Liberals As the New Puritans

In my book Unclean I discuss the research of Jonathan Haidt regarding the five moral foundations and how they are deployed by liberals and conservatives. For the purposes of this post we can summarize by noting that liberals tend to restrict their moral judgments to issues related to harm and justice where conservatives appeal to additional moral criteria like sanctity and purity. Liberals care more about things like fairness where conservatives worry more about things like contamination.

But not so fast, says Mark Oppenheimer, in a recent article in the New Republic. Oppenheimer argues that many liberals have been overtaken by a neurotic fear of contamination, making them the "new Puritans."

Oppenheimer's analysis was prompted by Portland's recent refusal to allow for the fluoridation of their water, a vote driven by liberal fears of contamination, a fear that Oppenheimer is increasingly seeing on the left:
Today, of course, while the right still dabbles eagerly in the anti-fluoride, anti-vaccination, and other anti-science pathologies, the left may be the even greater culprit. Certainly the anti-fluoride coalition in Portland depended more on self-identified liberal voters than on conservatives. But there are key differences in how liberals and conservatives come by their fears. On the right, these mental illnesses stem from fear of government. On the left, their origins are a bit harder to pin down, but as I see it, they stem from an old mix of righteousness and the fear of contamination—from what we might recognize as Puritanism.
Oppenheimer goes on to give some other examples of these puritanical fears of contamination from a child's birthday party he attended:
Let me give another example of left-wing Puritanism in action, one less glaring than the Portland referendum but which will be recognizable to many of you. Last month, at a birthday party for a three-year-old, I was hit with the realization that most of the parents around me were in the grip of moral panic, the kind of fear of contamination dramatized so well in The Crucible. One mother was trying to keep her daughter from eating a cupcake, because of all the sugar in cupcakes. Another was trying to limit her son to one juice box, because of all the sugar in juice. A father was panicking because there was no place, in this outdoor barn-like space at some nature center or farm or wildlife preserve, where his daughter could wash her hands before eating. And while I did not hear any parent fretting about the organic status of the veggie dip, I became certain there were such whispers all around me.

Like any moral panic, nobody was immune to its contagion. Soon, I was fretting—but for different reasons. For all I knew, some of these kids weren’t immunized, and they were fed only unpasteurized milk. The other parents were worried about germs and microbes and genetically modified apricots—I was worried about the parents. I was surrounded by the new Puritans: self-righteous, aspiring toward a utopian perfectionism, therefore condemned to perpetual anxiety—and in their anxiety, a threat to me and my children. 
I don't know about you, but I've also observed this sort of contamination panic among my liberal friends. And the most profound point that Oppenheimer makes, in my opinion, is how this new liberal puritanism has been increasingly co-opting what used to be the core of progressive, liberal politics. Rather than, say, strengthening the labor/union movement to stand up for and protect a vanishing middle class liberal puritans are worried to the point of obsession about things like sugar and anti-bacterial soap:
[T]hinking that Puritanism—whether a preference for organic foods or natural fibers or home-birthing—is somehow constitutive of a liberal politics is rather insulting to liberalism. Most of the middle-class “liberal” parents I know have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society; they have no particular beliefs about how to end poverty or strengthen the labor movement, and they don’t understand Obamacare, or really want to. It’s enough that they make their midwife-birthed children substitute guava nectar for sugar...

They say hygienic reform; I say the 30-hour work week and not stressing if my children eat Kix. Liberalism, as the political philosopher Corey Robin has recently argued, should be above all about freedom. The best reasons to want a labor union, or universal health care, or Social Security are to be free of worry, want, and privation, and to be out from under the hand of the boss. It makes no sense to re-enslave ourselves with fear, worry, and stress.
I couldn't agree more. Too many liberals "have allowed lifestyle decisions about what they wear, eat, and drive to entirely replace a more ambitious program for bettering society; they have no particular beliefs about how to end poverty or strengthen the labor movement, and they don’t understand Obamacare, or really want to." This is just one of the reasons why I'm increasingly disillusioned with liberalism in its current American manifestations.

