Best of 2009: Ted Kennedy and the perils of liberal fundamentalism

If liberalism dies with its great champion, it will be because of many liberals' self-righteous demand for purity in policy. Kennedy's life taught us otherwise.

Hubert G. Locke

Hubert G. Locke University of Washington

Editor's note: This essay, originally appearing on Sept. 2, 2009, is part of our Best of Crosscut series.

While the better part of the nation is still mourning the death of Sen. Ted Kennedy, it may be timely to pause for a moment and reflect on the political liberalism that he so passionately espoused and skillfully practiced. It is the latter virtue that we are currently in such short supply — so much so, in fact, that the pundits are already at work busily interring liberalism alongside the mortal remains of its fiercest champion.

If political liberalism dies with Ted Kennedy, we liberals will have only ourselves to blame. The fault, in Shakespeare's immortal line, will not be in our stars but in ourselves. It's undeniably true that sizeable portions of the nation's populace would cheer themselves hoarse over liberalism's demise. The same crowd that screams hysterically at town hall meetings on health care reform — and the same buckets of money that pay for organizing and fanning their ire — are those for whom liberalism is an heresy of the worst order.

The real problem, however, is not right-wing hysteria. The problem, at its core, is that far too many liberals — if truth be told — are political fundamentalists at heart. These are the liberals who have the Truth about abortion, climate change, the environment, health care reform, war, peace, you name it. They know the Right answer and, like every unregenerate fundamentalist, anything other than the received dogma that they impart on these issues is rank heresy. Discussion of policy options or alternatives that might involve solutions less than those they proclaim is tantamount to abandoning the true faith and taking up company with the heathen.

We can see this in all the liberal kvetching Barack Obama is having to endure, after seven months in office, over nearly every major (and some minor) issues he confronts: He isn't getting us out of Afghanistan fast enough. He hasn't renounced torture and the CIA's antics loudly enough. He hasn't penalized greedy bankers harshly enough. He didn't pick a true liberal to replace Associate Justice Souter. He's settled for goals in the campaign against global warming that are too low. He's not pressing the public option in health care reform with sufficient vigor, etc. His political enemies are doing their level best to bring Obama down; one might not have expected them to receive as much aid and comfort from his political friends.

Ted Kennedy's political genius lay in his well-known and highly regarded ability to reach across the political aisle in the Senate and engage in what politics always, in the final analysis, is: the art of compromise. Consequently Kennedy has more legislative accomplishments to his credit than any legislator in recent memory. None of those achievements was ideal, but each one moved public policy and the nation a step (sometimes small, at other times gigantic) closer to the goals of justice and equality in our society.

Given the stance of the opposition party on nearly every issue of importance, liberals may be excused if they feel bipartisanship means playing footsie with the devil. But they cannot be forgiven if they display the same self-righteous demand for purity in policy that inflicts their religious counterparts when it comes to religious dogma. Political fundamentalism is no less distasteful than its religious variety. And neither is very helpful to people searching for solutions in today's complex world.

Hubert G. Locke is Dean Emeritus of the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington and former Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. Until recently, he was a regular columnist for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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Posted Wed, Sep 2, 7:30 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Locke, I could not agree more. I happen to be a liberal, but what I fear most for our politics and frankly our Country is the astoundingly harded conviction in the correctness of our view and the determination that no policy but one that is in complete harmony with that world view is acceptable---for liberal, conservatives, religeous left or right. When did everyday political discourse become infused with such hardened point of view. Is it talk radio? 24-hour news? Political News/Editorial?

We can continue on this path and I fear it will lead to a result that is horrifying. The years leading up to the civil war had a similar hardening of postions until there was but one way through it. Have we lost sight of what we really want and what that really means? Are we incapable of independent, critical thinking.

Great article and I hope all of us, regardless of our policy leaning, listen with an open heart.


Posted Wed, Sep 2, 1:54 p.m. Inappropriate

We are fortunate to have Hubert Locke in our midst. Please publish his writings as often as possible.

Posted Thu, Sep 3, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

A trenchant, graceful piece, Professor Locke. The purist in me resists conceding even an inch to a person whose views feel hostile to my dearest beliefs. But when I examine my resistance closely, it really does begin to seem infantile: MY toy! MY way! MY policy! Do 2-year-olds negotiate and compromise? There's nothing grown up about treating politics as a win-or-lose game. Sometimes President Obama seems like the only adult in a nation of babies.


Posted Thu, Sep 3, 10:56 a.m. Inappropriate

Bipartisanship in Seattle means we elect as leaders only Democrats who are under the control of our corrupt moderate Republican leadership.

From Norm Maleng on down the line these folks are all about themselves.

