American Prospect Online - ViewWeb
There was a time when a "liberal" was something most people -- even some conservatives -- wanted to be. On the stump in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower said "we need in Washington liberal and experienced members of Congress." Eight years later, Richard Nixon quoted FDR's definition of a liberal as "a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life," and said, "It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him."
But when Republicans began to go after liberalism, Democrats cowered in fear, not only trying to distance themselves from the term but embracing the idea that a "conservative" is a great thing to be...As part of a solution, many on the left have decided to start with a clean slate, ditching "liberal" in favor of "progressive." As a strategic move, this has much to commend it. Recent American political history has made it hard to argue that the root of "liberal" -- liberty -- belongs more to the left than to the right.
It depends what you mean by "liberty"--or perhaps what kind of liberty matters. The kind of liberty that matters to most writers who concern themselves with these issues, whether on the left or right, makes no difference at all to most people. Freedom of the press? How many journalists are there--and how many people who have any interest in serious news or opinion? Freedom of speech? How many people care about anything beyond gossip, shoptalk and the minutia of daily life? Business owners balk at the constraints imposed by the state--the rules and regulations about workplace safety and fair hiring practices and the burden of paperwork that undermines their liberty to do business as they please. But how many people own businesses?
People who construe liberty in these terms are highly privileged: they don't realize the real constraints on most people's freedom--poverty and drudgery. In the most fundamental sense liberty is just the absence of physical constraint. Most people don't have that privilege: work for most means being physically constrained, being confined to a small space--at a desk, behind a counter, at a check-out stand, at best, in a room. You punch in in the morning and there you stay--every day like a long plane flight--until you punch out. Most people have little choice about the work they do. They're also mentally constrained, doing repetitious tasks that make it impossible to think about anything else--inputting data, dealing with customers, answering phones.
Outside of the privileged few who have, by dint of dumb luck, managed to avoid "real work"--like me--this is life and there is no way out. I know this because, having been a bad girl in high school I ended up working for half a year as a clerk-typist at a bus company, until my mother bought me into an expensive college for rich underachievers. I was 17--some of the girls who worked with me were not much older, but they were dead. They were married, trying desperately to get pregnant--their ticket out. I listened to their conversation day by day (they wouldn't talk to me because I'd gotten into a political argument about the war in Vietnam early on). They had no aspirations because there were no options for them--the only career ladder lead to Office Manager, the position of Miss McCauley, an elderly spinster, occupied. Who wanted that? They didn't even want to travel. They just wanted out. There was nothing to learn, nothing to accomplish, nothing to make, no way to improve or achieve. Even going fast made no difference: when I finished my work and asked for more they laughed at me: "sort paper clips and look busy." That is what real work is.
My mother plonked down her money for tuition so I got out. But that is the only reason I got out--I was no different from any of them apart from simply being richer. When I got to Lake Forest College I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. I didn't have to spend my entire day at a desk in one room. I didn't have to spend my entire day filing cards, stamping tapes and trying to look busy when I was done. And the only reason I didn't was because my mother had money--I took that to heart and it made my politics.
The whole aim of liberalism is to see it that people have options--that no one is stuck doing the drudge work I did permanently because they don't come from rich families. The market won't make that happen--that is simply an empirical fact. If my mother hadn't bailed me out I couldn't have worked my way though school as a clerk-typist for Intercity Trans. Co., Inc. I couldn't have afforded the tuition making, as I did, $60/week; I wouldn't have had the time to go to classes, much less study. I wouldn't have had the energy to do anything besides work--when I came home, I just went to bed and cried myself to sleep.
Liberalism is about liberty--real liberty: the provision of real options for people so that they don't have to do jobs like this if they're prepared to make the effort to get education and training.