The following is an excerpt from the book “Liberal for Conservative Reasons: How to stop being obnoxious and start winning elections,” which is available on Amazon.
Chapter One: Why we should quit being liberal for the “right” reasons
You may ask yourself: How did we get here?
We, the great liberal tribe of all that is right and just and fair (allegedly), did not expect to be rounding out the 2010s watching a reality-TV-star-turned-president appoint cabinet members based mostly on their convictions that the departments they sought to lead should cease to exist. We did not expect to be constantly on edge over the state of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s pulse. We did not expect to be crashing Canadian immigration FAQ sites. We did not expect to be a movement under siege, holed up in our big cities, a shell of our former political selves, going to the occasional protest march and awkwardly cheering on tired lions named Pelosi and Schumer.
We knew (knew!) that America’s swelling ranks of enlightened or comfortable or non-white people would add up to a new center-left coalition that could grind the opposition into powder and force a reckoning – force them to repent for their immigrant bashing, for their tax cuts for the rich, for their perennial assault on Medicare and Social Security, and for their constant mispronunciation of the word “nuclear.”
We knew that would happen because we knew the people agreed with us on the issues. Gun safety? Health care? Environmental protection? Legal abortion? Infrastructure spending? Progressive taxation? Minimum wage? College affordability? We got this. The people love it. All of it.
Most of all, we knew we would win because we had a firm command of the moral high ground. We stood with women, minorities, workers, and salamanders. We were on the right side of history, of justice, and of a gender-neutral God or divine force or whatever is cool with you, man. We all knew that those gun owners put themselves before the safety of kids, that healthcare is a human right, and that we had an obligation to stop the wholesale destruction of species after species whose habitats are being ploughed over to build more strip malls. Workers deserve to be able to live on a full-time minimum wage and send their kids to college – it’s the right thing to do. Moral societies (insert allusion to some European country here) take care of their most vulnerable. We were right and they were deplorable.
And then, we got our asses handed to us by a crazy person.
Crow all you like about the popular vote. (It certainly helped me get through a couple of tough weeks.) But at the end of the day, we knew the rules, we played the game, and we got creamed. The least popular presidential candidate in modern history went into our backyard, found people who should have been with us, turned them, and ran away with it. Many of those voters quite reasonably found the candidate himself to be loathsome, but pulled the lever anyway.
And further down the ticket, the blue tide continued to recede. These days, you can invite all the Democratic governors over for a dinner party and use a studio apartment as the venue. Ten years ago, you would have needed at least a two bedroom affair with a patio, and the party itself would have been way more fun, if only because it would have included New Mexico’s Bill Richardson. Republicans control 32 legislatures outright, and split control of another six. You can now take a road trip from Miami to Seattle without touching a state under total democratic control.
You might reasonably wonder if we’re just a more conservative country than you thought. But if so, how do you explain this sample of recent polls: On global climate change, 59 percent of Americans say we’re not doing enough to address it (Quinnipiac). On immigration, 60 percent favor allowing undocumented immigrants with jobs to become legal residents, and 71 percent say the government should not attempt mass deportations (CNN/ORC). Infrastructure: 90 percent think we should spend more money on it (Quinnipiac). Planned Parenthood: 58 percent oppose cutting off federal funding (Suffolk/USA Today). Drugs: 60 percent say marijuana should be legal (Gallup). Energy: 65 percent say focusing on solar and wind is more important than focusing on coal and natural gas (Bloomberg). Healthcare: 60 percent want to leave Obamacare as is or change it so it does even more (McClatchy-Marist). Trade: 60 percent say foreign exchange has either helped us or made no difference (NBC). Minimum wage: 58 percent want to see it at $15 per hour (Pew). Civil rights: 58 percent think same sex marriage should be legal (CBS), and 79 percent say prejudice against minority groups is a very or somewhat serious problem (Quinnipiac).
So, how the hell do we manage to win so much and still lose?
We can, of course, diagnose many reasons for this unpleasant state of affairs: False equivalencies in the media, the obsession with horse race politics rather than issues, echoes of the southern strategy, James Comey, too much special interest money in politics, complacency over incorrect poll numbers, the complicated gender-based reactions to our last candidate, and whatever really is the matter with Kansas. And speaking of states, I hear that Wisconsin and Michigan are just lovely in the summer and fall – so maybe consider visiting them (Hillary!).
