Bill Maher is something of an odd duck in the world of left-wing politics. He clearly is extremely distrustful of big business and has made attacking the American right (especially the religious right) a primary touchstone of his HBO series, which is red meat for his liberal viewers. Yet his is an eccentric kind of leftism, one that foreshadows a coming civil war within American leftist politics.
Maher has on multiple occasions described himself as a libertarian. And in all fairness, he is a social libertarian on most fronts, from his opposition to the growing police-surveillance state to his vocal support for drug legalization.
And sure, Andrew Breitbart took Maher to task for a number of illiberal stances (particularly in the economic sphere), but that does not diminish his very positive and valuable advocacy of social policies that are unquestionably pro-liberty.
And it could be argued (though it is beyond the scope of this article) that Maher’s vocal opposition to capitalism is more born of a general antagonism toward authority and a belief that the systems created by big business are themselves constraining of individual liberty and choice. In that sense, it could be that Maher sees social safety nets and regulations as a check against these abuses. But that is an argument for another time. Suffice to say that Maher considers himself, and is considered by the public at large, to be on the left of the political spectrum.
The divergence within the left that Maher has come to embody is a fundamental battle about individualism and freedom of speech. It is a battle between those who think as Maher does, and those who have risen with the Bernie Sanders-inspired leftist resurgence.
Maher has left no question as to where he stands on freedom of speech. He has repeatedly lambasted young left-wingers for trying to silence speech, and has made it clear that he holds “safe spaces” and their ilk in utter contempt. Likewise, his politics tends to be about individual rights, not the group rights favored by the new millennial left.
Maher clearly sees the war coming. On the most recent episode of Real Time he said that, while Sanders may have lost the primary, “He has won the future.”
Maher explained this conclusion by pointing out that millennials have stopped associating socialism with tyranny or oppression: “Millennials don’t remember a threatening Soviet Union, or any Soviet Union.” They have no experience or memory of the time when there was a world-wide ideological conflict in which the very fate of human liberty stood in the balance. For them, socialism is just free stuff. And that has Maher (and any individualist, left or right) worried.
Maher said that millennials aren’t just ready for socialism, “They’re ready for a little too much socialism.” He derided the vast majority of Sanders supporters who have called for free college and free universal healthcare, all for less than a $1,000 a year tax increase, as not socialism but “Santa-ism”. He really hit the nail on the head pointing out the entitlement culture that has sprouted up among millennials who have “gotten too used to getting shit for free.”
What’s so telling about Maher’s remarks is that he is clearly scared of the vast and rampant government these young socialists desire. After years of aligning with a movement that advocates “justice” through redistribution and regulation, he sees that it is on the verge of going too far.
Maher is right to be scared. If these people were to take control of government they would undoubtedly curtail the individual rights, like freedom of speech, that he so cherishes. One day he and other like-minded folks on the left will have to draw a line in the sand. And that day is fast approaching.
Who wins the civil war in the left between individualism and quasi-totalitarianism will have a lasting impact on the future direction of American politics. Maher already sounds like he sees defeat on the horizon. But all liberty-lovers must hope he is wrong and that there is still some fight left in people like him. Because while we may differ violently with Maher on economic issues, there can be no doubt that this new leftist represents an existential threat to liberty itself.
And who knows, if Maher loses the battle for the soul of the left, he may find a more welcoming home with us libertarians.
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