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Browbeaten By Humpty Dumpty, Or Quitting the Liberal Label

ISSUE:  Autumn 1976

We liberals are in danger. We may disappear from politics—all because we have lost control of the word “liberal.” Men abuse and debase “liberal” without restraint. Politicians fear to utter it except as a weapon against their enemies. Liberals scurry for cover and lament their lost pre-eminence on the political horizon.

Few liberals are willing to stand up and say what a liberal is. Sure enough, the fraternity of liberals still give each other the grip in private and profess the liberal faith as long as outsiders are not looking. But if they are trying to win political office, they do not use the liberal banner. I know from my own experience as a candidate for Congress. I had warnings at the beginning of my campaigning not to breathe the word. A candidate for office might think he could educate his constituents to respect liberalism, but no campaign is long enough, even these days, to undertake such education and still hope to win. At least, most liberals so believe. Have they really abandoned their faith? Perhaps not, but they have been browbeaten by Humpty Dumpty.

In Through the Looking Glass, Alice and Humpty Dumpty had a small argument. Humpty brings it to a head with scorn:

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” Alice replies, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” Humpty answers, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Insidiously, the Humpty Dumptys have proclaimed in 1976 what “liberal” means. Sometimes they have proclaimed it lazily, sometimes maliciously, but always wrongly. For current usage, the Humpty Dumptys have been master. The word “liberal” means for the press and broadcasters something quite different from what the orthodox liberal thinks.

The prevailing chorus pictures the liberal as wasteful, disorderly, undisciplined, free-spending, free-thinking, and indulgent—”soft” on everything, soft on crime as well as soft on communism, This mighty chorus blames a liberal trend for whatever goes wrong—in art, morals, music, drama, poetry, religion, environment, and education, as well as in economics and politics. The picture is a false one, but it grows ever stronger, and I hear no voices raised to call the lie a lie.

Try to fit into such a picture two friends of mine who are well-known, lifelong liberals. One of them is a Southern elder statesman and a Democrat. He has won and lost political battles, but over the years he has seen victory in the end for most of the causes he espoused, both in the struggle for civil rights and in the struggle for free and universal suffrage. The other is a senior Wall Street lawyer and a Republican, who has achieved spectacular political successes. Each of these liberals is a devout member of his church, one Protestant, the other Catholic. Each is sartorially, tonsorially, and in delicacy of speech, manners, and morals rigidly orthodox. Each professes to be “liberal”—more specifically liberal in politics.

How does such a liberal fit into the picture of the liberal from which Congressman Mo Udall tried to separate himself earlier this year—or the picture of the liberal that political enemies try to paint upon their victims’ derrières to ensure a swift kick? The answer is that my two prototypical liberals have simply nothing in common with the caricature of the slovenly, spendthrift liberal that has won dominion over American political comment in the late 20th century. The dominant picture of the liberal is a false and lying picture.

Prudent men and women do not espouse liberalism today to win votes. They don’t become liberals in order to grab power or influence. To be a liberal today requires an act of conscience. It requires acceptance of principles and a deep devotion and dedication to those principles. The tenets of liberalism are actually the fundamental principles of Western civilization itself. José Ortega y Gasset, the Spanish philosopher-politician, called liberalism the noblest “call” ever to resound on this planet. For him liberalism embodied civilization. It embraced standards, courtesy, justice, discipline, and reason. Liberalism, he wrote, carries to the extreme the determination to have consideration for one’s neighbor. Liberalism, he added, is the supreme form of generosity. It is the right that the majority concedes to the minority. In the liberal state, Ortega said, the public authority, in spite of being all-powerful, limits itself and attempts, even at its own expense, to leave room for those who dissent from the strong majority.

The liberal hears the call to defend the dissenter, to defend the weak, to defend freedom of opinion and speech for those whose thoughts and feelings do not coincide with the thoughts and feelings of the strong.

When he answers that call, the liberal knows that he begs for trouble. Has the liberal today been too valiant in defending the rights of others? Has he been too tolerant of the ways others manifest their dissenting feelings in drama, art, or in print? Has he toiled too bravely to protect the rights or the welfare of the needy in our society? No, resoundingly, No! In any good society citizens must struggle even more than our liberals have yet struggled to defend the freedom and rights of all, including those with whom they disagree.