My conservative brother-in-law has a label for this sort of excuse making: Loser talk.
Point to things you cannot change, at least not without a time machine and an alternate universe, and blame them for your predicament. Lash out at the stupidity of the opposition, belittle them, maybe burrow into the protective cocoon of a protest march, and generally rally around the flag. Then call it a cathartic day. Do whatever you have to do to avoid looking in the mirror, because if you do, you may just notice an unfortunate reality lurking behind the electoral failure: Liberals, at least the ones who talk the most, are super annoying.
Take any one of the most popular arguments of our time, and we liberals will almost inevitably pick the right side for the most annoying reasons possible. We’re in favor of immigration (good start) because we desperately want to love and be loved by all the various and sundry peoples of the world and speak all their languages and try all their cuisines in a sensitive way that does not veer into cultural appropriation (annoying). We’re in favor of universal health care (sensible) because healthcare is a human right and Denmark does it (annoying). And we’re in favor of social welfare programs (smart) because if you can afford an $8 coffee, you can afford to help the homeless (annoying).
Meanwhile, a giant segment of lefty politics seems to have abandoned the policy front altogether in favor of an unfocused and itinerant airing of grievances (always super annoying). They occupied Wall Street for a while, because apparently camping on something will change it for the better. But attention soon shifted to the important business of writing trigger warnings, and later, the Bernie Sanders campaign (a few points here for some semblance of an actual agenda). After that ended, the emotional energy was diverted to a grand attempt at reversing our nation’s troubled history with Native Americans and the environment by drafting sensible omnibus legislation strengthening tribal sovereignty and environmental regulation. I’m just kidding of course. They actually camped out at a pipeline for a while.
But it’s all good. Nothing much important was happening in the summer and fall of 2016 that could have used a little more attention.
In the process of being so obnoxious, liberals turn themselves into targets. For every sob story about some poor soul on welfare, every self-congratulatory discussion about the benefits of diversity, and every camping trip/protest, we come off as holier-than-thou or out of touch or just plain weird. The moral arguments we make reduce our voting bloc to a core group that usually does not constitute a majority. And our intellectual arguments, usually inserted into deeply emotional or instinctual disputes, cement our political isolation.
Conservative politicians need only pick these political weapons of war up off the ground and use them against us. They then run on a carefully planned platform of not being anything like those strange and annoying city folk on their high horses who give every impression of hating you. You, the welder in Oklahoma City who favors liberal dispensation of healthcare and progressive taxation but votes Republican because you do not appreciate being thought of as evil over a few hangups about gender-neutral bathrooms.
And here, perhaps, it would be appropriate to establish my liberal credentials, lest I be tarnished as a Manchurian hack: I grew up in Olympia, Washington, a place where the real political controversy comes between the Democrats (right wing sellouts!) and the Greens or whatever fringe lefty third party is in vogue lately. I went to a (liberal) liberal arts college, spent a few years as a newspaper reporter (elitist and liberal), and my presidential voting track records includes not a single Republican. I am currently writing this from a Starbucks in downtown Buenos Aires, where I ordered, in a big scary foreign language, a venti English breakfast tea that happily remains close at hand. Yes, dear reader, I am too liberal even for coffee. I don’t even own a car.
And yet, I flatter myself into thinking that at least I am not annoying about it, and a not-very-scientific poll of my closest conservative friends would confirm this. They often say things like, “I disagree with you but at least you’re thoughtful.” (Thanks, guys!) One conservative friend, upon hearing some reasonable liberal thing I’ve said, often insists that I’m actually a conservative.
For a while, I thought that friend might have a point. Maybe somewhere between the cracks of supporting universal health care, food stamps, and strong workplace safety regulation, there was actually a bubbling well of conservative ooze rising and threatening to submerge the whole commie thought paradigm. Perhaps I would soon take out a subscription to Cigar Aficionado, join a country club, and start ranting about the takers all the time. Perhaps this was all just a normal process of getting older, like getting up earlier, increased instances of nose hair maintenance, or bafflement over what the millennials are up to lately.