I'm with Oppenheimer on this. Let's spend more time talking about, say, how to reinvigorate the labor movement and less time stressing about if my children eat Coco Puffs.
Read Mark Oppenheimer's full article (he has some great stuff in there, for example how eating fast food is a form of feminist politics): The New Puritans: When Did Liberals Get So Uptight?

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35 thoughts on “Liberals As the New Puritans”

  1. I'm with you...up to a point. I certainly don't stress out over too many of these same issues - goodness knows I am sick to death of cupcakes, but simply from their ubiquitous presence at every kids party. But this also struck me as a maybe just a little bit critical after the post last week on simply doing LESS.

    Yes, there are some who only go as far as lifestyle decisions and don't expand beyond their own neighborhood borders when thinking about bettering society - I'm guilty as charged. Is it possible, however, that by buying organic from local produce markets, driving fuel-efficient cars, wearing Toms, and being vigorous about recycling are all forms of attempting to do LESS (re: your post from last week)? Most of us aren't going to be Shane Claiborne, but we can live as ordinary radicals (to again quote your post) by simply doing our part to reduce the use of chemicals in our food, slow antibiotic resistance, use less gas and water, and at least start keeping our little corner of the earth clean. To be sure - there is much more that can and should be done and Oppenheimer is correct to call people out for complacency or puritanical liberalism. But there appears to be some room for recognizing the broader motivations behind certain actions in a wide population of people.

  2. As a mom in the thick of raising pre-schoolers, and a member of a church that does a decent job of loving on the community, my personal experience is that these obsessions don't stem from a desire to live by the theme of th Less post. Instead I have seen an almost 'keeping up with the Jones' attitude on things like homemade baby food, no sugar/organic only foods, to vaccinate/not vaccinate, followed up with a lot of judgement.

  3. Oh, I can totally see that too. That may get to my point in the last sentence. There are widely different motivations in widely different populations. The people in my church do a lot of the same things, but it's very much motivated by a "green" movement and the reduce, replace, recycle ideal. As many people there aren't from highly affluent homes, there aren't too many Jones' to keep up with. Now, they might fall more along the puritanical side Beck was mentioning, but similar actions can arise from widely divergent motivations.

  4. You're very right. You can't paint with a broad brush. And for my part, I don't think there is a thing wrong with any of these things. Nor, do I think, does Oppenheimer. His criticism goes to two things, the moral panicking and the loss of what has historically been the core of the liberal political vision.

    So for my part, I'm much, much more alarmed about the erosion of the American middle class than I am about the sugar intake of my children. That's not to say I shouldn't care about the diet of my children. But I was bottle feed, vaccinated, drank fluoridated water in my city, ate Coco Pebbles for breakfast every morning, and have never once in my life used hand sanitizer...and I'm doing okay. So maybe a little more focused could be shifted among liberals from these sorts of worries to the increasing economic inequity in our nation. That's all I'm saying.

  5. Agree completely. It's something I need to shift my focus on as well.

  6. On a slightly related note: Please don't (mis)judge PDX progressives by the failure to pass a water fluoridation measure. This hippie-mommy hysteria is just far too rampant, surprisingly so (to me) as it completely ignores facts. I had numerous FB discussions quickly explode into shrill shrieking whenever I tried to present the factual/scientific viewpoint. It was weird - but, then again, that's Portland, too...

  7. No judgement on my end. I don't know a thing about Portland politics. I was in Portland once and loved the city. I stayed at Edgefield and had a ball.

  8. Oh I know - mine was more of a plea, wherever I see that stunning example and PDX is used, feeling the need to defend my fair land :-) And, yes, you can certainly have a ball at Edgefield!

  9. At some point it would be fun to see the views introduced in Unclean extended. I'm thinking about how visceral responses to moral stimuli are learned. A point I frequently come back to from James comes from The Will to Believe: "...[for most of us, most of the time] not insight, but the prestige of opinions, is what makes the spark shoot up from them..." In the present context, I would suppose that callow liberal views of the kind you note serve precisely the kind of role James states: they are markers for having the right kind of views and being the right kind of people--shallow because of just that: being markers.

