I’ll cop to it. I’ve gotten a little impatient with some of the conservative and Republican folks I meet who spin their wheels and fret about why the GOP in Saint Paul and Washington hasn’t slashed spending and cut taxes and privatized Social Security and Medicare and defunded the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and ended the deficit and…
I remind them: we only control 1/3 of the process for passing bills in DC, and 2/3 in Saint Paul (I live in Minnesota; your state may vary). You’re only as powerful as your last election. The Republicans were pitifully weak after 2008; we are doing much better this year. We owe it to our future to do better still in 2012.
And as I make that response, I wonder – are there people on the left who have the same kind of myopia?
Intellectually, of course, I know it; I see it every day. The biggest recent example: the Wisconsin Supreme Court election aftermath, where the Democrats called a 200 vote win a “reversal of Scott Walker’s mandate!”, but say the new 7,300 vote win for Prosser is “inconclusive”.
But Sally Kohn freezes that same little snapshot in liberal thought in a Strib editorial: “Are Liberals Suckers?”
The list of liberal laments about President Obama keeps getting longer: He extended the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.
Health-care reform didn’t include a public option. In the frantic final hours of the budget negotiations, instead of calling the GOP’s bluff, he agreed to historic cuts in progressive programs.
And recently, in response to conservatives’ focus on the deficit, Obama said that we have to “put everything on the table.”
What is the problem here? Is it a lack of leadership from the White House, a failure to out-mobilize the Tea Party or not enough long-term investment from liberal donors?
The real problem isn’t a liberal weakness. It’s something liberals have proudly seen as a strength – our deep-seated dedication to tolerance.
It’s tempting to snort back “the movement that brought us campus speech codes, and rigid academic groupspeak, the movement that Orwell caricatured in Animal Farm and warned us about in 1984? Too “tolerant?””
And Kohn’s piece gives you little reason to seek a better argument.
In any given fight, tolerance is benevolent, while intolerance gets in the good punches.
Tolerance plays by the rules, while intolerance fights dirty. The result is round after round of knockouts against liberals who think they’re high and mighty for being open-minded but who, politically and ideologically, are simply suckers.
“Tom Emmer Hates Gays”.
“The GOP Plan Would Throw Grandma Out In The Street And Shut Down The Schools”.
“We need “Nuremberg Trials” for “Global Warming Denialists!”
The key flaw – well, one of them – in Kohn’s thesis is that liberals are not tolerant. While tolerance for dissent is a virtue of classical liberalism – think Jefferson and Payne and Locke and Rousseau, not Nancy Pelosi – it’s a simple fact that not only are modern big-l “Liberals” not especially tolerant, but the things they call “intolerance” on the right are, by and large, not.
Indeed, Kohn undercuts her own ideal: one of the keys to social intolerance is the need to give one’s own side a basis for not tolerating “the enemy”; for saying “we don’t have to tolerate them, because we’re better than they are”. And Kohn does exactly that:
Social science research has long dissected the differences between liberals and conservatives.
“Social science” is to “science” as “mock duck” is to “duck”.
Liberals supposedly have better sex, but conservatives are happier.
Liberals are more creative; conservatives more trustworthy.
And, since the 1930s, political psychologists have argued that liberals are more tolerant.
And while I’m admittedly dealing in stereotype here, I don’t believe I’m alone in wondering if there is a group on earth who would be more self-serving in saying “liberals are better people!” than a group labelled “political psychologists”.
Specifically, those who hold liberal political views are more likely to be open-minded, flexible and interested in new ideas and experiences, while those who hold conservative political views are more likely to be closed-minded, conformist and resistant to change.
But those same studies showed liberals to be prone to being influenced, wishy-washy and mercurual, while conservatives are more principled, less narcissistic, tougher negotiators (in a broad sense) and – this is important – better at choosing adjectives to describe the results of “political psychologists’ studies”.
Brain-imaging studies have even suggested that conservative brains are hard-wired for fear, while the part of the brain that tolerates uncertainty is bigger in liberal heads.
Which proves saber-toothed tigers ate more liberals, but not much more.
Kohn finally leaves the realm of junk social science to move on to current events:
Dissecting Obama’s negotiation strategy in the budget fight, Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times, “It looks from here as if the president’s idea of how to bargain is to start by negotiating with himself, making pre-emptive concessions, then pursue a second round of negotiation with the G.O.P., leading to further concessions.”
The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein has criticized Obama for similarly failing to take a strong position on energy policy. But perhaps the president is only playing out the psychological tendencies of his base.
In the weeks leading up to the budget showdown, the Pew Research Center found that 50 percent of Republicans wanted their elected representatives to “stand by their principles,” even if it meant causing the federal government to shut down.
Among those who identified as Tea Party supporters, that figure was 68 percent. Conversely, 69 percent of Democrats wanted their representatives to avoid a shutdown, even if it meant compromising on principles.
With supporters like that, who needs Rand Paul?
So is Obama losing because he’s “too tolerant”? Because he didn’t turn his mandate into political results?
I think Kohn, Krugman and Klein would have you forget Obama’s “the eleciton is over, John” jape during the Obamacare debate. Or the certitude with which Obama’s majority in Congress jammed down Obamacare.
So is Obama “too tolerante”< Or has he just turned out to be a weak, wishy-washy leader who squandered an epic mandate?
As Thomas Jefferson put it in his first inaugural address, those who might wish to dissolve the newly established union should be left “undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
But some errors, by their nature, undermine reason.
Writing in 1945, philosopher Karl Popper called this the “paradox of tolerance” – that unlimited tolerance leads to the disappearance of tolerance altogether.
To put the current political climate in Popper’s terms, if liberals are not willing to defend against the rigid demands of their political opponents, who are emboldened by their own unwavering opinions, their full range of open-minded positions will be destroyed.
Liberals are neutered by their own tolerance.
Liberals, as we saw in Wisconsin over the winter and on campuses every spring, are not “overtolerant”, to be kind.
They are on the political decline. They lost in 2010; national reapportionment will weaken them more this year, and demographics don’t favor them in ten years either. Things are touch-and-go for 2012, but there is a decent chance they lose the Senate.
Liberals aren’t weak because they’re “tolerant”; they’re not, but that’s irrelevant. Liberals are weak because they are selling a bill of goods that fewer people are buying.