Surely, the struggle is costly. When you support the right to free expression in the arts, in literature, in music, in religion, in education, you often find yourself identified with the output of that free expression. I have lived in totalitarian countries (both fascist and communist), where there was total censorship. The cultural blight was as appalling as the social and political devastation. I obviously abhor censorship. At the same time, I refuse to applaud the humorless obscenity and vulgarity which sometimes compose or decompose the effluent of our untrammeled press and theatre. I would apply no fetters. I respect the right of the playwright to do what he thinks is dramatically best—to achieve a full expression of his feelings. I maintain only my own right to walk out when the play passes the limits of decency which I think civilized society has imposed. Indeed, I have walked out of such a theatre—in Washington—just as I have discarded degenerate exemplars of a hard-porn magazine.

A professor friend of mine told me the other day he did not think I was much of a liberal because I did not admire certain contemporary novelists, whose works to me are often amusing, but too full of cynicism to be of much value in man’s struggle for his higher aspirations. I said the novelists had full right to spew out their anti-heroes with whatever vulgar or obscene decoration they wished. If they think they need a touch of porn to sell their book, or if they think they need a tide of ugliness to float their feelings, such is their right. I cherish my own right to tire of the nihilism of such literary efforts, to drop such novels as wearisome. I think I have seen much of the ugliness of the world and have read much of what I have not seen. But I always hope to find in modern literature some new heroism or some new nobility in the tales of men toiling to reach higher and happier ground.


The cleverest coup of the enemies of liberalism was to fashion the sneer at the “knee-jerk liberal.” That abusive phrase describes the lazy liberal or the overly cautious liberal, who fails to think, but responds like a tame animal to what someone tells him is the liberal point of view.

This makes the game of the anti-liberals easy. They can announce what the liberal position is—usually before the “knee-jerk liberal” has taken his chance to think about the matter. The anti-liberal will make the liberal look absurd by telling the world in advance what the liberal must believe. No matter how ridiculous it may be, the trap is set for the dullwitted liberal, who accepts what someone says is the liberal view, before he even thinks about it.

Thus a new and confusing style of music bursts forth, and someone tells the knee-jerk liberals that they must clap hands in pleasure. Tamely they do, and we have what is called a liberal trend in music. Poetry appears without perceptible order or meter, and someone calls it the liberal mood in poetry. The knee-jerk liberal applauds without thinking. A big change comes in the worship service of a church. You can be sure that the newspapers and the broadcasters will lazily ascribe the change to the liberal movement among the clergy. There are new words and new spellings in school, and critics say that liberal teachers are responsible. Whether the change is good or bad, but particularly if it is bad, the liberal garners the blame. I shall not say that this will be fatal for liberalism. I say that it already has been near-fatal. Lamblike liberals have let their critics speak for them. Such meekness will destroy the liberal cause. In fact it is this meekness that has already turned friends of liberalism into enemies. It has caused men to abandon the liberal cause out of impatience with liberal timidity.

The joy of being a liberal is in thinking and judging an issue for yourself—and then speaking out. As long as you will do that, you have some claim to the honored label. The danger of decay in liberalism is greatest when the response of the liberal to the issues of the day is so automatic that it is predictable. A good liberal will not let himself slide into the pigeonholes of the left any more than he falls into the ruts of the right. If the liberal wing of a party becomes always the left wing, the liberal loses his independence. Sometimes when the liberal applies the principles of liberalism to an issue, he may find himself siding with the traditionalist, especially in a society that has deep roots in individualism. Quite often, the liberal finds himself in the middle of the road—taking the hostile fire of both left and right.

Whether in the middle of the road or not, the authentic liberal invariably takes a position. With a spirit ranging the cosmos and resisting any restraints on his opinions, the liberal applies his standards wherever he finds an issue—at home or abroad, in politics or in social and cultural affairs.

