What were the liberals wrong about?
December 24, 2009 9:24 AM   Subscribe

I socialize almost exclusively with friends who are politically liberal, spanning the spectrum from left-of-center progressive to the more radical fringe. Frequently, among ourselves, political conversation drifts inevitably toward variations on this theme:
"The history of our country has always proven liberalism correct and conservatism incorrect. The principles of those on the left have been validated over and over again, while those on the right have been proven wrong by the progress of history."
While I admit that this hypothesis is selfishly pleasing (I'm a liberal too, after all), it seems to me that it can't be completely true. But I don't have a strong enough grasp of American history to prove it wrong. So what am I missing? What have liberals been proven wrong about?

Evidence marshaled in support of this argument often includes the following:
  • Conservatives were wrong about the Civil Rights Act.
  • Conservatives were wrong about women's suffrage.
  • Conservatives were wrong about the "Red Scare."
  • Conservatives were wrong about Vietnam.
  • Conservatives were wrong about the invasion of Iraq.
...and so on, and so on, and so on.

So what I'd really like to do is be able to come up with a similar list of cases in which history proved that conservatives have gotten a thing or two right as well. What historical facts can prove my point? Should I just start hanging out with more Republicans?
posted by AngerBoy to Society & Culture (62 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
communism turned out to suck ass.
posted by jeb at 9:26 AM on December 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

Conservatives credit Reagan with ending the Cold War.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:26 AM on December 24, 2009

Ditto Jeb - Communism has failed spectacularly in every case where it has been attempted. (China's recent economic success notwithstanding, of course, being largely the product of a hybridized commu-capitalism model and the gigantic labor force to support it. )
posted by deadmessenger at 9:30 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The welfare state, public education, labor unions.
posted by dfriedman at 9:38 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Conservatives credit Reagan with ending the Cold War.

They do so incorrectly. The Reagan administration's approach to the Cold War was a continuation of the thinking of 'Team B,' which supported the view that the Soviet Union was financially and militarily stronger and more aggressive than it actually was. In retrospect, Team B was thoroughly wrong. Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were major Team B players who went on to be thoroughly wrong about the Iraq War.

Another example of conservatives being wrong, this time about economics: tax cuts did not boost government revenue (i.e., supply-side economics turned out to be wrong).

I can think of at least one legitimate example of progressives being wrong: progressives were wrong about the cost of Medicare. Almost right out of the gate it cost far more than it was estimated to.
posted by jedicus at 9:39 AM on December 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

Although conservatives were wrong about how strong Communism was in the 1980s.
posted by Kirklander at 9:40 AM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

They do so incorrectly.

I agree-- but at least it turned out better than Reaganomics, by which I mean the Cold War ended.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:45 AM on December 24, 2009

I know the liberal members of the citizenry were against the war but the Vietnam war took place largely during the administrations of Kennedy and Johnson.

I don't know that much about it but there's probably a good argument to be made that welfare was pretty screwed up before the reforms in the 90s (maybe still is?).
posted by ghharr at 9:45 AM on December 24, 2009

Best answer: Liberals were wrong about Prohibition. (But some conservatives were too.)

The Prohibition issue cut across conventional party lines. Wikipedia reports "In January 1917, the 65th Congress convened, in which the dries [supporters of Prohibition] outnumbered the wets [opponents] by 140 to 64 in the Democratic party and 138 to 62 among Republicans." However, Progressives strongly favored Prohibition.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:45 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Saying that the failure of Soviet Communism is strike against "liberalism" is akin to saying that the failure of Italian Fascism is a strike against conservatism.
posted by patnasty at 9:47 AM on December 24, 2009 [27 favorites]

To clarify: Communism has been proven to be incompatible with centralized authority of the state. Where communism has been implemented in an egalitarian, self-governmental way (most notably in Spain during the Civil War) it has been relatively successful. So I wouldn't completely count this against liberals. But I'm also not sure what "proven wrong" means in this context. Social constructs prove lasting or short-lived because of particular historical reasons, not because of some invisible, evolutionary force separating the good from the bad.
posted by Orchestra at 9:49 AM on December 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

yeah, socialism is a liberal idea which screwed over giant portions of the world in terms of quality of life. China is an example where adding free market principles to a socialist state ended up saving the country. Liberal is another political position formed by they ideas of it's constituents (lobbyists, people, MONEY), not some kind of magic philosophy where you are magically right all the time. That idea is crazy and kinda ridiculous.

I'd say that your examples are self-fulfilling - they are social issues that could be considered wrong or right, and are considered right because the groups in question got what they wanted. (minorities, women, etc) From a completely objective point of view, Social Equality is not an idea that is inherently correct, but is now considered correct. (by myself as well, I'd like to add, I believe social equality is fundamentally right!)

