How Being A Liberal Has Changed

How Being A Liberal Has Changed


Leonard Zwelling

In this excellent op-ed piece from The Wall Street Journal on Friday, June 21, Michael Blechman, who considers himself an old-fashioned liberal, bemoans liberalism’s loss of many of its key principles.

Mr. Blechman was a staffer for the Robert Kennedy presidential campaign in 1968. He had established the Bronx headquarters for RFK’s arrival after his victory in the California primary. Alas, that visit was never to take place and to some, including me, part of me died on June 6, 1968 when Senator Kennedy was killed.

Blechman gives several examples of how his liberalism of 1968 would not mesh well with the progressive thought of today. It explained a great deal to me about why I feel politically untethered from any of the current crop of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. He feels out of step. So do I. Those in the middle, like Biden, seem like yesterday’s stale bread. The progressives like Bernie are, well, too far left for me. Me, the old liberal, not new progressive, is still searching for a standard bearer. Here’s how yesterday’s liberalism differs from today’s progressivism.

Liberal belief one is that of equal opportunity. This is a particularly strong one among us second generation Jews whose parents were discriminated against and who surely were excluded from some venues ourselves. I certainly felt different at Duke in 1966. I knew I was not like most of those around me. So liberals of my generation felt that everyone ought to have an equal chance. Progressives of today are much more enthusiastic about programs that give historically underrepresented people advantages like affirmative action does. Affirmative action is, by definition, not equal opportunity.

Belief two is due process and the belief that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. The Obama Department of Education threatened to cut off federal funds to colleges if they did not make it easier to convict and condemn accused sexual predators, sometimes without due process. Think the Duke lacrosse scandal. Fortunately, the more conservative Trump Education Department is paring this back.

Belief three is the right to be heard. We liberals believed in that, but not necessarily the right to be believed as the women of #MeToo insist must be the case. As strong as a case is against a man for sexual misconduct, that case ought to be the bar for guilt, not the fact that a woman makes an accusation. The right to be heard is for all sides. The right to be believed or doubted is also for all sides. I have no idea what Bret Kavanaugh did and his behavior during his hearing was disqualifying in my eyes, but his story is as believable as was that of his accuser. Who knows?

Belief four is the right to legal representation for all defendants—even reprehensible ones. Recently Ronald Sullivan, a law professor at Harvard, was stripped of his role as a faculty dean of Winthrop House simply for having the gall to be part of the legal team defending Harvey Weinstein. This is ludicrous yet sanctioned and promoted by Harvard after great pressure from progressive student groups to oust Mr. Sullivan and his wife from their leadership roles. (See link).

Finally, we sixties liberals certainly believed in free speech, yet members of the both the right and left seek to cut off speeches by opponents at college campuses simply because they do not agree with their points of view. Progressives will boycott conservative speakers on campuses and worse. This too is simply wrong. Hate speech cannot be tolerated, but hearing legitimate points of view from all sides is part of a good liberal arts education.

Mr. Blechman makes the point that the progressives of today have values and beliefs quite different from those of the liberals of his era, and of mine.

It is perhaps for this reason that I cannot support many of the so-called progressives running for the Democratic nomination. Rather than espouse a view of what RFK called “things that never were” and to which he answered, “why not,” the new progressives want a rigid world that aligns with their personal views of both the past and the future. They are not for me and not for Mr. Blechman either.

Where we wind up and for whom we cast our vote has yet to be determined.

I don’t know where old liberals go to die or to vote, but there must be something and someone between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

I’m still looking.

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