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Ambivalence About Liberalism

On Principle, v8n6

December 2000

by Sean Mattie

The immediate difficulty with discussing the meaning of the 2000 election is its literal indecisiveness, at least regarding the presidency. This election’s “mandate” for the next president will be merely to show up for work.

Humility compels the acknowledgment of another difficulty. The easy assumption that an election is a choice for a particular campaign to become the governing agenda of the country is, in the end, not so easy. After all, the promises of a presidential candidate must pass through the medium of Congress before they become laws or programs. In the case of Al Gore’s promises to increase federal “investments” in Medicare and public schools without increasing the size of the federal government, they must first pass through the medium of logic and the laws of physics. With these disclaimers, the search for the meaning of the election commences.

On a glance, the election seems to indicate an intense partisanship within the public. Republican George W. Bush and the Democrat Al Gore are a hair’s width apart in the popular vote and in the electoral college, which is not based simply on popular choice. Furthermore, it is worth noting that within many states of the electoral college, Al Gore and George W. Bush nearly tied in the popular vote. For the 107th Congress, the Senate will be equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. Voters reduced the Republican lead over Democrats in the House of Representatives, once as high as 26 members in 1995, down to a mere nine votes. Did GOP foot soldiers (e.g., small business owners, religious conservatives) come out in force in the election, only to be countered by a numerically equal and equally charged up Democratic infantry (e.g., blacks, union members)? Based on the presidential race, almost seven million more persons voted in 2000 than in 1996. Perhaps, then, the choice of
governing party is so massive and difficult that the country elected not to decide, but opted instead for partisan stalemate or bipartisan compromise on policy.

But, then again, perhaps there is another explanation for the national divide at the polling booth. After all, if partisanship explains the election, whence this season’s enthronement of the undecided voter? Until he finally descended from the political ether to cast the deciding votes for president, this free-floating sovereign was courted both by pollsters and by presidential candidates. At least as much as each appealed to his party’s faithful, both Gore and Bush made overtures to the non-party unfaithful, especially in the third debate. Whatever the meaning of the 2000 electoral contest, it cannot be best expressed in terms of political parties; it seems to lie in America’s attitude toward liberalism.

Liberalism has been with America since at least the New Deal. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “necessitous men are not free men” and, to him, there were many necessitous men on the political landscape. Thus FDR declared the new, liberal purpose of government to be the satisfaction of those needs through “economic” rights, all of which spell “security” (in a reference to his most important and enduring program). Liberalism redefines political morality such that it is measured only according to societal well-being. A politician, then, is sufficiently moral if he has the correct view on social welfare: If there is a perceived or expressed neediness in some part of the public (especially a politically powerful part), then the government (usually the federal government) must respond immediately with subsidies and personal entitlements, mixed with the appropriate strictures on any private industry or local institution that might get in the way of
immediate satisfaction. Caring that is, in principle, total is government’s basic charge. Logically, this requires a control over social and economic life that is also, in principle, total. But government may safely presume this great authority in proportion to its massive care and compassion.

Over the twentieth century, liberalism became the political center of America, and it remains so today; neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore seriously intend to veer off it. Both support Social Security, both wish to expand Medicare to subsidize prescription drugs for seniors, both would increase funding for the Department of Education and thus increase federal supervision of local schools. And each went out of his way to demonstrate his caring quotient on the country’s leading forum for foreign policy and national defense, the Oprah show. If policy stances of candidates meant anything to voters this year, liberalism won.

But the last eight years showed voters another side of liberalism, through Bill Clinton. A large number of Americans have been appalled by Clinton’s lies, equivocations, and abuses of power; his venal, reckless disregard for national security; his shamelessness and debauchery. Residue of this behavior in Gore while in office and during the campaign—e.g., the legal wrangling and the habitual lying—also troubled voters. The icing on the cake has been the self-righteousness of all this self-indulgence; both Clinton and Gore presume themselves free from the ethical standards that apply to all other persons. What justifies this presumption? To answer, we look to liberalism, which holds that as long as a politician cares enough to use government to satisfy the needs and wants of desirous groups in society, he is personally free to gratify his own, for sex or power or lucre. It is this aspect of liberalism—which hadn’t come to the fore before the Clinton-Gore years—
that the voters rejected. Hence the difficulty of Al Gore, coasting on a wave of material prosperity in America, in winning even a majority of the popular vote.

The split, vexed vote of 2000 seems to reflect public ambivalence about liberalism, the winner and the loser of this year’s contest. By the 2004 vote, the American people may have digested the complexity of liberalism, and, perhaps, be ready to resolve their will about it.

Sean Mattie is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Hillsdale College and an Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center.

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