more principled and better choice. In upside down bizarro world though because I did not rubberstamp someone who ran as the Democrat even as he lauded Ronnie Ray gun and attacked and smeared democratic principles and ideas such as universal health care, or stood on stage with a person who decried others sexual identity as a disease, or chose to get rid of pesky details such as warrants in lieu of a bagful of goodies from AT&T, I am not a “real” liberal. I guess upside down bizzaro pretzel land never sleeps and only people who vote for Democrat, regardless oof their principles or record, get to be TEH REAL liberals. Snort.

  5. swan: all hail the Pecs-Elect!

    LOL the only thing he has been “liberal” with, as far as I can tell , with is sun screen

    oh and pork n pay to play back to Chicago 🙄

  6. […] 2, 2009 by roofingbird What Heidi Li SAID about […]

  7. Heidi – I am struck dumb by this post. You never cease to amaze me.

    And fif, I love how you point out what the irritating facts are going to do to the bots!

  8. Superb post Heidi Li. You have laid out the true tenets of liberalism and will thoroughly confuse the obots.

  9. Heidi Li – thank you. In a time when so many wear the word “conservative” as a badge of honor while condemning liberalism, you have reminded us of the nature of true liberalism. You also have clarified Obama’s illiberal behavior in terms that good “conservatives” and “liberals” should recognize as basic character weaknesses. I hope many of both camps (and those in between) read and think about your calm and clear sorting of the wheat from the chaff, of the smokescreens and the red herrings from the reality.

    Groupthink unfortunately has been a problem throughout history as has been the ostracizing of those who dare to speak up. At present, our society seems to be upholding the most regressive leaders (including religious leaders) — not to mention our idolizing of superficial physical traits and marketing hoopla. I feel sure also that many people who today proudly condemn liberalism would have condemned the efforts of our nation’s founders in the 1770s.

  10. Beautiful! Throughout last year I had to ask myself several times: who am I and why can’t I accept this?
    This is one of those answers, very articulate too.
    It was the obvious contempt for the voters – starting with snubbing Nevadans “Screw you, I got more delegates anyway” that I knew there was something fundamentally wrong with this candidate.
    And in retrospect, no politician can afford the luxury of showing his contempt for voters so openly unless knowing full well everything has been done to make sure they don’t matter.

  11. oops! I landed in moderation! Help?

  12. Thank you for such an insightful and informative post Heidi Li.

    It affirms and explains what many of us felt but couldn’t quite come to terms with; i.e., if they are liberals, what am I? Because we are not on the same page. We do not have the same values and we cannot both be liberals.

    In the definition that I carry in my mind anyone that is making excuses for the choice of Rick Warren being honored at a Democratic Inauguration may well be a died-in-the-wool Democrat. But they sure aren’t a liberal.

  13. Thanks, Heidi – as ususal, you have nailed it!!! 🙂

    Edge – you put your finger on the way I was feeling last year – it just didn’t “feel” right – then I found the Confluence and it all became quite clear.

  14. That doesn’t make any sense. Surely “as liberals”, many liberals weren’t happy with Obama, but when he became the nominee (whether fairly or unfairly), many of you, “as liberals”, decided to throw your support behind the decidedly non-liberal (even anti-liberal) McCain/Palin ticket. With Obama, surely there was the chance of having policies put in place that matched your ideology. This would clearly not be the case with McCain/Palin. Isn’t it better to compromise than to cut off your nose to spite your face?

  15. Heidi Li – I always appreciate your posts and comments, and have read many of them during the primary season. Your work with the Denver group was truly admirable as well.

    The only point where I really disagree with you, is in your categorization of Rev. Rick Warren. I don’t really perceive Warren as a hater. As an evangelical pastor or a Bible based church, Warren strictly adheres to the words of the Bible. Thus, his views on the submission of wives to their husbands and the sinfulness of homosexual activity is in direct conflict with those who are more supportive of the rights of gays and women.

    The resistance and distaste for his views is understandable, but I find myself questioning the “bashing” and “hater” comments. Granted, he has made outrageous comparative statements that he most likely regrets himself. But, in looking at his life, and that of his wife Kay, who is not only a two time cancer survivor, but also a huge activist for aids in Africa (and she was one of the first evangelicals to stop viewing aids as a direct punishment for sinful behavior), it is hard to reconcile their lives with how they are being portrayed by liberals (Kay is a very successful and accomplished woman in her own right).

