The Right-Wing Liberal

NOTE: Within this text, wherever gender is not key to the explanation, I am using the Elverson ey/em construction of the Spivak Pronouns.

Photo by sk on Unsplash

In my first Medium essay, Use Your Words, I tried to explore how our language, political language specifically, has been reduced to primitive signals. Those signals greatly reduce our ability to truly communicate. For example, in the news cycle vernacular “left” and “liberal” mean the same thing; as do “right” and “conservative”. In fact all four of those words mean very different things and it would be useful if we could use the words as defined in real conversation.

Left and right derive from the French General Assembly of the Estates of 1789. In that political conference, those who sat to the left of the president’s seat largely believed that the citizen’s should govern themselves through democratic processes. Those who sat to the right of the president, believed that citizens were not qualified for democratic control, preferring instead the monarch to be supreme governor.

Liberalism “demand[s] a substantial realm of personal freedom including freedom of conscience, speech, association, occupation, and, more recently, sexuality,” according to the 1995 Oxford Companion to Philosophy. That same text tells us that Conservatism is “empirical as opposed to rationalistic, cautiously sceptical rather than dogmatic, and, in certain circumstances, seeks to preserve the status quo rather than engage in wholesale revolution or overthrow [of] existing institutions.” Both are perfectly fine words and would serve well in any sentence offering a summary of an individual’s attitudes regarding political issues.

While puzzling over the Democratic Party leadership and their hysteria over the threat posed by a plain-speaking old curmudgeon, I wondered what sort of words would describe such an attitude. As I considered this, it began to become clear that these are right-wing liberals: liberals who believe (let us imagine sincerely) that individual freedom (liberalism) is best promoted by a qualified authority directing the citizens’ choices (right-wing). In other words, while the Democratic Party outwardly expresses a devotion to democracy, wherein individuals participate in their governance, they do not in any way trust the members of their party to actually choose their Presidential candidate.

This behavior may be exasperating and many supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have expressed actual anger over their candidates’ treatment. As I considered this, I remembered that I’ve actually seen a sympathetic portrayal of a right-wing liberal. In fact, anyone who has seen the film The Day the Earth Stood Still has too. Klaatu, an earthling raised on an alien planet, comes to Earth to help humanity turn from its war-like ways. I will not give away the entire plot, since you really should watch it if you haven’t. The part of the plot I will reveal is that the other worlds have decided they are not qualified to enforce their laws since their alien human-like frailties would result in corruption if they themselves were responsible for enforcement. As a result, they built a robot police force that serves as merciless judge and executioner in the event of an infraction. This admittedly cinematic view seems to be a reasonable, though desperate, acceptance of at least the basic tenet of the right wing: at some point people must be forced to observe correct behavior.

By assuring uncompromising enforcement, there was no way for powerful individuals to skirt the law. These laws were applied with equal force to rich and poor, bold and timid. In a sense, Klaatu, the benevolent liberal advisor come to protect the liberty of the earthlings by diverting their natural tendency to self-destruction, was serving up some stern autocratic direction. He believed that freedom could only be preserved with a kind of dispassionate mechanical enforcement of the rules. He admittedly did not go into great detail regarding how those rules were made. We may easily assume that they were created through some democratic means, but the point remains that there is a tantalizing hint of the right in the decision to deploy robotic enforcers. Even if humanoids created the laws, none of them believed that humanoids were qualified to assure compliance with those laws.

The frailty of human moral resolve is fundamental to the right-wing argument and everyone, even those on the left, have to admit it has legs. People appear pretty stupid so how in the world can they be trusted to govern themselves? Nonetheless, those on the left still maintain that there is no alternative to universal suffrage that makes any sense. I agree and yet, I too acknowledge that there is some merit to the right-wing argument.

The leadership of the Democratic Party also believes that there are limits to the ability of humans to govern themselves. They believe that people are not qualified to make political decisions, especially free-thinking progressives. This is part of the basic dilemma faced by all right-wing advocates: how can people who are too stupid to govern themselves select a supreme authority; or, commandeer through force that authority and then prosecute it with competence? This is why many modern right-wing evangelical ministers are telling their flock that Trump is some fantastical variation on a subsequent coming of Christ. The only way to assure that your current authority figure is worthy is if ey was selected by an even higher figure whose authority cannot be questioned (usually a deity). Hence the divine right of kings. Those of us who do not believe that a deity would meddle in such a childish way are back to the original problem: how do imbeciles select an authoritarian ruler who is not an imbecile.

