Why I Am Not a Liberalby Dan Morgan
When I was in college I counted myself a liberal. I read much about social programs and was captivated by ideas of further improving on the Great Society programs. What if we could really end poverty? That would be truly a great moral achievement and America would be a better and more just place. I remember reading about socialism and finding that appealing too. I can’t say that I ever really considered myself a socialist, but I found the subject intriguing. Some version of socialism seemed perhaps possible despite the fact that the Soviet Union, China, Cuba , and others had all been disasters. But democratic socialism might be possible and desirable, like Sweden, like western Europe. The U.S. seemed backward and lagged behind the enlightened and more sophisticated West Europeans.
When Reagan emerged on the national scene I could not believe that anyone could take him seriously. There must have been a huge generation gap for this guy to even make it on to the national stage. He was a buffoon, some kind of odd throwback. Carter was so on top of every issue compared to Reagan. He was so much smarter and more articulate. He was more compassionate. Carter was simply right on issues and Reagan was wrong. What was America thinking in even considering Reagan for president?
Reagan said bizarre confrontational things about the Soviet Union. Okay, we had to stand by the policy of containment every sensible person agreed, but clearly we were at fault some too for the problems between us. And we are far, far from perfect. Mutual disarmament through negotiations was the key - not preaching about our moral superiority to Communism and saying things like we will leave them on the ash heap of history!
I always supported the Democrats. I was brought up a Democrat. My father had served as county treasurer and county commissioner as a Democrat. His allies were all Democrats. In southwestern Pennsylvania the Democrats dominated everything. Democrats were right about things. They supported the ordinary working people and supported expanding needed government programs.
But I started to have doubts. The democratic socialism that I read about in books sounded interesting but it just didn’t seem practical for a real application on a large society. And it clearly violated people’s economic freedom, even if other personal freedoms could somehow be preserved. Socialism just did not square well with Jeffersonian ideals of liberty and democracy.
The thing that really started bothering me about liberalism was its political intolerance. To disagree with liberals and leftists was to be seen by them as being on the wrong side of morality. To them, policies that they were opposed to were simply immoral policies. And those that align themselves with immoral policies are themselves tainted. On the political left there seemed to be less and less breathing room, fewer possibilities for broadminded thinking about policy options.
One day I sat in the student union at my college in Ohio, a kind of bar and large gathering place. It was announced that Reagan had been shot. The place broke out in applause and cheers. This really bothered me. And as I left there that day it kept on bothering me. Even if you passionately disagreed with this man’s politics, applauding his possible assassination had crossed a line for me. There was just something terribly awry in the thinking of these people that cheered when Reagan was shot. It disturbed me how liberals and leftists could view those that they disagreed with as such flawed human beings, so lacking in character and worth.
I graduated from college in 1981 and went to work in the private sector. I started to consider more the things that Reagan said. He was for smaller government. He questioned the value of continuing to expand Great Society programs, and even whether these were a good idea. He never rejected them totally saying that a government “safety net” was needed. But it was always better for the needy when private charities could help them rather than government. By the end of Reagan’s first term I had come to agree with him on most issues and genuinely respect him. I became a non-liberal. I wasn’t sure what I was - except that I was sure that I was not a liberal.
Even Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union now made sense to me. Why not take an in-your-face policy toward them. After all, they were the ones with the totalitarian system. They had the society devoid of freedom or democracy - a country built on Stalin’s purges where millions upon millions were murdered or starved to death in the name of progressing toward true Communism.
I began reading National Review. I read Newsweek every week but National Review offered a perspective that you simply didn’t get other places. This opened up a new world of ideas even if National Review sometimes went too far or was too partisan. I became a fan of William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review. On the essential issues he was almost always right and he was very wise in explaining his point of view. I learned an important insight from him regarding liberals. He said that they could not make the correct “primary distinctions” when trying to sort out national and international affairs, and this led liberals to advocate wrong-headed policies. This is as true today as it was then.
I don’t really like wearing a label, as I think is true of most Americans. But if I am forced to wear one I suppose I would call myself a libertarian-conservative. I use the adjective libertarian to emphasize my belief that expanding, not contracting, freedom is the key to a more just society and a more prosperous society for everyone including the poor. This runs counter to the dogmatic belief of liberals that more regulations, government programs, and social engineering are what is needed.
No doubt there are moderate liberals that are more politically tolerate and more open minded about policies than their more extreme brethren. But the fact that the hardcore liberals are so visible and strident on the left, I for one could never again call myself a liberal.