I want to look at the dictionary definition of “liberal” if you separate it from it’s colloquial association (in the USA) with “Democrat”:
one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways
I don’t have an attachment to either of the major American political parties – only the practice of being liberal by the definition above. I’d like to have the opposite of a blind devotion to authority (and that authority is tradition as well as a people in positions of power). To be liberal is to practice a constant critique of authority, and by that means, a constant critique of tradition. It’s constantly asking of tradition, “what is this and what (who) does this serve?”
Tradition is more than ancient ideas like religion. To me, it’s any aspect of life that is commonly taken at face value. Cross examining tradition makes for fairly odd questions (in mid to upper class USA), such as: why do I buy everything new? Why do I take antibiotics for sinus congestions? Why do I feel its unprofessional to hear a baby cry in the background of a work call? For all of the traditions underlying these questions, I can ask, “what is this and what (who) does this serve?”
With this in mind, if someone asks me if I’m a liberal, I say “yes, and a practicing one.” To be liberal (by the definition above) is to be more true to reason because one builds logic towards an unknown conclusion. Additionally, liberal thinkers constantly critique their own established thoughts or conclusions. The shame of previously having been wrong should not overpower the desire to stay true to reason. One’s own authority is not observed so reason thrives.
Contrarily, a traditional thinker reasons backwards in order to justify an authority, or more commonly, uses tradition itself as evidence.
Because of this, I’m not arguing against traditions themselves, but the mindset that tradition holds more weight than reason. For example, someone could say that the traditional institution of marriage needs to be strengthened by reversing gay marriage and enacting policies that discourage cohabitation. A traditionalist might invoke the fact that, “the 40 percent of children who now are born outside of marriage are five times more likely to live in poverty than youngsters born and raised by a mother and father in the home.” This is a correlation that omits any socioeconomic factors that hold a statistical causal relationship with poverty (search “causation vs. correlation“). More so, the traditionalist might add, “the data and the facts lead to an inescapable conclusion: Every child deserves a married mom and dad.” Instead, it’s the reverse: their predetermined conclusion led to them to nonsupporting facts. Traditional marriage as the only institution of marriage is their established conclusion leading a traditionalist to incorrectly using correlation as evidence. It’s faulty reasoning to begin with a conclusion.
In that spirit, being a “traditionalist, no matter what” doesn’t seem like a great alternative. Traditionalism may maintain stability and consistency, but stability towards what and for whom? Traditionalism is indifferent. In our personal lives, tradition without reason may hold us back financially, emotionally, creatively, physically, etc. (i.e. struggling to afford an expensive diamond wedding ring). Throughout history, a collective loyalty without logic has produced inequitable, if not grossly immoral outcomes.
*I say “intentionally” because any basic introduction to statistics course will cover the difference between correlation and causation; while not all Americans should be expected to have a statistics background, it can be assumed someone within a group of platform drafters, editor, and reviewers would have this understanding.
From an American political perspective, I’m not dense enough to believe all liberals vote for Democrats and all traditionalists vote for Republicans, but I do hold steadfast that one party actively appeals to traditionalists. For example, the faulty logic of traditional marriage as a poverty-reducer was taken directly from the 2016 Republican Party Platform. Sure, it appears to use reason, but the facts are intentionally* misused in order to covertly bolster an earlier use of tradition as evidence:
Traditional marriage and family, based on marriage between one man and one woman, is the foundation for a free society and has for millennia been entrusted with rearing children and instilling cultural values.
A liberal (by the definition above) does not observe tradition as valid evidence towards a conclusion, and therefore what has been done for “millennia” is not sufficient evidence. Especially surrounding life issues, the GOP uses tradition as evidence void of additional reasoning. The following examples argues against the Democratic efforts to eliminate LGBT discrimination in schools:
They are determined to reshape our schools — and our entire society — to fit the mold of an ideology alien to America’s history and traditions.
The first aspect one might consider is if America’s history and traditions have been good or bad overall, yet for now, I will focus on the use of tradition as evidence towards a conclusion. In short, the above is saying, “This is not tradition, therefore it is bad.” Since a liberal thinker does not observe the authority of tradition, they would not accept this argument as valid.
Another example of using tradition as evidence is the following on veteran mental health:
More than ever, our government must work with the private sector to advance opportunities and provide assistance to those wounded in spirit as well as in body, whether through experimental efforts like the PAWS (Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemen) program for service dogs or through the faith-based institutions that have traditionally been providers of counseling and aid.
I understand that the use of “traditionally” is being provided as a differentiation between the previously mentioned “experimental” providers. Still, that differentiation could have equally been made through evidence of reason instead (i.e. “with time-tested positive results”). The rhetoric matters – “traditionally” is an appeal to authority while “time-tested positive results” would be an appeal to reason. Remove “traditionally” from the sentence altogether and you remove any existing argument towards the conclusion.
The fact that private faith-based institutions have always been providers of counseling is not evidence of reason. Should we continue a reliance on a mental health provider only because it’s a tradition? Liberal thought would say ‘no.’
