Two weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court voted in favor of same sex marriage rights, and this week, the South Carolina government voted to take down the Confederate flag, and these are good things, and they probably represent progress.
It’s a mistake, however, to imagine that progress as proceeding on a line that extends as part of a 1 dimensional spectrum, from “conservative” to “liberal.” Such a construction flattens the terrain on which people’s ideologies and identifications stand. And it ignores the ways in which progress towards tolerance is fundamentally different than towards structural and material change.
Of course, historians and cultural critics are no strangers to the idea that some forms of progress are easier made than others. Scholarly works such as Nancy MacLean’s Freedom is Not Enough and Jodi Melamed’s Represent and Destroy illustrate how tolerance and multiculturalism have worked in some ways to strengthen the systems that undergird inequality. Perhaps my favorite work that illuminates the two forms of progress is Wendy Wall’s Inventing the “American Way.” Wall’s argument is centered around the difference between governing discourses of “civility” versus those of “equality” (by which she means equality power and/or material wealth). At mid-century, prominent Americans in business, government, and even labor evaded the need for programs of equality by focussing on those that stressed civility.
The aforementioned progress that we’ve seen in the last few weeks may prove to be powerful symbolically, but for now, they’re changes towards civility more than equality. And the idea that progress in the former ultimately leads to progress in the latter just doesn’t bear out in recent history.
Furthermore, such an idea ignores the long history of liberalism in the United States. Commentators have recently been asking, somewhat incessantly, “is the Supreme Court ‘liberal’ now?” in a manner that elides the meaning of the term. It’s the right question being asked for the wrong reason. The court is liberal because it privileges an individual conception of the self, one which sees a person’s ability and right to enter into contracts with one another as the beginning and end of meaningful social interaction.
Bernie Sanders has taken flak from some corners of the media for his approach towards talking about race. But he appears to be the only candidate in the race that understands that liberalism is not the solution. A recent article on the New York Times website makes some of the problems around the usage of the term “liberalism” clear. In one of the many, many reasons why I’m loving Bernie Sanders right now, the socialist presidential candidate says “I’m not a liberal. Never have been.” And yet Nate Cohn, the author’s article dismisses the distinction as “slim” and proceeds to throw the word “liberal” around rather recklessly.
Commentators like Cohn write as if Sanders (and Elizabeth Warren) exist only to make Hilary Clinton “more liberal.” I maintain that the last thing we need is for our presidential candidates, or anyone for that matter, to become more liberal.