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 suckers.
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 G.O.P., 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 base.
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 self-loathing.
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 spending.
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. She will be online on Monday, April 18, at 11 a.m. ET to chat. Submit your questions before or during the discussion.