Coffee & Wisdom 02.69: The Holes in Liberalism Part 5

David Breeden is speaking all week about the issues with liberalism.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically Humanist congregation. This is Coffee and Wisdom. This week we’ve been looking at the Holes in Liberalism(s). I added an s because, there are a lot of different kinds. Today I want to ask, where is the middle of the road? Because it seems like we are leaning toward extremities as we are talking about these issues. Can we find a middle of the road? Well, Maggie Thatcher, not a middle-of-the-road type person, says, “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by traffic from both sides.” Well, yeah, that is one way of looking at middle-of-the-road-ness and compromise is, that, no, better get on one side or the other. What we’ve been talking about, however, is that it’s hard to see exactly where liberalism fits into the larger picture of human politics that we’re talking about. Now, one of the things that we have to be careful of is hot-button words. If you look at this particular schematic you see down here at the bottom “Sane-Insane.” Well, now that seems to be kind of a value word, isn’t it? Other ones are not so value-laden, but this one, yep, Sane-Insane sounds a little value-laden. Do look at this in terms of we go from Libertarian, that would be a complete, that’s this Minarchism or Anarcho-Capitalism, just letting it go, “abolish the state,” up to what they see as Authoritarianism, which is, on the one side, the kind of Soviet-style Communism, on the other side of Fascism of an Italian or a Nazi type. And, where we have Liberalism is right here, the circle above this line of the 50 percent, (this one calls it a vast sea of Libertarianism), but definitely toward the Authoritarian side of things, which is not something that contemporary liberals, in the U.S. anyway, tend to think of Liberalism. But we do need to think about that in terms of how the actual terminology has played out. I did share with you, from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the ideas about what different kinds of Liberalism exist. This is important. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is peer-reviewed and it is free on the Internet, so you can find out serious philosophical ideas. Under the term Liberalism it starts out with the debate about liberty, the presumption in favor of liberty, because why would we want such a thing? And that is a question. Negative liberty, which we talked about in terms of negative freedom, positive freedom or positive liberty, and then republican liberty, republican being the kind of politics that the United States has, not a Republican Party, but republican rather than actually a democracy. Republican liberty, the debate between the old and the new classical Liberalism really is freedom from, it is, the state will not interfere with you in terms of your property or your person, but that’s about it. Whereas a new Liberalism, especially here in the United States, has gone toward a kind of a look at the entire social structure and trying to reconstruct in some way a more fair society. So than liberal theories of social justice are important to look at, because how far do we go in reconstructing society? And that’s all the way on the other side of what classical liberalism was all about. And then the debate about the comprehensiveness of liberalism, political liberalism, liberal ethics, liberal theories of value and the metaphysics of liberalism. That is the actual philosophy of these ideas, because we know that liberal democracies came in for some bad press, especially during the CoVID-19 crisis in which some nation states were considerably more nimble about these things than others. Certainly there was debate about who could be faster in helping out their citizenry. So it’s not as cut and dried as it first appears. This is from The New York Times: “How White Evangelicals’ Vaccine Refusal Could Prolong the Pandemic.” That’s a headline. “Millions of white evangelical adults in the U.S. do not intend to get vaccinated against CoVID-19. Tenets of faith and mistrust of science play a role; so does politics,” says The New York Times, and it goes on to talk about it this way: “There are about 41 million white evangelical adults in the U.S. About 45%…” (less than half) “…said in late February that they would not get vaccinated against CoVID-19, making them among the least likely demographic groups to do so, according to the Pew Research. ‘If we can’t…”, (this is a quote) ‘If we can’t get a significant number of white evangelicals to come around on this, the pandemic is going to last much longer than it needs to,’ says Jamie Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, an evangelical institution….” So you see that already The New York Times is revealing that there is definitely a split in evangelicalism, Wheaton College being the center of much. what I suppose we can call more liberal evangelical activity. But then we look at other headlines and how this is working out. This is from an online magazine called The Conversation. Notice the headline: “Christian Nationalism is a Barrier to Mass Vaccination Against CoVID-19.” “Some evangelical leaders are trying to counter Christian nationalist misinformation over vaccines.” Skip down to the bottom, right under the byline here, “White evangelicals are the least likely group to say they