This was a genuinely fun possibility to entertain, because transgressive behavior is always alluring, especially when it offends liberals. Yet this brilliant idea kept getting thwarted by my actual opinions on actual issues. The devil-may-care attitude of conservative politicians may be refreshing sometimes, but their positions are super problematic, to say the least.
Over time, I’ve come to the conclusion that this supposed reasonableness that my conservative friends see isn’t terribly complicated: It’s just a near-total lack of moral sanctimony. They can talk to me, often late into the night, about all manner of politics, but they won’t hear a lot of claptrap about safe spaces, privilege, or the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty. I’ll proudly carry the lefty flag, just not with those particular trappings they find so annoying. I will think those thoughts, of course, but on my better days they stay in my head.
(If you don’t believe me, and wish to personally verify the existence of my morality-based bleeding heart, then the next time you’re in Albuquerque you should buy me a stiff drink and ask me about voter ID laws.)
There’s an important strategic reasons for this, of course: I wish to remain friends with these people. My conservative buddies all seem to have nice houses with comfortable patios, and they enjoy drinking margaritas on hot summer nights, which is reason enough to avoid annoying them with moral sanctimony.
But more to the point, it’s simply not necessary. There are perfectly good reasons to enact liberal policies that have nothing to do with what’s “right” in a conventional liberal moral sense. Speaking a language of lefty morality is automatically divisive, since moderates, conservatives and not a few liberals don’t relate to it. But speaking a language of practical causes and effects has at least the potential to transcend group identity politics. It’s basic sales: Zero in on what your audience is interested in, not on what you’re interested in.
But lest I get on a moral high horse about not moralizing, let me quickly point out that it’s not all canny salesmanship in the pursuit of margaritas. I’m also lazy, cynical, and totally incapable of sustaining the kind of long-term outrage that so much of liberalism seems to be founded on. In short, I’m normal.
The people whose thoughts animate the left are deeply concerned about values like justice and equality. They see women making less money, poor people without enough to eat, or some ice sheet breaking off of Antarctica, and they quickly develop a deep sense of guilty panic about the whole state of affairs. On the public policy front, this can occasionally translate into slam dunk legislation like the Voting Rights Act or Medicare. But on a personal front, it can lead to some obsessive, puritanical, and generally annoying behavior, such as a religious devotion to organic food, excessive fretting about whether old credit cards can be recycled, the purchase of hybrid cars or Subarus, long stories about the 1960s, conspicuous use of hypothetical feminine gender pronouns, and an expectation that you too will follow them down this bizzare, twisting road.
Hanging out with people like that is very stressful, because everything you say or do could be a violation of some important rule. It’s like adapting to the norms of a foreign country, except screw-ups bring moral castigation of an almost religious character, rather than a quiet and forgiving chuckle about the blundering foreigner who thought it was okay to own a Ford Excursion or shop at Wal-Mart.
This morality trip is to be expected from the side that is forever concerned with justice and equality, and it’s not even an especially bad trait, at least in the abstract. The trouble is this: The world can be a pretty rough place, and not at all fair. So there is always a fresh cause to embrace, a new, softer, ever-more-hyphenated term to apply to maligned groups, or something else entirely, large or small, that you must feel empathy for or care deeply about or boycott, if only to telegraph to your fellows that you are one of the good people. You can’t ever escape it, and it gets tiresome fast.
This is, to use a term all liberals can understand, unsustainable. People do not want to get out of bed in the morning only to have the yoke of imperialism, colonialism, sexism, racism, poverty, injustice, environmental destruction, and that coup in Guatemala placed on their shoulders. They especially do not want to have to lighten the burden via the purchase of psychological indulgences like a $7 orange at Whole Foods. They do not want to worry about the implications of eating a Chiquita banana (see the Guatemalan coup), or indulging in a delicious lunch at Chick-fil-A, or driving a car. Rather than cart a tin can all over town in search of a recycling depository, they would like to just throw the damn thing in the trash and be done with it. These people include myself.
At least one major social institution manages to get away with the tiresome repetition that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” but they are also hemorrhaging members despite the clutch selling point of eternal salvation. The same total bummer of a trope from a political movement isn’t likely to fare much better. At best, I’ll still schlep to the polls and vote for annoying over crazy, but it’ll get lonlier every time. That lack of enthusiasm does not electoral majorities make.
