“The two parties which divide the state, the party of Conservatism and that of Innovation, are very old and have disputed the possession of the world since it was made…”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Liberalism provided the founding principles of the United States. Liberals are the folks that made America what it is today. Without the political and social activism of liberals in the past our lives would be very different… and not for the better. Liberalism has guided all the advances in American society since 1776.

We should keep these facts in mind when reactionaries denigrate liberals, and liberal public policy, as un-American. Wisconsin Republicans’ attempt to coerce the University system into “balancing” courses with conservative dogma is an example. They do not understand the meaning of “liberal,” or what it means to get a “liberal” education. Nor do they understand basic American history.

As Emerson points out, the debate between reformers and reactionaries is nothing new. In the quote above he goes on to say, “The castle which conservatism is set to defend is the actual state of things, good and bad…Conservatism never puts a foot forward…” Conservatism vs Liberalism is essentially a tension between progress and the status quo (or a mythical former time of greatness). Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., in his book The Cycles of American History (from which Emerson’s quotes are taken) points out that this tension also is seen in debates over public vs private interests, public good vs private profit, and democracy vs capitalism. These tensions have animated our history from the beginning. Recent Republican stonewalling of legislation, failure to enact budgets, and failure to confirm needed judicial appointments are further examples of defending their ideological “castle.” The Republicans are the party of “no.”

Liberalism developed during the 17th century Age of Enlightenment. This philosophical movement undermined the authority of monarchy and the state sponsored church. This philosophy paved the way for the political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, including the American Revolution. Liberalism rejected the prevailing social and political norms of hereditary privilege and argued that each man had a natural right to life, liberty and property. Governments must not violate these rights. Liberals advocated representative democracy and the rule of law.

John Locke is credited with founding liberalism. He had a great influence on our founding fathers, all of whom were well read in the classics and Enlightenment authors. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and our representative democracy are the products of this LIBERAL philosophy. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Paine were (gasp!) LIBERALS!!

Even Adam Smith, the patron saint of free enterprise capitalism, was a liberal. He wrote in reaction to, and in opposition of, the top-down, controlled, often monopolistic, economic practices of his time. His book,The Wealth of Nations, is the foundation of classical economics that stress self-regulating free markets and individual economic freedom.

The word “liberal” has a number of meanings. Scanning various online dictionaries produces this list of definitions for liberal:

Broad-minded; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional form

Open to new behavior, or opinions, and willing to discard traditional values

Willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own, open to new ideas

Favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms, including in economics, free trade and free markets and protection of private property

Having political or social views favoring reform and progress; a person who favors a political philosophy of progress and reform and the protection of civil liberties

In education being concerned mainly with broadening a person’s general knowledge, rather than with technical or professional training

Free from prejudice or bigotry; tolerant

Wikipedia summaries Liberalism as a political philosophy or worldview founded on ideas of liberty and equality. Liberals generally support freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, gender equality, and international cooperation.

The obvious question to the Republican reactionaries in the Wisconsin legislature is, “WHAT IS WRONG WITH BEING LIBERAL?” Why do we need to “balance” these ideals and principles? We need more open mindedness and willingness to respect others. We need more openness to new ideas and new solutions to problems. We need a better, more broadly educated public. We don’t need to “balance” tolerance with bigotry, or open mindedness with zealotry, or democracy with plutocracy, or science with pseudo-science, or knowledge with ignorance.

However, the Republicans have another agenda. Conservatives are not concerned with philosophical debate, the common good or the good of the country. They are interested in POWER. They are interested in staying in power by any means possible. And they use power to maintain the privilege, wealth, and control of the corporate aristocracy of today.

Current conservatism basically works for lower taxes, smaller government, high spending on the military, and support for big business. Social issues like abortion, evolution, guns, crime, and educational policy have little to do with these core principles. But these “wedge” issues make great campaign tactics. Demonizing “liberals” is just another wedge issue.

Conservatives are masters at manipulating the ignorance, religiosity, and tribalism of most people to keep them voting against their own interests. Too often divide and conquer works. But it only works when people are passive, apathetic, and poorly educated.