Elena Kagan and the meaninglessness of the term 'Liberal'

Barack Obama’s presidency generally — and his nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court specifically — have made it clear that in America, the term “Liberal” is not a meaningful category and should be understood to carry roughly the same categorical significance as the phrase “dog person.”  That is to say, if someone says, “I’m a dog person,” you know a little bit about what they stand on dog issues generally — they are cute and we shouldn’t eat them — but you know nothing about any specific breeds or behaviors that person might or might not prefer.

In the same way, if an American says, “I’m a Liberal,” that tells you a little bit about their philosophy on the role of government — its job is to provide for the common good — but it tells you nothing about what that person believes the government should or shouldn’t do to promote that end.  Here’s where I’m going with this.

Nate Silver had an interesting post yesterday about the relative value of appointing a younger but potentially less reliable judge to the relative value of appointing a slightly older but more reliable judge.  I have nothing to add to that specific argument, but there’s one passage in it that I think illustrates how Liberals are talking about Kagan.

In particular, the insinuation that she might not be a fairly reliable liberal Justice — if one cares about such things — is a bit naive. Everything from Kagan’s background to her service on behalf of two Democratic administrations to the testimony of many, many of her colleagues and associates suggests that her basic worldview is that of a liberal, if one who does not see herself as a party to any grand project or movement. [emphasis added.]

Okay, well, let’s look at what that might mean.  She has worked for the Clinton administration and the Obama administration, which, Silver states, “suggests her basic worldviews is that of a liberal.”  We can assume, then, that what the Clinton and Obama administrations have done — the policy they’ve advocated — is basically what it means to be a liberal.  If that weren’t the case — if Clinton and Obama weren’t liberals — then Silver’s statement would be meaningless.  So, let’s look at what at least potentially qualifies as a Liberal worldview, given that criteria.

Well, Clinton’s economic policy, from the creation of NAFTA to repealing Glass-Steagall, has without question helped economic elites and helped to further destroy unions in this country.  Though unions continue to largely vote Democrat, simply identifying one’s self as a Liberal is by no means the same as being pro-union.  That’s not to say Conservatives or Republicans are pro-union.  They are not.  But that in-and-of-itself doesn’t ensure that a Liberal is an ally.

Obama has claimed the power of preventive detention, which gives the government the power to indefinitely detain those it believes are too dangerous to try or to release without accusing them of a crime.  Is that a Liberal belief?  Is that a belief that most Americans who vote Democrat are comfortable with?  It’s certainly well within the boundaries of mainstream Liberalism, as Silver and most others define it.

The same goes for rolling back Miranda rights of accused terrorists, which Eric Holder is now advocating.  The sacredness of Miranda rights used to be a bedrock of leftist thought in this country.  That is no longer the case, and simply saying, “She’s a liberal,” tells us nothing at all about her beliefs on the rights of the accused.

The point is not that Clinton and Obama are awful presidents or awful men; the point is that appealing to the category “Liberal” leaves far to much philosophical wiggle-room for any critical person to be comfortable with.  “She’s a liberal” could mean any number of things, plenty of which may run opposite to what most Liberals actually believe.

And the problem here isn’t the word — saying “trust me, she’s a progressive,” would be clearer, I think, but still insufficient.  The problem is 1) we don’t know the specifics about how she would rule as a judge and 2) “Liberal” is a floating category that isn’t (rightly or wrongly) ideologically rigid enough to inform the public about someone’s beliefs.  There’s no Liberal Manifesto to point to — Obama’s advocacy of preventative detention should be enough to persuade someone of that.

I’m a dog person.  I don’t own a dog, and I prefer Jack Russells.  Kagan is a Liberal.  Now what?

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4 Responses to Elena Kagan and the meaninglessness of the term 'Liberal'

  1. Pingback: ‘Liberal’ isn’t meaningless at all - Jamelle Bouie - United States of Jamerica - True/Slant

  2. Pingback: An update to my ‘liberalism’ post, after a critique - John Knefel - Making a Mockery - True/Slant

  3. libtree09 says:

    Liberalism of FDR is dead in America.

    FDR was pro-labor, pro-union and believed in a second Bill of Rights for Americans. A true liberal would oppose trade agreements with foreign countries that cost US Jobs. A true liberal is suspicious of big industry and banks and Wall Street and would never rescind Glass-Steagall. A true liberal believes in social justice and equality. A true liberal welcomes the future and all its challenges.

    This is how liberal FDR thought:

    We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. Necessitous men are not free men. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.

    In our day these economic truths have become accepted as self-evident. We have accepted, so to speak, a second Bill of Rights under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all – regardless of station, race, or creed. Among these are:


    The right to a useful and remunerative job.

    The right to a good education.

    The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies…


    The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.

    The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.

    The right of every family to a decent home.

    The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.

    Since FDR uttered these words in his 1944 State of the Union Address the Republican Party has been trying to dismantle his achievements.

    Clinton, who liked to define himself as a new democrat, a neo-liberal, dropped support for unions and American jobs by pushing through NAFTA and dropping safeguards on Banks and Wall Street. Suddenly liberals were fans of shipping jobs and manufacturing overseas and were cheerleaders for big banks and wall street. Pursuit of happiness largely depended on income or at the very least a good credit score.

    Democrats are no longer the party of the people and the disadvantaged and therefore are not run or even influenced by old school liberals.

  4. marissaao says:

    The American political spectrum has been so ridiculously skewed to the right that “liberal” has had little meaning in American politics for a long time now.

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