    My goal is not to act as a Warren apologist, but to point out that he actually is more receptive to much of the Democratic platform than many other evangelicals. His stance on homosexually and abortion are in line with most other evangelicals from Bible based churches, and it would seem as though there may be better ways to gain the future cooperation of this community than by labeling all of them as haters and gay bashers (there are subsets within this community that may fit that description, but not all of them do).

    I’m not sure if I expressed myself adequately, the only reason I addressed the hater and bashing comments is because they are widespread among liberal writings, and there is a possibility they could lead to an unnecessary rift with those evangelicals which might otherwise be more predisposed towards supporting many other parts of the Democratic platform (and that could be worked with to become less resistant to the rights of gays and women … some of them are already supportive of civil unions, and not all of them base their votes of pro-life and marriage issues).

  16. Heidi Li is da bomb. It’s PUMA people like her that will eventually pull us out of the crapper. She’s keeping the knowledge of principle and justice alive . Thank you Heidi!

  17. edge- “And in retrospect, no politician can afford the luxury of showing his contempt for voters so openly unless knowing full well everything has been done to make sure they don’t matter.”

    Yes, so much was done to disenfranchise voters.

    It was even ok for one candidate’s supporters to hand out forms urging Repubs to become Dem for a day.

    It was ok to install precinct captains in Iowa, and other States, who turned blind eyes to bussing in of voters.

    It got so bad that it somehow became legitimate to hand over delegates to a person who wasn’t even on the ballot.

    One candidate (female) was forced to run on 48 States.

    Include the gerrymandering of precincts, add the Convention non-roll-call – it certainly wasn’t a pretty picture even without the crass sexism.

    OT vbonnaire posted this at the end of taggles’ thread-it’s scary and about the taking over of the internet:

  18. Lovely post, Heidi. Thank you.

    Arcan @ 9:36am. I can understand your confusion. Let me try to explain, speaking only for myself.

    My decision not to support Obama in the GE began with the fact that he was not the legitimate nominee of the party. Clinton won the popular vote, the delegate count was manipulated to award more delegates to caucus winners (even though fewer actual voters participated), and the caucuses, at one of which I was a delegate, were flooded with Obama supporters whose voter registration status and resident status were not verified. This was no accident. I was told by the Chairman of my electoral district that for the first time in the many years in which he participated, he was given direct orders from the DNC to not verify caucus participants. He was told if verification was done, he would be punished by having the delegates stripped from his district.

    Once Obama was selected as nominee, I compared the records of the two candidates. Obama had no record. He had no history of championing civil rights, healthcare, the environment, helping the poor, nothing.
    We were told he would do these things, but the only evidence we had of his behavior was his vote for telecom immunity, FISA legislation, and continued funding for a war he said he opposed. So I had no reason to believe that there was any chance that he would “put policies in place that matched my idealogly…”. My opposition to Obama has a lot to do with the fact that we are being asked to take a leap of faith and assume that he will be a good president based on what we were being told. I don’t trust what I am told by the media. They told me that Iraq had WMDs. They told me that Iraq had a nuclear program. The media misused their power at the bidding of the Bush administration and outed a CIA agent. Now, I’m expected to jump on board to support a candidate who has shown me nothing but an apparent destain for hard work and details, an apparent destain for the working class, a man who actually ridiculed Joe the plummer who was nothing more than a guy playing football in his yard who asked the candidate a question to which the candidate fumbled the answer, and all because the media tells me to?

    I’ll admit that we didn’t have a great choice between candidates in the GE, but I just can’t agree with your statement that there is a “chance” that Obama will act in accordance with my ideology. My ideology has more to do with the treatment of women in our society and the liberalism Heidi Li describes in this post than in the vagueries of Obama’s transcendence.

  19. I’m in moderation because of the length of my last response. Sorry.

  20. Thanks for this post Heidi. One of the horrible legacies of the Reagan years was to reframe conservatives and liberals. Most conservatives these days offer up relatively radical legislature. Liberalism has been linked to socialism and wrongly, forms of collectivism. Your post lays out the roots of liberalism. hopefully, we can reframe the word to the ‘original intent’ of its founders who were firmly rooted in the age of enlightenment,

  21. This would clearly not be the case with McCain/Palin. Isn’t it better to compromise than to cut off your nose to spite your face?

