“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Recently, some Democrats have been pondering, “What are liberal values?” Preparing a response, I remembered a values column I wrote seven years ago,”One, Two, Three, What are Liberals Fighting for?” (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-burnett/one-two-three-what-are-li_b_925245.html ) With a few changes, the column could have been written today.
The first paragraph sets the tone: “These are hard times. The weather’s bad and the economy awful. Obama has lost his mojo… Many Liberals are discouraged and fearful about the 2012 election. But there’s plenty of time to re-energize, so long as Liberals remember who we are and what we are fighting for.”
For whatever reason, Democrats periodically lose track of our core values. In 2007, I wrote “One, Two, Three, What are Liberals Fighting for?” because of our disillusionment with Barack Obama. In 2018 we’ve lost track of our core values because of our collective anger at Donald Trump and, no doubt, our deep dismay that so many Americans support him. It’s an understandable reaction; we’re gobsmacked. Nonetheless, we need to take a collective deep breath and go back to basics. We need to recall what we stand for.
1. Honesty. Donald Trump has not only coarsened the nature of American politics, he’s established a norm of chronic lying. (On May 1st, The Washington Post reported that Trump had told 3001 lies in 466 days in office (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/05/01/president-trump-has-made-3001-false-or-misleading-claims-so-far/? ).) Liberals have to make an emphatic statement; “We do not support politics as usual; We tell the truth.”
2. Empathy. Recently, discussing his family-separation policy, Trump remarked, “If you’re strong [on immigration], then you’re accused of not having any heart.” He quipped, “I’d rather be strong.” Meaning that in dealing with immigrants Trump would prefer to come down on the side of “strength” rather than the side of compassion.
It’s a false dichotomy. It’s possible to be strong and also be compassionate. Remember Martin Luther King Jr. (And the founders of this country.)
Liberals believe it’s possible to be strong and also be compassionate. We believe in empathy. We believe in deep understanding of others; putting ourselves in their shoes.
3. Responsibility. Barack Obama reminded us of the biblical teaching, “I am my brother’s keeper and my sister’s keeper.” This goes beyond Jesus’ golden rule: “Do to others what you want them to do to you.” It implies that we have an active responsibility to care for the less fortunate in our country: children, the elderly, the disabled, the disadvantaged…
4. Diversity. Liberals believe America’s strength is its diversity: E Pluribus Unum, “Out of many, one.” We believe in justice and fair treatment for all Americans, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, or religious affiliation.
5. Human Rights. Liberals believe that all of are endowed with basic rights, such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Among these rights is the right to vote and the right to work to fulfill our individual dreams on a level playing field. (By the way: we value human rights over property rights.)
Underlying these core liberal values is a sense of optimism; a belief that Americans can work together to form a more perfect union. Conservatives don’t share this optimism.
It’s important to recognize that liberals are psychologically more open than conservatives. A 2012 Scientific American article (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/calling-truce-political-wars/ ) reviewed the psychological studies on liberals and conservatives and noted: “Psychologists have found that conservatives are fundamentally more anxious than liberals, which may be why they typically desire stability, structure and clear answers even to complicated questions.”
One way to understand the difference in liberal and conservative worldviews — one open and optimistic, the other closed and fearful — is to consider the underlying mythic structures. In his classic 2005 essay, “The Lost Art of Democratic Narrative,” (http://valuesmessage.org/info/Lost%20Art%20of%20Democratic%20Narrative-Reich.pdf ) Robert Reich observed that liberals and conservatives hold onto different myths of community. Conservatives share a fearful narrative: “The Mob at the Gates. In this story, the United States is a beacon light of virtue in a world of darkness, uniquely blessed but continuously endangered by foreign menaces… The underlying lesson: We must maintain vigilance, lest diabolical forces overwhelm us.”
In contrast, Reich said, liberals tell a more hopeful narrative: “The Benevolent Community. This is the story of neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good…The story is captured in the iconic New England town meeting, in frontier settlers erecting one another’s barns, in neighbors volunteering as firefighters and librarians…“
Because liberals and conservatives have differing notions of community, we have different responses when our communities are threatened. As part of their belief in responsibility, liberals believe “we’re in this together.” (“I am my brother’s keeper and my sister’s keeper.”) Liberals believe we should work together — through government — to deal with the threat. In contrast, when threatened, conservatives believe “you’re on your own” and look to outside agencies for comfort: the army, the President, the church, the corporation…
The polarization in American politics is due to the fact that liberals and conservatives operate from a dramatically different values ethos. They have different mythic narratives, values, and concepts of community.
Trump instinctively plays to this. His fundamental message is fearful: “The mob is at the gates and only I can protect you.” That’s why his goto issue is immigration.
Conservatives see immigrants as a threat; the proverbial “mob at the gates.” In his June 2015 speech, Trump declared: “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems… When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…” Conservatives fear immigrants. (In contrast, liberals see immigrants as human beings that have legitimate reasons to seek asylum in the United States.)
Trump has increased political polarization by playing to the conservative values ethos. Realistically, the only way to respond to this is for liberals to be clear about their own values and beliefs. And to organize.