To be “liberal” is to be “open to new ideas” and “favourable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms.”

Given the above definition, can a true liberal be a promoter or defender of that most ancient flaw of humanity–war? Is such a thing as a “liberal hawk” logical or possible?

One of the oldest ideas in all of human civilization is the idea of war (and all kinds of violent oppression) as a way of resolving conflicts, during which, practically speaking, there is no way to be respectful of human rights and freedoms. History proves that “war crimes” and the killing of innocent people are inevitable in any war. Though war is often justified in terms of protecting “freedom” and human rights– “humanitarian intervention” is the euphemism– the means of war are inherently inhumane and stand opposed to many kinds of religious values, including the Christian call to “love one’s neighbor” and, harder, “love your enemies.” Nor is war democratic, even in defense of democracy. To kill people indiscriminately (like dropping bombs or invading cities) to “save lives” and defend rights is moral hypocrisy in which the ends are said to justify the means.  Given the ancient, old-fashioned failure of war, and given war’s inherent violation of human rights, how can any “liberal” be anything but an anti-war activist?

It is now fashionable to make distinctions between liberal and progressive; a progressive is a more liberal liberal, or a left-liberal, or a populist liberal, etc. Then there is the “democratic socialist”–more liberal, or radical, I guess, than a progressive. But concerning foreign policy, almost the entire “left” side of the political spectrum are apologists for war, as long as war is not used too often or allowed to last too long in any one location.

There are, of course, various anti-war organizations that spring out of liberal or liberally religious sympathies: Code Pink, Peace Action, War Resister’s League, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, World Beyond War, Religious Society of Friends, Pax Christi, Jewish Voice for Peace, etc. But these are liberal fringe groups without much, if any, influence on the Democratic Party or most “liberal” members of Congress at present.

If the term “liberal” is no longer liberal enough to signify an anti-war perspective, I prefer to adopt the old term, once used pejoratively, of “bleeding-heart liberal.” This relates directly to the sense of compassion and Christ-like renunciation of violent means which can resurrect liberal as the all-encompassing intellectual and emotional word for truly humane and democratic civilization.


Writing recently in The New York Times Magazine, prominent historian Rick Perlstein attempts to figure out how exactly American conservatism could produce, as if out of nowhere, a candidate and a president of such “intellectual embarrassment” as Donald Trump. What had American historians, particularly those of conservative focus, failed to see since William F. Buckley, Jr. supposedly recreated respectable conservatism out of the ashes of World War II by founding the National Review?

President Reagan meeting with William F. Buckley in the Oval Office. 21 January 1988. By White House photo office [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The simple if perhaps too simplistic answer to Perlstein’s question is that the patron saints of the modern conservative movement–primarily Buckley and Ronald Reagan–have been venerated (mostly by conservatives) well beyond their actual intellectual/political brilliance. What they created has led to Trumpism because American conservatism was not grounded, beyond the small farm agrarianism of Thomas Jefferson, on justice and reality.

Perlstein does not mention in his Times essay that the year before Buckley founded National Review he wrote and published a book, co-authored with his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, in which the two men generally defended the ideas and methods of that great conservative symbol of national security paranoia and heavy-handed government intrusion– Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. A wonderfully droll and critical review of McCarthy and His Enemies appeared in The New York Times in April of 1954 by William S. White, a reporter at the time for the The Times Washington Bureau. The review of the Buckley/Bozell book is worth quoting from at length, for it sheds much light on the shallow intellectual acumen and slipshod academic methods of the (admittedly younger) William F. Buckley, Jr.:

“One assumes that Mr. Buckley led this team. They have written their book not as reporters who have followed the blow-by-blow contests, but rather as “historians” who have studied the “historical” documents. One may legitimately doubt their objective approach, however; the authors have consulted with Senator McCarthy, but it is not known that they have consulted with General Marshall or any of the other “enemies” of the title.

Here, at any rate, is proof that it is the young who are infinitely more deadly — in purpose at least — of the species. Essentially what they have attempted is a defense both of Senator McCarthy and “McCarthyism” and an argument, well written in the English language as it is, that will rather stagger those to whom that language has long expressed certain concepts of fair play which Messrs. Buckley and Bozell seem to think either out of date or not viable in a world of great peril. They wish to make that kind of “security” that would astonish and worry traditional Conservatives.

For the kind of “security” here proposed would, in the end, and by its own definition, result in enormous insecurity for every sort of person whose notions might run counter to the youthful Buckley-Bozell political dogmas . . . “

So right from the very beginning of Buckley’s career there is displayed the sort of radical reactionaryism that would be right at home among many of the “alt-right” to whom Trump turned as both candidate and president. Despite White’s acerbic review, McCarthy and His Enemies appeared on the NY Times best-seller list, which goes to prove, I suppose, that this sort of nationalism-gone-berserk conservatism was pretty popular already back in the 1950’s.

Buckley’s National Review also dabbled early in racism. This excerpt from The NY Times reporting on the life of Buckley soon after his death in February of 2008:

In 1955, Mr. Buckley started National Review as voice for “the disciples of truth, who defend the organic moral order” with a $100,000 gift from his father and $290,000 from outside donors. The first issue, which came out in November, claimed the publication “stands athwart history yelling Stop.”

