A strain of purported conservative columnists, pundits and politicians feed their followers a storyline equating liberals with godless, acommunal hedonists, and accuse everyone left of center with perpetuating a Sixties lifestyle and philosophy of self-indulgence.
None of it is true, but it resonates well with those aggrieved by contemporary challenges.
I run in circles that conservatives would consider unabashedly liberal: former public defenders, a senior ACLU official, technologists, generally well-educated (some even Ivy League!) and while not rich, financially secure. Members of the so-called liberal elite. Even worse, as baby boomers we are further derided by the right as self-centered, lacking a moral center.
As for being self-centered, most of us have worked 60 hours a week and more for our entire lives, often in the service of others. We’ve raised wonderful children, many of whom also now work on behalf of others. We’ve conducted our personal and professional lives with integrity and compassion. And when we gather around our tribal touchstones—including, yes, barbecues—we argue, agree, and frequently agree to disagree. Like most Americans, we seek the bonds and comforts of community.
By community, I don’t mean the aspirational conservative community of the country club, insulated and homogenous, reflecting the conservative’s instinctive response to change and challenge: to build a wall, literal or figurative, when information doesn’t support their views, no matter how anachronistic. Sweating in Mar a Lago while denying climate change.
In contrast, the liberal community is a mixed neighborhood, diverse and heterogeneous. It can be messy, since its contrasts make it harder to manage or find consensus. This openness has been the liberals’ undoing, rendering them vulnerable to the withering and relentless, take-no- prisoners, dismiss-the-Other assaults launched for decades by the likes of Gingrich, the Koch Brothers, and their ilk.
The heat of these assaults has evaporated the quality of empathy from American public life: devoured by radical self-interest, lit by those exploiting fears to keep their privileges intact, using as fuel perceived and concocted threats to social status and structure. Loudly claiming independence and liberty for themselves they freely deny others.
Self-described conservatives choose to conflate liberalism with a distorted view of the Sixties, attacking in one stroke two threads which challenged their old-line social and political hierarchies of status and wealth. Why did so many women support Trump in 2016, and back Kavanaugh in 2018? Much as antebellum plantation women abided the horrors of slavery, it is to preserve their way of life and sense of position.
Today’s conservatives create and milk feelings of being threatened and ignored, to ignite their followers to become affronted by a perceived lack of status, and build a sense that liberals do not care about them nearly as much as they care about those marginalized by race, gender or sexual orientation -- the very populations that conservatives target who thus need support. Lindsey Graham’s outburst during the Kavanaugh hearing had nothing to do with appropriateness issues but was calculated to play to the emotions of those who feel besieged. In Graham’s performance, the theater of ideology masked the actors’ self-interest.
The very labels “conservative” and “liberal” bear scant relevance to the nation’s political dynamics. Put simply: there are people who care only about the people they know and those that look like them; and there are people who care about others, even if they look different and speak in foreign tongues.
There’s a reason cities and towns that have succeeded in revitalizing themselves are called “progressive.” They don’t cling to a past that cannot be restored, if it ever actually existed; they seek to share wealth instead of concentrating it; they don’t sacrifice equitable treatment for all to maintain a powerful few. They recognize market forces and leverage them, instead of clinging to myths of bygone structures as if they were future opportunities. They welcome the energy and creativity of today’s youth and embrace the concurrent challenges they offer. They think solar, not coal. They solve problems based on pragmatic realities, not ideologies.
The Sixties was an era that didn’t just seek different answers, it asked different questions, most notably, how to find meaning in life that wasn’t simply material. Those of us who were active in the Sixties sought self-expression that wasn’t merely a hedonistic escape into self-indulgence. It was a search for alternative values, in particular values that respected others; it combined public political action with an ethical underpinning that was directed at improving the lot of others. The comparison to the energies unleashed at a Trump rally is stark.
Like today’s liberals, Sixties activism prized a society that offers genuine opportunity for all – for economic advancement, for self-expression, for dominion over one’s own body. We didn’t try to impose our values on others by force, and we never attempted to deny others the rights of citizenship or the dignity of humanity.
The Sixties liberal response to convulsive times was to question authority; today’s conservatives response to convulsive times renders democracy easy prey to authoritarianism. In their need to find clear, unambiguous guidance they open the door to power that exploits fears rather than challenges them. They nurture Trump in creating a toxic resonance frequency between the message and the audience, rallies whose voices feed off each other, equating truth with volume.
The pervasive efforts by Trump and his enablers to disconnect liberal beliefs from any sense of community values serves their purpose of creating a wedge to separate voters from their own self-interest, to drive them away from candidates who seek greater social and economic equity for the very people who are led to disdain them.
That division engenders a national tragedy, as liberals and conservatives could find common ground in their shared acknowledgement that relationships formed around more than property – built around family, friends, children, parents, colleagues and compatriots – are vitally significant to a satisfying, well-lived life. But only if they can refrain from trying to impose their moral constraints on how those relationships should be constructed. Live and let live contains a primordial wisdom, along with do unto others.
One of the most influential figures guiding Sixties cultural evolution was Gandhi, and his precept that no side has a monopoly on the truth. Contrast that to the certainty that promotes value judgments based on moral superiority, and the willingness by conservatives to impose those judgments, in making war, in allowing guns everywhere to everybody, in defying women’s rights. All the while fattening bank accounts at the expense of those being led by their faith in those judgments.
Many who shroud themselves in the cloak of conservatism, selectively quoting Bible andConstitution, do so primarily to serve their own self-interests, economic power and moral impositions. Liberals, our families, our friends, those who live for others as well as themselves, have values just as powerful as those who attack them. We enjoy communities, we sing in choirs, we work pro bono. And we gather around the barbecue.
So, how would you like your steak?