I'm really liberal too, but believing that statement is unbelievably smug, and could make you really insufferable to debate politics with. Think about it. It's not like progressives have a magic "I'm Right" Machine they consult, and are infallible, right?
posted by wuzandfuzz at 9:50 AM on December 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think you miss the point. What the conservatives have done is to force the liberals to prove that their programs will work, before agreeing to let them be implemented. There have been a lot of liberal programs which didn't pass that test, and didn't become public policy.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:51 AM on December 24, 2009 [6 favorites]

Good question, I use this line a lot with my own conservative family members. It does seem that history is on the side of liberalism, but I'm curious to see what others have to say.
posted by rosswald at 9:51 AM on December 24, 2009

Best answer: I think the answer is less that "liberalism" has always been proven right so much as that "liberalism" has readily amended and adapted itself over time to accommodate that which has been proven right.

DevilsAdvocate's point about the Prohibition is an instance of this -- the progressives have learned from that mistake, and now realize it is a waste of time and resources, while the "conservatives" have hopped aboard the prohibitionist platform mostly because of the association between drugs and counterculture in the 60's.
posted by patnasty at 9:54 AM on December 24, 2009 [5 favorites]

As regards the Cold War, the general conservative argument for how Reagan was responsible is that he forced through a huge military buildup (over liberal objections) which the leaders in Moscow felt they needed to match. The Soviet economy was in terrible shape, and this extra military spending pushed it over the edge, leading to eventual political collapse.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:54 AM on December 24, 2009

I don't know that much about it but there's probably a good argument to be made that welfare was pretty screwed up before the reforms in the 90s (maybe still is?).

yeah, I'd go with that, too. Paying people not to work and have as many babies as they wanted instead was a foreseeable stupidity. And I say this as a AFDC baby, so I'm rather conflicted on this.

Related, and while not entirely a liberal thing, the destruction of existing ramshackle blighted housing and the construction of high-rise but cheap-ass Federal Housing in the 1950s and 1960s was a contemporaneous failure of public policy.

I think all the "affordability" programs like the mortgage interest tax credit just make housing more expensive.
posted by tad at 9:56 AM on December 24, 2009

Don't forget to consider the political flavor of the audience to whom you just posed this question. You might be able to get good responses at some conservative or libertarian forum.
posted by yoyoceramic at 9:56 AM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

the general conservative argument for how Reagan was responsible is that he forced through a huge military buildup (over liberal objections) which the leaders in Moscow felt they needed to match

yes, and this argument is largely wrong. Had the North Sea and Ghawar oil pumping not peaked in the 80s, Soviet oil revenues would not have crashed in the late 80s and glasnost could have had more time to work.
posted by tad at 10:00 AM on December 24, 2009

I recently read Rads, an account of the 1970 car-bombing of the University of Wisconsin physics department, which housed an army research center. (The part of the building the bomb destroyed, and the physicist who was killed, had nothing to do with the Army.) The people of the time who were analogous to you and your (less radical) friends were, in general, not supportive of the bombing. But I would say the most common attitude was not denunciation but regret ("It's terrible that our young people feel the need to commit violence against the state") tinged with sympathy ("of course it's nothing compared to what the state is doing to Southeast Asia") and tactical considerations ("this is likely to split the masses from the movement.") I think this stance is roughly analogous to the way people on the far right view killers of doctors who perform abortions, except I think it was more common in liberal circles then than it is in conservative circles now, and I think it was wrong. (I mean, wrong as a view: as statements of fact, of course it is true that Southeast Asia was bombed more than the University of Wisconsin, and that the bombing did damage the political standing of anti-war radicalism.)

And of course there was a strain of radical opinion, mainstream enough to be e.g. the official editorial position of the UW campus newspaper, that destroying U.S. installations and killing Americans, so long as the latter could plausibly be considered accidental, was an appopriate part of the anti-war movement.

I guess, rereading this, it's more an example of "moral stances which look strange to contemporary eyes," not "factual predictions about things which were proven wrong by history," but arguably so were some of your examples. (i.e. it's not like there weren't Soviet agents working against U.S. interests in the 50s.)
posted by escabeche at 10:00 AM on December 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The thing that put a stake in the heart of the Soviet Union wasn't Reagan's Star Wars program, but Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson's getting Congress to feed Stinger missiles to the Afghan mujahedeen, which Reagan's White House initially opposed as too provocative.

