How I Became an Ex-Liberal

December 9, 2013

In 2010 Scott Walker was elected Governor of my home state of Wisconsin.  Although he ran on the typical Republican program of cutting spending and providing “tax relief” to the wealthy in order to boost the economy, most of us were surprised when Walker unveiled his more draconian plan of ending the rights of government employees to engage in collective bargaining.  Walker argued that he was only trying to provide more flexibility to local municipalities struggling to balance their budgets, but it didn’t take long for critics to become aware of his larger agenda of pitting a wealthy ownership class and a low income white voters against government employees.  Crushing workers’ unions, it soon became apparent, was also one of Walker’s goals, a goal shared by billionaire funders like the ultra-conservative Koch brothers.  Labor Unions were one of the last liberal strongholds able to compete with funding bonanza that was now flowing into conservative “Super Pacs,” and conservatives believed they could achieve a permanent electoral advantage by destroying unions once and for all.

Because Walker openly used phrases like “divide and conquer” and “crush” when referring to his political opponents, it was obvious he was prepared for a fight.  But he was likely taken off-guard by the sudden groundswell of liberal and Democratic energy.  Attempting to postpone a crucial vote on Walker’s bill, the State Senate’s Democratic minority fled to Illinois  where they holed-up in a motel waiting for public opinion to realize what was at stake; meanwhile tens of thousands of protestors descended on Madison, occupying the Capital Building with round-the clock drumming, chanting, and singing, while growing crowds swelled on the adjacent streets as the throngs of protestor reached a count of close to one hundred thousand, despite the windy and cold February and March days.

On a cold, rainy, and particularly windy Sunday in early March, my wife and I bussed in from Milwaukee and joined the protests with some of our friends.  My wife was and is an employee at UW-Milwaukee, and the new legislation was likely to affect our healthcare benefits just as she began a difficulty pregnancy carrying our twin boys.  But beyond that, her job security in the university system that Walker was all too willing to put on the chopping block was suddenly in question.  In Madison it was impossible not to be swept up by the energy, especially for long-time liberals like us who had grown increasingly alarmed at the growing inequality in our nation.  Finally, a broad segment of the population was mad and scared, but was at the same time harnessing this emotion in positive ways, getting involved in our democracy, letting their voices be heard.  Makeshift ponchos and tarps whipped loudly in the wind and thousands of homemade signs were buffeted to and fro.  And yet the cold and the wet was barely noticed amidst the camaraderie and thrill of a mass protest.  Workers from all walks of life and  affiliations had joined the crowds.  Policemen and Firefighters marched arm in arm with school teachers, students, office staff, and Janitors alike.  Several members of the Green Bay Packers publically sided with the workers and the unions.  Children and grandchildren stood together watching the traditionally conservative farmers drive their tractors into Madison to lend their visible support.

For decades, committed liberals had been appalled the wishy-washy stance of their leaders, and had bemoaned the complacency of the Democrat rank and file.  Since the Reagan Presidency, Democrats had ceased standing for anything.  Instead of fighting for a truly liberal agenda of economic fairness, opportunity, and inclusion, the party had rolled over and compromised with a conservative agenda bent on lowering taxes and cutting public investment while the nation suffered decaying infrastructure, a growing and permanently impoverished underclass, and a division of wealth not seen since just before The Great Depression.  The American dream was slipping away, and the Democratic establishment seemed to be siding more and more frequently with the wealthy elites.

For many liberals, however, this seemed like our moment—finally.  The just cause, the surging enthusiasm, the loud uproar, and of course an especially greasy villain were all here.  The plutocratic agenda of conservatives was finally visible to all, and people were responding.  The government bailout of large banks after the 2008 financial crash had created a new sense of populism; this populism was given intellectual support in weekly columns and blogs by liberal economists such as Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, who argued that Republican-led income inequality was a major cause of the crash.  Barack Obama’s thrilling election was still fresh in our minds, and his stated commitment to increased government investment and a more steeply progressive tax rate resonated loudly.  The “Occupy Wall Street” movement was just being born, adding to our political lexicon the new category of “the 1%.”  Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt proved to some that an egalitarian revolution of the people was underway and that the Plutocrats and Oligarchs of the world would be under siege. 

