It's hard not to notice that political discussion over the last decade has increasingly degenerated into name-calling—and that the insults most often come from the left: "racist," "homophobe," "sexist," "mean-spirited," "insensitive." It has become a habit of left-liberal political argument to use such invective to dismiss conservative beliefs as if they don't deserve an argument and to redefine mainstream conservative arguments as extremism and bigotry. Close-minded and uncivil, this tendency betrays what's liberal in liberalism.
It undermines two principles crucial to liberal democracy and central to its superiority to other forms of government. Democracy requires a willingness to engage civilly with those you disagree with, recognizing their equality as citizens. Social thinker Michael Novak calls this democratic etiquette the "amity and equanimity proper to a civilized people." To be sure, this noble ideal inevitably takes its knocks in the bruised-knuckle world of real politics; as Frederick Douglass once pointed out, those who look for politics to be unfailingly polite "want rain without thunder and lightning." But calling someone a racist or a bigot says that his ideas have no place in the democratic public square. It's an annihilating gesture, appropriately directed against a David Duke or a Khallid Muhammad, not against the principled beliefs of your conservative fellow citizens.
The second ingredient of liberal democracy that such illiberalism denies is a belief in the superiority of reasoned argument over force. The very first paragraph of The Federalist Papers made reason central to the American political project: "[I]t seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example," wrote Alexander Hamilton, "to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." Without reflection—reason—politics degenerates into tyranny or mob rule, the Founders believed. For them, name-calling and dismissing the views of your fellow citizens out of hand are the tactics of the mob.
Liberals once incarnated reason and civility. John Locke, liberalism's father, held that "the right improvement and exercise of our reason . . . [is] the highest perfection that a man can attain to in this life." He viewed civility—"that general good will and regard for all people which makes anyone have a care not to show in his carriage any contempt, disrespect, or neglect of them"—as the Number One social virtue. Liberalism's most prominent nineteenth-century spokesman, John Stuart Mill, gave canonical expression to the notion that the reasoned, civil exchange of ideas is how we get at the truth. And the great twentieth-century liberal thinker Lionel Trilling, whose profound writings emanate an urbane civility that is at the furthest remove from name-calling, invoked the words of one of his own teachers as the true liberal ethic—"the moral obligation to be intelligent." Like Mill before him, Trilling thought liberals needed to engage deeply with liberalism's conservative critics to keep their ideas sharp and true. Tellingly, little of his work remains in print.
In recent public discussion, liberals haven't engaged in much reasoned argument with conservatives or shown much civility toward them. Consider, for instance, how today's left—from mainstream Democratic politicians to far-out radicals—has conducted itself in the debate over affirmative action. Conservatives argue that racial preferences for blacks contravene the basic American ideal that all people should be treated equally under the law—the ideal that inspired the original civil rights movement. Moreover, racial preferences penalize non-blacks who have committed no wrong, conservatives say, and they end up harming blacks by demoralizing and stigmatizing them as somehow in need of special help to get ahead. You might disagree with these ideas, but they're principled, coherent, and democratic. Yet liberals merely dismiss them, and those who hold them, as racist.
A couple of years ago, for example, then-vice president Al Gore gave a speech to an NAACP convention that perfectly embodies the typical liberal response to criticism of racial preferences. "I've heard the critics of affirmative action," Gore said. "They use their 'color blind' the way duck hunters use a duck blind—they hide behind it and hope the ducks won't notice." Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby incredulously responded: "Hunters use a duck blind to kill ducks. What can Gore be saying? That affirmative action's critics want to kill—blacks?" Apparently so, for Gore went on in the speech to demand to know the reaction of racial-preference opponents to a horrendous crime in Virginia, in which a black man "was doused with gasoline, burned alive, and decapitated by two men."