As an example of a liberal idea that has arguably failed, the United Nations is a fairly spectacular failure. A bloated bureaucracy, a ridiculous voting system where Trinidad gets as many votes as China, an ineffectual Security Council, the UN has not been much better than the League of Nations. Arguably, without the UN, peacekeepers would be more likely to come from interested nations who could actually take decisions, rather than from the UN, which stands by and watches while people massacre each other. Arguably, NGOs are better at providing services to starving people than the UN is.

That said, if the UN didn't exist, someone would probably reinvent it.
posted by musofire at 10:07 AM on December 24, 2009 [4 favorites]

Keep in mind, too, that the definitions of "conservative" and "liberal" have shifted over the years.
We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs—expansion of social security—broadened coverage in unemployment insurance —improved housing—and better health protection for all our people. We are determined that our government remain warmly responsive to the urgent social and economic problems of our people.

To these beliefs we commit ourselves as we present this record and declare our goals for the future.
Equal Rights.

We recommend to Congress the submission of a constitutional amendment providing equal rights for men and women.
From the Republican Party Platform of 1956.
posted by rtha at 10:12 AM on December 24, 2009 [7 favorites]

No, the Rockefeller Republicans were centrist, close to the Progressive faction of the Republican Party that Theodore Roosevelt led in 1912.

Socialist <> Progressive <> Conservative
posted by tad at 10:18 AM on December 24, 2009

Conservatives were wrong about the "Red Scare."

I'm not so sure that's a slam dunk like the other ones. There certainly were communist spies (the Rosenbergs, Whittaker Chambers, Alger Hiss, etc), but the HUAC witch hunts were just really bad at finding them out. Certainly "wrong" in the sense that they cast too wide a net and destroyed people's lives in the process, but not "wrong" in the sense that the spies didn't exist, like WMDs.

You can argue that liberals were wrong in opposing the Clinton-era welfare reforms, pushed by Republicans.

I've also seen some interesting stuff about the dark side of the free-love/drug culture of the 60s leading to a great deal of violence, poverty and sexual exploitation of those involved, especially in urban areas. So maybe not "wrong", but "had unintended consequences that seriously damaged some people and communities".
posted by electroboy at 10:23 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

To contribute to the pot-stirring -

SFWeekly's article from last week describing San Francisco as The Worst Run Big City in the US might help, though it's more about what happens when Liberalism and good intentions (and unicorns!) run amok.

Though I don't agree with the premise of some that it proves that liberalism has faults. The problem tends to be more one of corruption, mismanagement, and political power leveraged to suit self-interest rather than the greater good (e.g. union power leveraged to protect unions rather than solve problems relating to broken institutions).
posted by swngnmonk at 10:30 AM on December 24, 2009

Best answer: If you look at history through that lens, "The Liberals" will always be right because things that go right are progress, and liberals own progress as a subset of change.

What's not so obvious is all the changes that would have been for the worse and so never happened because astute conservatives stood in their way.

And sometimes the former liberals and the latter conservatives were the same people. Being a liberal or a conservative is pretty fluid, issue-to-issue.

When things change for the better, it's thanks to liberalism. When things don't get worse, it's thanks to conservatives.
posted by Lorc at 10:32 AM on December 24, 2009 [21 favorites]

I don't think rtha's example is necessarily a good one (Republican ≠ conservative, Democrat ≠ liberal), but I think the basic point ("the definitions of 'conservative' and 'liberal' have shifted over the years") is sound. The political philosophy laid out by Barry Goldwater in The Conscience of a Conservative in 1960 sounds a lot like today's libertarianism and seemingly has little to do with what today's conservatives believe.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:33 AM on December 24, 2009

When things change for the better, it's thanks to liberalism. When things don't get worse, it's thanks to conservatives.

I'm not sure about the idea that "all change is liberal and the prevention of change is always conservative." You can certainly argue that the Bolshevik Revolution and the Great Leap Forward were leftist causes, and not at all for the better. Similarly, there are plenty of conservatives that want to change society to revert to some mythical past where people were polite and everyone prayed to Jesus.
posted by electroboy at 10:43 AM on December 24, 2009

Best answer: Conservatives were correct not just about the cost of Medicare, but about their objections to many other elements of the vast overhaul of social policy enacted early in the Lyndon Johnson administration.

* they were correct about the social consequences of the expansion of welfare and public housing and the relaxation of criminal enforcement and penalties, both in terms of direct costs, but also in terms of the removal of the restraints against illegitimacy and not working -- relatively few liberals argue against this

* they were correct that courts and bureaucrats would use the new and expanded civil rights laws to mandate affirmative action (liberals denied it at the time, but don't regard it as a bad thing since it happened)

* they were correct to argue over liberal denial that a much more open immigration policy would fundamentally change American society (although it happened just as they said it would, many conservatives would agree that the changes on balance have been for the good)

Conservatives were quite correct in important respects about Vietnam. Conservatives argued that if we stopped supporting the South Vietnamese that North Vietnam would conquer and subject South Vietnam to dictatorship -- which is exactly what happened. They also argued that other dominos would fall -- and Communists quickly conquered Laos, Cambodia, while Communist- and Communist backed movements won power in numerous African and Latin American countries. Just because all the dominos didn't fall didn't discredit the domino-falling prediction.

