What it means to be a liberal

In Isaac Asimov’s memoir, I. Asimov, published in 1994, he explained why he was a political liberal:

“I wanted to see the United States changed and made more civilized, more humane, truer to its own proclaimed traditions I wanted to see all Americans judged as individuals and not as stereotypes. I wanted to see all with reasonable opportunities. I wanted society to feel a reasonable concern for the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, the hopeless.”

Then, Asimov surveyed the political landscape over his lifetime:

“I was only thirteen when Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president and introduced the ‘New Deal,’ but I was not too young to get an idea of what he was trying to do. … I disapproved of Roosevelt only when he wasn’t liberal enough, as when, for political reasons, he ignored the plight of African Americans….

“Liberalism began to fade after World War II. Times became prosperous, and many blue collar people … turned conservative. They had theirs and weren’t willing to discommode themselves for those who were still down at the bottom….

“And eventually we came to the Reagan era, when it became de rigeur not to tax but to borrow; to spend money not on social services but on armaments. … Rich Americans grew richer in an atmosphere of deregulation and greed, and poor Americans — But who worries about poor Americans except people branded with the L-word that no one dared mention any more?

“It makes me think of Oliver Goldsmith’s lines:
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.

“As a loyal American, I grow heartsick.”

Asimov wrote that a quarter of a century ago, and things have mostly gotten worse since then. Perhaps there have been modest gains in people being judged as individuals and not stereotypes, most notably in the legaization of same sex marriage; but we have also learned from Black Lives Matter and #MeToo that far too many persons are victimized because of their race or sex. But when it comes to “a reasonable concern for the poor, the unemployed, the sick, the aged, the hopeless,” we have arguably regressed since 1994: Bill Clinton eviscerated aid to poor people, George W. Bush spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq while cutting social service spending at home, Barack Obama put more effort into bailing out banks during the Great Recession than helping the poor, and Donald Trump now promotes open contempt of anyone who is not wealthy.

I continue to be a deeply patriotic American, but we are growing less civilized and less humane, and we are departing wildly from our proclaimed traditions. As a loyal American, I grow heartsick.

Happy Independence Day.

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