Are Liberalism and Progressivism Compatible?

Robert Frost , the American poet, once observed that “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel”. Which brings up an interesting question. Can American liberals differentiate their traditional brand of liberalism from progressivism? Or will they continue to drift into the “woke” culture-war camp? 

It’s an important question. Important because the philosophical roots espoused by the woke crowd are qualitatively different from those of traditional American liberalism. Very different. And the emerging fight between the progressive and liberal wings of the Democratic Party may very well decide the question. Hence the quotation from Robert Frost.

Traditional liberals—think Patrick Moynihan, Hubert Humphrey, Scoop Jackson—used to favor efforts by the welfare state both to expand economic opportunities available to the working class, and to project American power and prestige abroad. Some of those efforts were doomed to failure. Lyndon Johnson’s attempt to engineer a utopian “Great Society” comes to mind. 

But there were big picture successes too. For one, the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down.  Steadfast support from traditional liberals was important to this effort. In addition, liberal internationalism set the stage for establishing the  global trade regime that lifted over 1 billion people out of crushing poverty.  

Domestically, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968  greatly expanded opportunities for minority citizens. These laws, which were extremely controversial at the time, were premised on the idea that removing unjustified (mostly governmental) barriers to opportunity as a result of immutable characteristics  would allow all individuals to thrive—if they chose to do so. 

That is not where we are now. Not by a long shot. The dominant ethos, at least in elite universities, is that America is hopelessly and irredeemably racist; bound up in White Supremacy and that our rights are in name only. Those rights are merely tools used by special interests, White Supremacists and other powerful actors to maintain their grip on power. And let’s not forget that today’s graduates of elite universities are the journalists, artists, politicians and culture shapers of tomorrow. 

This battle is being fought out on the campuses of those elite universities. Nominally, the battle is over the conduct of Israel in its war with Hamas. But as Jeremy Peters noted in a New York Times piece dated May 1, “In their [the students] eyes, the Gaza conflict is a struggle for justice, linked to issues that seem far afield. They say they are motivated by policing, mistreatment of Indigenous people, discrimination toward Black Americans and the impact of global warming.”

It doesn’t take much of a leap to see that the campus protests are not simply about the Israeli-Palestinian War. The whole laundry list of progressive policy wishes is on display. And that policy wish list is one that President Biden has signed up for at the explicit urging of the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren 

Also on display is a particularly virulent antisemitism. For years left wing antisemites pretended that they were opposed to various policy stances of the Israeli government, including Zionism. But recent events have ripped that mask away. With Jewish students being assaulted on our supposedly diverse campuses and cries of “Globalize the Intifada” and “From the River to the Sea” protest leaders, who are not necessarily students, have made their intentions clear. They wish to annihilate the State of Israel and the Jewish people.   

Some liberals would like to believe that the so-called student protests are a one-off. But that presents a problem: To begin with, there aren’t protests directed at providing aid to Ukraine. Ditto for Taiwan. Which brings up another point. Both Ukraine and Israel have come under attack by invading forces that claim to be the rightful inhabitants. Vladimir Putin maintains that Ukraine is actually a part of greater Russia. Iran and its proxies claim that “the Zionist entity” as they call it, are on land that rightly belongs to a historical fiction that has become known as the Palestinian people.   

For that matter, Taiwan has been independent of (meaning separated from) mainland China since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.  That was 75 years ago. In the meantime it has built up its civil society, as well as its own institutions: economic, political and legal. 

China, along with Iran and North Korea, is a major supplier of war materiel to Russia. So it is more than obvious that Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan are different fronts in the same war.  Conceptually speaking, it really isn’t possible to separate these conflicts. Unless, of course, the point is to obfuscate. 

Which is precisely what the Biden Administration is doing. After asserting that U.S. backing for Israel is “ironclad” president Biden announced that the U.S. would not deliver certain weapons to Israel if it proceeds with its plan for a full scale invasion of Rafah. 