Conservatives were quite right about the ugly future that awaited many decolonized states in Africa, and were right again to be skeptical about the contribution of typical foreign aid programs to stability and prosperity after decolonization. Conservatives didn't really have a credible alternative to abandon-ship decolonization or the birth of modern-form foreign aid, unfortunately ... although there's the very beginning of a conservative analysis of the aid question now.

Conservatives were right to recognize that by the mid-1970s the United States had exhausted the momentum provided by being the only non-impoverished country in the world after World War II, and that monetary policy had to be tightened, while taxes and regulations were lowered, to get a new run of prosperity. It's important to note that this "conservative" triumph was quite a bipartisan one, with many Nixon Administration officials and alumni being some of the most-wrong "liberals," while Jimmy Carter and his appointees, and many Democrats in Congress in the late 1970s and 1980s, were among the most important "conservatives." (And, alas, the undoing of this conservative triumph has been largely bi-partisan as well, with all of the errors and omissions that began with SARBOX and are continuing unto this day.)
posted by MattD at 10:43 AM on December 24, 2009 [8 favorites]

I have no idea whose idea were the government run social programs (Dem or Rep), but if you think welfare, social security, food stamps, etc are working, I think you should think again. I guess what I am saying is that the premise of the question, that any of government is working successfully, is so foreign to me that I cannot see how either group would want to take credit for this mess. To me, you would have to define what the goals and obligations of government are before you can decide if they were successful.

The only thing the history of this country proves correct is that those in the majority will vote their interests.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:48 AM on December 24, 2009

If you consider

Liberalism = focus on the rights of individuals
Conservatism = focus on the rights of the community

You see many opportunities for failure, such as early parole or light jail sentences allowing murderers to go free, etc. The welfare state is an example. General restrictions on rights can be seen as a liberal failure (you can't smoke/drink/speed/etc because it hurts you, or others).
posted by blue_beetle at 10:48 AM on December 24, 2009

Similarly, there are plenty of conservatives that want to change society to revert to some mythical past where people were polite and everyone prayed to Jesus.

I suppose a better comparison to the Bolsheviks and Mao would be the rise of Hitler and National Socialism, which is about as conservative a movement as you can get.
posted by electroboy at 10:50 AM on December 24, 2009

If you think of favoring tight gun-control (and believing it will make society safer) as a liberal position, then gun-control is an issue where liberals are wrong. When you sift through the available quantitative research on guns, gun laws, and violence--and discard the really bad work (small samples, small time-scales) and look at the high-quality research (large samples, broad time-scales, many control-variables, etc) a picture emerges that gun control measures have a little positive impact in a few places, a little negative impact in others, but mostly none at all. The opposing view, that the deterrent value of an armed population leads to a decrease in crime, isn't well-supported either. At best, control-tightening or control-loosening measures shift crime around different categories but have no consistent net impact.
links available if you want. also, arguing about liberals vs conservatives is a waste of time due to oversimplification.
posted by K.P. at 10:57 AM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It might be worth looking into whether liberals were wrong about nuclear power.

Also: some academic strains of liberalism were very serious about reforming language, writing "womyn" instead of "women" for example, on the theory that language reinforces ideology. I think it's pretty clear that this is very wrong -- those sorts of surface properties of language are just conventional and don't have to affect people's minds. Although replacing "he" with "he/she" seems like a good idea, and perhaps a couple of other changes were warranted, basically it doesn't seem plausible that changing the spelling of a bunch of words will actually matter for anyone's life.

There's a good case to be made that affirmative action is wrong or at least that only class-based affirmative action could be consistent with justice, though I'm not someone who makes this case.

A lot of "save the [animal]"-type movements seem more based on sentimentality than anything else, though I have to give my cousin credit for campaigning to save the sharks, whom no-one is sentimental about.

There's a case to be made that some liberals take the ideal of tolerance too far. I think you might see this more in Europe -- judges giving lighter sentences to Turkish or Arab immigrants who beat or kill sisters/wives etc. "in light of the perpetrator's cultural background" then they would ever give a German perpetrator of the same crime. But here the risk of straw-manning is very large, this hardly applies to all liberals or even most, conservatives very often exaggerate how much this actually occurs, etc.

