The Political Rosetta Stone
For a few years now I have been sincerely seeking to understand the perspective of people with differing opinions, particularly regarding political issues. As a result, I’ve learned a few shocking, undeniable truths. The first is that there are obnoxious morons on both sides. The second is that, for the most part, the obnoxious morons are the minority. And the third (and perhaps most shocking of all) is that most liberals and conservatives actually want the same things. They all want to take care of themselves, their families and their communities, and they all prize their concept of freedom.
That’s easy to gloss over, so let me reiterate: for my liberal friends, most conservatives are not racist, war-mongering greed-mongrels who hate sick people. And for my conservative friends, most liberals are not smarmy, lazy America-haters itching to hand the keys of democracy over to the Taliban. Seriously. Accusing those who disagree of being part of some cartoonish cabal of “Other” is the height of intellectual laziness.
So. We all want more or less the same thing. The difference– and it is a huge chasm of difference indeed– is in the method of achieving those things.
I think I may have hit on the main root of the philosophical divide between liberal and conservative. Understanding it might go a long way in helping us to bridge that divide, or at least modify our debate to make it more effective. In the interest of clarity and brevity, I’ll sum it up in a neat little capsule: Human potential/goodness versus Human limitation/falleness.
Here’s my premise (and this is, of course, open to debate): the pure ideological liberal believes that humanity is essentially good, and brimming with untapped potential. The pure ideological conservative, on the other hand, believes that humanity, while occasionally transcendent, is imminently corruptible, and limited in potential for perfection.
Try that on for size. How does it feel? Seem like a fit? Maybe not? Let me expand on the idea.
The Liberal Utopia
Because the liberal-minded thinker believes in the goodness and unlimited potential of humanity, she believes that a perfect system of human governance is entirely possible. If there are still people who are hungry, poor or sick, then the current governmental system is a failure and must be modified, updated, or completely rebuilt. The evidence for this is rampant. Fifty percent of Barack Obama’s entire election campaign hinged on the word “Change”. A popular rallying cry for liberal-minded activists is “rebuild America”. When conservatives get irate about the constitution being “trampled on”, the modern liberal shrugs at their stubborn, nearly religious reverence for a tired old document.
And in the context of unlimited human potential, this makes perfect sense. As a species, we are constantly evolving, outgrowing old governmental constraints, reworking our methods to accomplish more, always striving toward our ultimate potential of perfect human society. Why should we rigidly cling to old systems simply for the sake of those systems? The old systems are, in fact, the problem. The solution is human inventiveness, a willingness to embrace change, and a belief that together we can– nay, should– create a perfect society where no one is ever sick, no one has less than anyone else, and everyone is free to pursue their own betterment without the twin constraints of greed and need.
In short, if humanity is constantly evolving, then a perfect society is the ultimate goal. The American system, obviously flawed as it is, should be altered or remade by a progressive and good humanity, not embraced and revered as it is for its own sake.
The Conservative Utopia
Because the conservative-minded thinker believes that humanity is ultimately corruptible and limited, he believes that there is no perfect society, and that, in fact, the best possible government is one with built-in safeguards against the inherent abuses wherever humanity and power coincide. The conservative reveres the American system (with the American Constitution at it’s core) because while the system can be abused by corrupt leaders for a time, it is designed specifically to limit those abuses via balanced power, accountability, and term limits. The damage done by one corrupt leader can– and inevitably will– be rectified by the built-in “regime change” that occurs every four years.
In terms of social culture, the conservative thinker observes entropy, not evolution, as the model for humanity. Rather than constantly progressing toward perfection, human history points to a constant, gradual (and sometimes catastrophic) breakdown over time. Civilizations always fall. With this in mind, the goal is to find the admittedly imperfect system that seems, within the constraints of entropy and base human nature, to preserve the best possible outcome for the longest period of time. At some point, when the outcome is consistently good (but by no means perfect) changes to that fundamental system inevitably produce weakness, not growth.
In short, if humanity is always corruptible and limited by that corruption, then the concept of a human-created utopia is a foolish fantasy. The American governmental experiment may be flawed– and certainly it is– but it is the best that can be hoped for, since it limits the inevitable abuses of base humanity.
How Liberals View Conservatives
Invariably, the liberal perspective is baffled and dismayed by the conservative’s reluctance to work for the betterment of the whole. By clinging to the System, with its obvious imperfections and susceptibility to the abuses of the greedy, the conservative appears callous, backwards, and ultimately selfish. By defending the System, seemingly at the cost of the sick and the poor, the conservative seems to dismiss the all-important human element. Eventually, this leads to a tacit accusation that all conservatives are simply horrible people– lacking in compassion, full of greed, and essentially inhuman.
