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.

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Hubert G. Locke

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.

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.


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