I frequently go to news sites to — besides read the news — warm up my head. I read an article and then comment on it. With that done, I begin reading the other comments into which I just added my $.02 and engage the authors. During one of these morning mental calisthenics, there was a series of posts where each pole of the US political system was referring to the other with their accepted labels, but with a full measure of derision. Typical liberal. Typical conservative. The dose of derision was invariably spiked with the poison of over-generalizations and, well, fallacies. But oddly, the substance of the toxicity toward one was nearly the same as that for the other. It was difficult at times to discern how an assertion was “typical” of one party without applying to the other. And both were flavored by the very same bitter bile. There was some combination of thinking process and emotion that I hadn’t sorted out.
What does “Conservative” & “Liberal” mean?
It occurred to me to wonder what the heck “conservative” or “liberal” really, supposedly, mean. What are the structures of the philosophies that produce such diametric approaches; what are the stripes of the beasts whereby we can recognize one species from another (besides the fact that one looks like an elephant and the other a donkey)? Should I avoid mixing metaphors?
I avoided Wikipedia and opted to work with what Google provided me in the way of several sites that represented themselves as being authorities on each of the polar perspectives. I chose these over the fantastically well-developed coverage of Wikipedia because I wanted to incorporate the varnish used in presenting passion-based expositions of the philosophies.
Each site had manifestos and what I thought of as cause maps, mappings of manifesto points to major contemporary flashpoint issues with the purpose of both identifying the philosophically correct stance for an issue and surfacing the ones of current or persistent concern. There were even sections to contrast (and demonize) the antagonist, adding the official base ingredient to the poisons each side was spitting into the other’s credo.
I didn’t rise to a new level of enlightenment, for no spiritual nourishment was to be found on these sites. But there was clarification in the sense that the sites aggregated the tenets of their political formulae into nice neat packages. From these packages, extrapolations of both poles seemed fairly easy, although I am mostly concerned with understanding the perspectives of the last reigning US party.
For Conservative, the weight of philosophical components relies on a belief in a strong hierarchy and a moral platform that comes ‘from on high’ (so to speak), as well as a fervent belief that “tradition” (as an institution) defines the character of a people and creates a type of ‘stability’ whose machinery need not trouble the majority’s minds, and conserving the system ensouled by the traditions is a sacred calling. There are absolute standards of right and wrong that apply to everyone in almost every situation.
Besides moral standards, there are cultural standards, one exalted standard being personal responsibility based on individual effort and self-reliance. Equal opportunity is not the same as equal outcome: we are responsible for our own actions (self-sufficiency), which applies to justice as much as it applies to economic status. Not everyone is created equal nor do we work at an equal level; and we should acknowledge that, resulting in accepted roles and differences in living standards. The term individualism is more about responsibility and self-reliance than self-actualization and “freedoms.”
Combine hierarchy and roles with tradition, and you get something of a cast system, a gentry, a priesthood, a ruling class. Parent/child, religious, and political relationships are framed in terms of the strict-father, patriarchal model. From the “cast” angle observers get the idea that conservatives are pro-corporation instead of pro-worker: the employers are the ones with the jobs to mete out, and with them in control, the pecking order is established and the top-down engine is running self-sufficiently as ordained. Questioning is frowned upon; dissent is discouraged; straying from the path is punished. They must be because machinery is mechanical, and stray parts break the operation. Change can happen, but it should slowly.
Conservatism believes the role of government should be confined to national security and domestic order, supporting the mechanisms of the free market (from a protectionist standpoint) and allowing for the survival of the self-sufficient fit. That role exists for order, stability, and control, not to protect rights. Militarily, a large, well-funded force is essential for safeguarding society and ensuring peace, and unilateral action is favored over multilateralism, which is completely consistent with the strong conservative notion of self-sufficiency.
Protecting “rights” is more about protecting the structure and machinery than what is “inalienable” to humans as free humans. For instance, Freedom of Religion, when it is invoked, is more about conserving the perceived Christian basis for how our society operates than it is about the freedom to believe or not believe in whatever you want.
Education and “family values” are about submitting to the parental or hierarchical ways of thinking. Critical thinking is frowned upon as a watering down of the cognitive glue to adhere to those ways of thinking, a way to erode the solidity of an elemental building block of a strong society.
These meritorious, old, and potent ideas have been around since before the term “liberal” got its own definition (beyond that of ‘sedition’), which of course has its roots in a relaxation of the structural strictures placed on self-identity and social interactions. The Oxford English Dictionary indicates that the first use of the term meant “tending in favor of freedom and democracy”.
Today, equated with the term Progressive, Liberal is associated with laissez-faire and the over-indulgent forgiveness of sins committed in the pursuit of individual self-actualization without concern for the welfare of established order and cohesion. Its ideals are faulted for the creation of a “welfare state” wherein were are all “equal” in our shared dependence upon the trough.
Speaking more positively, liberalism is as structured as a hierarchy, but from the bottom-up. For example, job creation as a function of consumer demand (bottom-up) vs. tax breaks for corporations where jobs are found (top-down). The machinery favors the individual parts that make up the whole, allowing for order to happen organically, guided by (of course) motivations of humanistic welfare, diversity, religious freedom, and cultural richness.
It is individuals that make up society and formulate contracts and laws that favor equality over rank. In this perspective, we are products of our society, with the mechanisms of society bearing some responsibility for how we turn out. Unequal outcomes are a result of unequal opportunities; and the more equality, the fewer social conflicts.