    Of course, there's no lack of shallowness itself in political discourse. But then again, that's precisely what James is saying: expect shallowness.

    The reason it would be fun to see this looked into more fully, is that its not really a criticism to say that most of us are shallow most of the time. Who has the time to be a philosopher most of the time. We have to react; we need markers; we need to be shallow.

    So the real work in critiquing how cliques form mores would be noting how those form conscience on the one hand and self-serving prejudice on the other.

  10. I dig it. But I’m intrigued that you’ve critiqued
    liberal/radical friends who dismiss the quotidian in favor of the big systemic
    issues but now you lament the reversal: ignoring the disappearing middle class
    while worrying about cupcakes and hand sanitizers (which, agreed, aren’t really
    the most important things to stress about and they aren’t equal to questions
    about food, healthcare, etc.). But Oppenheimer seems to live in a world where
    daily life is untethered from big sociopolitical (or ecological) concerns. For
    someone who critiques capitalism, he sure seems to relish the disconnect it
    engenders. And does his article unnecessarily bifurcate psychology and
    sociology? I agree with his critique of his liberal friends, but maybe Oppenheimer is the New Evangelical: faith trumps, and maybe negates, works.

  11. I'm not on board with any of this. Oppenheimer creates an either/or in which liberals much choose between the 30 hour work week and hygienic reform. I know plenty of liberals who care about both. Choosing what you "wear, eat, and drive" are ground-level choices with much broader implications as to whether you support fair labor practices vs. oppressive sweat shops, whether you support small farms and sustainably grown foods over destructive industrial agriculture, and whether you'd like to see the auto industry move toward the more environmentally conscious.

    And as for fluoride, it appears that Harvard has been taken over by Mark Oppenheimer's crazy neighbor Jeffrey:

  12. Confessionally, I've never particularly consistent in my thinking. I do tend to bounce back and forth from criticism to criticism. In my mind it's a strategy to resist ideologies and from becoming a "true believer," of whatever stripe.

    But to your point, I see what you are saying though I don't know if that is what Oppenheimer is reacting to. That is to say, rejecting, say, processed sugar insofar as it is complicit in Big Ag is an issue of justice and less on about contaminating ourselves. I think you can be wholly on board with someone like Wendell Berry abut not prone to contamination panics about Coco Pebbles, that the problem with Coco Pebbles isn't that it's "bad for you" (again, I ate Coco Pebbles for years as a kid) but that Coco Pebbles is bad for us collectively and systemically.

    Crudely, I'm not convinced that Coco Pebbles are unhealthy. But I can be convinced that they are wrong.

  13. Good words. Definitely makes sense to me. And bouncing back-and-forth as resistance always makes for compelling reading!

  14. You make a good point, a division that needs to be explored, as I do think many liberals make lifestyle choices because they are issues related to justice. I agree that Oppenheimer doesn't sort those liberals out from those who also get caught up into moral panics about various forms of contamination. But my wife is an elementary school teacher at a private Christian school and she lives with this moral panic among many white, upper-class, liberal parents. Though his analysis isn't complete or nuanced, as you point out, Oppenheimer is talking about a real phenomenon.

  15. Thanks, Richard. Interesting.

    I'm actually kind of glad that the new generation is uninterested in institutional solutions (e.g., a reinvigorated labor movement) and extremely interested in a holistic connection between bodily health, social health, and community health. A union that gets people higher pay does not improve the lives of the populace if the populace uses that higher pay to buy nutrient-less food for their children and insulin shots for their parents. In the end, maybe the Puritans were right--maybe society can only be "bettered" when we resist those things that are unhealthy for society.

