Politics In the Era of Symbolic Liberalism

I am old enough to remember when liberals actually thought liberalism was a good idea. Long ago, liberals like Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey fought for programs that they thought would improve the lives of Americans. True, many of their ideas turned out to be bad–I would argue that most were–but at least they had ideas, and they made an impact.

Those days are gone. Today, being a liberal is almost entirely a symbolic project. The current flap over the Confederate flag in South Carolina is a good example. But at least the flag has some arguable importance as a symbol. Here in Minneapolis, a campaign is under way to effect a symbolic change that has no conceivable importance: liberals want to change the name of Lake Calhoun, one of the city’s several urban lakes.

It turns out that Lake Calhoun is named for John C. Calhoun, who was Secretary of War under President Monroe, during whose administration Fort Snelling was founded at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers. No one has ever accused Minnesota of harboring Confederate sympathies, and until now hardly anyone knew where the name came from, so what’s the point? An activist explains:

[Mike Spangenberg of Minneapolis] said the petition represents confronting the nation’s past and addressing systemic racism.

“Systemic” in this context meaning “not actually existing.” There is one slight problem: the proposed name change would be illegal:

In 2011, the [Park Board] was advised by its legal counsel that it lacked the unilateral power to change the name.

Asked about that, [Park Board President Liz Wielinski] responded, “That doesn’t mean in today’s climate that wouldn’t happen.”

By “today’s climate,” I take it she means the climate of lawlessness fostered by the Obama administration. This illustrates another striking feature of contemporary liberalism: as the ends become more trivial, the means become more extreme and intolerant.

One could expand on the theme of symbolic liberalism indefinitely. What else are liberals fired up about these days? Making sure everyone calls Caitlyn Jenner–one of a tiny number of transgendered Americans–by her chosen name. And, of course, gay marriage, another purely symbolic issue, especially since all material and legal advantages of marriage are available through civil unions. And the most trivial issue of all, forcing bakers and florists to participate in gay weddings whether they like it or not, even though no one has ever suggested that gays suffer from a lack of cakes or flowers.

Even issues of supposedly earth-shaking importance, like global warming, are in fact entirely symbolic. I don’t know a single liberal who has stopped driving a car, or who doesn’t expect to be able to turn lights on with a flip of a switch. Most liberals are not willing to undergo even minor inconvenience for the sake of, supposedly, saving the planet. (Al Gore is a notorious example.)

Liberals are right not to go out of their way to fight global warming. Assuming the alarmists’ models are correct, terminating all emissions of CO2 from the United States, which would require not just cessation of all transportation and industrial activity, but the death of all Americans, would affect global temperatures only imperceptibly. Liberals don’t yammer about the climate because they think they can do something about it, they are merely taking a symbolic stand, mostly to distinguish themselves from conservatives.

The fact that liberalism has become almost entirely a symbolic exercise doesn’t mean that liberals can’t do harm. For one thing, they can block important conservative policies. And the one thing liberals do take seriously is spending money, unless it’s on defense or infrastructure. Although here again, they are concerned mostly with appearances (and, often, financial self-interest), not impact. Liberals care deeply that money is spent, but are generally indifferent to whether it actually does any good.

All of these symbolic issues can distract voters from matters of real substance, like our anemic economy, stagnant wages, the Obama administration’s disastrous foreign policies, and our ever-growing mountain of debt. I guess that’s the point. Republican politicians would be well advised to avoid the left’s endless succession of symbolic battles and focus on the issues voters care about.