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How Did Liberalism Get So Conservative?

It used to mean take charge optimism. No more.

Crawford Kilian 5 Jul

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

He has published 22 books, both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in 1967-68 and was an instructor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. He is interested in books, online media, public health and environmental and climate issues.

Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and received a bachelor of arts from Columbia University in 1962 and a master's from Simon Fraser University in 1972. He served in the U.S. Army from 1963 to 1965, and became a naturalized Canadian in 1973 after moving to Vancouver in 1967. One of his favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

He lives in North Vancouver. Find him on Twitter @Crof or visit his health blog at H5N1.

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How did small-l liberals get to be such gloomy, conservative wretches? And when did conservatives become such aggressively optimistic radicals?

Those questions have been on my mind for some time, and especially since the re-election of George Bush. The outpouring of liberal angst was both sincere and well practiced; liberals have spent most of the last quarter-century down in the dumps, and we seem to like it there.

Meanwhile the conservatives, both here and in the US, seem possessed of a manic optimism, a bipolar energy that depressive progressives lack the energy to resist.

The odd thing is that these attitudes used to be exactly opposite: Once upon a time liberals seethed with energy and ideas, ready to take on anything from the Depression to world wars, while the conservatives clung to isolationism, economic orthodoxy, and fears of foreign war.

Conservatism used to believe in small government, break-even budgets, no interference in people's lives, and avoidance of foreign entanglements. Free trade was by definition a liberal tenet, a way to protect the consumer at the expense of local business. Conservatives saw free trade as a deadly threat for just that reason.

The crash of conservatism

The Crash of 1929 gave US conservatives three years to discredit themselves; in Canada, R.B. Bennett took a little longer. Meanwhile liberalism attracted bright innovators who saw a clear path between the attractive follies of fascism and communism. While FDR and Mackenzie King couldn't quite end the Depression without the help of a war, they showed that liberal policies could hold things together.

Conservatives in the US spent most of the Depression damning Roosevelt as a traitor to his class. They foresaw only disaster in foreign interventions. From 1939 until Pearl Harbor they dragged their heels, ignoring the outrages committed by Hitler in Europe and the Japanese in China.

But liberalism could rally citizens to fight a world war, coordinating everyone from trainee soldiers to huge corporations. Young liberal economists like Canadian-born John Kenneth Galbraith took charge of American industry and told its captains what to build and how much to charge for it.

Having won the greatest war in history, liberals then created a functioning international order as well as a powerful new military in case that order broke down. George F. Kennan's historic memo outlined a decades-long plan to encircle and smother the Soviets.

Even the Republicans under Eisenhower and Nixon followed the liberals' plan; in hindsight we can see that they too were liberals, with conservatives relegated to the margins. In Canada, Diefenbaker's conservatism consisted largely of scrapping the Avro Arrow and scaling back our own military.

The rot sets in

Liberalism's rot set in with Kennedy. After thirty years of triumph, liberalism thought it could do anything it liked: knock over obstreperous governments, fight one-sided wars, and sleep with gangsters' girlfriends.

So we got the Bay of Pigs, followed by a remarkable recovery: With the missile crisis of 1962, liberalism won World War III without having to fight it.

But liberal hubris then led to the Gulf of Tonkin and Vietnam, and finally to Chile. Word began to leak out about deals made with tyrants, and about democracies betrayed. Liberal allies and puppets like the Shah of Iran suddenly disappeared. In Canada, a more modest liberalism survived through peacekeeping and universal health care, but its days were numbered too.

Meanwhile US conservatives learned from the defeat of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Like Kennan 20 years before, they took the long view and planned for the distant future.

Wealthy families and corporations began to create a new conservative generation through think tanks and endowed chairs at universities. Something similar happened in Canada, with the funding of the Fraser Institute and the morphing of Social Credit and disaffected Tories into the new Reform Party. While liberals were beginning to lose their nerve, conservatives grew confident.

Hijacked by the believers

But ideologies tend to be hijacked by their own sincerest believers. Whatever Marxism might have promised a century ago, Lenin and Stalin subverted it beyond rescue. Deng Xiaoping had been on the Long March with Mao. He made "socialism with Chinese characteristics" just another term for high-speed capitalism, a great leap forward from Adam Smith to Bill Gates.

So it was with North American and British conservatism. Energized by those think tanks, conservatives stopped fearing the future and started defining it on their own terms. Meanwhile the liberals (and their social-democratic sidekicks in the NDP) ran out of ideas. They were the spoiled heirs of their parents' and grandparents' dreams and battles. They couldn't remember a time without health insurance, cheap post-secondary education, and social programs. Great achievements, of course, but once achieved they needed to be defended.

"Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations" was a popular 19th-century prediction for the fate of newly rich families. Grandpa would found the fortune, Dad would let it stagnate, and Sonny would run it into the ground. Liberals followed the pattern. The conservatives, now hijacked by the neocons who'd once been far-left liberals, could fight for what didn't exist. The liberals could fight only for what did.

They found themselves fighting alone. Working-class families after the war had benefited from liberal-funded public schools and post-secondaries. Their kids now looked down on the public system and wangled subsidies for the private schools they preferred for their own children. Half a century of social mobility, inspired and fuelled by liberalism, spawned a generation of self-centered middle-class brats who thought they'd done it all themselves.

The word "liberal" itself became a dirty word, and in a sour irony, liberals now prefer to call themselves "progressives"-the same euphemism employed by Canadian and American communists in the 1940s, when the liberals were persecuting them.

Where liberals go from here

Conservatives like to point with alarm to dangerous trends, which is why we liberals now carry on about global warming and overseas adventurism. We're right. These really are dangerous as hell, and it's no surprise that the season's hot book is Jared Diamond's Collapse, which draws pointed parallels between lost civilizations and our own.

But rather than wearing sandwich boards warning that the end is nigh, we liberals should be planning for the day after doomsday. If Bush is leading us into a political and economic quagmire, what are we going to do to get ourselves out of it? If our economy is likely to be dragged down by America's collapse, how do we keep our own people fed and clothed and sheltered?

John Stuart Mill famously proclaimed that "The Conservatives were ever the stupid party." The last quarter-century has proved him all too right: liberals and other left-wingers have been stupidly conservative. But if we can't show that we're at least a little brighter than our opponents, we have no right to moralize about them.

As the conservatives did in the 1960s, we who are liberal should be planning for the long term-not just for the next provincial or federal election, but for at least the next half-century. And we should be planning to be just as aggressive and confident as our grandparents were, when they gave orders to the corporations instead of obeying them.

Canadian conservatism imploded under R. B. Bennett. It will implode again, and in the US as well. When it does, we'd better be ready to pick up the pieces.

Crawford Kilian is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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