Some anti-porn activism from the feminist left may have been misguided, depending on your viewpoint.

Perhaps separatist movements -- black, lesbian, etc. -- were misguided? At least in hindsight they turned out to have been a dead-end.
posted by creasy boy at 11:02 AM on December 24, 2009 [3 favorites]

The trouble is that "liberals" doesn't mean any one thing. It is a pretty vague term and I personally cringe every time I hear somebody—regardless of their political ideology—use it as though you can indicate something about somebody by calling them a "liberal."
posted by synecdoche at 11:10 AM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Should I just start hanging out with more Republicans?

It's never a bad thing to get to know people with different ideologies and different backgrounds than your own. It can be uncomfortable sometimes, but learning how people of different background view and think about different issues is something enough of us don't do.
posted by electroboy at 11:16 AM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I don't think rtha's example is necessarily a good one (Republican ≠ conservative, Democrat ≠ liberal),

True. To clarify, the popular perception is that Republican = conservative and Democrat = liberal, though reality is certainly more nuanced and complex.
posted by rtha at 11:16 AM on December 24, 2009

...depending on your viewpoint

There you go. In large part the question is unanswerable, since things that a liberal crowd will consider unalloyed and undeniable Good Things, your counterparts on the right will not, and vice versa. Current tripwire issue of abortion, for example. Not a lot of concession on either side on this one, and other than Nat Hentoff, it's hard to find liberals who oppose it. Ditto immigration.

Moreover, it often boils down to a question not of end goals but means to get there. You don't have to be a liberal to be opposed to poverty war and injustice - but your view of how best to mitigate all of these can define you as a liberal or conservative. So, say, the War on Poverty hasn't proved very effective, to say the least.

Then again, when attacking the insoluables, a booster can easily conflate good intentions with poor results, and fortify the walk in big muddy with the assumption that just a little more will make it work. Thus, war on drugs, war on poverty again, communism, Keynesianism.

As a practical matter, all I can say is, start reading more conservative writers. Plenty of flash crap out there aimed at a cynical fast buck and the best seller list, but there are thoughtful men and women of good will. You may still not agree with them, but they are not all demons or morons.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:04 PM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

("conflate"? What was I thinking? "Can easily square mediocre, even bad results so long as intentions are good."

posted by IndigoJones at 12:07 PM on December 24, 2009

"tolerate mediocre, even bad results, so long as the intentions are good" - okay, I'm out of here.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:08 PM on December 24, 2009

In a slightly different world I have encountered the same problem in my life and have shown a sense of bewilderment when confronted with 'non liberal' folk as to how come they are unable to see how wrong they are despite being intelligent in a traditional sense. Instinctively, however, like you I have wanted to find out why. My journey to starts here. It gives an alternative explanation and I find it satisfying to a very high degree.

Hope you find it interestin
posted by london302 at 12:12 PM on December 24, 2009

I think maybe it's time to reference the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. The proposed generalization is unfalsifiable because any proposed falsifying instance of liberal policies which failed will be disqualified as "not really being liberal".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:39 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Liberalism = focus on the rights of individuals
Conservatism = focus on the rights of the community"

I'm not sure of that. Conservatism includes many individual rights, i.e. to own guns and not to pay taxes. Social conservatism includes many rights of the community, e.g. to tell you whether you can get married or not. But there's a whole wing of libertarian conservatism that believes the community (i.e. government) should stay out of everybody's business except where absolutely necessary.

I would go with something more like:

"Conservatism = focus on the responsibilities of the individual;
Liberalism = focus on the responsibilities of the community."
posted by musofire at 2:04 PM on December 24, 2009

Best answer: Liberals were wrong about concealed carry gun laws?
Liberals were wrong about affirmative action?
Liberals were wrong about convergence (between capitalism and communism)?
Liberals were wrong about nuclear disarmament?
Liberals were wrong about NAFTA?
Liberals were wrong about the Iranian Revolution?
Liberals were wrong about Stalin, Mao, Kruschev, Brezhnev, even Gorbachev?
posted by A189Nut at 2:23 PM on December 24, 2009

Kennedy was wrong about the missile gap and wrong about Vietnam (although Johnson was right about it - he knew he couldn't win it, and he knew it would cost him his reputation; he also was convinced he couldn't back out without losing the Great Society).

Saying that the failure of Soviet Communism is strike against "liberalism" is akin to saying that the failure of Italian Fascism is a strike against conservatism.

Apologists for Communism on the left have been around for a long time, although perhaps not so much in the States.

Where communism has been implemented in an egalitarian, self-governmental way (most notably in Spain during the Civil War) it has been relatively successful.