Not a week goes by without a prominent liberal stooping to this tactic. "[Liberals'] efforts to . . . stereotype their adversaries as racists have become so routine as to seem unremarkable," laments The National Journal’s Stuart Taylor, Jr. Out of hundreds of examples, a few drawn from the last half decade will have to suffice. President Clinton compared the promoters of the California Civil Rights Initiative—the ultimately successful 1996 ballot measure banning discrimination on the basis of race or sex in state programs—with segregationists. Christopher Edley, a Harvard law professor who served as President Clinton's key advisor on race, referred to Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom's measured 1997 book America in Black and White as a "crime against humanity" for its anti-preferences stance. The late columnist Carl Rowen accused conservative opponents of affirmative action of "apoplectic spasms of bigotry"—as if Bill Bennett and Bull Connor were interchangeable. "Conservative legal groups," asserted Atlanta's black mayor Bill Campbell a few years back, are "a homogenized version of the Klan. . . . They may have traded in their sheets for suits, but it's the same old racism."
Today's liberal left discovers racism not just behind opposition to racial preferences but behind most conservative ideas and policy recommendations. When the Newt Gingrich-led Republicans wanted to cut taxes and pursue welfare reform in the mid-nineties, the New York Times excoriated Gingrich for his "race-based, anger-charged politics" and compared him to southern segregationist George Wallace. Harlem's Democratic congressman Charles Rangel attacked Republican tax cuts as pure race hatred. "It's not 'spic' or 'nigger' anymore," Rangel growled. "They say, 'Let's cut taxes.' " More recently, speaking on ABC's This Week, feminist and high-paid Gore consultant Naomi Wolf casually accused George W. Bush's advisors—by whom she meant City Journal’s editor—of being "racist." Wolf's evidence? The truthful observation that some members of the underclass, because of their dysfunctional worldview, ignore the economic opportunities blossoming all around them.
These charges, it's crucial to note, represent a significant expansion of the idea of racism. Racism once meant thinking about and treating members of a given race as essentially, biologically, inferior. But such bigotry, as The End of Racism author Dinesh D'Souza points out, "has been morally discredited; few people admit to it." To keep the idea of racism alive—and not coincidentally to provide work for civil rights activists—the left has had to invent a new, amorphous type of racism that "must be inferred," in D'Souza's words, from one's positions on issues. The new racism comes down to this: if you oppose the left's policies, on racial preferences or on anything else that affects blacks, you must be out to harm black Americans. The Democrats' campaign in January to derail the nomination of John Ashcroft as the nation's new attorney general drew freely on this expansive conception of racism, though liberals couched it in different rhetoric, saying that the former Missouri senator was "insensitive" toward blacks.
A related charge that conservatives often hear from liberals is that, whatever they might say, they're really mean-spirited white people whose goal is to make the rich richer at the expense of the poor, the black, and the helpless—especially kids. Such attacks reached a fever pitch after Republicans won the House of Representatives in 1994. "What [conservative Republicans] want to do," President Clinton said, "is make war on the kids of this country." On NBC's Today Show, to take another example, left-leaning host Bryant Gumbel asked liberal children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman a classic leading question: "In light of the new welfare-reform bill, do you think the children need more prayers than ever before?" Former Democratic New York governor Mario Cuomo evoked the image of "Republican storm-troopers." Another New York Democrat, Congressman Major Owens, went further: "These are the people," he thundered, "who are practicing genocide with a smile: they're worse than Hitler." The ideas that the Gingrich Republicans stood for—limited government, welfare reform, tax cuts, deregulation—don't seem to have all that much to do with Nazism and the Holocaust. But in the political rhetoric of today's liberals, fine distinctions often get lost.
Such indictments exhibit neither the reflection nor the civility appropriate to a free society. And note that it's not just fired-up activists talking this way. It's the liberal, Democratic party mainstream: the president and vice president, the nation's paper of record, key presidential advisors, TV hosts, influential congressmen, and other top office holders.
