A mossy cliche

Jonah Goldberg, writing in the current issue of NR (subscription required), responds to the notion that progressives suffer only from a branding problem:

[This is] one of liberalism’s mossier clichés. Whenever liberals get in trouble, it’s not because they’re wrong, it’s because they haven’t communicated their rightness sufficiently. A few years ago, this claim was best reflected in the writings of George Lakoff, the linguist who thinks everyone will love trial lawyers if we just call them “public-protection attorneys.” The idea has great and obvious appeal to liberals because it places the real blame on the public, for failing to appreciate just how right they are, while offering them a backdoor compliment: We’re just too smart to talk at the hoi polloi’s level.

That said, I think Robinson is right about one thing. Progressives do have a branding problem. But it stems from the nature of progressivism. What progressivism stands for is having progressives be in charge. Period. Progressivism, stripped of all its pretensions and its many good intentions (and it does have many good intentions), is at its core the dogmatic belief that the familiar band of technocratic, egalitarian statists should be calling the shots.

This is the upshot of liberalism’s much vaunted “empiricism” and hostility to “labels,” “ideology,” etc. When liberals claim they don’t believe in labels, what they are saying is that they don’t want to be locked into a view, an idea, a principle, that will constrain them later.

This view is what defined FDR’s “experimentalism” and JFK’s “cool pragmatism.” JFK argued that “political labels and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solution” of contemporary challenges. “Most of the problems . . . that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems.” These problems “deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men” and therefore should be left to the experts. These days, if you hear a liberal invoke pragmatism, you can reliably translate his statement into “Shut up, we know what to do.” This has more or less defined Obama’s “pragmatism” since he took office.

Even where progressives claim to be laissez-faire — say, in matters of sexuality or abortion — there’s always an implied expiration date (does anyone believe that progressives will remain so dogmatically pro-choice the day homosexuality can be prevented in utero?). It’s very hard to find an area where liberals claim to be truly liberal (by which I mean libertarian) and their love of freedom isn’t conducive to their preferred outcome. Personal liberty is awesome, so long as you eat the right food and smoke fashionable plants. They’re for free speech in principle, but would define away disagreement as a “hate crime.” Dissent is the highest form of patriotism when it’s liberal dissent, while the dissenting tea partiers are plain old racists.

This arrogant, double-dealing mindset is what creates progressivism’s branding problem. They can’t admit to their real slogan: “Shut up, we’re in charge.”

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