Life is hard, and only a small percentage of Americans can actually hold that much empathetic feeling and moral posturing in their heads before burning out entirely and rebelling against it. If your political movement’s first impression is a bunch of sanctimonious loser talk and conspicuous consumption in the form of urban elite moral peacocking (farmers markets, the Prius), then odds are good you will not get a chance to make a second impression with your great ideas about alternative energy and universal background checks. You eventually become so annoying that people vote for crazy instead.
I don’t mean to diminish the real problems with our media, gerrymandering, Vladimir Putin, race, the natural pendulum swings of election cycles, and a thousand other things. But just for a moment imagine what political life would be like if the left didn’t just have good ideas, but also had good style. Something open and inviting that did not ask you to immediately repent for your sins and those of your forefathers. What if it was okay to just say “forefathers” and not “foreparents?” What if we chilled out on the morality and focused on making sensible policy for everybody? What if we played offense for once, using arguments that appealed to more than just the base?
What if, in short, we stopped being liberal for the “right” reasons, and started being liberal for conservative reasons? Because conservatives, on their good days, are skeptical, sensible, and not afraid to hurt some feelings when called for. They are the ones that look wild new ideas in the face with a refreshing, unimpressed squint, and say things like “that sounds expensive.” They are the people who point out obnoxious realities that we would prefer not to think about. They come off as relaxed and assured, possibly from the lack of hand wringing over every injustice the world has ever produced. They have many, many problems, especially with nearly every policy they advocate, but on their best days (and I fully concede they have not had too many lately), I really like the cut of their jib.
And that is no trivial point. Politicians project attitude and personality with everything they do, because they know politics is a much more instinctual game than anybody would like to admit. We sneered at this reality in 2000, because it’s dumb to choose the leader of the free world based on how much you’d like to have a beer with a reformed alcoholic, but we were pretty happy when the spiritual intangibles in Obama’s personality practically levitated people into the voting booth. We all spew out a lot of cheap talk about the importance of issues and policies and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and when discussing some new romantic fling we also talk about their nice personality and intellectual depth. But in both situations, we all know there’s way more to it than that.
The guys who have actually taken up residence in the White House in recent years know that politics is a fundamentally emotional business, not some rational exercise based on enlightenment principles. They know that if you want to learn politics, you would probably do better watching a Jane Goodall documentary about chimpanzees than anything produced by CNN. They know that communicating policy arguments is important, but mostly because it works to sell a larger personality that knows where you’re coming from on a gut level, has your back, and if need be, will not hesitate to send Seal Team Six over to the next valley to teach that other band of chimps what’s what.
Being liberal for conservative reasons is part sales job and part enlightenment exercise, but mostly it’s about that personality projection. Plenty of people out there are liberals but just don’t know it yet, often because we have written them off as unsophisticated, immoral, deplorable, ignorant, racist or lacking compassion. But if we can argue a liberal policy agenda in a way that acknowledges the reality they live in and where they’re coming from, we can demonstrate that we’ve got their backs. Do that, and perhaps one day in the not-too-distant future, one of the higher primates from our tribe will again get to ride around in a heavily fortified 747 called Air Force One.
But what does “liberal for conservative reasons” actually look like? We’ll extrapolate it out, using this year’s staple issues, in future chapters. But for now, by way of one taste of an example, let’s take a deeper dive into one of my liberal credentials from above: The refusal to own a car.
Since I’m liberal and lives in the middle of an urban center, you probably assume that my not owning a car and getting around on a bicycle has to do with some moralistic reasoning, such as not wishing to support the brutal regime in Saudi Arabia or a general dislike of the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Or maybe I want to avoid jacking up demand for further asphalt-based development that contributes to the urban heat island effect (nerd points!).
Naturally, I abhor the Saudi regime and do not wish to contribute to carbon pollution, but using that morality play as the basis for not having a car quickly leads to some very tough and tiresome questions that don’t seem productive to ask. If driving a car is wrong, then what is one supposed to do with friends who drive them? Are you obligated to never get into one of their cars? Or any car at all? What about the bus, which also uses fossil fuels and pollutes the atmosphere? What about Uber? If carbon pollution is the problem, then are you obligated to become a vegetarian, since cow farts are a shockingly large contributor to the climate change problem? Why not kick it up a notch and become a vegan? Are you obligated to not have kids, since people in general are basically carbon producing machines? For that matter, should you just do Mother Nature a solid and kill yourself right here and now?