If you're talking about the Communist parties in the Civil War, you're talking about mobs that started killing each other, the Republicans, and the Anarchists as much as they did the Facists by the end of the war.

If you're thinking of the Anarchist groups, well, I doubt most of them or their intellectual successors would be happy about being brought under the label of Communism.

And either way, a complete failure to be able todefend themselves or their citizens from external aggression that resulted in their complete elimination isn't much of a success.

Liberals were wrong about Bill Clinton, who was a sexual harrasser, signed off on anti-gay legislation, and welfare 'reforms' that were Victorian in their brutality.
posted by rodgerd at 2:34 PM on December 24, 2009

Best answer: You guys have some messed up definitions for conservative and liberal. Liberal just means seriously considering changes. Conservative just means resisting changes.

Right wing European politicians are correctly called Liberals today. Left wing European politicians who created the same social programs now being undone by the right were correctly termed Liberals too. Can they both be correct? Maybe. <shrug> Similarly, unions were once liberal but not necessarily today.

AngerBoy actually asked about left vs. right, not liberal vs. conservative. Peter Singer defines "the left" as people who care about preventing suffering, which often involves using state power to prevent people from hurting one another. Yes, communism is a perfect example of the left wing running off the rails. I think small rich homogeneous countries handle welfare quite well, but welfare programs in large countries are generally another left wing screw up.

To me, the problem with conservatives is how they use state power to prevent social change. And the problem with the right is how they actually use state power to create inequality and suffering. Anarchist is the only word even remotely meaning "to limit state power", but tellingly anarchism has been thoroughly discredited by straw man arguments. I feel these three facts are a compelling argument for being left wing by default, but remaining suspicious.
posted by jeffburdges at 2:55 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Eugenics was once championed as a tool to promote society by many progressives, including Margaret Sanger. However, it was also obviously championed by many on the right.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:59 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Paul Ehrlich's once-respected The Population Bomb was wrong.

Also, some say that the hippie-led anti-war movement in Vietnam only prolonged the conflict.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:11 PM on December 24, 2009

Best answer: It sounds to me like you are associating liberal "rightness" with a particular set of moral issues which you have already decided. There's an argument to be made that this is something akin to the victors writing the history.

I really can't believe that no one has seriously brought up the Great Society yet. LBJ's social engineering was the single largest expansion of the federal government since the New Deal, and its effects remain highly controversial at best. Aspects of the program have turned out to be a complete and unmitigated disaster. Public housing projects, favored by liberal elites, are now universally recognized to have been absolutely devastating to inner city families and communities and have significantly contributed to urban blight. The solution, Section 8 housing, has been implicated in major increases in urban crime. Thomas Sowell makes a cogent argument that the disintegration of the African-American family can be attributed to the War on Poverty.

Every president between LBJ and Obama has attempted to mitigate the effects of these failed programs. Nixon and Ford dismantled many of the programs entirely, and Reagan defunded many of the rest. Clinton, one of three Democratic presidents in the last forty years, oversaw a fairly major restructuring of and reduction of the federal welfare program, an effort which is widely viewed as having significant positive effects in correcting the toxic effects of liberal programs. In short, the majority of the American population, as evidenced by the political winds, has decided that the liberals were wrong about the Great Society and War on Poverty. If you look at the polls, it also looks like most of American has decided that the liberals are wrong about health care too.

But let's go back a step. FDR's flailing about in the Great Depression is again, controversial at best, and there is reason to believe that his policies contributed to the contraction in 1937 which extended the Depression for a good three or four years.

There too, conservatives objected to the creation of federal entitlement programs, arguing that the cost would eventually spiral out of control and bankrupt the government. This is well on the way to happening, and the current health care bill is not moving us in the right direction.
posted by valkyryn at 3:14 PM on December 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

valkyryn: What you call FDR's "flailing about" is seen by many as interference from conservatives preventing full implementation of New Deal policies. For instance, the British new towns movement manifested in America as a highly successful New Deal program. The towns created work, built community, and the town corporations were profitable. However, a strong conservative backlash heavily pushed by real estate interests killed the program. etc, etc, etc...
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 3:53 PM on December 24, 2009

Response by poster: This has been an incredibly helpful start. Thanks so much to all who took the time to answer the question thoughtfully, and especially those who collected helpful links for me to follow at length. I really do appreciate it.

For the record, I spent a lot of time wordsmithing the question precisely because the definitions of "liberal/conservative" are so fluid, and so impossible to liberate from their historical contexts. DevilsAdvocate made a terrific point when he pointed out that today's liberals seek to legalize marijuana while yesterday's sought to criminalize alcohol.

