by: James A. Haught
In the chaotic presidential campaign, the remarkable popularity of Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders spotlights a large, not-always-recognized vein of liberal political sympathy in America.
Suddenly, the L-word is popular again — not an embarrassment to be avoided. That’s great, I think, because progressives have been the driving force behind most social improvements in western civilization.
Look at the historical record: In the three centuries since The Enlightenment, democracy, human rights, personal liberties and family wellbeing have blossomed. Life gradually became more decent and humane. Virtually all the advances were won by reform-minded liberals who defeated conservatives defending former hierarchies, privileges and inequalities.
Conservatives tried to retain slavery, but they lost.
They tried to block voting by women, but lost.
They tried to prevent couples from using birth control, but lost.
They tried to obstruct Social Security pensions for oldsters and the disabled, but lost.
They tried to outlaw labor unions, but lost.
They tried to prevent unemployment compensation for the jobless, but lost.
They tried to block workers compensation for on-the-job injuries, but lost.
They tried to keep stores closed on the Sabbath, but lost.
They tried to sustain Prohibition of alcohol, but lost.
They opposed policing of stock market abuses, but lost.
They opposed food stamps for the poor, but lost.
They defended racial segregation, but lost.
They supported government-led prayer in school, but lost.
They tried to continue throwing gays in prison, but lost.
They tried to defeat Medicare and Medicaid, but lost.
They tried to halt the sexual revolution, but lost.
They tried to banish evolution from public school biology classes and teach “creationism” instead, but lost.
They fought against racial equality and tried to outlaw interracial marriage, but lost.
They tried to censor sexy magazines, books and movies, but lost.
They sought to jail girls and doctors who end pregnancies, but lost.
They tried to block liquor clubs and lotteries, but lost.
They tried to prevent expansion of health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, but lost.
They tried to halt same-sex marriage, but lost.
One of my history-minded friends has a long-range political view summed up in three words: Liberals always win. Battles may be ferocious and seem endless, he says, but they finally bring progressive victories. Once a human-rights breakthrough is accomplished, it locks into the roster of democratic freedoms, almost never to be revoked.
The struggle to end slavery was an epic battle. Generations of abolitionist clamor and the horrible Civil War were required, but they finally moved America to a higher level of decency.
Similarly, suffragettes strove almost a century before they enabled American women to vote.
And it took a half-century for American couples to win the right to practice birth control. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was jailed eight times for the crime of mentioning sex — but she eventually transformed society. A Supreme Court victory in 1965 struck down contraceptive bans for married couples, and a follow-up victory in 1972 erased them for unwed couples. Liberals won, conservatives lost.
The nonviolent civil rights movement that wiped out Jim Crow segregation and made Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. an American icon was a classic liberal victory.
When I first became a news reporter in the 1950s, conservative Bible Belt morality was enforced by laws. It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. It was a crime to look at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine, or to read a sexy book. (Our mayor once sent police to raid bookstores selling Peyton Place.)
Back then, it was a felony to be gay, and those who were caught were sent to prison under old sodomy laws. Back then, it was a felony for a desperate girl to end a pregnancy. It was illegal for an unmarried couple to share a bedroom. Divorce or unwed pregnancy was unmentionable. Jews weren’t allowed into Christian-only country clubs. Public schools had mandatory teacher-led prayer. It was a crime to buy a cocktail or a lottery ticket.
African Americans were confined to poor ghettos, forbidden to enter white schools, white restaurants, white hotels, white theaters, white swimming pools, white neighborhoods — or white employment. Society had a cruel apartheid system.
That world disappeared, decade after decade. The culture slowly evolved. Sunday “blue laws” were undone. Teacher-led prayers were banned. Gay sex became legal. Liquor clubs were approved. Abortion became legal. State governments became lottery operators. Censorship ended. The historic civil rights movement wiped out segregation. Other conservative taboos and barriers gradually disappeared.
Within my lifetime, morality and customs flip-flopped. Conservative thou-shalt-nots lost their grip on society. Liberals won — yet it happened so gradually that few noticed.
A strong indicator of politics is church membership. White evangelicals overwhelmingly vote Republican — even though the GOP tries to undercut the humane public safety net that mirrors help-the-poor values of Jesus. However, churchgoing has faded greatly, while the young generation ignores religion. Sociologists think the secular trend is unstoppable. People who say their faith is “none” already comprise one-fourth of the adult population — 56 million Americans — and they seem destined someday to be the largest segment. They’re the largest group in the Democratic Party base. The social tide is flowing away from conservative fundamentalism and its Puritanical agenda, toward liberal tolerance.
All these factors support the liberals-always-win maxim. The progressive worldview is called humanism — trying to make life better for all people — and it’s a powerful current. In 1960, John F. Kennedy said in a famed speech:
“If by a ‘liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reaction, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties …then I’m proud to say that I’m a liberal.”
Now that progressives have won the battle for same-sex marriage and locked the Affordable Care Act into law, the never-ending struggle undoubtedly will shift to new fronts. Maybe legalization of marijuana or registration of pistols or free college will be the next big showdown. Whatever comes, I’m ready to predict the eventual winner.
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The transformation that began with The Enlightenment is a fact. Amid all the chaos and confusion of daily life, through a thousand contradictory barrages, the struggle for a safer, fairer, more secure, more humane world never ceases — and the gradual tide of success seems unstoppable.
Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail. This essay is drawn from his latest book, Hurrah for Liberals: How Progressives Defeated Conservatives to Create Democracy, Human Rights and Safe Modern Life. He may be reached by phone at 304-348-5199 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.