The left's effort to push conservative opinions outside the realm of acceptable discourse takes on even greater force in cultural disagreements like the controversy over homosexuality. For liberals, fighting for homosexual rights is the moral equivalent of the fight for civil rights for blacks, so that anyone who opposes, say, gay marriage or who supports the Boy Scouts' freedom not to hire homosexual scoutmasters is a bigot—end of story. But it's one thing to say that all men are created equal and quite another to hold that all forms of sexual behavior are morally equivalent.
The most conspicuous recent example of this effort to discredit conservative views on homosexual behavior is the campaign by gay activists to shut down Laura Schlessinger's Paramount-produced television show. "Dr. Laura," an Orthodox Jew who accepts the biblical proscription of homosexual acts, contends that homosexuals have a right to "respect and kindness" but that homosexual sex is "deviant" behavior. Leading religious thinkers and moral philosophers have taken precisely that view for thousands of years; but that didn't stop gay activists from making Dr. Laura out to be the "Queen of Hate Radio." Their vehement propaganda campaign succeeded in pressuring major corporations like Procter & Gamble and American Express to withdraw their prospective ads—in effect endorsing the view that traditional sexual mores are now taboo. Dr. Laura's TV show is still on the air, though it has suffered from weak ratings and will likely not be renewed.
One further example. The Claremont Institute, a respected California-based conservative think tank, and the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality set off an enormous controversy when they invited to a Los Angeles conference on the legal and medical status of homosexuality a group of conservative political thinkers and psychiatrists who don't accept the idea that homosexuality is genetically determined—a key tenet of homosexual-rights activists. Without bothering to inquire, the Los Angeles City Council rushed to condemn the conference as an exercise in "defamation and demonization." As conference participant Hadley Arkes, a well-known Amherst political scientist, later put it: "A moral tradition running back to Athens (yes Athens) and Jerusalem was now pronounced as nothing less than unspeakable in Los Angeles." The Beverly Hilton hotel, the original site for the conference, backed out after receiving menacing calls, forcing the organizers to move to a braver hotel.
Liberals claim that conservatives who criticize homosexual behavior as immoral or deviant create a "hostile climate" that leads to gay bashing. Shortly after the brutal murder of homosexual Matthew Shepard by actual gay-bashers, Jonathan Alter of Newsweek sought to blame all moral conservatives for the crime. "[J]ust as white racists created a climate for lynching blacks, just as hate radio created a climate for militias, so the constant degrading of homosexuals is exacting a toll in blood," Alter charged. "Discerning clergymen and moralists can hate the sin and love the sinner," he continued, "but by the time the homophobic message reaches the angry guys sitting in the bar, the distinction has been lost."
If all Alter was saying is that conservatives should strive to be civil in making their arguments about homosexual behavior, then he'd find few serious conservative thinkers or politicians who'd disagree with him. His real meaning, though, is that anyone espousing traditional views should just be quiet. Like most of today's left, Alter rejects Voltaire's famous dictum: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
The left's position on homosexuality is no longer about winning tolerance for it but about getting everyone to celebrate it as just one more perfectly normal sexual life-style. The easy assumptions Alter makes are illustrative: that conservative criticism of homosexual behavior is "degrading," for example, or that the moral teachings of, say, the Catholic Church, are "homophobic"—an expression of mental illness, in other words. The British writer Melanie Phillips, no conservative, sees in such casual assertions a breathtaking illiberalism and inversion of traditional values. A "homophobe," she recently observed, is now "[a]nyone who believes that sexual orientation should remain a private matter and who deplores the intimidation of those who wish to keep it so."
