Liberal Versus `Liberal'

GEORGE BUSH'S use of the term ``liberal'' as a nasty word makes it necessary to remind ourselves that liberalism is an integral part of the American political tradition. It is not, as the president would seem to indicate, an alien concept. It does not stand at an opposite pole from conservatism but, with conservatism, is a twin branch of the dominant American political tradition. Historically, liberalism places human rights ahead of property rights and puts its emphasis on social consciousness, seeking to upgrade the condition of the underprivileged, the suppressed, and the dispossessed. Not that true conservatism is indifferent to minorities or to the needy, just that its philosophical emphasis is on a measured response to the challenge of change.

Conservatism is suspicious of what it regards as unnecessary and unwise government intervention in the social fabric of society. It is mindful of the need for restraint in spending that might otherwise result in excessive taxation, which in turn is regarded as a barrier to innovative investment.

What makes Mr. Bush's apparent contempt for liberals so curious is that much of his own political history benefited from liberal support. Most of his backers in his quest for the Republican nomination in 1980 were the legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was proud to be identified as a liberal Republican.

What does a genuine liberal believe? His ideological and historical kinship is not with Marx but with men like Mill, Milton, Jefferson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and William James. He believes, as Benjamin Disraeli put it, that ``all power is a trust; ... we are accountable for its exercise; ... from the people and for the people all springs, and all must exist.''

The historical liberal believes in the perfectibility of man, and he sets no limits to the potentialities of betterment of the human condition because he sets no limits to the potentialities of the human mind. The historical liberal does not blind himself to the existence of evil, but never loses faith in the essential goodness of man.

In manner, the true liberal is disposed to accept the good faith of all those who disagree with him. He sees no weakness in admitting that he may be wrong. He is passionate but not punitive about his position. His purpose is not to lacerate an opponent but to locate the facts and put them to work. He is not a name-caller. If he disagrees with someone to the right of him, he doesn't shout ``fascist.'' If he disagrees with someone to the left of him, he doesn't shout ``communist.''

The current distortion of the term ``liberal'' is reminiscent of the attack on conservatism a quarter of a century ago. The conservative tradition was in danger of acute contamination through unsavory association. The contaminating agents were a wide assortment of persons and groups who appropriated the label for uses totally alien to the historical development it represents. It was a clear case of ideological grand larceny.

True conservatism is opposed to liberalism, but not destructive of it. The principal difference between conservatism and liberalism is represented not so much by disagreement over the nature of a free society or its goals as by disagreement over the approaches. Conservatism and liberalism serve as the main structural supports of constitutional government.

Lord Randolph Churchill, a major figure in 19th century English conservatism, declared that he did not care if they called him a Tory so long as they also called him a democrat.

In our own political history, Robert Taft was a genuine conservative. He may have had his foot closer to the political brakes of legislative progress than any man of his time, but at least he insisted on staying on the main road. He was not out to supplant democratic institutions but to keep them free of overly centralized controls. Even here, however, he recognized that housing and education were national problems and had to be handled accordingly. There were few stronger voices on the issues of civil rights and racial equality.

As it concerned the United Nations - long an object of supreme contempt by many conservatives of the far right - Senator Taft felt that what was needed was not weaker but stronger world organization. He believed in the need for world law and felt the US should take leadership in that direction.

At its beginning, the Republican Party was proud to be regarded as a source of American liberalism. The Bill of Rights played an important part in the establishment of the Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln's philosophy embraced both liberalism and Republicanism.

Genuine liberalism is not in retreat. It holds to the idea that a human being is a sovereign cause and that the nation exists for the purpose of serving this cause, but recognizes that this concept is not universally accepted or celebrated. Until this happens, the pursuit will not be without pain - or excitement.

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