Some years ago I had lunch with a newly minted college graduate filled with the idealism of Marx, whom he had studied without also studying the history of so called communist countries. He could not differentiate between the insightful criticism Marx leveled at the injustices of the industrial revolution and unregulated capitalism from his illusions about a more perfect way that was pure chimera. Anyway, my new acquaintance asked me what my politics were and I said center-left. He went apoplectic as in his view no one could be center anything, it was either one end or the other. His was an outlook I had come to expect from right wingers and religious fundamentalists, but here it was in the voice of a post adolescent, dreamy eyed, wannabe Marxist. Well that was some years ago. Perhaps he’s grown up. There’s an old saying: Today’s radical is tomorrow’s stuffed shirt. It happens.
So what do I mean by center-left? I mean I’m a conservative liberal. What? As a confirmed liberal, I understand the importance of a strong national government able to raise revenue and underwrite programs essential to the well being of the people. I understand that a United States cannot be a quarreling assembly of competing states, each asserting the right to pass state legislation limiting the full measure of rights guaranteed to all citizens by the Constitution. I also recognize the need for the national government to regulate business and industry to assure the safety and welfare of the people, and to do what it can to establish social and economic conditions creating greater equity for all.
My conservative side recognizes that not all liberal proposals are good ones, some not even workable. Before anything is established and funded by the federal government, it must be examined with care to assure, as much as possible, that it is needed, will work, can be measured, and paid for in a reasonable way. I have little interest in “small government” and a great deal of interest in effective, efficient government.
American liberal democracy, with its checks and balances, is one of the great, if sometimes fallible, political achievements. It recognizes that strong national governments have only two powers. One is the bully pulpit, which can be used effectively to sway public opinion. The other is coercion. Laws establishing limits to allowable behavior, and imposing punishments for violations. That’s coercion. It’s a dangerous tool, and must be used with great caution in ways that offer adequate exceptions and variations. When our representatives function at their messy best, they exercise the needed caution. With that in mind, it is liberal policies that have guided us toward the most prosperous century known to any country.
We have seen plenty of ups and owns as the system works well, and then stumbles for a while. Even in times of stumbling, national commitment to the ideals of the Constitution, as amended, and the Declaration of Independence sheds the necessary light to guide the nation beck to a better place. It was only under Trump that we witnessed a fragility in democracy that we had not seen before. It remains to be seen whether we have the national will to recover from his mishandling of it.
A friend asked if there is a difference between a conservative liberal and a liberal conservative and I think there is. Both are centric. They can speak with understanding to each other. But liberal conservatives are more nervous about granting too much power to the government, hold a more tight fisted view of government spending, still think Reagan’s policies were good for the country, and are more suspicious of liberalism that challenges established customary social practices. They generally favor what some call corporate socialism while adhering to the American myth of individualism that pretends it needs help from no one. Just the same, they understand the value and importance of strong federal government addressing national issues, and the danger of states going in too many different directions with basic rights and privileges.
Both left and right centers are willing and able to reach workable agreements that never please the extremes, but manage to move the nation toward a more rewarding future for all.
Note: The Articles of Confederation established all sovereignty in the states with the federal government as a sort of well intentioned ombudsman, with little authority. The Constitution established all sovereignty in the federal government, acknowledging “states rights” within limits and under some oversight. The former collapsed of its own weight as an unworkable mess. The latter has enabled the United States of America to become the great nation that it has been. Today it teeters as a minority of hard right neo fascists attempting to impose authoritarian rule in place of a robust democratic system of three co-equal branches providing checks and balances on each other. What will happen remains to be seen.