Again, I’m not arguing against the conclusion itself, but instead showing how tradition is being used as evidence. Alternatively, a liberal thinker would want to know that private faith-based institutions are proven to be effective at treating PTSD on a mass scale.
The DNC Platform also uses tradition as evidence, but less frequently and never as the only supporting evidence. The following is a rare occasion of directly using tradition as evidence, yet it is still followed by reason:
The United States Postal Service (USPS) is a national treasure. That is why Democrats embrace a vibrant, public Postal Service that offers universal service, and reject any effort to privatize or marginalize it.
The idea of a service being a “national treasure” is an appeal to authority; liberals (by the definition above) will find this as insufficient evidence towards a conclusion. Yet, the 2016 DNC platform has also provided reason as evidence in saying that the USPS a universal service, meaning that it serves those that would otherwise not be served by private mail carriers (e.g. rural areas).
Might individuals within the DNC use tradition as evidence? Yes, but the central party platform, where it’s been poured over and edited to represent all of the party, is nearly stripped of all direct use of tradition as evidence. Both the DNC platform and the GOP platform use reason as evidence, though in a few instances, the GOP falsifies information that can be easily verified as inaccurate (i.e. referring to coal as a “clean energy resource”). The following shows an example of reason as evidence from the DNC platform:
Democrats will fight for increased investments and coordination in public health to better address emerging threats as well as persistent needs across our country. Health equity among Americans remains elusive—higher income is strongly associated with longer life expectancy and the gap in life expectancy between the richest and poorest Americans is increasing. We continue to see unacceptable differences in health outcomes by race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. A growing body of research demonstrates the link between social factors—such as poverty, unemployment, experience of discrimination, and housing instability—and poor health.
Importantly, the research mentioned above is credible, numerous, and widely-supported relative to any opposing research. Additionally, there isn’t a blatant omission of research that would disqualify the conclusion.
Here is an example from the DNC platform that speaks about a tradition, but should not be confused with using tradition as evidence:
Democrats also support efforts for self-governance and self-determination of Native Hawaiians. Native Hawaiians are the indigenous, aboriginal people of Hawai’i whose values and culture are the foundation of the Hawaiian Islands. We support proactive actions by the federal government to enhance Native Hawaiian culture, health, language, and education.
A use of tradition as evidence (considering a majority non-Native audience) would instead read as: we should support proactive actions by the federal government to enhanced Native Hawaiian language, because enhancing minority culture is our American tradition. Of course, this hypothetical argument could only be made if that was true of American tradition on any level. In this case, specifically, the Hawaiian language was banned from schools and government shortly after the USA overthrew the kingdom in 1893. In earlier paragraphs, the DNC provides the reasoning supporting their conclusion that the federal government should proactively support native culture:
We acknowledge the past injustices and the misguided, harmful federal and state policies and actions based on outdated and discredited values and beliefs that resulted in the destruction of the Indian nations’ economies, social, and religious systems, the taking of their lands, and the creation of intergenerational trauma that exists to this day.
The GOP arrives a similar, though less proactive, conclusion towards efforts supporting Native Hawaiian culture. Unalike the DNC platform, the GOP platform uses tradition as evidence:
We support efforts to ensure equitable participation in federal programs by American Indians, including Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, and to preserve their culture and languages that we consider to be national treasures.
To note, there is a reasonable difference between a destruction of a culture and not allowing a culture to oppress the lives of others. Language is worth preserving because it is a core aspect of cultural identity that promotes community cohesion and self esteem. Discriminating against LGBT youth in public schools is not a core aspect of Christian identity. Also, oppression or discrimination on religious grounds harms other people – a language does not. Therefore, the argument “reinstilling cultural tradition” where it’s been eroded could not be reasonably made for reinstilling traditional LGBT discrimination in public schools.
The specific reason why the federal government should be involved is given as preserving “national treasure.” This argument leans on the observance of authority and alludes to a tradition that, as mentioned earlier, doesn’t exist. Contrarily, the DNC offers evidence of reason: federal and state level actions eroded Hawaiian culture, and therefore it is justified that federal level actions should proactively enhance Hawaiian culture. Therefore, in covering the same subject and arriving at the same conclusion, the DNC uses reason as evidence and the GOP uses authority (tradition) as evidence.
One could argue that acknowledging past state injustices was omitted by the GOP because it’s inherently known, but I’d argue instead it’s because the GOP strictly avoids rhetoric that portrays American history as anything less that exceptional.
The evidence for this lies in the difference between the DNC and GOP platform’s preamble language towards our history:
Despite what some say, America is and has always been great—but not because it has been perfect. What makes America great is our unerring belief that we can make it better.
We believe America is exceptional because of our historic role — first as refuge, then as defender, and now as exemplar of liberty for the world to see.