Amidst this intoxicating mix of anger, energy, and optimism, Michael Moore arrived in Madison to invigorate the crown with a speech that would crystalize many of the beliefs and expectations behind which liberals were rallying with newfound enthusiasm.  “America,” he began his March 5th speech to thousands of ecstatic protestors, “is not broke.”  Rather, he argued, its tremendous bounty has been the target of a great political and ideological theft carried out by forty years of right wing misrule:

"Contrary to what those in power would like you to believe so that you’ll give up your pensions, cut your wages, and settle for the life your great-grandparents had, America is not broke.  Not by a long shot.  The country is awash in wealth and cash. It’s just not in your hands.  It has been transferred, in the greatest heist in history, from workers and consumers to the banks and the portfolios of the uber-rich."

One need only be marginally familiar with the lives of luxury led by the financial elites in this nation to appreciate the element of truth in Moore’s pronouncements.  And then there are the harsh facts, increasingly making themselves known despite the mainstream media’s initial reluctance to make too much of them.  As Moore reminded his Madison audience, “Today just 400 Americans have the same wealth as half of all Americans combined.  Let me say this again.  400 obscenely rich people, most of whom benefitted in some way from the multi-trillion dollar taxpayer ‘bailout’ of 2008, now have as much loot, stock and property as the assets of 155 million Americans combined.”  Until this balance of wealth is restored, Moore argued, the nation and its democracy will suffer.  This is not liberty and justice for all.

In many ways, the goal of the union protesters as well as Moore’s seemingly radical plea for equality simply expresses what was, until the late 1970s, taken as common sense by both Democrats and Republicans alike: that too much concentration of wealth in the hands of the few would cause the overall economy to suffer.  This was the lesson taught by The Great Depression.  Thus even as income distribution and the functioning of the economy may not be as simple as Moore’s metaphor of the “heist” implies, nor do serious liberal economists believe that our financial woes can be addressed simply by re-redistributing the wealth in one fell swoop, liberals believe that the sort of inequality caused by Reagan-era tax policy or Walker-style union busting is not only unfair; it is also an ineffective way of running a free-market economy like ours.  Liberals will therefore conclude that with a balanced tax code and concerted government investment in things like infrastructure, research and development, and green energy for the future, we have every reason to expect a thriving middle class with generous pensions, good health-care, and a constantly growing and widely distributed increase in standards of living.  There is no reason, after all, why we should settle for the lives lived by our great-grandparents, or even our parents for that matter.  That each generation of American will live better than the previous one is seen as the most basic test of our Republic, our democracy, and our very freedom.

Or as Moore put it, summarizing in plain terms this traditional liberal economic consensus:

 "I have nothing more than a high school degree. But back when I was in school, every student had to take one semester of economics in order to graduate. And here’s what I learned: Money doesn’t grow on trees. It grows when we make things. It grows when we have good jobs with good wages that we use to buy the things we need and thus create more jobs. It grows when we provide an outstanding educational system that then grows a new generation of inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, scientists and thinkers who come up with the next great idea for the planet. And that new idea creates new jobs and that creates revenue for the state. But if those who have the most money don’t pay their fair share of taxes, the state can’t function. The schools can’t produce the best and the brightest who will go on to create those jobs. If the wealthy get to keep most of their money, we have seen what they will do with it: recklessly gamble it on crazy Wall Street schemes and crash our economy. The crash they created cost us millions of jobs.  That too caused a reduction in tax revenue. Everyone ended up suffering because of what the rich did."

