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June 1, 2006

How did liberals lose the road map?

By Julian Edney

Liberals have lost their ideology; we have become materialists.


There is a crisis in ideas on the left, which is worrying, because ideas set a nation’s course. In short, the left has lost its ideology. Daniel Bell, who wrote The End of Ideology said we’ve been rudderless since the collapse of communism (1). Among other things, an ideology specifies what we are against and what we will die to protect. In earlier decades our national mission was heavily anti-communist.

Instead of ideology we have several dazzling developments; leaps in technology, an unmatched film industry. We continue to be the wealthiest country in the world. But we have no abstract principles to die for.

What is an ideology? It states the common good. It is a statement of values, it names ideals. It joins people in a purpose, it urges loyalty and sacrifice. It is visionary and explains what we are all doing here. It says why and how we must work together.

Look into the liberal brain these days, and where there should be ideology, there is just a big, loose hole. Nowadays we don’t do abstracts. We do parties and we do pet diets and we do workouts. But we cannot decide if equality is more important that freedom – in fact we haven’t thought about it for decades. There is nothing we will die for. We reserve our outrage for poor dry cleaning and the people who back into our cars. We think a lot about raises.

We’re too comfortable to start causes.

Liberals have become materialists; glitter attracts. With these real estate prices, who isn’t catching luxury fever? If 1% of the population owns 40% of the wealth, isn’t that proof that greed works?

And we have lost the ability to think. Ideology and materialism are mutually exclusive. Acquiring stuff never was an intellectual ability. Insects know how to hoard.

Psychologist Tim Kasser has a book The High Price of Materialism, an overview of recent research on the materialistic personality (2). Materialists, it turns out, are poor at personal relationships. They are anxious, alienated, and depressed; they drink more alcohol and watch prodigious amounts of television which touts materialist values. College-aged materialists are more likely to be conflictual and aggressive on dates; death plays a bigger role in materialists’ dreams. They believe acquiring stuff is the solution, and when they acquire it they are not satisfied.

How did liberals get over there? There was a time when selfishness and materialism were moral problems. Now they are goals in life.

What about the ‘60s cultural revolution, with music and hippies? Daniel Bell thinks it was an ersatz revolution, just an expansion of sex and drug and rock-and-roll freedoms which was paralleled foot by foot by the power hungry Ayn Rand, whose rants for no-holds-barred self advancement seem to have won the cultural race (3).

Our economy would halt without materialism. Consumer spending is about 70% of the economy. But that is the point: holding a society together requires something else: it requires ideals, direction, and trust - for people to come together with a common cause. But research finds the materialist personality would rather compete with his friends than cooperate with them. He doesn’t trust. And you can’t build ideology on that.

We have swallowed the nonsense that selfish competition is somehow good for all.

Liberals can still experience their feelings of course, and they have not lost touch with self expression. A new credit card in an upscale furniture store will get us in back in touch with our inner cossack. And we are inventive, learning to mix compassion with technology, raising our children by cell phone.

But liberals do not have ideological direction.

Before we start searching for direction, we need to put ideas back on top. To decide whether freedom is more important than equality. To stop watching TV whose advertising, collectively, promotes greed, because greed also destroys trust. To think, to reclaim our own judgment. And to refute Ayn Rand’s antisocial tracts, because we have become what she poisonously prescribed: selfish, unhelpful, and denying of the common good.

Then we can start the search.


1. Bell, D. The end of ideology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.
2. Kasser, T. The high price of materialism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.
3. Rand, A. The virtue of selfishness. New York: New American library, 1964.

Julian Edney can be contacted through his website.

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Author: Julian Edney can be contacted through his website,