  16. And why is it that the labor movement per se needs re-invigorating? In its contemporary manifestation, the public-sector union, organized labor is almost single-handedly bankrupting those states and communities whose governments are incestuous bedfellows, e. g. pension-contract "negotiations" being more of a wink-and-nod conspiracy against the poor taxpayers that they "serve." Better, methinks, to BURY the labor movement until it comes to its senses, especially the public-sector labor movement.

  17. Let me add a few other thoughts I have about issues related to food.

    I have two struggles with the organic food trend as manifested in things like the hipster preference for places like Whole Foods.

    First, I have a general worry about how many liberals "purchase" their social justice. To be sure, it's all good stuff, but I worry about how "justice" is being "bought." That I help the world by buying stuff. The point being, the market is a darkly insidious force where even "social justice" has been monetized. I worry about that, how many of our liberal "lifestyle choices" are being subtly co-opted by capitalism.

    My second worry is that the poor don't have access to the organic foods the the rich have access to. Because of the price and because they live in food deserts. So I worry about how a lot of this focus on organic foods is masking rich, white, suburban privilege.

    Which is to say, if I see a poor, inner city kid eating Kraft Macaroni and Cheese I'm less freaking out about the healthiness of that food (because I eat Kraft Macaroni and Cheese from time to time) than I lament the socioeconomic situation that limits that child's diet to such food stables used to stretch a dollar.

  18. I get what you're saying, and in some respects I think it's true. But I think it's broader than that. Fear-mongering seems to be the motivational strategy of choice these days for everyone with something to sell (literally or figuratively). People are just plain afraid: afraid of the world we live in that seems completely out of control, afraid of Big Government and afraid of not being taken care of by government, afraid of Big Corporations and afraid of the economic fall-out if Big Corporations suffer, afraid of their neighbors and afraid of people on the other side of the world. People are afraid, so they're looking for ways to protect themselves. For white middle- and upper-class Americans, who tend to be liberal, avoiding cupcakes and overusing hand-sanitizer are almost-manageable ways to find some control.

  19. Because the labor movement was single-highhandedly the force that broke the robber-baron culture, enacting such reforms like child-labor laws, health-care, safe working conditions, vacation leave, maternity leave, fair wages, and the creation of the American middle class.

  20. What has it done for us lately? Drive once glorious institutions to the poor house. Do you maintain that "once relevant" means "forever relevant?"

  21. No, but with the US boasting one of the highest economic inequity scores and one of the lowest social mobility scores (one's ability to move from lower to higher socioeconomic classes) I'm not inclined to turn the problem over to major corporations and their interest groups, especially now that they can funnel money into political and Presidential elections.

    So where to turn? I think there are resources in the labor/union movement that can do what they did before in creating the middle class.

  22. No argument here, especially concerning the purchasing of social justice. A friend of mine says that the white middle-class consumes to conserve, whereas many poor and alternative social movements commune to conserve. Indigenous activists have noticed that the "green economy" is often a cover to continually monetize and exploit; Whole Foods isn't about social justice, human well-being, or ecological sustainability. This is why definitions are important: "organic" doesn't necessarily imply agroecology/good farming. It's a buzzword, an FDA label, and it's now mostly a red herring in these conversations because people toss a lot of disparate ideas and practices into one uniform basket called "food."

    Your second worry is exactly why permaculture, food sovereignty, local economies, and the new urbanism are extremely important. We need more books like Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability, and more projects and movements like Growing Power ( and La Via Campesina ( And these books and projects are multiplying.

  23. Agreed.

    Another ancillary component in this narrative is that Oppenheimer is writing from Connecticut, a state with a rich Puritan history. And where many of the modern liberal-mainline UCC churches have their roots in Puritanism.