Posted Fri, Sep 4, 8:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Once again Hubert has given us something to think about! Thank you. Dialogue and a spirit of openness is critical in a democracy. I fear we could be loosing ground when it comes to these founding principles. Dr. Locke's point is true in every disicipine, not just political. As a retired clergyperson I see the rants in theology and our public witness for justice issues and peace often compromised because of "hard positions" right and left! Please encourage and invite Dr. Locke to write often. He is a treasure for us all. - Rev. Marvin Eckfeldt


Posted Sat, Sep 5, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Locke, youll be pleased to know that this liberal just sent this email to Obama.

Dear President Obama,

I don't mind if you continue to use extraordinary rendition and torture, hold prisoners without access to the courts, and even torture them some-as long as you don't do it to the extent that awful Bush and Cheney did.

And I don't mind you giving billions to the banks and putting the citizens of this great country of the hook for trillions in gaurantees behind the financial instruments that these banks are selling while doing damn little for the rest of us-as long as you do just a little bit more the average American than Bush did.

And if your healthcare reform is a giant giveaway to the health industry through making every American purchase insurance from them without forcing them to become more efficient and reduce costs-I'm OK with that as long as you don't give them as much as Bush would.

And the cap and trade energy policy. Sure it's a give away to the energy industry and will do little to nothing for the environment, but as long as it isn't as bad as what Bush would have done, I'm fine with it.

And as far as the wars and the Americans coming home maimed and dead and the civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq dead and maimed-I don't mind as long as the numbers are lower than Bush's would be.

And President Obama, that policy of indefinite detention of people accused of a crime and never tried in court. Hell I trust you. And even though a finding of innocent in a court won't be enough under your policy to actually free the accused from detention-I don't mind; you are an honorable man with an honorable administration and I just know we can trust you.

Tap my phones, read my emails, peruse my Library records-I don't mind, I have nothing to hide. And I sure don't want anyone to think I'm some purist liberal.

Posted Sat, Sep 5, 5:33 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm sorry, but there are somethings that aren't appropriate for compromise, and that doesn't mean that we who don't compromise on them are being infantile.

About climate change, I can't say, "Well, maybe they have a point, let's talk about it for some time and come to a consensus on it. Maybe it's not really happening, and it probably is being to 'purist" to say we have to cut down on carbon emissions."

About abortion, I can't say, "Well, yes, maybe we should allow only a certain percentage of women to have abortion. We don't really want to take a hard position that will just antagonize the religious fundamentalists."

About health care, I can't say, "Well, of course, insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies will be at a disadvantage if they can't make the amount of profit they're making now. We can work for reform that will allow those CEOs to continue making their salaries and bonuses. Maybe we can come to a compromise where only 27 million people don't have insurance instead of 47 million."

What Dr. Locke is talking about is only possible if the people on the other side of the aisle are WILLING to compromise. The Republicans in Congress have shown no willingness to do so on health care reform. Possibly Kennedy would have been able to get them to do so; we can't know that for certain. But compromise and cooperation take two parties. Don't blame one group--the liberals--for its failure.


Posted Sat, Sep 5, 11:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Mmm, yes, I think the essay appears to have missed the past 8 months of how the Republicans have performed in rallying around the word no.

WF Buckley died and the Conservatives are (in real terms) brainless. They are reduced to emotional, reactionary, and inflamitory rhetoric that only leads them to absolutism. They have purged the impure moderates from their party with Republican with a singleminded expression found in the loving embrace of the empty headed, souless, S. Palin.

They are not able to compromise, or much else right now. At this point they are fighting ideas they are speculating about (real, or imagined).
I say, if they are going to blame you for what they imagine what they think you might do, you might as well do what you want. They are going to blame you for something anyway, you might as well actually get something done.

Mr Baker

Posted Sun, Sep 6, 12:01 a.m. Inappropriate

No, no, set "compromise" aside for a minute, along with blaming and name calling. The operative word in the essay is "fundamentalism." Give the Professor the benefit of doubt and assume he is concerned with all brands of it.

Peter Berger phrases it this way:
"The basic fault lines today are not between people with different beliefs but between people who hold these beliefs with an element of uncertainty and people who hold these beliefs with a pretense of certitude....
Epistemological modesty means that you believe certain things, but you're modest about these claims.”

Read slower.


Posted Sun, Sep 6, 1:19 a.m. Inappropriate

Tell me how I could hold a belief about climate change with uncertainty.

Tell me how I could hold a belief about the need for health care reform with uncertainty.

If I am indeed certain, definitely certain, about my beliefs on those issues and those beliefs are buttressed by facts, that makes me a fundamentalist?

That simply tells me that semantics are more important than issues. It also tells me that the rightwing fundamentalists will definitely take power again because they don't care about such semantics. They are certain about everything. They do not play nice, and they will laugh at us as we place nice and lose.


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