will get vaccinated against coronavirus.” Both of these may be true, but notice that we have changed the conversation. At one point we’re talking about Christian nationalists and in another we’re talking about white evangelicals as an entire group. Not all white evangelicals believe in establishing a Christian theocracy. So we sometimes get a sleight of hand and do get some misinformation or misunderstanding about what these numbers are actually talking about. I have mentioned this book a few times over our discussions: Taking America Back for God, Christian Nationalism in the United States, by two sociologists. This is the only actual study of Christian Nationalism in the literature at all. We talk a lot about it in media, but we don’t talk about it very much in scholarship, which does send up some red flags. Here is a review from Christianity Today that saying. “Taking Back America from God illustrates just how infected evangelicalism has become with Christian nationalist ideology. Leaders in these circles need to publicly lament and own the ways their tradition has proliferated white supremacy and patriarchy. Until that day, not much will change in these places of worship. An important book for the moment in which we are living and leading.” I should mention, by the way, that it was published by Oxford University Press, not a U.S. publisher, which is kind of interesting too. What the book actually says, if you read it, is that there aren’t very many Christian nationalists for real. Again, we are also confused. So there are evangelicals, there are white evangelicals, there are Christian nationalists. And then if you start doing some Web searches, oh how many Christian nationalists are there?, what you’re going to find instead are FBI and Southern Poverty Law studies of white racist groups, not white Christian groups. Again, the misinformation … and the differences in terminology, we can breeze past those if we don’t know what we’re really looking for, and it does lead to a good deal of misinformation. The Annenberg Public Policy Center does fund research into political understandings. They call it FactChecker, a Project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. Factchecking Biden’s Claim that Assault Weapons Ban Worked. This is from March 26 (2021): “President Joe Biden claims the 10-year assault weapons ban that he helped shepherd through the Senate as part of the 1994 crime bill, quote, ‘brought down these mass killings.’…But the raw numbers when adjusted for population and other factors, aren’t so clear on that.” Annenberg is trying to be balanced, not just take the talking points of politicians, but rather looking at the actual facts of the matter, which are not always exactly like that. I took a couple more from It’s called Party Lines. You can find this online. Annenberg says this: “In an attempt to influence public opinion, the leaders of both major parties, Democrats and Republican alike, craft talking points, scripts for rank-and-file members to follow when discussing particular policy issues. Talking points, when used frequently, become the party line. On this page, we feature some of the misleading talking points used by both parties.” I just pulled the top two. There are things from Republicans. But since Democrats are in power at the moment, there are more talking points from the Democrats. Democrats’ Misleading Tax Line. “The Republican tax plan was signed into law just last month, and Democrats already have a well-worn and misleading talking point about it.” You can look at Annenberg to find out what that is. The 24 Million Talking Point. “Democrats say the House Republican health care bill would throw 24 million people off their health insurance. But the Congressional Budget Office said that figure includes some who would choose not to have insurance and some who would have had coverage in the future under current law.” So you can look at a bunch of different ways that the politics have changed. Do notice that one of these is 2018 and one from 2017, and then you can begin to trace how these talking points become the ideology of the parties and then become true because they keep being repeated over time but they actually were never true. They were exaggerations from the start. One of the things again, if we want to start looking for the middle of the road in the U.S. is very simple. And that is that because we have political bifurcation in the U.S., if you live in a blue state and everyone is liberal or the majority is, if you are kind of in the middle on some issues, I must be slightly conservative, you begin thinking. Same happens in a red state where the majority of people tend to be conservative. I must be slightly liberal. How do you find a middle of the road when majorities tend to congregate around talking points rather than about the political realities of situations? It is a problem, and one of the reasons for the extreme bifurcation in the U.S. these days, I would argue, because Ambiguity, what happens in Vagueness stays in Vagueness. Politics is about ambiguity and about navigating ambiguity. Actually, classic liberalism, that was what it was about, is how do we deal with ambiguity and actually pass laws and have a society, a functioning society, even though it’s never really clear what we need to be doing, because there are too many factors down the road. As I mentioned, consequentialism as an ethical philosophy