It proved it by lining up squarely behind Southern segregationists, saying Southern whites had the right to impose their ideas on blacks who were as yet culturally and politically inferior to them. After some conservatives objected, Mr. Buckley suggested instead that both uneducated whites and blacks should be denied the vote.

This, then, was the nature of Buckley’s conservative “organic moral order.” Yes, as Perlstein points out, Buckley denounced the John Birch Society, anti-Semitism and the fanatical followers of Ayn Rand; Buckley was a clever and by all accounts charming defender of traditional, wholesome aspects of culture he thought liberals were too quick to dismiss. But generally speaking, William F. Buckley, Jr. was no Russell Kirk, no lover of quiet agrarian traditions in which both silly “progress” and sillier war were opposed.

Kirk’s brand of agrarian conservatism, closest to that of Thomas Jefferson, has always held some promise*(see note below), but is burdened, in my view, by an over-reliance on historical norms and prejudices and a suspicion of reason and egalitarian feeling. For Kirk, liberalism is always “radical collectivism” which “detests religious faith, private virtue, traditional personality, and the life of simple satisfactions.” Not true, I reply. Liberalism does not forsake tradition, virtues and satisfactions, but will not be made a slave to unjust, inhumane traditions and practices. Liberals believe in the power of individual reason and a democratic government acting for the common good.

 What stands as the foundation of American conservatism as invented in National Review is an intellectual anti-intellectualism which inevitably evolved into Trumpism– mere un-intellectualism. In other words, historian Richard Hofstadter was not as mistaken about the nature of American conservatism as Perlstein suggests:

Until the 1990s, the most influential writer on the subject of the American right was Richard Hofstadter, a colleague of Trilling’s at Columbia University in the postwar years. Hofstadter was the leader of the “consensus” school of historians; the “consensus” being Americans’ supposed agreement upon moderate liberalism as the nation’s natural governing philosophy. He didn’t take the self-identified conservatives of his own time at all seriously. He called them “pseudoconservatives” and described, for instance, followers of the red-baiting Republican senator Joseph McCarthy as cranks who salved their “status anxiety” with conspiracy theories and bizarre panaceas. He named this attitude “the paranoid style in American politics” and, in an article published a month before Barry Goldwater’s presidential defeat, asked, “When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever gone so far?”

What Hofstadter said of Goldwater can be as easily said of Donald Trump, but Trump was actually elected. Perlstein writes that the election of Ronald Reagan to the office of president twice by landslides “made a mockery of Hofstadter.” Well, hardly a mockery. The “paranoid style” of national security coupled with the fairy tale style of “trickle-down” economics remains the heart of conservative ideology and thus does not deserve to be taken seriously.

Perlstein, seems to me, is just being too polite. Or too circumspect. And to risk being impolite, as Perlstein writes future historians may have to be–Trumpism is just the dumbest form of conservatism.

*Note–Today our “conservatives” are more likely than liberals to be supporters of “factory farming” and other forms of corporate greed/government austerity that harm rural areas.

By Official White House Photo by Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Official White House Photo by Pete Souza [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
At present the “golden rule” of many in Congress is he who has the most gold is the most to be loved and pandered to, so it was no doubt a bit of a shock for our representatives in Washington, D.C. to be reminded of the Christian Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I’m speaking, of course, of the address to Congress this morning by Pope Francis, who has almost single-handedly returned Catholicism and Christianity back to their social justice and peacemaking roots, much to the chagrin of conservatives, religious or not.

The current pope, it needs to be said, is not perfect and not God, but I do think he grasps his own significance in a nation like the United States where, despite our famous division between church and state, we are inordinately given to talking about and governing through our religious beliefs. And what Pope Francis delivered on Capitol Hill today was a clever encouragement for generally liberal priorities, none more clever than this paragraph:

“The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

The first sentence received a rousing standing ovation from our Republican-majority Congress, as it was taken to be a statement against legal abortion. One can argue (and we do) over exactly at what point a human life begins within a woman’s womb and whether or not a woman has the right to decide whether or not to bring a pregnancy to term, but Francis sidesteps the “pro-life” argument against abortion to focus on the pro-life, Catholic, liberal argument against capital punishment. Here Pope Francis rhetorically undercuts the anti-abortion expectation to reveal the hypocrisy of declaring oneself pro-life toward the unborn but see nothing wrong with the state ending the lives of fully-born criminals or launching wars in which many, including innocent children, are killed.

Pope Francis noted four Americans who have “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people” and three of them were religious people of peace, in fact, arguably pacifists– Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Day and Merton are famous liberal American Catholics who became writers and activists for peace and the poor. Day said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” Day also said, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” That “system” would be unchecked capitalism.

Yes, the pope also defended marriage and families (presumably the heterosexual sort) and gave a nod to religious freedom, meaning the right to deny some forms of healthcare and birth control for religious reasons, which only proves the guy is, after all, the head of a pretty conservative institution. But, all in all, Pope Francis brought a much-needed soulful appeal for compassion, economic justice, nature and peace to our heretofore hard-hearted, close-minded brethren in Congress.