The Problem with Liberals

by Peter Feng

On September 24, 2005, a day designated for national and international protest against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, a march and protest organized by the ANSWER coalition in San Francisco was diverted from Civic Center plaza to Jefferson Square Park, because organizers of the 2005 edition of the San Francisco Love Parade had previously put in for a permit to inundate the downtown area with thousands of people dedicated to the free and full expression of peace and love. Unfortunately, the Love Parade managed to upstage and outdraw the more politically focused anti-war demonstration by turning out between 50,000 and 60,000 people. In comparison, attendance figures for the ANSWER protest generally hover between 20,000 and 50,000 people. This discrepancy was likely due to the fact that the Love Parade attracted participants from across the country to the Bay Area, and because Love Parade attendees were composed of both the politically conscious and unconscious. Whatever the case, the juxtaposition of these two events in San Francisco serves to illustrate one of the core problems confronting the political left in the United States.

Unfairly or not, the political left has come to be associated in the minds of most casual observers with the hedonistic excesses of the countercultural movement of the 1960s, which owed much of its philosophical underpinnings to the libertarian tradition. Nevertheless, the term “liberal,” as it is used today, refers to individuals who espouse liberal social values regardless of their political economic outlook, values such as premarital sex, abortion, and same sex unions. Events like the Love Parade embody these liberal social values. In contrast, the term “conservative” refers to those who advocate conservative social values regardless of their political economic outlook. People of this moral persuasion generally oppose premarital sex, abortion, and same sex unions.

The problem with classifying people according to their social values is that this allows self-professed liberals and conservatives to claim membership in certain political camps without ever having to reveal their true political economic beliefs, which are ultimately the main determinant of their behavior in the political arena. For example, the anti-war demonstration and the Love Parade were both characterized as “liberal” gatherings. However, while the ANSWER coalition was trying to make the case that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had drained billions of dollars out of the domestic economy and caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents, it is clear that organizers of the Love Parade were less concerned with promoting a specific political or economic agenda than in attracting attendees united solely by their desire to party. While organizers of such modern day events generally like to claim kinship with the legendary Woodstock concert of 1969, the recurring presence of corporate sponsors at these proceedings underscores the extent to which the ideals of love, peace, and tolerance have been co-opted and transformed into marketing gimmicks.

The fact that the general public perceives the Love Parade as part and parcel of movements that are more genuinely focused on effecting widespread social change is problematic for the political left, as the noise and color of such “liberal” free-for-alls frequently overwhelm the efforts of the more politically progressive. Peace, love, and freedom are the result of enlightened policies at the political and economic level. Sex, drugs, and rock and roll represent neither the means to achieve that end, nor an admirable end in and of themselves.

A Lack of Vision

Unfortunately, by failing to articulate a compelling alternative to the present political economic paradigm, the progressive community has also failed to differentiate itself from the free love/free music/free alcohol/free entertainment crowd, which has itself been infiltrated by commercial interests. Progressives must focus on advancing a fundamentally different vision of society, if the political left is to become relevant again.

Where will such a vision be found? Certainly not in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. Case in point, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) recently distributed a survey to registered voters across the country in which recipients were asked to rank the relative importance of the following issues on a scale of one (1) to ten (10) with 1 being the most important:

• Improving public education
• Protecting the environment
• National security/foreign policy
• Economic/tax policy
• Reproductive freedom
• Social Security reform
• Civil rights and liberties
• Health care affordability
• National energy policy
• Other

It is apparent that by asking grassroots supporters to engage in this type of exercise, the DNC does not yet understand how to create a winning political strategy for 2006 and beyond. If it did, DNC officials would understand that: (1) protecting the environment is inextricably linked to crafting a national energy policy based on renewable and alternative energy sources; (2) that there is a direct relationship between economic/tax policy and improved public education and health care affordability; (3) that reproductive freedom encompasses civil rights and civil liberties; and (4) that national security is dependent upon crafting a progressive domestic policy instead of a bellicose foreign policy.

As for Social Security, the main argument for tinkering with this popular income protection program is that Social Security is hopelessly mired in waste and inefficiency, broken, and unable to meet its financial obligations to retirees. If this is the case, then reforming the financial management operations of the Pentagon, which recently “lost track of 56 airplanes, 32 tanks, and 36 Javelin missile command launch-units” along with about one trillion dollars of past spending, would seem to be a more urgent imperative than privatizing Social Security, especially since the Pentagon now accounts for almost half of all discretionary spending in the federal government.

A False Dichotomy

What the DNC’s ranking of political priorities demonstrates is that the current dichotomy between the liberal and conservative factions in the U.S. is a false dichotomy. Both nominally conservative and nominally liberal politicians have gotten away with enacting destructive political economic policies at the federal, state, and local level for years under the cover afforded to them by these labels. There is no such thing as a compassionate conservative or a compassionate liberal, for that matter, as long as the political economic philosophy that these individuals follow is neoliberalism.

The genius of neoliberalism is that it makes no distinction between the socially conservative and the socially liberal. People of both persuasions may take up its cause. Adherents to neoliberalism, which is otherwise known as laissez faire capitalism, support the elimination of any and all government oversight in the financial and business sector, the privatization of public industries and services, the withdrawal of government intervention in the private sector, and the abolition of tariffs and other protectionist measures to facilitate unrestrained foreign trade. In sum, practitioners of neoliberalism wish to substitute free market principles for government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

In practice, this usually means starving the central government of tax revenue through targeted tax cuts to the rich, so that there will be less funding available for social programs that promote the general welfare such as public education. After stripping away social programs that support people who must work for a living, the remaining tax revenues are channeled to enrich individuals who have donated money to support political campaigns for liberal or conservative causes. Whether or not one is socially liberal or socially conservative, it should be easy for most to agree that this is fundamentally “unchristian.”

What the politically progressive must do is to create their own brand of neoliberalism: that is, a political economic framework that (1) repudiates the present political economic model, (2) subordinates the expression of liberal and/or libertine ideals to a concrete agenda for political economic reform that pulls in both the socially liberal and socially conservative, (3) unites the political left, and (4) can serve as a viable replacement for the current regime. Only in this way will it be possible to build the coalition that is necessary to transform the existing political economy into one in which cooperation and collaboration take the place of cronyism and corporate malfeasance. Absent this approach, the political left is likely to remain mired in mediocrity, as periodic eruptions of libertine activity continue to alienate social conservatives and drain energy away from the real movement for progress.


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