This makes it not only allowable, but commendable, to mock and revile conservatives in public. Since conservatives are perceived as the willing impediments of utopia– haters, as it were, of the poor and sick who would otherwise be helped by the march of progressive humanity– it is the liberal’s duty to wage war against them in the court of public opinion. This makes it all right to joke about killing conservatives, or to purposely miss-characterize or distort their arguments. Furthermore, it commends the mob-mentality that forces prominent conservatives out of public gatherings and approves of forty-something men who loudly denounce Sarah Palin as a whore to her daughter in a bar.
To liberals, conservatives represent the sort of purposeful dead weight that is, by definition, the worst kind of evil at work in the world, preventing the progression of mankind toward perfection. As such, any means of destroying them is not only forgivable, but commendable.
How Conservatives View Liberals
I can answer this one with a bit more of a personal approach, since I am, for the most part, a conservative.
A few days ago, my daughter, who just turned seven, was attempting to build a wigwam in the living room. This is standard Saturday afternoon fare ever since the kids learned about native American society. In our house, wigwams are built out of assembled furniture, blankets, twine, and whatever else can be found. Greer, being a Harry Potter fan, has some rather grandiose ideas about what any tent-like structure should be capable of. It should incorporate several rooms, soaring interior spaces, its own light source, chimneys for air and spying, and any number of luxurious amenities. Unfortunately, Greer’s engineering skills are rather limited, to the extent that she believes that scotch-tape, hair-bands, and precariously leaned broomsticks qualify as firm construction options.
I know Greer’s capabilities. Amazing as she is, if her wigwam is built with her construction style and her expectations for grandiosity, she will create a monstrosity that will collapse upon her the moment she climbs inside. Thus, I have to be the bearer of bad news, informing her that if she wishes to avoid disaster and frustration, she needs to pare back her expectations. In short, on her own, as amazing as Greer is, her wigwam will not be the equivalent of Trump Tower, and it is only healthy and reasonable of her to alter her expectations thereof.
To conservatives, liberals look like children with no concept of the real world, attempting wonders that are so outside of their grasp as to be preposterous. It looks something like this:
Liberal: “We should give free health care to everyone. That’s the only thing that is fair and good.”
Conservative: “But who will pay for it? That will be outrageously expensive, and it could put a debilitating burden on taxpayers.”
Liberal: “Why won’t you just agree that everyone should get free medical care? It’s a human right.”
Conservative: “But nothing is free. If we try to give medical care to everyone, the result could be dramatically diminished quality of care. Even more people could be harmed in the long run. The system may need reform, but a complete overhaul could cause the whole thing to collapse.”
Liberal: “But I want it! It’s what’s fair! I should be able to have it! You’re just a big meanie who hates sick people and wants to push grandma off a cliff!”
In short, to conservatives, liberals look like pie-in-the-sky dreamers who refuse to consider the consequences of their actions, believing that good intentions are the only thing that counts, even if their actions result in disaster.
So what’s it all mean?
The truth is that none of this is as monolithic as it seems. Reasonable conservatives all know that– of course– we need to strive for better whenever and wherever we can. And reasonable liberals all know that, despite mankind’s potential, there will always be people for whom power leads to corruption and total utopia may be out of our grasp.
The point is, maybe both are a little right and a little wrong. Probably, both perspectives are off. How conservatives look to liberals isn’t an accurate portrayal, but neither is how liberals look to conservatives. That’s my main point here: perceptions of the opposing viewpoint are, by necessity, colored by the filter that forms our own viewpoint.
So is compromise the key?
You think I am going to say yes, but I am not. Compromise is a pretty idea that certainly has a place, but when two people have such opposing perspectives, sometimes there is no way to find a middle ground. I have a different idea about what the key might be. I think it might be understanding.
In my conversations with those of different viewpoints, I have come to understand their perspective. I don’t agree with it, and I still tend to think it won’t achieve our goals, but I understand how and why they have arrived at it. Thus, when we discuss our differences, we don’t waste our time snipping at each others’ leaves, disfiguring each others’ arguments and impugning each others’ character, but we can go right to the root, where the fundamental differences lie. It may not mean we change each others’ minds, but it does mean we can hear each other, and consider their argument.
But that’s all sort of beside the point. Mainly, I am just asking a question. Is it possible that this one area– this fundamental disagreement about the nature of humanity and our overall potential– could be the defining difference between the polar opposites of political ideology?
After all, everyone believes in a heaven. It’s just a matter of when and where we expect it to happen, and who will bring it to be.
Or– always a possibility– am I just blathering?