The Grapes of Wrath Or Where Have all the Liberals Gone?

My wife and I went to a wine tasting at a local winery in Northern Virginia the other day.  It was a small event for about 20 people and was done by the winemaker himself.  It was a vertical tasting of three estate cabernet franc vintages he had produced.  As the winemaker talked about each wine, he gave us much more than the typical “fruit-forward with tobacco notes and hints of cherry and blackcurrant” subjective pabulum you often get at this sort of thing.  He talked about how in 2011 Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee dumped tons of rain on the vineyard just before harvest, ruining what was supposed to be an amazing vintage.  He recounted the super-late freeze in 2012 that hit after bud break, causing many vineyards to lose 95-100 percent of their crop.  It was beginning to sound like winemaking is a lot like legalized gambling and it reminded me of a riddle I’d heard somewhere: “Do you know how to make a small fortune in the wine business?  Start with a large one.”  But the winemaker really focused on the things he could actually control – the levers he could pull to affect the outcome of the product.  Sweetness, acidity, tannins, alcohol and body.  These five things are the elements of balance and balanced wines have no single overpowering characteristic.  It became clear that besides being a meld of art and science, winemaking is just as much about philosophy.

As a concept, balance is fundamental to just about every aspect of our lives.  We strive to keep everything in balance, our checkbook, our work-life relationship, our national budget.  It’s all about working to achieve Aristotle’s Golden Mean or following the Goldilocks Theory – not too much, not too little, just right.  And when things are out of balance, we feel it.  Something’s not right and we have to fix it.  Where the winemaker works in the vineyard and cellar to balance the five characteristics of good wine, a country must keep its political system in balance as well.  In his 1941 State of the Union Address, Franklin Delano Roosevelt described the attributes of a healthy republic in what would become known as The Four Freedoms Speech.  Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.  Delivered 11 months before the United States declared war on Japan, the speech was designed to summarize the values of democracy and foster bipartisan support for U.S. involvement in support of its allies.  But the real value of the speech was that it laid down a scorecard for democracy.  If the Four Freedoms are maintained and kept in balance, the result will be a prosperous nation.  If one or more of the freedoms declines, the system becomes unbalanced and if left uncorrected will result in the eventual destruction of the system itself.  Roosevelt’s speech was simple, elegant and profound.

Today, our country is out of balance.  Even though it is protected by the First Amendment, freedom of speech is under assault.  Group think, intolerance, hyper-political correctness and identity politics run rampant.  Speakers having differing points of view are booed, shouted down and threatened with violence.  Even colleges and universities are complicit.  Once the bastions of freedom of thought and open mindedness, our educational institutions have become academies of intolerance by permitting or even condoning the shutting down of any expression that runs counter to the prevailing social narrative of the day.  These used to be (and need to be) places where issues and concepts can be discussed and debated in an environment that fosters the free flow and exchange of ideas.  As I mentioned in “The Day the Muses Died,” the most serious threat to liberty and democracy is the silencing of expression.  Freedom of speech and of the press are the Holy Grail of liberty and must be protected at all cost.  If they go, everything goes.

Our system is out of balance and we didn’t get here overnight.  But we can set things right before they get any worse.  For that, we need liberalism.  Once seen as the voice of the common people, the champion of the downtrodden and the protector of the powerless, liberalism was regarded by many as a check on the unbridled excesses of a capitalist system bent on exploiting workers and the environment to line the pockets of the few at the top of the food chain – a noble calling indeed.  Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.  Somewhere along the way, the liberals rebranded themselves as progressives and in this process lost their most virtuous characteristic – the guarantors of freedom of expression.  With today’s progressives, there is no room in the discussion for anything other than the approved narrative.  Differing opinions are not subject to debate and will not be tolerated.  Thoughts, ideas and expression that run counter to the progressive narrative are considered heresy and their purveyors heretics who must be shut down by any means necessary, including violence.  They have become The Party of NO, suffering from cognitive dissonance.

We need our liberals back—or at least the best qualities of liberalism—if we are to restore balance to the system.