And yes - I was asking rather facetiously whether "hanging out with more Republicans" would help (I just thought adding a smiley emoticon at the end of that sentence would have been gilding the lily). Part of what I'm exploring with this question is the phenomenon of self-congratulation and self-affirmation that tends to happen when anyone discusses his own political positions or voting record.

Obviously, righties see the political world through the same kind of self-justifying lenses that lefties do. Lots of your comments offered helpful and specific examples of what conservatives pat themselves on the back over, and those are the ones I'm marking-as-best.

Looking forward to watching the conversation continue.
posted by AngerBoy at 4:00 PM on December 24, 2009

Response by poster: Edit:
Oops, upon closer inspection it turns out that the comment was in fact from patnasty.
posted by AngerBoy at 4:09 PM on December 24, 2009

As pointed out above, eugenics was a movement from the left in the US.

Many early abolitionists also favored colonization--sending blacks back to Africa.

But the best examples of failed liberalism are from American Indian policy. Look up the boarding school movement and termination for examples.
posted by LarryC at 8:32 PM on December 24, 2009

The welfare state, public education, labor unions.

Eeek, I wouldn't use those examples. The social safety net functions well in important cases, and is a point of pride in most of the developed world. Public education, however badly funded in the US, is vital, and unions brought you weekends and workplace health standards. If anything they are a victim of their own success.

I would stick to the left's more radical utopian projects: industrial housing, collective farming, skinner-boxed infants etc.
posted by Popular Ethics at 10:03 PM on December 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I would echo what valkyryn said here, and which I'm surprised few others have said. You're asking "The history of our country has always proven liberalism correct and conservatism incorrect", but at least some of the things you've listed are only "correct" from your point of view. Other people, much more conservative, would question that assessment -- they might see these conditions as being incorrect.

It sounds like what you're actually asking is "The history of our country has always proven that liberalism wins and conservatism loses", which is a different matter. While in some ways it's more clear cut -- it's easier to say that liberals have won regarding the points you list -- it's also easier to provide caveats against your viewpoint.

For one thing, liberals have only won on these issues so far. Who knows what will happen in the future. In a couple of hundred years who knows what will happen to civil rights? We (liberals) would like to think civil rights are on a continually improving journey, but events none of us can imagine will happen over coming decades and centuries and anything could happen to how the population as a whole views civil rights.

It's as if a conservative in 1700 were to say "Well, conservatives are correct about slavery!" At that point in time they were indeed "correct" in that owning slaves was considered normal. They'd "won" and probably couldn't imagine a situation in which slavery would be completely abolished.

Secondly, if we're angling the question towards whether liberals are, over time, "winning", rather than being "correct", there are lots of things they haven't completely won at. Are racism and inequality really problems of the past? Does big business not have undue power over legislation? Is there no longer anyone who's sick and poor through no fault of their own? Is there no threat to women's right to abortion? Is marriage available to anyone, gay or straight?

Liberals are only "correct" about the things you list because that's how they/we see the world. They've only won at those things so far, and could lose at them again. And there are many more things, many more fundamental issues, that they haven't yet won at and might never do.
posted by fabius at 2:52 AM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To continue fabius's argument, it seems that the OP's liberal friends are making two major mistakes. First, their historiography is just awful. Second, their historical conclusions are highly questionable.

First, historiography. Arguing that history "proves" anyone right about anything is always a dicey proposition, especially when one is getting at moral overtones. It's one thing to say that history has "proven" Galileo and Kepler "right," but it's something else entirely to say that it has "proven" Martin Luther or Martin Luther King, Jr. "right." The two are entirely different claims. It seems to me that the OP is mostly interested in the latter claim here. It also seems to me that as far as that goes, history has not "proven" liberals "right" about anything, because history doesn't actually prove those sorts of claims.

Take civil rights as an example. Has history "proven" the liberal ideal of individual liberty "right"? Not really. First of all, this is not the first time that a society has experimented with expansive concepts of civil liberties. The ancient Greeks and Romans had rather robust civil liberties for at least certain segments of the population, and they both evolved into more authoritarian systems over time. Second, both the Greeks and the Romans found individual liberty to be a hugely problematic concept. Plato's theory of the ideal society does not actually leave much in the way of rom for personal liberty. Third, some of the most successful economies of the past few decades have horrible civil rights records, and while there are always a few Western or Western-influenced activists raising a stink about that, most of the population is completely okay with it. I mean, look at China.

Whether or not history proves a certain theory practical not is perhaps an intermediate claim. For example, history does seem to have proven that invading Russia in the winter is a really bad idea and that Afghanistan is No Fun At All. But these don't tend to lend themselves to the kind of moral self-congratulation that the OP's friends seem to want.