Abortion is another cultural controversy in which liberals simply try to silence conservative views—sometimes quite crudely. As former Democratic senator Patricia Schroeder put it when criticizing abortion opponents: "We don't want to see that kind of goose-stepping over women's rights." The "hostile climate" charge gets a frequent workout in this context, too. The Washington Post's Richard Cohen, in a 1997 column entitled "When Morality Begets Violence," blamed the "language of the anti-abortion movement, a piece of it anyway," with inciting bombings at abortion clinics. "Wherever there is a connection to abortion, there is always the possibility of violence," he claimed. Polly Rothstein of the Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion all but blamed the pope and other religious leaders for the murder several years back of Barnett Slepian, a Buffalo doctor who performed abortions. They didn't "pull the trigger," she said, but blood "is on the hands" of such figures anyway. As columnist John Leo wisely counsels: "Beware of arguments based on climates or atmospheres. Most of them are simply attempts to disparage opponents and squelch legitimate debate."
This illiberal approach to political debate went into overdrive with liberals' reaction to George W. Bush's close victory over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential race and during the Senate hearings to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general. Referring to the large swathes of the country that voted for Bush—colored bright red on the newspaper maps—liberal columnist and former Clinton advisor Paul Begala wrote: "You see the state where James Byrd was lynch-dragged behind a pickup truck until his body came apart—it's red. You see where Matthew Shepard was crucified on a split-rail fence for the crime of being gay—it's red. You see the state where right-wing extremists blew up a federal office building and murdered scores of federal employees: red. The state where an army private thought to be gay was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, and the state where neo-Nazi skinheads murdered two African-Americans because of their skin color, and the state where Bob Jones University spews its anti-Catholic bigotry: they're red too." Though Begala later claimed that critics had taken his commentary "out of context," its message is clear: conservatives are killers.
In seeking to defeat the Ashcroft nomination, liberals tried to do more than make Ashcroft out to be a racist. Without argument, they sought to relocate the "mainstream" leftward, in order to make any conservative seem well out of it, an extremist. Even ostensible moderate Joe Lieberman exploited this tactic. "On issues ranging from civil rights to privacy rights," Lieberman intoned in voting against his former Senate colleague, "Senator Ashcroft has repeatedly taken positions considerably outside the mainstream of American thinking."
But consider Lieberman's two stated examples: civil rights (read: racial preferences) and privacy rights (read: abortion). Columnist Charles Krauthammer correctly responds: "In a country so divided on these issues, can one seriously argue that opposing abortion and racial preferences is proof of extremism? It would be odd indeed if the minority of Americans who believe in racial preferences and the minority who believe in abortion-on-demand were to define the American mainstream." By his own new standard, Lieberman himself was just a short while ago "outside the mainstream" on racial preferences, which he opposed, and on partial-birth abortion, about which he expressed discomfort.
Ironically, the tendency to treat conservative opinions as a form of bigotry and extremism has found its warmest welcome in the seat of liberal learning, which once held sacrosanct the freedom to debate ideas. Obligatory sensitivity sessions inculcating the "correct" attitudes toward feminism, homosexuality, and race; speech codes that punish "inappropriate laughter"; university officials looking away when student activists disrupt a conservative professor's classes; conservative speakers disinvited from campus lectures—by now the litany of college political correctness has become a familiar butt of ridicule, but it still works to banish or silence anything resembling a conservative viewpoint at the nation's universities. "It's the campus leftists who're the real Torquemadas today," judges civil libertarian Nat Hentoff.
Hentoff has brought to national attention one example that can stand for thousands. A little while back, a conservative Cornell University student newspaper published a parody of Ebonics—an African-American dialect that a handful of educational theorists and activists ill-advisedly thought should be taught in inner-city schools as the equivalent of standard English. Student activists stole 200 copies of the offending paper and torched them in a bonfire. "There was no public criticism by members of the administration or the faculty of this transmogrification of the principle of free inquiry," Hentoff complained. When emboldened vandals stole 500 copies of another edition of the paper and burned them, too, Cornell's dean of students actually stood in front of the bonfire with the offending students. A university spokesman, Hentoff reported, called the burning "symbolic"—and added that Cornell respects both the right to publish and the right to protest.
