Column: The Public Eye: What Do Liberals Believe?

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday January 22, 2008

As we sail into the murky political waters of 2008, it’s useful for liberals (progressives) to remember our core beliefs. Two elemental American narratives illuminate these values: the triumphant individual and the benevolent community. 

The triumphant individual is the story of the man or woman who starts from humble beginnings and becomes a success through a combination of hard work and self-confidence. It’s a testimony to the value of perseverance.  

In the movies, this is the Rocky narrative; in American history it is the biography of Ben Franklin or Abe Lincoln. In the 2008 presidential race, this is the story of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama, who have had to overcome substantial obstacles—gender, poverty, and race—to get where they are. 

While all Americans cherish the triumphant individual myth, we often disagree on crucial elements of the narrative. One point of contention is the eligibility rules. Historically, liberals have supported a more inclusive definition of whom the narrative applies to. For example, progressives argue that everyone should be eligible to run for president: male or female, black or white, gay or straight, believer or atheist, able-bodied or physically challenged. Conservatives contend that the position should be reserved for white, male, straight, able-bodied Christians, and apply similar restrictions to other positions of power. 

Another point of contention concerns the starting line for each of our lives. Liberals believe in the notion of a level playing field. They contend that every American deserves the right to unfettered opportunity and, therefore, it is unfair to provide some children with advantages that others do not have: For example, progressives believe every child has the right to a quality education.  

In contrast, conservative thinking is heavily influenced by economic Calvinism, particularly the notion that poverty is an indication God does not look with favor upon an individual: If a poor child is served by mediocre public schools and has inadequate healthcare, conservatives argue, that’s what God intended. 

Liberal and conservative values and policies stem from their interpretation of the triumphant individual myth. Progressives defend the notion of elemental human rights, the idea of a strong social safety net—food, housing, medical care, and education. Conservatives emphasize property rights and the necessity of the rich and powerful to operate without interference. 

The benevolent community is the narrative of the group of individuals who set aside personal concerns and work for the common good. In the movies, this is the town in It’s a Wonderful Life. In American history it is illustrated by our response to natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, where millions of Americans helped the victims. When Americans came together after 9/11, it represented the best aspects of community. 

While all of us cherish the benevolent community myth, we often disagree on critical elements of the narrative. Liberals visualize the American community as including everyone in the United States and believe: “I am my brother’s keeper and my sister’s keeper.”  

Social conservatives restrict the notion of community to those who identify as Christian, particularly those who say they have been “born again.” In the Left Behind series, La Haye and Jenkins posit that at the end of the world, the rapture, only true Christians are saved. The same discriminatory logic underlies “compassionate conservatism,” where conservatives argue that Christian churches should be enabled to help the needy, but in order to gain social services one must be a believer—participation in social programs requires church attendance. When conservatives seek to disable the social safety net, this reflects their belief there is no national community, only the brotherhood of Christian believers. 

The social consequences of these differing philosophies are profound. Liberals seek an activist federal government that takes seriously the notion of human rights. Conservatives want a passive, diminished government that supports the twin notions of the unfettered market and faith-based social programs. They couple this with a narrow view of human rights, restricting the right of government to interfere with individual activities. 

In the 2008 presidential campaign, there’s been a lot of talk about the “two Americas,” the division between the rich and the poor. But there are also two ideological Americas, two sets of citizens who see our country quite differently. Consistent with their believe in an expansive myth of the triumphant individual and the benevolent community, liberals speak of the common good and have a set of values that reflect their belief “we’re in this together.” Conservatives use a different moral standard, “what’s in it for me?”  

On issue after issue, liberals and conservatives see things in a radically different light: The environment? Progressives believe they have a responsibility to sustain a healthy environment for future generations—it’s an extension of the notion of the common good. Conservatives see the environment as free resources to be used to maximize individual advantage. We perceive differently, because we have different, core beliefs. 

Democratic presidential candidates Clinton, Edwards, and Obama differ on policy details, but their liberal core values are similar. Each of them offers a stark contrast to any of the GOP candidates. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at