I’ve argued before that rationality in political deliberation is crucially a matter of thinking along with an ideological community. So how can I keep calling myself a liberal when I spend so much of my blogging time disparaging the rationality and civic morality of other liberals? Don’t my complaints imply, by my own lights, serious reservations about liberalism itself? Or, less politely: whose side am I on anyway?
Although I sometimes bristle at their uncivil tone, questions to this effect are fair enough. By any measure, this blog sometimes exceeds the bounds of liberal etiquette about what subjects are and are not fit for criticism within liberal circles. Were ideological authenticity merely a matter of minding one’s manners, that would seal the case against my liberalism. But I’ve been blogging on the assumption that being an ideologue isn’t just about marching in doctrinal lockstep with comrades, but of aspiring to join them in being right. Any self-respecting ideologue must therefore believe two things: first, that everyone ought to embrace his values and his governmental strategy for realizing them; and second that, when push comes to shove, his comrades will actually join him in promoting those values and that strategy.
When an ideologue entertains the possibility that he may be wrong on either count, neither he nor his erstwhile comrades can take his ideological affiliation entirely for granted. At their most dramatic, changes in ideological commitment resemble religious conversions. That happens when an ideologue’s realization that he’s been serving the wrong values propels him headlong into the political opposition. The best first-person account of this phenomenon that I’ve encountered is Whittaker Chambers’s autobiography describing his transformation from a communist conspirator in the 1930s to a fervently anti-communist conservative in the 1950s. Chambers didn’t just change his political beliefs. His conversion was the culmination of a process that shattered his deepest convictions about himself, about whether, at bottom, he was a creature of History or of God.
The fact that nothing that dramatic has ever threatened to happen to me doesn’t put my liberalism beyond dispute. Most ideological conversions don’t assault a wavering ideologue’s sense of self that radically. They occur when a once-reliable ideologue concludes that he still has the right values, but that his old comrades no longer do. Think of neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz, Jean Kirkpatrick and Richard Perle who severed their ties to the liberal community in the 1970s when they concluded that most liberals were no longer willing to wage the cold war on its principal military, diplomatic and ideological fronts.
For a time it was debatable whether these unreconstructed cold warriors or the McGovernites were being more faithful to core liberal values. It wasn’t long, however, before that became merely a scholastic question. At the end of the day, liberalism (or conservatism, neo-conservatism) is just what the people we call "liberals" (or "conservatives" or "neo-conservatives") actually believe. When the McGovernites took possession of the Democratic Party and the principal organs of liberal opinion, cold war liberals either had to surrender to that tide or find a new ideological home. People like Podhoretz, Kirkpatrick and Perle migrated to the conservative community because they wouldn’t surrender
I don’t have the stomach to contemplate joining the community of conservatives, but I’ve said enough unflattering things about liberals to entitle them to ask themselves whether I really belong in their company. Why should they give me the sympathetic hearing that one owes an ideological comrade? The short answer is that I subscribe to the core values they claim to uphold, above all, to the foundational liberal commitment to social and economic equality. That’s why I take the liberal side in almost every contest over the content public policy, differing only when I think there’s a better way of combating inequality than the traditional liberal remedies. If you ask me, on issues of substance, my liberal credentials are pretty solid.
My reservations about my liberal comrades aren’t about their political objectives but the way liberals promote them and understand themselves while they’re going about it. I too often have a hard time understanding why my liberal comrades are so sure that their political opponents’ values aren’t just unattractive, but politically illegitimate, and therefore unworthy of representation in the process of public decision-making. Try as I might, I’m often unable to fathom the notion of “legitimacy” that’s supposed to reconcile liberal attitudes with rudimentary norms of democratic citizenship. Worse, there are times when I can’t help thinking that much of what liberals say about the illegitimacy of their opponents’ actions and ideals is an outright betrayal of the idea of equality at the core of my liberalism.
So there’s at least one respect in which my situation does resemble that of the neo-conservatives shortly before they defected from the liberal fold: I’m starting to fear that people now setting the ideological tone of the liberal community aren’t living up to their own values. I don’t deny that the tension between my understanding of liberal values and current liberal politics puts my own liberalism in question. If it persists or widens, I’ll either have to stop calling myself a liberal or amend my understanding of core liberal values enough to bring it into line with what liberals actually believe. That’s a bridge I’ll cross if and when I come to it. I continue to think, or hope, that it won’t come to that because the rules of liberal etiquette are still lenient enough to leave room for me in the community of liberals.
In the meantime, liberals readers are entitled to their suspicions about me. I ask only that they save a little of that suspicion to direct at themselves.