Moore’s language and concepts can be traced to a liberal playbook which may have gone underground for a few decades, but that can be dated back at least to F.D.R’s New Deal.  As Roosevelt put it, “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics.”  In the face of The Great Depression, or so the story goes, Roosevelt built the strongest industrial powerhouse the world has ever seen by combining this sort of economic and political fair-play into a robustly competitive mix of free-markets and government investment. “Among men of good will,” Roosevelt proclaimed in his second inaugural address, “science and democracy together offer an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual.  With this change in our moral climate and our rediscovered ability to improve our economic order, we have set our feet upon the road of enduring progress.”  The Madison protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement, we might say, are asking only that we stay true to this road of enduring progress.  In the face of the “Great Recession” of recent years, then, liberals hoped we would return to this tried and true common sense again, believing that only ignorant and greedy conservatives stand in the way.

I have been a liberal since I first began thinking about political issues as a teenager.  Moreover, I was the sort of liberal who remained disappointed by Clinton’s “third way” and was angered by Obama’s increasing coziness with global financial interests.  I was the kind of liberal who was fervently committed to equality, favored helping the downtrodden, and believes that we are all in this together.  Ronald Reagan was my nightmare.  Like Howard Dean, I stood for what he referred to as “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” But as I listened to the words of Moore, to the liberal protestors and commentators, as I read the angry facebook posts and emails of my liberal friends, my skepticism and eventually rejection of this position gradually emerged.  A traditional liberal standpoint failed to understand the present and was unable to envision a realistic plan for the future.  Why this rejection of what might be seen as a new New Deal?  Especially given my direct interest in a well-funded university with generous benefits, why did I soon become a critic of these protests and the underlying economic and political expectations?  What could possibly be wrong with an economic recovery fueled by the sort of equality and solidarity I had long argued for?  How, indeed, could any sane liberal reject “enduring progress” or “an ever-richer life and ever-larger satisfaction to the individual”?  What else could I possibly expect? The “heedless self-interest” that we associate with conservatives is the only common criticism of this position, and I certainly had not adopted that.

The answer, which is the main subject of the book, lies beyond our current political categories.  It cannot be found in Republican or conservative view, the only mainstream alternative to the liberal one described by Moore.  The conservative idea that we might achieve widespread prosperity and progress by privileging the wealthy “job creators,” as they came to be euphemistically called during the Walker campaign and later during the Romney one, would be stupid were it not so self-serving and politically effective for wealthy political and economic elites–at least in the short term.  Rather, the problem with this liberal position has to do with its underlying assumptions, beliefs, and expectations, many of which are shared equally with even the most conservative Republican Tea Party supporters or Wall Street CEOs.  It is a problem that is not discussed within our current political debate, in which it would remain unmentionable even were it not virtually inconceivable in the first place. 

The problem, in its most simple terms, is that the sort of increased prosperity and economic growth that has been promised to Americans, almost as a birthright, is not environmentally sustainable—not even close.  The prosperity and rising standard of living that Moore, as only one example, promises,  depends on  increasing amounts of finite fossil and other finite resources, and creates more carbon emissions than our atmosphere can absorb.  To put it bluntly, if the American or world economy continues to grow as Moore, Obama, or Paul Krugman all believe it can and should, we will soon find that we don’t have enough fuel and other natural resources to maintain this increase in economic activity and, in the meantime, will have created an uninhabitable planet while trying.  While the conservative program of trying to achieve economic growth and increased prosperity by way of tax cuts and deregulation is wrong on so many levels, the liberal approach is no more ecologically sustainable nor, it turns out, practically possible. 

I had arrived at this conclusion through a journey that had begun in 2007.  That year I had purchased a shop and warehouse for my remodeling company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  At the time I had a vague but growing awareness that something would have to be done about global warming, and was determined to do something “green” with the building’s large flat roof.   “Going green,” I also concluded, would be a great marketing ploy and would likely increase my own prosperity.  I naively hatched a plan of charging batteries with solar power, so that I might run all our jobs and vehicles off solar power and the biodiesel we also would start manufacturing.  Because of my optimistic, can-do spirit, I never bothered doing the math to see how this might work.  But the cost of solar panels eliminated that possibility.  Instead, I decided to grow vegetables on what I would come to call the rooftop farm.  Will Allen and his organization “Growing Power” was starting to make its mark and I had been impressed by Allen’s high-concentration growing techniques.  Although I was quite dedicated to my farming project, and considered myself an environmentalist, it was carried out rather impulsively, based on very little understanding of the environmental and economic issues at stake; but my rooftop farming adventures nevertheless launched me into the world of urban agriculture, which in turn led me into a more “hard-core” sustainability movement represented by The Transition Movement. 