But second, even if one were to admit for the purposes of argument that history does "prove" the sorts of things that the liberals in question would like it to, Vietnam should not exactly count in the victory column for liberals. Why? Because the two presidents that got us into Vietnam were two of the most liberal presidents of the twentieth century, with FDR being the only possible candidate to beat them on that score. But the president that got us out of Vietnam? Nixon. Putting Vietnam in the win column thus seems a bit like 1) flattening out the differences within any real political movement (witness the current division within the Democratic Party over health care), and 2) defining "liberal" on the basis of rhetorical convenience rather than history. If you do want to conclude that history "proves" anyone right about anything, you're going to need to do a lot more work with the history rather than adopting a version of history which while rhetorically convenient, fails to capture the nuances of the historical issues they discuss.

Take slavery as another example. Lincoln was the first Republican president, and the political descendant of the Federalists. Democrats like to trace their political lineage through Lincoln too, but the historical reality is that their party opposed Lincoln and stood for state sovereignty, like their Jeffersonian and Anti-Federalist predecessors. The Anti-Federalists stood for a maximal level of state sovereignty, which historically has been mostly used for what we now consider to be oppressive purposes, i.e. slavery and Jim Crow. Concluding that slavery obviously shows that the liberals were "right" would seem to ignore much historical detail.

In short, a claim like the one presented in the OP exhibits both a highly questionable historiography and a rather tenuous grasp on historical events as such.
posted by valkyryn at 4:18 AM on December 25, 2009 [2 favorites]

Might be good to remember that it was the Democrats who had a quasi monopoly in the deep South until well into the 1960s, and as such it were the Democrats who, for a very, very long time, fiercely opposed desegregation. Is that wrong enough for you?

After the disbanding of the Freedmens Bureau and other Reconstruction institutions after southern states were readmitted to the union, in 1877, white Democrats regained power in southern states and passed laws making voter registration more complicated. Although the laws applied to all, the result was that blacks and poor whites were effectively disfranchised. White Democrats then passed Jim Crow laws that established segregation as a principle in all public facilities and aspects of life in the South, for instance, the infamous separate water fountains for whites and blacks. (source: Wikipedia)

posted by NekulturnY at 11:48 AM on December 25, 2009

But NekulturnY, that was before one (of several) historical ideological shifts in the parties - the Republicans were essentially the progressive party of the time. Speaking about parties isn't useful because they don't line up perfectly to our modern stereotypes and ideas.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:52 PM on December 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is an interesting question and I think there have been some good answers (although it does expose an extremely narrow frame of reference on behalf of the original poster). As a liberal myself (although as a British liberal, a lot of you might consider me a fully fledged socialist), I'm fascinated by why people believe what they do, especially evil conservatives who hate kindness.

My simplistic model of the liberal/conservative split is how you react to your no-good, unemployed brother asking to come and stay at your place. The left winger says: "of course you can stay". Which is nice. And maybe he sorts his life out as a result. Or maybe he just leeches off you for years. The conservative stance would be one of tough love. So depending on the circumstances, either of these can be appropriate.

The idea of liberalism 'always being right' though is just nuts. What's liberalism? In any given political debate, can't you always think of a more liberal view? You'd presumably think these people were wrong too.
posted by greytape at 1:58 PM on December 25, 2009

A few hundred liberals were wrong about Jim Jones. He took advantage of people's socialist leanings and good intentions in order to draw people into his church/cult. Of course his actual goals were pretty far from anything that could be considered liberal.
posted by Locobot at 2:45 PM on December 25, 2009

Are we talking about liberalism in the classical sense? In this country, "liberal" signifies a collection of positions and ideas, some of which are decidedly not liberal in the original sense of the word.

Democracy, capitalism and other great liberal innovations depend on a certain measure of conservatism to survive. Rule of Law, political stability, national security, and basic common infrastructure are all required for "liberalism" to thrive. Democracy and capitalism have never worked in any country where there was not a strong enough system to enforce basic social stability. Not everything can be left up to a majority of individuals' choices. Conservatism is necessary for liberalism to thrive. Liberalism is necesary to prevent conservatism from becoming tyranny. Which is "better?" Which leg of your barstool can you do without?
posted by cross_impact at 5:58 AM on December 26, 2009

Every instance of liberal error can be argued. Instead, respond that you found the republicans/conservatives smug and arrogant during the Bush years, and talk about how liberals can transcend that.

Jeez, I can't resist the question. Liberals can be anti-patriotic. Anti-jingo is good, but patriotism has good attributes. Lack of patriotism has turned many people away, and conservatives have seized on this.
posted by theora55 at 8:44 AM on December 26, 2009

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