    Arcan: as usual, despite months of postings, O supporters completely miss the point. Compromise what? is the question. Compromise the most fundamental principles of our democracy? Because that’s what you did when you voted for Obama. He deliberately violated the voting rights of millions of voters. He also use r*ce, misogyny, and homophobia to pander to voting blocks. Votes for McCain were votes AGAINST these egregious tactics. It was a stand AGAINST fraud, intimidation, and extortion (“you have nowhere else to go)? What you wrote illustrates exactly the strategy they used. Liberals will have nowhere else to go. Well, many of us decided a man of integrity with a long record of bipartisan cooperation who would only serve 4 years was better than selling out our most precious principles.

  22. sam, on January 2nd, 2009 at 9:46 am Said:

    Granted, he has made outrageous comparative statements that he most likely regrets himself.

    Sam, while I appreciate the respectful way in which you posted here, I have one question for you: you are not gay are you? How would you feel if your sexuality was equated with incest, PEDOPHILIA, and polygamy? It is not just that he is being “included in the conversation,” he is being elevated to glorified position on a historic day. THAT is a serious problem. There have been other people who have done great charitable work, but have been anti-semites or rac*st. Should they be given an honorary position in the new, supposedly progressive America? Ask Matthew Shepard’s mother how she feels about Warren’s elevation by Obama. His comparisons, whether Bible-based or not, are hateful, and lead to violence against gays. His other work can be applauded, but that does not mean he should be given this kind of honor, ESPECIALLY by a supposed Democrat. And now he says he “regrets” his comparisons because of the outcry. I’m sure there are years of homophobia in his sermons, as with Wright, Meeks, Pfleger, Caldwell & Kmiec–all close spiritual advisers of Obama.

  23. I was told by the Chairman of my electoral district that for the first time in the many years in which he participated, he was given direct orders from the DNC to not verify caucus participants. He was told if verification was done, he would be punished by having the delegates stripped from his district.

    janicen: I’ve never heard that tidbit. Is that included with Lynette Long’s caucus fraud information on her site? Disgusting.

  24. bo is surrounded by controvercy,,

  25. I don’t know, fif. He told me that in a phone conversation in which he was trying to convince me to come back to the party. I think his point was to justify his own handling of the caucus and to explain that he was only following orders. I was stunned at the admission myself, but it explained a lot. There were swarms of college-age “residents” at my caucus that I had never seen before.

  26. Arcan

    Whether fairly or unfairly?

    For the record, the group Sarah Palin was involved with fought for the Child enforcement Act, the Domestic Violence Act and is working to get pregnant students who choose to continue their pregnancy support so they can continue with their education. Sounds pretty darn “liberal” to me. What exactly can you laud that Obama has done that even remotely matches what I believe?

    He’s a fraud and NOT liberal. When given the choice between a truthful conservative and a dishonest hack willing to sell his ideals for votes or cash, I’ll choose the conservative.

  27. Sam

    Great so he isn’t a really big bigot, only a small one. It’s just swell that Obama surrounds himself with folks that seem to believe that homosexuality is a disease(like McClurkin) or a blight on society(like pedophilia or incest).

  28. fif,

    I don’t want to argue with anyone, but just wanted to point out that Warren doesn’t exactly fit into the same type of gay bashing mold that some other ministers do. I understand the outcry against his views, and although I’m not gay, as a woman, I could be offended by his comparison of abortion to Nazi Germany, and the whole “submission” of wives doesn’t always go over well either.

    I’m not familiar with his weekly preaching, but did read the Purpose Driven Life and watched the study videos for the book as well. To me, hater doesn’t seem to fit him (goofy, yes … the man laughs at his own jokes …. and holds to a strict interpretation of the Bible which results in his anti-gay marriage and anti-reproductive rights beliefs that many find offensive).

    I’m not sure if evangelicals, or many other Christians, for that matter will ever be fully receptive to changing the definition of marriage to include same sex couples, or to abortion rights for women in the near future. Some subsets within the Christian community do participate in what I would view as actual hate speech and anti-women agendas (the anti-gay protesters, and the churches that hold grudges against and drastically limit the roles and participation of women who’ve admitted to having abortions), but I don’t view Warren’s Church as falling within that subset.

    I respect the rights of those who express their disapproval of his inclusion. I say, go ahead and speak out if you feel he shouldn’t be included. Go ahead and voice your opinions if you feel his anti-gay marriage and anti-reproductive rights beliefs conflict with the Democratic Party platform.

  29. Sam,

    I guess you have a right to minimize the hate that Warren spews against women and gays. But yes, he is a hater who has a big platforme–even bigger now because the incoming President has given him the stamp of approval. You said your piece. But this is a liberal blog and a pro-woman and pro-GLBT blog. We don’t minimize bigotry here. Bye…

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