While he begs for trouble with his absolute devotion to free expression, the liberal sees a strong cleavage that separates him from the mischievous permissive. The permissive knows no restraints and has no roots. The liberal has deep roots in tradition and accepts all the restraints imposed by the struggle for human freedom and by the discipline of civilizing standards. These are standards of courtesy, taste, decency, and respect for others. We cannot always define these standards, but we do know that they have grown out of centuries of human beings living together.

Civilization—in a kind of historical process—imposes these standards, and the liberal respects them. The permissive, who has done the liberal cause more harm than the reactionary ever has, ridicules these standards and asserts some special wisdom of his own that he sets above the standards of other men. It is the permissive, not the liberal, who has condoned, or even promoted, that abuse of freedom that floods our television with violence. The true liberal finds television violence a social cancer and a decivilizing influence—dangerous to all those standards of conduct that the liberal honors. You will find liberals, not permissives, taking a stand against TV violence.

Critics who do not distinguish between the liberal and the permissive will visit the sins of the permissives upon the innocent but unwary liberals who have no part in them. Thus I, as a political candidate, known to be a liberal, had to answer some absurd charges that the public had linked to liberalism. In one town my opponents posted my photograph beside that of Angela Davis, then facing trial in California at the peak of campus radicalism, My opponents spread stories that I had been a radical student leader who had “shut down” my university 40 years ago; that I sponsored a hippie commune; that I was soft on criminals; that I advocated free use of marijuana (something that I—in my naiveté —had never even smelled). Directly and firmly as one may answer such charges, one still faces a public which, in its confused ignorance, is suspicious of liberals. Easily, the public overlooks the central point that the liberal is usually the most ardent believer in strict enforcement of the laws that protect the physical safety and personal privacy of the individual, just as he believes in defending the individual’s right to freedom of speech and fair treatment before the law.


During the Vietnam War, it was a habit to say that liberals were anti-military. That led people of short memory to think that liberals opposed adequate arms, that they opposed having a strong national defense. Think back to 1939—40 and see how wrong that is, When it looked, after Munich, as if we must use our military strength to support the cause of freedom in Europe and the Western World, liberals were bellicose’. Most of us argued strongly for prompt and adequate military measures. Liberals of proper age volunteered for the armed forces a year or two before Pearl Harbor. We wanted to fight Nazism and Fascism. We were not of the Left. On the contrary, the Left attacked us because, as long as the Hitler-Stalin Pact prevailed, the communists were on the side of Germany, not of France or Britain.

Thirty years later liberals were not bellicose. Most of us were resolutely opposed to fighting in Vietnam. To us it was an abuse of our armed forces to use them to support a regime which was but a doubtful defender of the liberties we had fought the Second World War to preserve and perpetuate.

Today the liberal owes much of his disrepute to the twisting of his ideas about what the government can do for the social and economic welfare of the individual. Most modern ideas about liberals in politics spring from Franklin Roosevelt’s time when the ravages of poverty in the Great Depression led to government measures to help the one-third of the nation which was ill-fed, ill-housed, and ill-clothed. The collapse of the system of unrestrained private enterprise wrought such havoc on American society that liberals said government must use its great power to restore jobs and to save the people from starving in the land of the cornucopia.

Roosevelt’s measures were usually liberal measures—programs to defend the rights of all people, programs to protect the poor and those vulnerable to economic exploitation. With Roosevelt came Social Security, Federal Deposit Insurance, an effective Securities and Exchange Commission, Rural Electrification, jobs for the needy, and many another extraordinary new program to help those who required help.

Other liberal, Democratic administrations expanded government activity to protect the interests of racial groups or of the economically weak. Liberals enacted the civil rights laws, equal employment legislation, Medicare, Medicaid, and dozens of other measures taken by government to put public forces to work in the interest of the less powerful.

Inevitably, the exercise of greater public power has brought more intrusion into private affairs. Thus much of the citizenry, even those who have benefited from what government has done for them, have turned against “big government.” With harsh logic, unhappy ones have cast the blame upon the liberals. After all, liberals were the Americans who most frequently advocated using government power to pull us but of our troubles and to check the damaging forces of unrestrained free enterprise. The trend that threatens to engulf us was one that liberals did in fact start.

But, have the liberals gone wrong? Was it a mistake to resort to public authority for solution to problems? Did not the 19th-century liberals fight a different battle—not for, but against government intervention?