It's not just the administrators and student groups on campus who view conservative arguments as beneath contempt. Highbrow philosophers do it too. As far back as the 1960s, neo-Marxist guru Herbert Marcuse anticipated much in today's illiberal liberalism. His Orwellian idea of "liberating tolerance" could serve as the official philosophy of the contemporary liberal left. Old-fashioned liberal tolerance—freedom of speech, say, or freedom of association—is "repressive," Marcuse argued, since it just props up the old power structure. "Liberating tolerance," on the other hand, "would mean intolerance against movements from the Right, and toleration of movements from the Left." It is, as a Hentoff book title tartly puts it, "freedom of speech for me—but not for thee."
The most influential liberal philosopher of the last 30 years, Harvard University's John Rawls, takes a similar tack. Rawls doesn't openly endorse Marcusian coercion; he claims to be a defender of reason and of liberal freedoms. But in his 1993 Political Liberalism, he shows himself to be equally willing to silence conservative opinions. Rawls argues that a free and equal society must base its laws only on "reasonable" views of political justice. And then, in a short footnote, he defines "reasonable" in a way that rules out of bounds any arguments that deny a "mature adult woman" the right to a first-trimester abortion. (Rawls has backed away somewhat from this assertion in the new paperback edition of the book.)
New Republic contributing editor and political theorist Peter Berkowitz asks the decisive question of Rawls and his many followers, who now dominate the teaching of political philosophy: "What kind of guidance for the negotiation of disagreement in a democracy can be derived from a conception that by fiat proclaims unreasonable and places beyond the pale of public discussion the considered views of many Catholics, Protestants and Jews, to say nothing of the views of the loyal Democrats who have been made to feel like pariahs in their own party for their principled pro-life positions?" Answer: none.
All you can learn from such a conception is how thoughtlessly dismissive is the contemporary liberal attitude, even at its most intellectual, toward principled conservatism. A recent seminar discussion among liberal philosophy professors on how to deal with moral conflicts over abortion, homosexuality, and pornography shows just how thoughtless. One professor, a disciple of John Stuart Mill, argued that in a free society, traditional values at least needed debate. The others, Rawlsians to a man, responded: No way. "Why should we listen to loons?" one prominent liberal philosopher opined. "We should just crush them."
Even Supreme Court justices have succumbed to this easy, unthinking waving away of venerable conservative beliefs as if they were without merit and beneath debate. The 1996 Romer v. Evans decision is a dispiriting case in point. In striking down Colorado's democratically enacted constitutional provision that homosexuals or bisexuals should not have special rights over and above the rights guaranteed to every citizen, the court opined that objections to homosexual practices were a form of "animus"—agreeing, in a less vociferous way, with the argument of Dr. Laura's gay-activist critics that no American can have a reasoned objection to homosexual behavior. Judge Robert Bork summed up Romer's remarkable implications: "We are on our way to the approval of homosexual conduct, despite the moral objections of most Americans, because the Court views such moral disapproval as nothing more than redneck bigotry."
What's more, since the Court itself gives no reason for singling out homosexual activity as deserving special protection from moral censure—and only moral censure is at issue, since no one is advocating legal proscription—Romer's underlying logic is even more radical than it first appears. In effect, the decision really implies that any moral disapproval of any consensual sexual behavior is a form of animus—the sixties' libertine ethos of "if it feels good, do it" institutionalized in turgid legal prose. In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia blasted the Court for "imposing upon all Americans" the anti-traditional-morality views of a liberal "elite class."
