I am, by any contemporary definition, a political liberal. No other approach seems to me both practical and morally justifiable.
But I’ve got enough journalistic skepticism to know that not all the liberal truths are really true. And not seeing the truth, in all its nuances, can be dangerous for any political philosophy. (See pre-World War II isolationism; or “We can bring democracy to the Mideast by invading Iraq.”)
Our political discourse has become so loud and so simplified that even intelligent, sophisticated liberals risk fooling themselves. We’re too often segmented into our liberal echo chambers – the bubble that is liberal Vermont, the New York Times, Salon and MSNBC. Like conservatives, we’re often actively discouraged from thinking that people on the other end of political spectrum might have something valuable to say.
The danger is that by being locked into self-reinforcing conversations with our fellow liberals, we don’t see the holes in our own arguments. And by not seeing, we become less credible to the vast majority of Americans. That majority isn’t especially political, lives in a center-right empire, and is either middle-of-the road or politically indifferent unless given a persuasive reason to care.
I’m not saying conservatives and libertarians aren’t misguided. Indeed, they often seem selfish, misinformed and out of touch with the modern world.
But I am saying that it’s high time for liberals (or, if you prefer, progressives) to get smarter about some of our simplistic notions.
Take, for example, these pervasive liberal ideas:
GMOs are bad. As Michael Specter convincingly showed in last week’s issue of the notoriously liberal New Yorker magazine, the arguments again genetically modified organisms in our food simply don’t stand up to scrutiny. Millions of us ingest GMO foods on a daily basis and clothe ourselves with garments made from GMO cotton. Yet there is “not a single documented case of any person becoming ill as a result.”
Yet opposition to GMOs has kept better foods such as “golden rice” off the market – even though golden rice can help prevent the blindness that affects millions who suffer from a deficiency of vitamin A.
Most respected agricultural scientists say we can’t feed everyone with organic food. They point out that GMOs have greatly increased many countries’ ability to feed themselves.
That fact alone should give pause to anti-GMO liberals. Do they really want people to starve, so that well-fed Americans can avoid the purported, unproven dangers of GMOs?
Vermont is at the epicenter of this debate. The state passed the first U.S. law requiring the labeling of GMOs. Now we find ourselves immersed in expensive litigation, to defend a label warning about a danger that probably doesn’t exist.
Another liberal lie: There’s not much of a moral dimension to the anti-abortion movement. It’s about denying women their full rights.
I am strongly pro-choice. The anti-abortion side fails to see how valuable and moral it is to allow women to make safe choices about if and when they will have children. Like many people I have watched with increasing worry as conservatives have restricted women’s access to birth control and abortion.
Nonetheless, those of us who are pro-choice weaken our case, when we overlook the moral concerns of those who think abortion should be illegal.
Millions of Americans oppose choice because they see abortion as murder. We ought to at least give them their due, that this debate is partly about moral questions of what is wrong and what is right.
Single-payer healthcare is good. Well, it depends on the specifics. Having the government provide affordable health insurance to everyone is a laudable and achievable goal. But the devil is in the details.
Single payer would eliminate much of the expense associated with health insurance companies, which are costly middlemen. But as the disastrous rollout of Vermont Health Connect has shown, we can’t always count on government to get it right.
Moreover, many questions remain about single payer, even in our small state. What will it cost? How will we transition to it? And if employers are no longer going to provide health insurance, what’s a politically palatable and financially viable way to pay for it?
Single-payer advocates have done a lot to provide preliminary answers to these questions. Many of us hope we can soon transition to a more rational, more affordable single-payer system. But if liberals underestimate the enormity of these questions – and the need to provide convincing, workable answers – we will miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make healthcare better.
Another liberal misconception: It won’t be that hard to solve climate change, which is the fault of the fossil fuel industry and its political influence.
The tendency to underestimate the gravity of climate change isn’t just the province of progressives. But let’s not kid ourselves: We’ll need a long time and a massive, global effort to mitigate the effects of what we are doing to the ecosystems we rely on for life itself.
It’s going to take lifestyle changes (such as less consumption by affluent liberals), individual and societal sacrifices, new taxes and regulations, technological innovations, and a sense that we’re all in this together. It’s going to be a rough ride.
Nonetheless, there’s reason for hope about climate change, health insurance, reproductive choice and GMO food issues: Liberals care about these issues and we have good ideas to address them. If we can get smarter about how we see these questions, we can contribute much more to achieving effective, life-enhancing changes in our world.
- 30 –