Are Liberals Just Suckers?
Source Dave Anderson
Date 11/04/18/13:10
Are Liberals Just Suckers?
By Sally Kohn, The Washington Post

LIBERALS PRIDE themselves on being tolerant. Are they really just suckers?

The list of liberal laments about President Obama keeps getting
longer: He extended the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy. Health-care
reform didn't include a public option. In the frantic final hours of
the budget negotiations, instead of calling the GOP's bluff, he agreed
to historic cuts in progressive programs. And Wednesday, in response
to conservatives' focus on the deficit, Obama said that we have to
"put everything on the table."

What is the problem here? Is it a lack of leadership from the White
House, a failure to out-mobilize the tea party or not enough long-term
investment from liberal donors?

The real problem isn't a liberal weakness. It's something liberals
have proudly seen as a strength - our deep-seated dedication to
tolerance. In any given fight, tolerance is benevolent, while
intolerance gets in the good punches. Tolerance plays by the rules,
while intolerance fights dirty. The result is round after round of
knockouts against liberals who think they're high and mighty for being
open-minded but who, politically and ideologically, are simply

Social science research has long dissected the differences between
liberals and conservatives. Liberals supposedly have better sex, but
conservatives are happier. Liberals are more creative; conservatives
more trustworthy. And, since the 1930s, political psychologists have
argued that liberals are more tolerant. Specifically, those who hold
liberal political views are more likely to be open-minded, flexible
and interested in new ideas and experiences, while those who hold
conservative political views are more likely to be closed-minded,
conformist and resistant to change. As recently as 2008, New York
University political psychologist John Jost and his colleagues
confirmed statistically significant personality differences connected
to political leanings. Brain-imaging studies have even suggested that
conservative brains are hard-wired for fear, while the part of the
brain that tolerates uncertainty is bigger in liberal heads.

Dissecting Obama's negotiation strategy in the budget fight, Paul
Krugman wrote in the New York Times, "It looks from here as if the
president's idea of how to bargain is to start by negotiating with
himself, making pre-emptive concessions, then pursue a second round of
negotiation with the GOP, leading to further concessions." The
Washington Post's Ezra Klein has criticized Obama for similarly
failing to take a strong position on energy policy. But perhaps the
president is only playing out the psychological tendencies of his

In the weeks leading up to the budget showdown, the Pew Research
Center found that 50 percent of Republicans wanted their elected
representatives to "stand by their principles," even if it meant
causing the federal government to shut down. Among those who
identified as tea party supporters, that figure was 68 percent.
Conversely, 69 percent of Democrats wanted their representatives to
avoid a shutdown, even if it meant compromising on principles. With
supporters like that, who needs Rand Paul?

Political tolerance is supposed to be essential to the great
democratic experiment that is the United States. As Thomas Jefferson
put it in his first inaugural address, those who might wish to
dissolve the newly established union should be left "undisturbed as
monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated
where reason is left free to combat it."

But some errors, by their nature, undermine reason.

Writing in 1945, philosopher Karl Popper called this the "paradox of
tolerance" - that unlimited tolerance leads to the disappearance of
tolerance altogether. To put the current political climate in Popper's
terms, if liberals are not willing to defend against the rigid demands
of their political opponents, who are emboldened by their own
unwavering opinions, their full range of open-minded positions will be
destroyed. Liberals are neutered by their own tolerance.

This is not to say that the brand of liberal tolerance that grew from
the struggles for civil rights, women's rights and gay rights is to
blame for this lack of progressive political bite. For all the mockery
of hyper-tolerant political correctness, identity politics is anything
but tolerant. It demands that society be more accepting and inclusive
of those who are marginalized because of their race, gender or sexual
orientation. But it does not go so far as to tolerate intolerance.
Those who fight racism and sexism in society do so out of deep moral
convictions. They would never say, "Oh, we can co-exist with Fred
Phelps and the KKK and find a way to compromise." Creating a society
that fully embraces gay people and people of color means creating a
society that is intolerant of homophobia and racism.

