When on March 23 President Obama signed into law health care legislation, among those in attendance were 11-year-old Marcelas Owens and relatives of Natoma Canfield. In his remarks the president noted that “Marcelas lost his mom to an illness, and she . . . couldn’t afford the care that she needed,” and “Natoma [who has cancer] had to give up her health coverage after her rates were jacked up by more than 40 percent.”
In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama wrote:
A sense of empathy . . . is one that I find myself appreciating more and more as I get older. It is at the heart of my moral code, and it is how I understand the Golden Rule—not simply as a call to sympathy or charity, but as something more demanding, a call to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes. . . . I believe a stronger sense of empathy would tilt the balance of our current politics in favor of those people who are struggling in this society.
These words came towards the end of his chapter entitled “Values.” In it he also wrote, “I think that Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values.” He went on to insist that the question of values should be at “the heart of our politics.”
The past year’s debate on health care has brought to the forefront a long-standing clash between liberal and conservative values. Although the conflict simmered for many decades, it intensified in the late 1980s and has continued to the present. In his book Culture Wars (1991), James Davison Hunter described the opponents in this conflict. On one side were conservatives who believed that some sort of external moral authority like their church or scripture aided them in determining God’s will. On the other side were those whom Hunter called progressives. Of varied views regarding religion, they relied more on reason, their inner selves, and contemporary conditions in deciding right from wrong.
In the “Values” chapter mentioned above, Obama wrote that many conservatives believed that the Republican stance on moral issues like gay marriage had been crucial in helping them win the 2004 election. Since 2006, conservatives have been holding annual Values Voters Summits. Generally those in attendance, including their chief speakers, believe that they are espousing much more positive values than those of liberals.
I disagree, and the clash over health care reform — plus the Democratic record in the last hundred years — illustrates why. Before going further, however, it must be recognized that not all Democrats have been liberals, or all Republicans conservatives. Nor have all conservatives been of a single mind on moral values or religious beliefs. Nevertheless, twenty-first century Democrats do generally espouse liberal views, while Republicans are more conservative.
The chief values I associate with liberalism are compassion (or empathy), tolerance, pluralism, and rationality. As we have seen, Obama associated empathy with the Golden Rule — “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You” — taught by many of the world’s great religions. Our Founding Fathers cherished some of the other values I mentioned, as does Obama. In a 2009 review in The New York Times of Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, the reviewer stated:
We like to think of our nation’s founders as men with unwavering fealty to high-minded principles. To some extent they were. But when they gathered in Philadelphia during the summer of 1787 to write the Constitution, they showed that they were also something just as great and often more difficult to be: compromisers. In that regard they reflected not just the classical virtues of honor and integrity but also the Enlightenment’s values of balance, order, tolerance, scientific calibration and respect for other people’s beliefs.
As one who taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School, President Obama knows well this history.
Compassion, tolerance, pluralism, and rationality helped bring about some of the great human rights advances of the last century. And it is liberals, not conservatives, who were in the forefront of battling for these gains. On March 23, the same day that President Obama signed health reform into law, New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks acknowledged that “the Democratic Party has, at its best, come to embody the cause of fairness and family security. Over the past century, they have built a welfare system, brick by brick, to guard against the injuries of fate. He also praised the party’s “basic concern for the vulnerable,” and noted that it “protected the unemployed starting with the New Deal, then the old, then the poor. Now, thanks to health care reform, millions of working families will go to bed at night knowing that they are not an illness away from financial ruin.”
Being a conservative, however, Brooks also had praise for the Republican Party. He wrote that it “has, at its best, come to embody the cause of personal freedom and economic dynamism.” He also expressed grave reservations about the new health care reform. His main fears were that the new legislation would not, despite Democratic assurances, end the “asphyxiating growth” of health care spending and would further contribute to “the exploding federal debt.” The Democratic Party, he believed, “is just not structured to cut spending that would enhance health and safety. The party nurtures; it does not say, ‘No more.’”
