What 'centrists' don't get about liberalism

Equality is the root of Democratic politics and policies.

John Kasich is a decent enough person, though his position on abortion is monstrous. The former Republican governor of Ohio did his part over the summer to help Joe Biden beat Donald Trump by speaking at the Democratic National Convention. Kasich gave Republicans permission to vote for a Democrat. For that, we should thank him.

But Kasich is still a Republican. He thinks liberalism is the flip side of conservatism. It isn’t. Seeing “both sides,” however, is convenient to a Washington press corps’ need for partisan balance. The Republican misunderstanding of liberalism tends to be, as a result, everyone else’s misunderstanding. It was, therefore, unexceptional when Kasich said Biden should make “clear to the far left that they almost cost him this election.”

For liberals and Democrats, listening “to what the other half of the country has to say” is an exercise in redundancy.

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His comment was in the context of a presidential campaign during which liberals and progressive (Kasich’s “far left”) were debating the relative merits and demerits of court-packing, defunding police departments, “socialism” and other policies and ideas. For Kasich, these explained the surge of Republicans voting for the incumbent. It is imperative, therefore, for the president-elect to make clear he’s not a Trojan Horse.

A few things. One, Biden has said and keeps saying he’s his own man. I don’t know why we should not take him at his word. Two, Biden owes the “far left” as he owes Black voters. Indeed, these camps overlap, depending on the issue. Tom Bonier said, for instance, that “defund the police” did not harm Biden in states with big urban cores, like Pennsylvania and Georgia. It helped. Finally, why should Biden enable smears against him? Pushing back against the left gives credence to accusations that he’s being controlled by the left, which nudges Republicans to voting against him.

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Kasich sounded moderate when he said that, “Now is the time for Democrats ... to begin to listen to what the other half of the country has to say.” But in that centrism is an assumption about liberalism that undercuts the truth about it. While Republicans really do fight in their self-interest, liberals don’t. They really do fight in everyone’s interest, because liberals believe in something the Republicans don’t. Once you recognize the centrality of political equality to the Democratic scheme of things, you see that listening “to what the other half of the country has to say” is an exercise in redundancy. More than that, it gives advantage to the GOP project against equality.

Equality is the root of Democratic policies seeking to create conditions by which the greatest number of Americans are liberated to a degree they can achieve the greatest good on their own. Medicare for all. Progressive taxation. Equal justice. Climate change. The pandemic. Policy after policy strives to make room for most of everyone’s interests, though perhaps not the sum total of everyone’s interests. You don’t need to exhort Biden and the Democrats to “reach out to almost half of the electorate,” as Adam Bjorndahl, associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon, did. You might sound reasonable in doing so. You might even sound like an advocate for compromise. But what you are really doing is defining liberalism from the right-flank of history.

You’re also misunderstanding why Republicans oppose equality. The GOP, more than corporate power, represents ordered power. God over Man. Men over women. Parents over children. White over black. This hierarchy is not just preferable, it’s natural. It’s God’s will. Efforts by women to be treated equally to men, for instance, are not only offensive, they’re perverse. They can’t be tolerated. In a very real sense, equality is theft to the conservative mind. And theft, as you know, is punishable by law. Nearly everything about the Republican Party’s project finds its source in defense of the hierarchy of power. Equality is not an objective worth sacrificing for. It’s a crime.

Defeating equality, however, is worth sacrificing for, even your life. Hence the reason Trump won 72 million votes amid a pandemic that has killed nearly a quarter million Americans. Hence the reason why Republican-led states rejected Obamacare. Sure, the law would have liberated millions from the oppression of being chained to a desk job, but that meant helping people who didn’t “deserve” it. And by “deserve,” of course, I’m talking about Black people and people of color. Any law putting them on equal footing with white people is to be opposed wholesale, even if such opposition leads to death.

I get the impulse. “Now is the time for every Biden supporter to reach out to one person who voted for Trump,” wrote Ian Bremmer the other day. “Empathize with them. Tell them you know how they feel (you do, from 2016). Come up with one issue you can agree on.” All that’s jim-dandy. It might work in part. But you can’t help people who won’t help themselves. You can’t reach out to people who slap your hand away. You can’t compromise with people who will kill themselves to defeat you.

All you can do is achieve liberal goals, and hope they snap out of it later.

John Stoehr