The Transition Movement is unique among environmental or sustainability organizations because it does not believe that the cure for our addiction to fossil fuels is to replace them with another source of power; rather, it maintains, we need to change the way we live in far more fundamental ways.  This is a simple proposition, but it never really occurred to me.  Like most Americans, I was far more likely to imagine using rooftop solar panels to run a power-hungry woodshop and vast fleets of biodiesel trucks; neither of these, we will see, are practically possible at any sort of industrial scale.  Among the many things I learned as I was exposed to voices rarely admitted into the mainstream, is how ignorant and uninformed Americans are about energy and the environment.  What passes for common sense or a legitimate vision for the future, even at the highest academic or government levels, is in fact based on a series of unfounded myths and a lot of wishful thinking.  I realized that even as I had been committed enough to the environmental cause to haul 20 yards of Growing Power compost up to my roof, I knew almost nothing about the environmental concerns that motivated me.  I realized that even as I listened to NPR all day and read a broad spectrum of print journalism, I had accepted as fact a series of fanciful stories about energy and the economy.  How could I have been so uniformed?  And if I was that uniformed, what about all the journalists and politicians whose views of the world I had come to accept?  In the words of James Kuntsler, we were sleepwalking into the future, and someone had better start screaming loud enough to wake everybody up.   Using my rooftop garden as a launching pad, I soon started giving interviews, began writing a blog on energy and the economy, and  gave public talks about “basic energy literacy” whenever I was given the chance.

Above I referred to the Transition Movement as “hard core,” and I used the quotations marks purposely. This and other related movements or schools of thought are carefully kept outside our political and cultural mainstream; its members are often looked upon as extremists with conclusions not fit for polite or moderate company.  But the true extremists are those who believe there is a technological solution to every problem, and the truly astonishing belief is the one that holds we can have infinite growth on a finite planet.  Thus while the Transition Movement can tend to be highly idealistic in its hope and vision for a better future, it relies on hard-nosed and data-driven in the analysis.  The conclusion drawn by the careful work of “post-carbon” geologists, physicists, historians, and economists is that the only way we can live within our planetary resources is by consuming much, much less.  There is no magical solution that will, in the words of John Michael Greer, “let us have our planet and eat it too.”   As it turns out, we may in fact have to live more like our great-grandparents, at least in terms of the amount of energy and natural materials we consume, and the amount of waste we produce.  Despite all the promises made in “green growth” propaganda, the only way we might actually use and waste less is by living much more simply. 

Part of my task in the pages that follow will be to present the sort of basic, but generally unknown, information about energy and the environment that is missing from our various public forums in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world.  But this is only a small part of my task.  As I became more interested and informed about these issues, and then began speaking about them, I also realized how difficult it is to get people to actually hear these truths, even as they are drawn from largely uncontested facts about energy use, economic growth, global emission levels, available reserves of fossil fuels, and the limits of renewable energy.  Most people I talked to would agree that someone should do something, but would carry on with their high-energy and high-consumption lifestyles without a moment’s hesitation nor with any recognition that this way of life cannot continue.   It didn’t take too long for me to realize that the more interesting question and bigger problem does not lie in the information itself, which is pretty straightforward.  Rather, it was how we as a civilization had become so adept at ignoring and evading this information, even as this denial was allowing us to hurtle towards a disaster beyond a magnitude that few can imagine. 