The term individualism has more to do with individual liberty, finding your own way and self-actualizing from a personality perspective than from one of independence — being yourself not necessarily guided by productivity or responsibility. In Liberalism, there is no one ‘right’ way to do anything but rather, there are social-wellbeing guidelines; and everyone has to decide for themselves what’s right and wrong in particular situations that will be judged by these guidelines as worthy or not.
Parent/child, religious, and political relationships are in terms of the “nurturing parent.” For national security, communication and understanding are favored over the saber, avoiding postures of might-makes-right and avoiding war as much as possible. “Political correctness” is a symptom of these things. Government is as big as we confer, or transfer, “Political correctness” is a symptom of these things., like projecting our conscience and culpability to the whole.
Educationally and parentally, critical thinking, sound thinking, and unbastardized “truth” in information are prizes above all else because, with these things, individuals are able to make the “right decisions” based on the ability to distinguish fact from opinion, and where “truth” and being informed raises the human condition … from the bottom up. In other words, the strength is in the development of the components, not the structure.
One of its primary roles is to drive change and protect individual rights as well as to support the free-market against fraud and force, and promote sustainability in balance with the health of the planet. “Progress.” In the face of liberal concern for the environment, for instance, it is easy to see the contrast with that of the conservative concern for the primacy of an existing human economy and human community over the concern for human over-consumption of the environment and ecosystems of which we are a part. The whole is favored over the individual as the glue for society.
Regarding the Poles
Remember now, I’m talking about poles, not the temperate regions wherein most of us act and live. The poles have no balance in and of themselves, but they are part of the scale making up a system that can balance if the selfishness of one does not eviscerate the other. I’m pretty sure that, given an opportunity, basic natural selfishness, and an penchant for humans to repeat mistakes, a super concentration of other-party philosophy would result in a debilitating, toxic overdose and consequent ill-affected health that we’ve just experienced. And of course, this is not an exhaustive political dissertation with the purpose of thorough analysis — I’m making over-simplified characterizations that don’t mention a great deal. I’m aware of that with purposeful redactic restraint. My aim is to paint with enough dots to make a point.
With both poles and everything in between, these philosophies are heartfelt, stemming from the feelings that give life to otherwise sterile thought-forms (the tenets). People appear to think with these feelings, or at least set them up as arbiters of “truth” or “the way.” The feeling from their cores establishes what they recoil from, what they embrace, and what they can concede. And feelings are harder to analyze or even merely to “see” that they make up part of the cognitive equation.
The Nature of Stripes
It is not hard to notice that people have a separate standard for evaluating feelings than they do for evaluating ideas alone. Feelings, being generated from within, are unentanglable from self identity and the spirit. And they are presumed infallible. People glance at their antagonist’s position and summarily judge, drawing from judgments already made, that those positions cannot work or are morally wrong. Obama acknowledged politicians coming to the bargaining table with the opening, or even closing, arguments from the arbitrating perspectives, pleading for them to give proposals outside their comfort zone a chance.
One liberal article I read said the Bush administration was one of the most “successful conservative administrations” ever, in a contradictory response to the progressive theme of “failed administration.” Successful because they ardently pursued and fabulously effected the embodiment and institutionalization of their conservative tenets. The current structures of the machinery in place are extensions and extrapolations of the last reigning philosophy. The believers were true to the philosophy that coheres their party and accordant policies.
They do not believe in the perspective and tenets of the other party with its more liberal approach; and they do not question their opposition to opposing tenets as though their opposition is an act of faith given that past deeds are being neutralized. (It must be wrong if I resist because I only resist things that are wrong according to my philosophy.) Obama here referred to, not only the “bad [mental] habits,” but the incarnation of the habits into laws, executive orders, blessings, and consequences. His admonishment to the press corps was that we cannot expect new accordability before we have sorted through the concentration of tenets-made-tangible — it will take time for habits of thinking to be identified as such, allowing other thought forms to be adapted to their core philosophy. Such are the ways of dealing with other humans.
Shouldn’t we expect their reactions to and evaluations of an approach that is outside their core and dominant posture to be resistant, dismissive, and even combative? Should we expect them to change their stripes to give another option a chance? I think not, although I know plenty of smart people (who I will admit are on the outside edge of the bright side of the bell curve in terms intellectual capabilities), who are able to evaluate the merit of a policy based on the soundness of its proposals regardless of its genitor. But even with that last statement, I wonder if they, themselves, aren’t acting according to a philosophy that simply allows for less-prescribed conclusions.
Compromise is not where you get your way one day and I get mine. Nor is it where if I don’t get my way, I will make getting your way unpleasant. The various definitions of compromise include both the concepts of concession and agreement. And I’m absolutely sure that we share enough common humanity and structure (in the overlap between the two approaches) where we could start with the agreements and work out the concessions. The trick here is for opposing parties to recognize, in advance, that agreements are even possible. I also believe that being able to do that is maturity; not being able to do that is selfishness.
And yes, I also believe we can politically evolve in the sense that we can move forward in the betterment of mankind and the care of the garden through the maturity of our collective selves, our nation. But momentous change happens only when we’re pushed to the brink; and progress happens with the fortuitous contemporary appearance of opportunities, such as a black candidate for President. But the underlying philosophies still vie for the extinction or subjugation of the other.
It’s only human, isn’t it? Doesn’t someone have to be right?
Post Script (5/13/10)
After writing this, I’ve run across a number of concepts that, one day, I’ll fold into this discussion.
- Epistemic Closure
- Deductive closure
- The Epistemic Closure Principle
- The Right And Epistemic Closure (example application)
- The Oregon Petition: A case study in agnotology (example application)