The casual way that Rawls and Romer dismiss conservative ideas manifests a remarkable self-satisfaction that possesses many in Scalia's "elite class." They share the spirit of liberal Harvard psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, whose famous (now hoary) theory of the stages of moral development culminated, comically, with . . . Harvard liberalism. And this unshakable self-complacency reminds us that people don't always (or perhaps even usually) come to the views they hold by study, reason, and reflection. Fashion and stigma play their parts, too—which is why argument by invective can be so effective. Lytton Strachey used to dismiss views that questioned Bloomsbury's anti-bourgeois values with a withering, "Oh, come!" And many elite communities—Rawls's Cambridge, say, or Manhattan's Upper West Side—are no different from Strachey's Bloomsbury in this respect: it's presumed that you'll have the correct liberal opinions. "Challenge this presumption, and you'll stop getting invited to dinner parties," reports Westchester-dwelling ex-liberal and City Journal contributing editor Harry Stein. This mindset more resembles a cult than a Socratic search for the truth.
The liberals' habit of censoring and discrediting conservative views is a holdover from the 1960s' New Left, whose style and ideology had a profound influence in the late sixties and early seventies on the Democratic party and on many who now call themselves liberals. The New Left divided the political world into "the good inside and the monstrous outside," in the words of political scientist Richard Ellis, author of an important study on radicalism in America. The radicals were the good guys working for a radiant future of sexual and political emancipation; the bad guys included not only conservatives, the defenders of a supposedly unjust and oppressive society, but also the fuddy-duddy liberals, whose belief in reason and civility made them weak-kneed accomplices of the irredeemably corrupt conservatives.
If you see politics as a struggle between absolute good and absolute evil, then it's easy, if you're on the right side of history, to start calling your opponents names: "fascist" was the approved epithet of the sixties, equivalent to "racist" today or "communist" in the mouth of Senator Joe McCarthy. It's easy, too, to start rationalizing away unprincipled behavior within your own ranks. "If the other side is a group of barbarians," The New Republic's Peter Berkowitz says, "it justifies the shameless behavior: 'if we don't cheat, and steal, and lie,' the liberals think, 'then George W. Bush and John Ashcroft are going to be running the country.' " After all, as Al Gore put it during the presidential race, the election was really about whether "good overcomes evil."
What confirmed the liberals in this unamiable habit was their success in keeping Robert Bork off the Supreme Court in 1987. The left hated Bork's uniformly conservative views but couldn't hope to defeat his nomination by saying he was unqualified intellectually—an absurd charge, given his formidable scholarly credentials. Nor could they presume to argue rationally that his conservative views had no place in the public debate. Instead, they engaged in the higher name-calling. Says columnist Charles Krauthammer: "A new charge was minted which became the basis for his rejection by the Senate: He was 'out of the mainstream,' a political extremist unfit to hold higher office." This was nonsense. Bork might have been at the right end of the spectrum, but he was emphatically within mainstream constitutional scholarship—until the hearings succeeded in demonizing his views and sinking the nomination, by invective, not by argument. The left's victory was so stunning that it actually gave us a new verb, "Bork: to attack viciously a candidate or appointee, especially by misrepresentation in the media," as columnist William Safire defines it.
Thereafter, Borking became the prevailing style of Democrats and left-liberal advocates in political debate. It wouldn't succeed, of course, if the press didn't go along with it, and doubtless this free ride makes even supposedly centrist Democrats like Joe Lieberman and Al Gore all too willing to play the racist-sexist-homophobe game. But politics by invective is a double-edged weapon. Intelligent people will ultimately stop believing these accusations. "[T]he saturation point has long been reached for hysterical, rote charges about racism, sexism, and homophobia," observes culture critic Camille Paglia. And then the question will be whether the name-callers have any real ideas below the invective.
More important, such tactics play with fire. When Democrats rancorously charge that conservative ideas create a "climate" that nurtures violence, they should remember that civil, rational debate, rather than demagogic name-calling, is precisely what the theorists of democracy understood to be the mild climate that is our best safeguard against extremists.
In his recent call for a return to "civil discourse," President Bush is decisively rejecting this name-calling from the left. Though we have profound differences, he is saying, we have to reason about them civilly instead of dismissing, insulting, and demonizing one another. Our fellow citizens deserve the presumption of goodwill and good reasons.
These are democratic norms, eminently liberal norms—and liberals need to remember them.