Nonetheless, short of an almighty god stepping up to rule or explicitly selecting a proxy, those of us on the left remain convinced that the least bad alternative is a well-educated populace participating freely in their governance. How, then do left wing liberals achieve their goals in a two party system where neither Republican nor Democratic leadership offers a left wing option? Klaatu would probably cite history, saying it has proved that for liberty to thrive, individuals must be governed by an ultimate authority (scary robots in his case). This is because free-thinking humanoids, left to their own devices, will inevitably screw up their societies and oppress their citizens and neighbors.

In that movie, Klaatu is presented as a congenial and benevolent character. He is not presented as an authoritarian even though he introduces the Earth to its new unfeeling authoritarian police force. At the end of the film, the 1950s audience, tiring of the petty squabbles between the emerging post-WWII powers, was left with a feeling of hopefulness for the future of humanity. If only our robot overlords would hurry up and fix this, we could get on with our freedom and liberty. We may become exasperated with the apparently elitist attitudes of Chuck Schumer, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Hillary Clinton; but, these views are not evil. They are elitist, but only because those politicians are trapped in the unavoidable right-wing bind regarding how we find a qualified leader. Their view is clearly that they, of course, are members of a class of ideal leaders and so they, of course, should make final decisions about who leads. That view is just as precarious today as the divine right of kings was in its day.

We are told that corporate CEOs hold their positions because they have been proved particularly worthy even though CEOs the world over are driving their corporations into incompetent insolvency on a regular basis. We used to believe that the Catholic priest had been fully vetted and therefore could be trusted unconditionally. We know that the incumbent politician has a significant advantage over any challenger. There are several reasons for this but I suspect one is that the people tend to believe that since the person holds a position of authority, ey must be the best choice. In other words, we are all influenced to some degree by benevolent-sounding right-wing tropes. We on the left, who seek to move to greater democratic control, need to put the lie to these incongruous ideas about people in power being selected by nature to be in control.

I suspect that this is not being promulgated by a devious and conniving Democratic Party establishment. I suspect that we are simply seeing the result of a Democratic elite that truly believes these old worn-out ideas. They truly believe that they are better qualified to make leadership decisions than the rabble. These right-wing liberals represent a legitimate and supportable branch of the Democratic Party and we should not paint them as traitors or degenerates. We are also unlikely to reason with them since these right-wing beliefs are bound to the bone. Right wing thinkers tend to base decisions on fear and fear is hard to talk past. Fear needs comfort, not reason; and, comfort comes very slowly through repeated gentle assurances — demonstrations that the feared object is benign.

There may be two ways to pull the Democratic Party to the left. We could abandon that party, form a third party, pull votes away from the Democratic candidates and see the full-fledged fascist apocalypse in short order leading to the bloody revolution and (god-knows) maybe a progressive revolution after that. Alternatively, we could vehemently push for progressive candidates at all levels of government and demonstrate that the forward-thinking faction of the party has teeth. The latter is, of course, preferred.

At the March 7th Democratic caucus in Nederland, Colorado, there were only two people under forty years of age in the entire gymnasium. That is anecdotal evidence of a reason for concern. Young people are not turning out. Super Tuesday 2020 demonstrated a similar level of youth apathy. This is a boon for the right-wing of the Democratic and Republican establishments. The youth have the most to lose and yet they do not believe they have a role to play. They do not believe they have the ability to govern because the right-wing has infiltrated their world view. Whether due to a feeling of hopelessness or reading too much Nietzsche, those who should be most interested in participating in their own governance are not. This is a creeping right-wingedness wherein those who probably believe they should be driving their own destinies have decided to leave it to the authoritarian and irrevocable whims of fate.

Therefore, let us encourage our young to assess the political field and vote. Let us knock on doors and staff phone banks on behalf of left-wing progressive candidates. Let us run for school boards and boards of trustees and planning commissions. Snap out of your stupor and exercise your agency in this world of terrifying possibilities. Join with Indivisible, Our Revolution and The People’s Party to coordinate your actions with the full-steam dreadnought of left-wing aggression. Make your beliefs known. Do not back down. Do not despair. The left wing has weaponry the right-wing lacks: facts and creativity. It isn’t just a triumphal movie cliché, a small cadre of rational actors may defeat an army of right-wing drones.

Julian S. Taylor is the author of Famine in the Bullpen the new book about bringing innovation back to software engineering.
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Software engineer & author. Former Senior Staff Engineer w/ Sun Microsystems. Latest book: Famine in the Bullpen. See & hear at https://sockwood.com

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