Liberals, Not of the Left


A wise course for conservatives would be to drive a wedge between ModLibs (L³) and the classic Liberals, Not of the Left (NOL), and sever their unfortunate alliance.

There is a natural gulf between classical liberals NOL and their L³ grandchildren. It was obvious in the late ‘60s, less so now, for many classical liberals have hunkered down in recent years, in part out of embarrassment of their progeny now ruling the roost these days, wishing the L³’s would just go away, but also unable to bring themselves to make common cause with the bombastic likes of Rush Limbaugh, especially since he makes no distinction, and bashes them all with equal relish, as if they were one and the same.

I wish he wouldn’t do this but am not on his email list, and have no intention of paying a monthly fee in order to do so. But one of the reasons Unified Patriots was formed, and which will serve to identify us more and more in the coming year is that we can and do make this distinction, and yes, while we bash the Left with relish, we are able to slice and dice in a way that will not hold us, or a lack of a decent vocabulary, or our maturity and experience in disrepute as well.

This will be one of our many niches here, and as such, we should be able to peel away some liberals left straddling the fence between the devil and the deep red sea. The careless use of the “L” word has helped cement them there.

What precisely is NOL? I recall William F Buckley, Jr.’s shaky use of the “L” word on one of his last Firing Line interviews with Malcolm Muggeridge just before he passed away. Few people have been able to reprimand WFB and get away with it, but Muggeridge could speak to Bill as if he were a kid. Buckley made some off-handed comment about liberals, upon which Muggeridge replied, ever so gently, “But Bill, I am a liberal. I am just not of the left.”

It’s not coincidental that the drift from classical liberalism (NOL) past L² (philosophical statism) into L³ (covetous statism and me-ism) all happened in the space of one generation, mine.

I remember the day I decided I was no longer a liberal. It was late into the Ford Administration, possibly the ’76 campaign. I lived in Arizona at the time. I recall a Mary McGrory column re-printed in a Tucson newspaper, in which she stated (I paraphrase here) that “liberalism stood for the proposition that all human conduct should be subject to the political process.” This was a total anathema to the classical liberal and I knew it. And this is why so many became conservatives in that period. From that moment forward I was no longer a liberal…and handed in my crying towel.

But looking back, as I did a few years later, I realized that my drift away from the modern realities of L³ liberalism had been going on for years. It began when I entered state government as an environmental regulator in 1969, and later, as an Army lawyer. In the 1960s my liberalism was founded on the civil rights movement, a firm belief that men should be free and that no one should be able to impede a free peoples’ march toward freedom. Human freedom was a thing worth fighting for, and those who would impede it should be fought against. (Hold onto that thought.) I also believed, wrongly, that government could make all those things happen.

By the late 1960s environmentalism crept onto the liberal’s wagon as its second leg, and I was first among them, enlisting in government to fight the strip mining wars of Appalachia.

What I saw in state government was the rise of a professional state class who saw government not as a means to a public end, but rather a means to a private end. I saw the unending mission of environmental agencies, i.e., the science of finding out stuff, and reporting stuff, taking back seat to a far more ambitious but finite mission, that of regulation, where regulators, headed by lawyers, had to justify their existence by coming up with new rules and methods of enforcement each year.

We’ll always need people sticking litmus paper into creeks and streams, but we should not always need rule-writers and enforcers. The first mission is never-ending while the other is temporary. But as I found in the late 70s, after revisiting my old digs at the state capital, I found that my old division had more lawyers than our complete staff (and only one lawyer) just five years earlier. And yes, there was no discernible improvement in water quality, mining or otherwise. Only the state payrolls had been enhanced.

But most importantly, among my kind, my professional colleagues, I found that what I had thought in the 1960s was a keen love of liberty among my peers, and a keen love of nature among my peers, had for the most part really been little more than a way to distinguish them from the herd. Most of the “liberals” of my generation have transcended that classical love of mankind and John Muir’s love of nature, to a not-so-hard to understand love of self. They defined themselves more by who they were not. In a word, they’d all become French.

I lay this out for the next generation of conservatives, for I see the same sneering condescension among many rising young conservatives. The Constitution is all about laying out the game rules in an ages-long contest between two elites those who would rule other men’s lives, and those who would protect other men to pursue their lives as they see fit. You cannot fight for, nor defend your neighbor, if you also look down your nose at him. That’s a law. The first law of graduating out of knee pants into adulthood.

Classical liberalism (NOL), but for a few mistaken quirks about the ability of government to do certain things, once stood where conservatism now stands, as a defender of men’s free pursuit of happiness.

So there you have it. By a process of natural self-inquiry, many old classical liberals became conservatives, or at least constitutionalists. But many others lingered back, straddling fences, and most, many of whom I’ve found to be very decent, compassionate people, have held back, for the most part due to fear of what their peers might say or think.

We’ve done little in the last two decades to encourage Liberal NOL’s over to our side.

It’s time to get ‘em….with encouraging words.

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March 25, 2011 1:33 pm

We have fallen into the label game rather than letting your beliefs define you and having a spirited exchange of ideas. Labels have taken a life of their own both between parties and also factions within them creating divisions. On our side, I am extremely concerned about the current thrust towards purity and conservative elitism(which is exclusive rather than inclusive) rather than seeing the bigger picture of, at the end of the day, you are either firing in one direction, or another. Hey, it’s lonely at the conservatively pure top. We should be circling the wagons instead of having circular… Read more »

March 25, 2011 1:59 pm

I don’t care what in the hell one calls themselves, if they agree that the federal, state and local governments have grown excessive and stomp on our FREEDOM’S then we have something to talk about!

March 25, 2011 8:29 pm

Reagan brought many Democrats into the Republican party. They were probably “your grandfather’s Democrats.” I’m not really so sure that there are many more to bring over. They are still holding out for another Bill Clinton.

March 25, 2011 8:40 pm

Useful analysis and reminders, VB. This piece has helped get my thinking on one of the questions that nags at me: What happened to so much of my generation? As young folks, we were all about human and civil rights, about going to the mat against any form of real injustice…but at least as I remember it, it didn’t occur to us that more government was the answer to any of the problems. Our motto was “Don’t tell me how to live my life!” But at the same time we didn’t want to be told, it was pretty much a… Read more »

March 26, 2011 10:33 pm

“You cannot fight for, nor defend your neighbor, if you also look down your nose at him.” I’ve noticed that the “elites” of most political parties have the rather irritating habit of doing just that. Seems more often the grimace of disdain is etched into too many elected and appointed faces. We aren’t the leavings of a dog’s dinner on the neighbor’s lawn. And last I looked, most of us bathe daily, have good dental habits, don’t drool or scratch and are quite capable of holding more than a yup or nope conversation. Which is counter to their vision of… Read more »