  24. Thanks for those resources! As always, you are a fount of knowledge. :-)

  25. Lord help us, people that think like this must NEVER be permitted to absolve themselves of blame for e. g. Detroit, which is only the latest and most poignant poster child for the madness that is organized-labor-soaked progressivism. Riches-to-rags, classism-in-perpetuity, and unfulfilled/unfulfillable promises are the legacy of this world view, and we are about to observe much more of the same as other deep-blue cities follow Detroit's lead. This president will probably act - extralegally, as is his wont - to override her bankruptcy and bail Detroit out, giving cover to those next in line to continue giving in to organized labor's extortive demands, knowing that BHO will never let too-big-to-fail cities - or better, too BLUE to fail, irrespective of size - be given the opportunity to get Big Labor's boot off the taxpayers' neck through an organized, public, cathartic, and irreplaceably educational bankruptcy.

  26. "...people that think like this must NEVER be permitted to absolve themselves of blame for e.g. Detroit...the...most poignant poster child for the madness that is organized-labor-soaked progressivism."

    There's almost always enough blame to go around, so I won't challenge your criticism. But I won't allow that being able to criticize a view renders that view's critique invalid, for the same reason. Just for the sake of us rubes who are following along, what do you make of this--no doubt simplistic--view?

    (1) To be successful in the world economy, companies must either be indispensable at a local scale or be able to leverage economies of scale. And (2) the big companies that need to harness economies of scale to be successful will also need to participate in a race to the bottom to remain successful (cost competitive) in a world economy. Thus, the trend going forward will tend to be that big companies get bigger and wages and benefit "packages" for workers get smaller.

    Great talent, valuable IP, local relevance, and other countervailing circumstances will push back against this overall trend for some industries and individuals, but that does not counter the overall drift. And if that drift is not desirable, there is a crucial role for progressive voices and policies, right?

  27. As a former conservative and now a disciple of Christ, what I find interesting about this whole conversation is that folks apply the term Christian (aka disciple of Christ) to things that Jesus simply never spoke on. I never see him directly getting involved in the politics of the time, I see him entering into a very deep disciple relationship with 12 men and not so deep, but equally important discipleship relationship with around 72.

    I would love it if Christians could see the world in two groups of folks: those God is bring us, individually, into relationship with, and those that God is not. Then I think it would be an AMAZING thing if we would simply give those that God has not brought to us back to God and NOT worry about them, nor their actions. For those that God does bring us, we should try to love honest, humble, and as righteous lives as we can while we love on them via all the ways Jesus loved and loves on us: mercy, grace, suffering, etc.

    It is by being loving, humble when we do fall short, but always striving to be as righteous as possible that those God has brought us will turn to us and want to follow us as we follow Jesus.

    Heck, that is the only reason I am on this journey: Others have come along side of me and loved me, showing me a better way. I have wanted to follow them because I want the peaceful, loving, humble attitude they have towards all people!

  28. If unions are the problem, how is Germany such a manufacturing powerhouse, and still highly unionized?

  29. I only spew knowledge every so often, and it's usually stole. Most of the time it's crap . . .

  30. In saying that, you are only looking at the P&L, not the Balance Sheet. They are on the exact same path as Detroit, their stretch of road is just a bit longer.

  31. I think a lot of what happens with food issues has to happen on a local level. I live in a pretty affluent, tending toward liberal, college area (i'm married to an academic) and we are part of a CSA that is literally at the end of our street. The thing (or one of the many things) I love about this is that the CSA donates 25% of the farm's output to local food pantries and other outreach places, and also provides subsidized shares for low income families, as right around the corner the economic level of families drop considerably. So there is a consciousness, at least in my community, about organic foods being for the 'privileged' and there is some effort to balance that. Nothing is perfect but I feel like this is a good model.

  32. That's the difference between a real liberal and a trendy liberal.

    I'm libertarian, so I probably disagree with you on the means to social justice even though we could probably come to terms on the ends. But I sympathize here. Libertarianism is overrun with people waving yellow flags and pontificating about guns and taxes but who would never work for marriage equality or sensible, non-discriminatory drug laws.

  33. "I turned out fine" is not a reasonable argument to continue a harmful practice. When you know better you can do better - individually and as a society.

  34. Wow, it's a real reversal of values!
    I read a social theory that suggested that people (and movements) tend to lose their original focus and become more conservative as they age. I wonder if that's what's happening here?

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