According to press reports, he U.S. is trying to convince Israel that a more targeted approach would be preferable to a full scale invasion. According to the Washington Post, United States officials insist that Israel, with U.S. help, can destroy the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah by identifying senior Hamas leaders. Which, if true, implies that the U.S. already knows where these leaders are, but that the information is being held back from an ally to gain leverage.   

Supporters of the Biden Administration argue that the protests do not resemble those in 1968; that the upcoming Democratic convention 2024 will not turn into a replay of 1968, and that the vast majority of Americans do not support the protesters so there is nothing to worry about. 

But that is not the point. To understand the political dynamics it important to separate out the protest leaders from their rather naive followers. In that regard Hillary Clinton opined that most of the protesters do not know much about the history of the region. She was probably being kind. Most of the protesters don’t have a clue, but that hasn’t stopped them. Often wrong and never in doubt is a fairly typical trait of followers. 

However, the leaders, many of whom are not students at all but professional agitators, have gone into this with eyes wide open. They have a specific ideology which is incompatible with American liberalism. They are proponents of the Neo-Marxist class war idea of intersectionality. Not only is the idea of intersectionality incompatible with the individualism of what was traditionally referred to as liberalism, it is authoritarian at heart.

Intersectionality divides the world into groups of people who are either oppressors or oppressed. Further, there is a pecking order of oppression and oppressed. Jews, who used to be considered a minority are now characterized as “white adjacent” and hence part of the oppressor class. Israel is a “settler colonial” state that oppresses the supposedly indigenous Palestinians. That was the justification for murdering infants in their cribs on October 7. Those babies were part of the settler colonialist class so they had it coming.

Note that the protesters went from anti-war to pro-Hamas in the blink of an eye. It took longer in 1968 but eventually the battle cry became “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh—The Viet Cong is Gonna Win”.  Note too which members of Congress support the protesters: The Squad. 

The point of the protests is not to persuade voters. Not at all. The point of the protests is to provoke a reaction that can then be used to “prove” how oppressive the system is. Just the way the Chicago 7 defendants did in their trial. Some charges stuck initially, but eventually all the guilty verdicts were overturned on appeal. 

It is true that public opinion today is still on the side of the Israelis. It is also true that, according to Gallup, in 1996 only 27% of the adult population supported gay marriage;  support is now  71%. As recently as 2010 only 40% of the adult population supported legal recognition of gay marriage. Similarly, marihuana legalization had 35% support in 2005; now it’s 70%. The point is that majorities are temporary and unless they are backed by the underlying culture, those majorities can be tenuous. 

Which brings us to the state of the culture and the use of political violence. To the extent that political institutions begin to lose legitimacy, the use of political violence by strategic players will increase.  Donald J Trump still claims that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged” and so, egged on by Trump himself, his supporters ransacked the Capitol in a vain attempt to prevent the official declaration of Joe Biden as the victor. 

Black Lives Matter engaged in violent  protests primarily in the 2020 — 2022 period. The FBI and ATF tracked 164 structure fires during BLM protests (from May 27 — 30) in Minneapolis — St Paul alone. ANTIFA has been running violent protests for decades. Environmental “activists” have spiked trees to prevent logging. Al Sharpton’s Action Network is famous for its battle cry of “No Justice, No Peace”. 

The protests against US aid for Israel have predictably turned violent, with protesters occupying buildings, vandalizing property and attacking Jewish students. It may only be the first step toward more of the same as election day approaches. And as for the election itself, it will be a minor miracle if the result (no matter who wins) does not result in political violence. 

So American liberals have a choice to make. They can align themselves with progressives which implies abandoning their liberal traditions; their commitment to individual rights, global trade and our allies. Or they can re-affirm their prior commitment to individual, not group, rights; they can enforce America’s laws equally, they can re-affirm American sovereignty, commit to a global trade regime, and stand by our allies.  It’s up to them. 


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