It was entirely proper for liberals, in this century and this country, to resort to public authority. No other force could set right the wrongs of society. The power of government came to redress the inequities of daily life, but it went too far in several respects. One mistake was to overburden the government and thus the bureaucracy with tasks beyond their capacity. Another was to issue orders and directives when it should have been enough to set standards or fix limits or offer models of performance. A third mistake was to waste resources in the conduct of public affairs. Everyone who has been in government has known the carelessness of those who spend the government’s money. I once presided over an office that had three times as many employees as it needed. We proved this: when we reduced the staff by 67 per cent, our work was just as effective as it had been—some say it was more so. The example could be repeated in the story of thousands of government offices, federal, state, and local. One United States senator produces each week a story of government waste. He happens to be a “liberal” senator, and it is logical for a liberal to set waste as his primary target.


We who believe in the defense of the weak against the strong, the minorities against the majority, would be out of our minds if we condoned the wastage of the tools that we need for our efforts. Any liberal economist knows that any program he advocates can be ruined by unrestrained government spending. If government is to do a job, it must be financially healthy. Good programs in government, as in private affairs, must be frugally managed. This applies to those called “liberal” as well as to all others including—let us not forget—the military.

Abuse of government power was always a concern of earlier liberals, but their successors have failed by letting exuberance for some particular project obscure the limits that we must put on government intervention. Civilization itself begat government as an instrument to help achieve its purpose. When the crisis of civilization and society became acute, liberals set more tasks for government to perform.

Without government, the rights of all people could not be safe. Without government, the weak or the aged might not survive. It is up to civilized man to use his good judgment and experience to control his own creation—to keep restraints on that major instrument of civilization which government happens to be. The liberal says beware of government that is too weak to do its duty in protecting the common good. But be vigilant, also, against too much government. Bureaucratization of life leads to the decay of life—certainly to the decay of the liberal life.

For the many causes for which he struggles the liberal depends on the instrument of government itself. It is the part of wisdom to cherish this instrument and see to its health. That means guarding against its abuse. As society has become more complex, so have the causes of the liberal become more numerous. If there is more to do, liberals should see that the machinery with which it is done is working properly.

The public interest is the central object of the liberal’s love. It imposes on us today not only the old causes of preserving free expression and the rights of all individuals but also the newer causes of protecting the public against environmental damage and of ensuring greater protection for the consumer. Since the public interest is such a broad and demanding domain, the wise liberal takes care to assert the public interest without overtaxing the bureaucratic machinery. The liberal spirit demands not more bureaucratic controls but respect for the laws and standards of a free society. The stronger the liberal spirit, the stronger is that respect and the less the need for government. If the liberal spirit had held sway in this land, there would be no quarrel over school desegregation and no controversy over busing—no abandoning of the problem to the bureaucracy. All men, regardless of color, would be living in peace in unrestricted communities.

Tactically and semantically, liberals lost something a long time ago when Gilbert and Sullivan sang:

”. . . every boy and every sal
That’s born into this world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative.”

That enforced the myth that the opposite of liberal was conservative. Such was true only in a century of British poltics, when two alternate political factions took turns guiding the British on the path of Empire. In truth, the opposite of liberal is not conservative. The opposite of liberal is illiberal, whether the illiberal is conservative or radical, or—as is most often the case—a totalitarian of right or left.

Whenever public opinion swings to left or right, the liberal’s fate is to be unpopular. He becomes popular or honored again only in the brief periods when his influence helps to set right the wrongs of the left or the wrongs of the right.

To recover his popularity in our time may be impossible. The disciplined, courteous, and respectful liberal will not easily recover from the damage done him by those who have maliciously and contemptuously confused him with disorderly, bawdy wastrels. Yet his principles remain strong and his idealism is constant.

Even if it takes a long time for the liberal to recover his standing, his idealism will always be needed in the struggle to save civilization. I have heard practical men of a dozen callings scoff, “You are too idealistic!” Good! That means progress. That means we are getting somewhere. True liberals are idealistic. They are men of vision. As long ago as King Solomon’s time, the Hebrews knew the truth about men of vision: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”


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