In fact, to many scholars of race and sexuality, "tolerance" is a
dirty word. For instance, in his book "Signs of Struggle: The
Rhetorical Politics of Cultural Difference," Thomas R. West notes that
tolerance is often used in a pejorative way to make excuses for
inequalities in power. West makes the same critique of negotiation:
When fundamental rights and core values are on the table, just talking
about negotiating means you've already lost.

It would be one thing if Republicans were negotiating in good faith,
recognizing that reasonable minds can disagree on the matters at hand
and that each will have to bend. But the GOP has become so extremist
that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) made clear after the
2010 elections that his party's agenda for the next two years was not
governing but ensuring Obama's defeat in 2012. Meanwhile, as they have
for years, Republicans have openly shared their desire to shrink
government so much that they can, as anti-tax activist Grover Norquist
once promised, "drown it in a bathtub." Democrats' tolerance of such
destructive positions is a sign not of nobility but of pathetic

At times, Obama has used the bully pulpit to stand up to bullies. The
president overturned the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal ban on
same-sex unions, and led the repeal of the military's "don't ask,
don't tell" policy. He instituted promising reforms of the financial
sector, most notably creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
and appointing Elizabeth Warren, known for her criticism of Wall
Street abuse, to head it.

Yet for the most part, Obama tried to avoid public fights on these and
other key issues. He didn't repeal the Defense of Marriage Act but
rather ordered the Justice Department to stop enforcing it. "Don't
ask, don't tell" was repealed during a lame-duck session of Congress
under cover of the more attention-getting extension of the Bush-era
tax breaks for the rich. Obama appointed Warren to her post on an
interim basis to avoid a Senate confirmation battle. And, of course,
the president abandoned the public option in health-care reform when
it met with significant opposition from insurers. Taken as a whole, it
would appear that Obama is intolerant of one thing: conflict.

Now, Obama has proposed reducing the federal debt by $4 trillionover
the next 12 years, making "the tough cuts necessary to achieve these
savings, including in programs that I care deeply about." But the
reason he's even having this conversation is because the tea party
handed him the scissors. Had liberals more fiercely fought for the
role of government as the spender of last resort in a recession - and
for the role of government in general for the past three decades -
Congress would instead be debating how to invest public money in the
new American economy.

Instead, tolerant Democrats are not only capitulating to negotiations
over how much to starve our economy of public capital but in some
cases are bragging about how much they're giving in. During his
remarks about the budget deal a week ago, Obama twice trumpeted
achieving the biggest annual spending cuts in history. How can a
basketball fanatic like Obama think that throwing the ball in the
other team's hoop will somehow win the game?

Yet, this is the essence of what Obama, the community organizer, came
to Washington to do: not to push an agenda but to change the culture
of the capital to be more inclusive, open-minded, civil and
democratic. Unfortunately, there are no points for playing nice.

It's as though Democrats think we're at a polite tea party, while
Republicans are fighting an ideological war. The GOP's budget plan for
2012 would essentially dismantle Medicaid and Medicare, end social
supports for poor families and give tax breaks to business and the
wealthy. Realistically, Obama seems to understand that, at least in
the short term, liberals have lost control of the conversation and
have to play by the rules that the extreme right has made up. That
means Democrats have to do something regarding the deficit and

But Obama would win more - and actually win the future - if he would
throw down the gauntlet before reaching across the aisle. He did this
to an extent in his speech on the deficit on Wednesday, but while the
rhetoric included fighting words, the details pointed to extreme
concessions. A little more intolerance early on would serve Obama and
the Democrats well in the end.

Conservative television evangelist Pat Robertson once said, "I have a
zero tolerance for sanctimonious morons who try to scare people."
Liberals can keep patting ourselves on the back for standing tall and
tolerant while conservatives land blow after blow, but taking the high
road of civil compromise will feel less and less noble as decades of
vital government programs pile up in bloodied heaps on the ground. In
this context, liberals look increasingly less like open-minded
statesmen and more like sanctimonious morons.

There is a time for tolerance and compromise, but if the GOP is always
dictating when that time is, Democrats have already lost. Suckers.

Sally Kohn is a community organizer and political commentator. She is
the founder and chief education officer of the Movement Vision Lab, a
think tank.

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