Analysis: Why Tolerant Liberals Can Win Their Fight With Intolerant Liberals; A Response to Robert P. George

Robert P. George
Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, delivering the Institute on Religion and Democracy's 2014 Diane Knippers Memorial Lecture, Washington, D.C., October 16, 2014. |

WASHINGTON — Will those liberals who value diversity and tolerance of differing viewpoints lose their fight with the liberals who have worked to drive those who do not share their opinions from the public square? Professor Robert P. George believes they will. Tolerant liberals, however, have two advantages in that fight.

On Oct. 16, George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, delivered the Institute on Religion and Democracy's 2014 Diane Knippers Memorial Lecture in Washington, D.C. In that speech (coverage and links to the video here), he argued that supporters of gay marriage will not allow for the religious freedom of those opposed to gay marriage because their ideology does not allow for the fact that gay marriage dissenters can be reasonable people of goodwill. There are some tolerant liberals that continue to support religious freedom, he said, but those liberals "will lose the battle."

During the Q&A after the speech, I suggested to George two reasons he could be wrong, that tolerant liberals could win that fight with intolerant liberals.

First, in American democracy extremism loses and moderation wins. In fact, our Founders designed our government to function that way. If most elections in the United States had a proportional representation system, candidates who can gain the support of a small portion of the population can still gain some measure of political power. Instead, the United States has a winner-take-all electoral system in which a plurality of the vote is required to win elections. This encourages candidates to build broad coalitions in order to win. In this way, our election system has a moderating effect on our candidates and our political discourse.

Intolerant liberalism has only recently become a mainstream phenomenon. It has been below the surface (or confined mostly to college campuses) for a while, but since President Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, intolerant liberals have been much more strident and much more public.

This extremism will lead to a backlash. We may have already seen the beginnings of the backlash in the responses to the Houston Mayor sermon subpoena scandal, the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel story and the Republican victories in the midterm elections.

While support for gay marriage has seen strong growth in recent years, support for religious freedom also remains strong. Political candidates, even those who support gay marriage, will not want to be associated with a movement seen as attacking religious freedom.

Second, tolerant liberals are holding views consistent with their ideology. The hypocrisy of intolerant liberals is unsustainable in the long-term as the absurdity of their position continues to reveal itself.

After Brendan Eich was forced out of his job as CEO of Mozilla for supporting traditional marriage, for instance, the company claimed that he had to go because the company has a "culture" that "reflects diversity and inclusiveness," "welcome[s] contributions from everyone regardless of ... religious views," and has "a wide diversity of views."

While inconsistencies between one's stated ideology and one's positions are quite common, the contradictions are not usually so blatant. Most intolerant liberals are likely blind to their own hypocrisy for now, but will come to recognize it when they have to defend it. One cannot continue to claim they value diversity and tolerance while reducing diversity and being intolerant.

In response to this proposition, George said, "I hope that you're right and I'm wrong. But I think that I'm right and you're wrong."

George does not believe that the tolerant liberals can win because all the passion and energy is on the intolerant side.

Here is a partial transcript of the rest of his response. You can also watch a video of his answer below.

"I've been swimming in these waters since I was 18 years old and first left the hills of West Virginia to go off to Swarthmore College and kind of stayed in the academic world that entire time. ...

The reason I think that intolerant liberalism will win is that all the fire and passion and enthusiasm is on the intolerant side. There are tolerant liberals, but when do they speak out and make a difference? Not when George Will was disinvited from speaking at Scripps. Not when Bob Zoellick was pressured to pull out as a graduation speaker at my own alma mater, at Swarthmore. Not when Condoleezza Rice came under attack as a speaker at Rutgers and was forced out. These are not your hard-core right-wingers. Bob Zoellick? Condoleezza Rice? But the intolerant liberals prevailed.

Now to their credit, there were tolerant liberals who tried to fight back and do something about it. But they were small in numbers and weak in passion. Passion was all on the other side.

When Brendan Eich was forced out ... a small group of people ... signed a statement criticizing Eich's ouster, the assault on Eich. But all the passion was on the other side, so Eich was forced out.

If there were passion for the true old-fashioned ideas of liberalism, it would be the intolerant liberals that would be on the losing side and would be humiliated and embarrassed, and driven from the liberal movement the way that Bill Buckley drove the racists and the anti-Semites and the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement.

So I wish I could be more optimistic. And I certainly do acknowledge that there are still good, tolerant, old-fashioned liberals out there who believe the old liberal party line about respect, civility, diversity of opinion being honored and tolerated and so forth. But I'm worried about where the passion and the fire is."

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