says that you just can’t know all the consequences. So you’re always going to be making political decisions in ambiguity. And that’s the fact. And if we don’t like that, we’re going to bifurcate into extreme views and just say, well, that’s what I think and I’m not going to think anymore more. This is from The Intelligencer. This is New York Magazine. “How Social Science Might Be Misunderstanding Conservatives. While the ideas underlying the rigidity of the right model date back to the middle of the 20th century, the current academic debate over it started in 2003. That was when a team led by NYU’s John Jost, a political psychologist, published an important meta-analysis that took a big sweeping look at decades of prior work on the subject and concluded that, according to the available evidence, “The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that varies situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat.” Again, back to that ambiguity and fear thing. “One of their strongest arguments concerns poorly constructed psychological instruments that don’t actually measure what they claim to measure. As they explain, ‘scales treated as indicators of conservative vs. liberal ideology often contain content pertaining to religious sentiment, cognitive rigidity, orientation toward authority and/or intolerance, in addition to (mostly cultural) political content,’ That is, these scales in a sense assume that conservatives are more rigid or authoritarian or whatever else…the very thing they are used to test.” And this is growing as a study. Just how do the political ideologies that we began to define after the Second World War, how have those been assumed into the testing so that we say, well, these people are like this if those people are like that, when it may not actually be that way. For example, a very famous one from 1960 is the Rokeach Dogmatism Scale (RDS). That one measures how dogmatic you are and if you’re dogmatic, therefore you are a conservative. Again, however, it has very biased language in it that constructs the very idea that it sets out to try to test. “Rokeach’s Dogmatism Scale and leftist bias.” This is a study from 2009 that really rips that particular one apart, saying, you know, no, sorry, but the terms of the questions are two value-laden and are built in with assumptions. “The partisan mind.” This is from the research on the Web for the American Psychological Association. “The partisan mind is extreme political partisanship related to cognitive inflexibility.” You can find this in the American Psychological Association Journal Database. The abstract says this: “The rise of partisan animosity, ideological polarization and political dogmatism has reignited important questions about the relationship between psychological rigidity and political partisanship. Two competing hypotheses have been proposed: One hypothesis argues that mental rigidity is related to a conservative political orientation, and the other suggests that it reflects partisan extremity across the political spectrum.” You see the difference. “In a sample of over 700 U.S. citizens, partisan extremity was related to lower levels of cognitive flexibility, regardless of political orientation across three independent cognitive assessments of cognitive flexibility. This was evident across multiple statistical analyses, including quadratic regressions, Bayes factor analysis and interrupted regressions. These findings suggest that the rigidity with which individuals process and respond to nonpolitical information may be related to the extremity of their partisan identities.” You begin to see a pattern that is developing here as we look back on these mid 20th century tests and assumptions. As I pointed out the other day, there is a study that says, “Conservatives aren’t more fearful than liberals.” The study finds: “They are just afraid of different kinds of threats” Apparently 20th century tests, we’re looking at those particular kinds of threats that make people conservative and then we’re putting value judgments on them, which really, you know, who knows what’s true? We do live in ambiguity, but “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” The testing has been done through liberal bias in university settings, apparently. We really don’t know what the answer to, how flexible people are in their political thinking. And that may be one of the problems. Again, we have so many definitions of liberalism that it’s really hard to even talk about. We do understand, I’m a political liberal myself here in the U.S. I wouldn’t be a political liberal in other parts of the world. That’s part of the definitional problem. It’s an interesting way to start thinking about how we talk about these issues. On Sunday, I’ll be talking about Becoming Part of Something. One of those liberal biases is joining into groups rather than being individualistic. I want to look at that on Sunday, morning at 10:30 am. Next week, we want to talk about Embodied Cognition on Coffee and Wisdom. That is new psychological evidence that talks about how the human brain actually processes information, not how we think it does. Thanks a lot for listening this week. Keep thinking about liberalism. Watch for those value-laden words, and let’s try to find a little way through the ambiguity. Thanks a lot for listening and I’ll see you next week.

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