There are many ways in which Americans try to avoid and elude the very basic fact that we live on a finite planet whose ecological limits have been surpassed, and whose natural systems which support all life are crashing around us.  For the most part, we tend to be concerned about other things and are diverted by a world of often trivial novelties and short-term concerns, like whether we should buy an iPad or a Samsung tablet.  But we are also fed a steady diet of stories about our collective ability to overcome any barrier–as long as we maintain our freedoms, our ingenious and entrepreneurial spirit, and our faith and confidence in ourselves.  We believe that we are riding a great wave of permanent progress, and should expect a rising standard of living, demand a world of increased comfort and security, count on more and more automation and computerization and thus less physical or menial labor.  In visions of the future, as they are usually presented, we are promised a low-energy knowledge economy in which everyone appears to be a creative force of unique individuality, tapping away happily on a laptop  from some beach, bamboo jungle hut, or scenic country vista.  Because these stories of continued material improvement are lent some legitimate credibility from our previous  century or two of enormous success, we are able to ignore the underlying truth of Moore’s elementary lesson in economics, a truth that is as well-documented as it is unspoken: that  “good jobs with good wages” use a lot of energy and produce enormous quantities of waste; that the hard work and good ideas that produce more jobs will also demand more energy and produce more waste; that the next “great idea” for the planet almost always involves the use of more energy and resources.  Because we as a civilization are mainly uninformed about the way the economy, energy, and the environment interact, we are all too ready to believe that the next great idea for the planet will be a way to create more jobs, more good ideas, and more stuff without actually using more energy, more natural resources, and without creating more waste.  Certainly Bill Gates or Mark Zucherberg will figure out how we can have our planet and eat it too.  We believe that unprecedented efficiencies and limitless renewable energy are just around the corner.  This, we will see, is a baseless myth.  But because our expectations for a certain kind of future are so thoroughly cemented into our minds, most of us are all too willing to accept it as an impeachable truth.

The issue of our collective state of denial had been bothering me for a year or two by the time Michael Moore showed up in Madison.   But as I began to listen more carefully to what liberals believed and expected, and the way liberal leaders reinforced these expectations without a moment of thought given to the ecological cost of these expectations, I began to see how unsustainable even the most progressive liberal plans and hopes were.  But beyond this, the liberal position didn’t seem correctable from the inside.  Pointing out a few basic facts about energy consumption couldn’t change anything—because it would have to change just about everything, including the most fundamental beliefs and assumptions of liberals, if it were actually heard.  Better to ignore the issue and get on with the far more satisfying work of blaming conservatives.  Liberals didn’t give a moment’s notice to the true ecological costs of their promises, in other words, because if they did, they would need to recast the entire liberal program.

This isn’t to say that conservatives, today, have any insights to offer about how we might achieve a sustainable future.   Most environmentalists are liberals, and most “hard core” environmentalists are, or were at some point, liberals as well.  But the sort of changes we need to make in order to have a peaceful, just, equitable, and inhabitable planet move us well beyond what liberal politics is able to confront.  Part of this difficulty, I will argue, has to do with concepts and beliefs rooted deeply within the liberal political and economic agenda that reach back to its early formative experiences.  Liberalism was born in an era of unprecedented expansion and its basic hopes and plans for the future are rooted a sort of perpetual growth that cannot continue.  Among its basic tenants is the belief that living with less would be a defeat of its central principles and promises.  It banks on permanent technological innovation and a never ending series of “good ideas for the planet.”  It assumes that with the proper set of policies, codes, and regulations, a solid educational system, and an adequate social safety net, there are no limits to what we can accomplish, that all Americans deserve to live like the wealthy, and that the whole world deserves to live like Americans.  Whether in the form of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Clinton’s Third Way, or Moore’s populist worker-centered politics, liberalism (a concept I will discuss in greater depth below) is incapable of conceiving of or planning for a way of life that is remotely sustainable or that will allow our children and grandchildren to inherit an inhabitable planet.  The solution to our long term ecological and economic problems is not to become more liberal; it is to adopt beliefs and expectations that lie beyond the scope of our current political beliefs and expectations, liberal or conservative. 

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: conservatives, Liberals, limits to growth, Resource Depletion, Transition movement