Talk Dirty About Me

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Theodore Roosevelt laughing
Our kind of Republican
Theodore Roosevelt laughing
Our kind of Republican

A reformed but unrepentant speechwriter can’t help composing speeches he wishes someone would deliver on a big stage. Try this one.

This is a mixed audience in your political views, I gather, — some liberals, some conservatives. That makes it a good place to talk about what those words mean, if they mean anything at all these days. Some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle have been taking every opportunity lately to call me liberal. Fine by me.

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The problem is, those people are using the word as an insult. They’re taking one of the great political movements of the western world and turning it into a slur. It’s as if they were calling me – I don’t know, a fascist? A communist? They tend to call the president both, which is interesting, because the two are more or less opposite.

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Well, I wouldn’t use the word “conservative” as an insult. I’ve not considered myself a conservative until recently, but the conservative tradition is the other great movement, and it has made its contributions to our culture. I’m thinking back to the days when it seemed as though liberals couldn’t count and conservatives couldn’t do anything else.

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But the people I’m talking about – the people who use the word “liberal” as an accusation — are not conservatives. They are dangerous, fringe radicals who want to take this country back to a place they only imagine it once was. And that is a dangerously twisted view of history. This country was founded on liberal ideas: freedom, that is, and equality. Those two words, freedom and equality, are the essence of the liberal tradition. Those words, and the acceptance of change, still define the liberal mind.

Freedom and equality were what we did not have in the days before the rebellion of 1776. They are what this nation stood for, and at its best, still stands for. That is the inheritance of the liberal tradition, from John Locke on.

Am I a liberal? I wouldn’t want to be called illiberal. Am I a progressive? Don’t call me regressive.

But as I said, recently I’ve come to consider myself a conservative of a kind. That’s because I want to conserve some things, and not throw everything out with the bath. I’d like to conserve the Bill of Rights. That includes the Second Amendment, properly understood. I’d like to conserve and preserve the New Deal, or what’s left of it, and the American tradition of upward economic and social mobility, and an open society.

I’d like to conserve some people, too: people who are broken, damaged, dispirited, down and marginalized. Sometimes I think the Republican Party ought to adopt a new slogan, so we all understand just exactly what they stand for. Here it is: When you’ve got a man down, kick him.

What I mean by that is simple. Unlike the radicals who call themselves conservative these days, I still believe the government has a role to play in the important affairs of the country. I think government has a crucial role in leveling some of the inequities of our capitalistic system.

Did I say I oppose capitalism? Listen to me: I did not. I believe, as my conservative colleagues do, that capitalism has done more to raise more people out of poverty than any previous economic system.

Does that mean I oppose socialism, then? I do not. There, I said it. But let’s not jump to conclusions. I didn’t call myself a socialist. There are plenty of other people to do that for me. And if you think “liberal” is a hot word, then “socialist” is downright incendiary.

In fact, it should be perfectly obvious by now that we do not have, and should not make, a stark choice between capitalism and socialism. It should be obvious that neither system works very well without a healthy dose of the other.

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What we have is a mixed economy. It is what we should have. The question is how far we lean toward pure capitalism, which results in cruel inequities, and pure socialism, which addresses but does not solve the questions of who truly deserves how much. A pure capitalist has to let the market decide that Donald Trump deserves thousands of times more than the best teacher in the land. A pure socialist has to decide precisely what each of them deserves.

But we don’t have to decide between those alternatives. There’s a range of choices in between.

It’s pretty clear that when private enterprise can handle a problem better than government can, then private business – well regulated – should take it on. That happened with the Internet, which was developed by government.

But it should be equally clear that when the market fails, as it has in our health-care system, then the government should take it over. Socialize the system, you say? Yeah. So what? Calling it socialist does not constitute a logical argument.

The problem just now, then, is that we have some large and serious political movements here that want to impose a system of pure capitalism – the kind that gave us Dickens’s London and New York’s turn-of-the-century garment district.

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These people are not just the Tea Party. They also include the Rand Paul-style libertarians. They have a philosophy that is, they believe, entirely consistent, and based on liberty. We need full liberty in the social sphere, which is close to correct, and full liberty in the financial world as well, which view betrays a misunderstanding of how people behave with respect to money. Full financial liberty means liberty for the predators of the world, on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms, to do exactly what they are doing as I speak.

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They are buying up all the political world so that they can corner all the money and all the power.

I am saying, then, that I do not believe it is possible to be what a lot of people call themselves, social liberals and economic conservatives. Because in our system, or any fundamentally capitalistic system, it’s all about the money. Money is power. So if you don’t believe in closing this huge gap that has opened up in income and wealth between the haves and the rest of us, you’re not with me. And you’re not with the people.

I’m in pretty good company, here. I stand with John Locke and Thomas Paine, with Abraham Lincoln and both Roosevelts. Does that make me a liberal? Sure. And I’m proud of it.

Are you with me?