More so, the GOP preamble excerpt is another example of how a traditionalist often needs to distort reality in order to use tradition as evidence. After all, if the tradition has always been positive, one doesn’t need to use “tradition” itself as evidence – instead, simply use the positive outcomes as evidence. Instead, a traditionalist will find themselves needing to distort the reality of a less-than-positive tradition because they cannot lean on a nuanced or complicated tradition. For example, if the GOP began by stating the history of America has not always been perfect, then using “American tradition” as evidence throughout the platform would not be persuasive. Instead, one has to first claim “American tradition has been exceptional” in order to argue “we should do this because it’s American tradition.” Yet, that tactic distorts the truth that American history is nuanced and not purely exceptional – an essence captured with a rosy spin in the DNC preamble.
For more insight into how each party observes the authority of tradition vs. reason, here are two different ways each platform describes their goals for education:
Public education must engage students to be critical thinkers and civic participants while addressing the wellbeing of the whole child.
It [education] is whole range of activities by which families and communities transmit to a younger generation, not just knowledge and skills, but ethical and behavioral norms and traditions. […] A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry[.]
I believe a good understanding of the Bible can be a great part of education, but is not indispensable. Substitute the Bible with any historically established American tradition and I would say the same. As a liberal thinker, I’m more inclined towards the DNC’s definition; I believe what is indispensable is the use of critical thinking in examining parts of one’s education, such as studying religious texts (including the Bible).
Try to actively imagine the statements weren’t pulled from political platforms – how do you feel about each on its own? Consider for yourself which you would list as the ideal primary outcome of education: students becoming critical thinkers or students absorbing tradition? If you say ‘both’ then which would you list as the first? Through the party’s defining of educational goals, we can see a clear divide between one’s value of reason and the other’s a loyalty to tradition.
My saying that I have no attachment to either American political party doesn’t mean I won’t find one more favorable in a specific argument. To force a balance would be a failure towards the argument.
I believe the use of tradition as evidence is not preferable to the use of reason as evidence. Being so, we can agree with someone’s conclusions, while disagreeing with their type of evidence. For example, if someone were to say, “I believe we should support public schools because we’ve always had public schools” then I could agree with their conclusion, but disagree with the ‘why’ aspect of their statement because it gives weight to tradition instead of reason. Contrarily, we can still find flaws in an honest appeal to reason and therefore consider a conclusion deficient, but altogether favor their use of reason as evidence. It is possible to appreciate the appeal to reason in an argument, but still find deficient conclusions.
I understand it is dangerous waters to use the American political parties as examples when making any kind of argument. That being said, I believe both party platforms provide clear examples of using tradition as evidence, though examples are more weighted and more numerous in the GOP platform. Regardless, I believe people across the political spectrum could benefit from considering if their understanding of policy is rooted in reason or tradition, and decipher this from political messaging as well (even from parties one supports). Another type of authority to consider involves the question of, “do I believe this only because people I trust to use reason also believe this?” Even among like-minded people, liberals shouldn’t abandon their agency to reason. For myself, it will be a constant project.
I grew up wearing second hand clothes, buy them nearly exclusively now, but still feel uncomfortable talking about this in a professional setting. It’s the traditional mentality that buying second hand signifies a lower class status, which may be positively “offbeat” among my mostly young, mid to upper class peers (think Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”), but is suddenly unprofessional among managers and clients.
Finally, stepping away from politics, the same argument can apply to decisions in our daily lives, too. Again, it’s not an argument to abandon tradition for the sake of abandoning tradition (family monopoly night? CANCELED). Instead, the argument is to evaluate the aspects of life we take at face value. For example, why do we feel it’s inherently unhygienic or homely to buy second hand clothes? Attitudes are shifting, but still the American tradition is to buy new as soon as you can afford it. More stubbornly, our gifting culture would be appalled at anything less than ‘new.’
Websites such as eBay, Poshmark, and local thrift stores are filled with name brand clothing, many with tags still attached – therefore, the difference between the actual physical items is dismal.
Why does the traditional association of second hand with low income (and by this means, the ancient tradition of low income as a negative) still hold weight over the reasoning that secondhand, regardless of income, is both economically and environmentally savvy? If we collectively abandoned tradition in this regard, would more brands have an incentive to increase clothing quality or implement a buy back and reselling program? Would it slow a cycle of never-ending mass production of cheap fabrics? Fast fashion is the second dirtiest industry globally, and an critical consideration of tradition could have massive environmental impacts. Personally, we can save money.
To be a practicing liberal means that your personal future has no predetermined conclusion.
Your decisions won’t be made for the sake of “tradition,” whether that be societal expectations or your own preconceived ideas of your future. A collective practice of liberal thought could lead society towards an unimaginable future. The word “unimaginable” inherently holds neither a negative or positive connotation, but I overwhelmingly believe we are collectively, inherently good – even people drawn to authoritarianism can believe tradition will bring the best outcomes for society. It is not the majority in society that consciously wishes ill-will for people outside of themselves, their family, or their community, and only a select few who truly want to watch all the world burn. By this account, our collective reason is driven by a desire to be good, to be better. Therefore, a collective of practicing liberals are and will be moving the world forward, because starting with an unknown conclusion can only lead to an positive, unimaginable future.