And so it gets crazier and crazier, as morality plays often do. Soon you’re spending a lot of time wondering how long you can kiss your girlfriend before it becomes a mortal sin, or whether switching on a light counts as starting a fire for sabbath observation purposes, or whether to buy local or organic if it’s not possible to do both.
If morality is your primary reason for not having a car, then you’ve just sentenced yourself to guaranteed failure, or at the very least, a lifetime of low-level nagging guilt. Some friend will offer you a ride on a rainy day and instead of feeling grateful, you’ll feel bad for accepting it. (That friend, by the way, will think you’re a hypocritical moron.) You’ll feel bad for flying in a plane to visit your ailing grandmother, and you might even feel bad for breathing. Even if that’s morally consistent, it’s no way to live in a modern first world country, and it’s also not going to help the environment in any significant way. If you’re actually able to pull off a major lifestyle change based on concerns over carbon emissions, you won’t have too many followers, and you might even turn people off so much that you hurt the cause.
Luckily for my own psychological health, I don’t do this carless thing for the “right” reasons. I do it for three practical, conservative reasons. One: I am lazy, and if I had a car, I probably wouldn’t ride my bike much, which would be bad since I’m also a glutton and that bike is about the only thing standing between me and the number “300” on the scale. Two: When I am more-or-less forced to ride my bike to do normal everyday things like commuting to work, I find the exercise makes me feel better and so I enjoy life more. Three: I am a huge cheapskate and cars are expensive.
Wasn’t that easy? Remove the morality play, and the whole business ceases to be a bit of cultish signaling meant to identify me with the sanctified “in” group. It doesn’t mean I don’t care about the environment, possibly for deeply moral reasons. It’s just not necessary to talk about it that way.
Framing the question without the morality also takes away the equal and opposite reaction of the “out” group that I would have been implicitly criticizing as immoral. No doubt they would have instantly identified the slight, felt threatened, turned up the defense, and come up with all kinds of reasons why not owning a car for environmental reasons is stupid. The bicycle-related identity politics battle lines thusly drawn, they would go out of their way to own bigger cars and never ride bikes. And it’s possible that riding a bike itself would soon be seen as mildly traitorous – a sign that you’re with the granolas – further discouraging anyone in the “out” group from taking up such a refreshing hobby in the first place. Before you can say “350 parts per million,” a carbon dioxide problem that could wreak havoc on many generations to come turns into a battle of dueling lifestyle accessories. As it already has.
But how can anyone argue against “getting exercise makes me feel good” or “cars are expensive?” Really, they would never even need to go there, since nobody got threatened with immoral “out” group status in the first place. “There goes Peter again,” they would say, “trying not to weigh 300 pounds. Good luck and Godspeed and I wonder what’s on TV.”
Being liberal for the “right” reasons instantly creates identity politics on both sides. But being liberal for practical, reasonable, conservative reasons disarms people and makes your own life easier, since you don’t have to think about your sins all the time. And maybe, just maybe, it also makes some space for the good people of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan to notice that they agree with your policy agenda – the one formerly obscured by the smug.
Growing up on the left side of the spectrum, I swam in the glorious stories of people who defiantly sat at segregated lunch counters, built trails for the Civilian Conservation Corps, invented public radio, and created the concept of the weekend. We relished those wins, because liberals are all about making life better and richer for everybody. We’re supposed to take Hobbes’ comments about life being “nasty, brutish, and short” as a challenge.
But what have we done for America lately? Obamacare? Dodd-Frank? Perhaps gay marriage? Ruth Bader Ginsburg? It’s not nothing, but how are we doing on childcare, the environment, healthcare access, gun safety, living wages, affordable college, and universal preschool? Given that the people are with us on all those issues, shouldn’t our post-Great-Society resume be a bit longer?
It could be. It should be. But we have to win elections first. We have to quit isolating ourselves in our own moral righteousness. We have to be liberal, but for conservative reasons.
“Liberal for Conservative Reasons: How to stop being obnoxious and start winning elections,” is available on Amazon.