His fears are legitimate and rational, but his statement about the Republican Party embodying “the cause of personal freedom” is misleading. Historian Clinton Rossiter once observed that “the preference for liberty over equality lies at the root of the Conservative tradition, and men who subscribe to this tradition never tire of warning against the ‘rage for equality.’” The belief that expanding assistance to the unfortunates in society will impinge upon the freedoms of others is strong among conservatives. Many of them fear that such expansion will increase “big government” and raise taxes. They are afraid that the new health care legislation will lessen the rights of employers, doctors, and even patients. Aside from the health care debate, conservatives are suspicious of any government regulation of guns or financial markets. Although fears of “big government” can be legitimate, they often seem excessive. One of the heroes of conservatives, economist Milton Friedman stated at the end of the twentieth century that the cabinet departments overseeing commerce, education, energy, and labor, as well as several others, should be eliminated.
Moreover, there are other freedoms that liberals have been more concerned about than conservatives, and Brooks failed to mention them. In 1944 Franklin Roosevelt declared that “freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitious men are not free men.’” And he called for a “second Bill of Rights” that would include, among other items, “the right to a useful and remunerative job . . . to adequate medical care and . . . to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.” Since then, various writers have emphasized a similar point. The historian Herbert J. Muller, writing in his Freedom in the Modern World (1966), stated that “real freedom” for many necessitated social reforms on behalf of workers, poor people, and the “underprivileged.” Amartya Sen (like Milton Friedman a Nobel Prize winning economist) wrote in his Development as Freedom (1999) that true freedom required not just political and civil rights, but also “substantive freedom,” which meant economic and social opportunities that might include such things as jobs and subsidies, unemployment benefits, and inexpensive health care.
Regarding freedom for minorities, including gays and lesbians, women’s rights, freedom from censorship – who has championed these freedoms more, liberals or conservatives? And which of the two has been more active in an organization that since its founding in 1920 has done more than any other non-governmental organization to protect Constitutional rights–the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)?
Regarding tolerance, has it been liberals or conservatives who have displayed more willingness to consider the other side’s position? Has it been President Obama or Republican members of Congress who have been most willing to negotiate and compromise? Conservative columnist David Frum, who had earlier served in George W. Bush’s administration, wrote on his blog that the passage of Obama’s health reform was a “defeat for free-market economics and Republican values,” but that a good deal of the blame for the “disaster attaches to conservatives and Republicans ourselves.” He went on to say that “at the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision . . . we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing.”
Regarding pluralism, is it liberals or conservatives who tolerate and even welcome the greatest diversity of ethnic, racial, cultural, and religious (or irreligious) groups?
Regarding rationality, is it liberals or conservatives who come closest to following what Andrei Sakharov once defined as a scientific approach to problem solving? It was, he said, “a method based on deep analysis of facts, theories, and views, presupposing unprejudiced, unfearing open discussion and conclusions.” Dealing with questions as varied as financial reform, health care, educational curriculum, and the environment (including climate change) which side has been most rational, most open to scientific findings?
In The New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert wrote that at an anti-Obama health reform rally in Columbus, Ohio, the week before such reform became law, some individuals “taunted and humiliated a man who was sitting on the ground with a sign that said he had Parkinson’s disease. One of the . . . protesters leaned over the man and sneered: ‘If you’re looking for a handout, you’re in the wrong end of town.’” Herbert also noted that in Washington several days later “opponents of the health care legislation spit on a black congressman and shouted racial slurs at two others, including John Lewis, one of the great heroes of the civil rights movement.
Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, was taunted because he is gay.” Herbert added that “it is time for every American of good will to hold the Republican Party accountable for its role in tolerating, shielding and encouraging foul, mean-spirited and bigoted behavior in its ranks and among its strongest supporters.” He had even worse things to say about the Republicans, including the following: “This is the party that genuflects at the altar of right-wing talk radio, with its insane, nauseating, nonstop commitment to hatred and bigotry.”
Of course, many conservatives are not bigots or anti-rational. But Herbert is correct in suggesting that fair-minded conservatives and Republicans have not spoken out often enough or loudly enough against the type of hateful and ignorant behavior he described.
In his chapter on values and in other sections of his The Audacity of Hope, Obama recognized that “finding the right balance between our competing values is difficult,” and he acknowledged that some past criticisms of the “liberal welfare state” were justified. In the year-long struggle over health care reform, he consistently declared that he would welcome Republican ideas. He stated that no one party had a monopoly on good ideas. While remaining pragmatic and anything but a doctrinaire ideologue, he also displayed the liberal Democratic values of compassion, tolerance, and rationality. Little wonder that he believes that Democrats should welcome a values debate with Republicans.
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is An Age of Progress?: Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008).
Crossposted with the author’s permission from The History News Network.