April 4, 2018 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Liberals, to Win in Red States, Abandon Conservative Arguments

At its core, liberalism is about individual liberty. That's something Democrats can stand on whether debating gun control, LGBT rights or corn futures.

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I grew up among dairy farmers in an area populated by cows more than people before landing later in the New York’s orbit. So I found myself nodding along to Mary Logan Wolf’s “Yes, Red-State Liberals Exist,” published in the winter 2018 issue of Democracy, about the differences between her native Oklahoma and America’s urbanized seaboards. I loved her discussion of hunting rifles, religion and patriotism. She finds these compatible with the tenets of liberalism, and so do I.

But I was also frustrated. 

Wolf has never lived anywhere but her small plains town. I’ve made the journey from a deep-red country kid to a true-blue city slicker. Because of that, I feel I can see something perhaps she can’t. Though she’s clearly a liberal, I can see Wolf still views liberalism through a culturally conservative lens. In and of itself, this is unimportant, but her essay tries to offer guidance to Democrats seeking office in red states. They should know what they are fighting for, and why. Wolf’s essay only goes so far.

Take her discussion of “liberal.” Don’t use it, she warns. Oklahoma Democrats prefer “moderate” “Many of these moderates recoil from the l-word,” she writes. “They may think liberal, pray liberal, ad vote liberal, but call them one and they act like they drove over a dead skunk.”

Why? Most, she writes, are “unable to articulate their distaste.” She adds: 

“I see the reasons themselves as less important and here’s why: Whether we blame the liberal bad rap on the draft-dodging hippies, right-wing language assassination, or the natural human inclination to fit in, if the label is unpopular among members of our own party, candidates looking to woo Oklahoma moderates might exercise better judgment on when, where, and how they use it.”

On the surface, this seems prudent. If you want to win votes, talk like voters. But look deeper to see what she’s really talking about is culture, not politics, so that liberalism is more about style than substance. Any smart candidate can figure that out even if she calls herself a liberal.

Liberalism, she notes elsewhere, is the belief in “tolerance, compassion, in the freedoms of speech, press, and religion, and principles of equality.” Culture matters, of course, but at its core liberalism is about liberty. That is to say, the freedom to live one’s life as one sees fit to live it. This is something Democrats can stand on no matter who they are taking to, whether debating gun control or gay marriage or corn futures. The lesson for Democratic candidates should be: sound like your voters, but never apologize for your bedrock political beliefs.

Wolf conflates culture and politics in discussing LGBT rights, too. But more problematic is her use of caricature, one created by cultural conservatives. On the one hand, she says red-state liberals “don’t dispute the legal rights of same-sex couples to marry, or transgender individuals to serve in the military.” But on the other, Wolf writes, “you won’t find them lining up to watch a gay pride parade, either.”

I hate to break it to Wolf, but not all liberals clamber to attend gay pride parades. Many do, of course, but most, I imagine, even in San Francisco, have other things to do, even if they are homosexual. Indeed, liberals do not befriend gay people because they are gay. They form bonds for all the ordinary reasons for which human beings form bonds. Yes, we tend to talk about group identity a lot but that’s a means to an end, which, again, is attaining the greatest degree possible of individual liberty.

These twin factors—conflating culture with politics while relying on conservative caricature—inform the most vexing section of her essay about political correctness. There, Wolf says the US “is suffering from the disease of codependency, rushing in to shield its citizens from insult, thereby denying them the privilege to grow up and get over it.”

Here we have an example of a liberal accepting as true the arguments conservatives have made against liberals for decades. And this argument is in fact psychological projection in disguise. When conservatives tell liberals to stop being snowflakes, it’s because conservatives themselves are colossal snowflakes who can’t tolerate liberals calling them out. When conservative punch, they call it free speech. But when liberals find good enough reason to punch back, conservatives call it censorship.

Indeed, complaining about the language others use is not meant to stifle freedom of speech as conservatives claim but to pave the way for more and greater liberty. In other words, to attain freedom from the cultural forces (language) that enable a particular social order to maintain itself at the expense of political minorities. When liberals take this culturally conservative position, as Wolf does in this essay, they are taking unwittingly perhaps a position against a more perfect democracy.

Wolf, as I noted, is best on guns, religion and patriotism. As a red-stater, she knows what she’s talking about. Coastal liberals, as I have discovered, don’t. They think hunting rifles are the same, politically, as assault rifles. They fear overt expressions of faith. And they confuse patriotism with militarism. To coastal liberals, Wolf’s essay is a healthy reminder of ordinary feelings felt in the rest of America.

Other stories

  1. Jonathan Bernstein at Bloomberg View sees echoes of Richard Nixon in President Trump’s bullying of Amazon and Jeff Bezos, who owns the Washington Post. Turns out Nixon wanted to mess with the Post’s business, too.

  2. Stocks are plunging again this morning after news of China’s second round of retaliation for the Trump administration’s tariffs. This has some on Wall Street talking about a 50-50 chance of there being a new recession.

  3. Special Counsel Robert Mueller told the president’s attorneys that he remains under investigation but is not so far the subject of a criminal inquiry.

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John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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