Feelings, Faith and Facts: The Dangerous Illusion of “Liberal” and “Conservative”

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When recently reviewing the posts on this blog, it struck me that I know people – and more than a few people – who would dismiss the first post they encountered here as “liberal” and then dismiss the blog in its entirety.  After noting a criticism of Reaganomics or a consideration of raising taxes on the rich or an argument about the social dangers of extreme wealth inequality, these folks would simply leave.  They wouldn’t look at the evidence; they wouldn’t formulate counterarguments; they wouldn’t try to challenge the factual bases of the post.  Once the “liberal” tag pops up in their minds, the blog is perceived as at best a waste of time and at worst harmful, but under all circumstances to be avoided.

I concluded some years back that the terms “liberal” and “conservative”, in their current usage, were little more than epithets; i.e., that they described something about the user of the term rather than about the thing to which the term was directed. When a politician back in the day decried “liberal” professors we knew that he or she didn’t like what those professors were doing, but we weren’t sure exactly what that was.  While the terms apparently began as economic descriptors, their true emotional power always seemed to lie in other areas; they seemed to be referring to value, not describing systems.  We felt, rather than understood, that conservatives were older than we were and that they didn’t like sex, drugs or rock ‘n roll.

Now the terms are sometimes applied with qualifiers that add some meaning – he’s a “fiscal conservative”; she’s a “social liberal” – but typically not.  If someone is tagged as “liberal” or “conservative” we are typically left to presume an entire panoply of beliefs and positions.  More and more these are tribal labels and even though a third tribe – often called “moderate” – is acknowledged, it doesn’t seem to be attractive.  It’s more like a group of people who haven’t yet decided with which of the real tribes to identify.

The epithetical quality of these terms was brought home to me a couple of years ago in my own extended family.  One member – we’ll call her Jane – described another member – we’ll call him Fred – as “wildly liberal.”  Jane is a “Bible-believing” (her self-description; mine is “bornagain fundamentalist”) Christian for whom the absolute prohibition of abortion is the primary goal of all her political decisions.  Fred is a devoted father to his two children and a devoted son to his aging mother; his only drugs are plenty of coffee and the occasional beer; he pays his bills on time, works hard, pays his taxes and packs heat when he travels by car – all behaviors that used to lead one to guess “probably conservative” but certainly not “wildly liberal.”  When I asked Jane why she applied her label, she said she knew what she believed and I “couldn’t talk her out of it.”

As it happens, Fred had multiply disparaged then-President Bush the Younger, one of Jane’s tribe mates, referring to him as “a dangerous clown” among other characterizations, and he had made it clear to her that he saw no supernatural aspect to the universe, thus removing himself forever from any possibility of being a member of her tribe.  But rather than describing Fred as “an anti-Bush atheist”, Jane called him “wildly liberal.”  I have since seen numerous other similarly epithetical applications of “liberal.”

But I encounter few such applications, from the other side, of “conservative”, which has lost its substantive content for other reasons.  First, many “liberals” are quite interested in conserving things – often aspects of the physical world such as air, water, plants and animals – so “conservative” sort of seems to self-apply to them and thus doesn’t seem naturally pejorative.  Second, “liberals” seem to me to be at least somewhat more likely to qualify and particularize their judgments and therefore to be less enamored of name-calling.  Third, perhaps because of this cultural ambiguity of “conservative” and the recent striking metamorphosis of the GOP, “Republican” (and its many, sometimes witty, variations) has become the epithet of choice for members of the “liberal” tribe. [1]

The terms, though, are firmly embedded in popular usage and seem to have descriptive power for most people.  Politicians and pundits use them as though they are not the least ambiguous.  It is therefore reasonable to believe that they are referring to something that actually exists in people.

Fifteen years ago, George Lakoff may have identified what that is. [2]  His insight is that liberal and conservative worldviews have, at their core, moral systems that are related to quite different, and largely incompatible, models of the family.  The conservative worldview is formed around what Lakoff calls the Strict Father model; the liberal worldview is formed around what he calls the Nurturant Parent model.  Both models are based upon a largely implicit understanding of the nation as a family with government as parent.

Lakoff’s complex insight is worked out with rigor and detail in Moral Politics, and the limitations of this post don’t permit an adequate summary, but the names he applies to his family models give us the essence.  The “conservative” Strict Father model emphasizes respect for authority, order, obedience, self-discipline, enforcement of rules.  The “liberal” Nurturant Parent model emphasizes love, empathy, nurturing, open communication, fulfillment and happiness.  And it should be clear that these quite-separate worldviews are not the product of conscious conclusions, but rather the results of felt rightness and wrongness about the world – to some of us, for example, spanking, paddling or otherwise striking a child as a form of punishment just feels wrong; to others, quite apparently, it feels right.

How each of us ended up with the worldview we have is an important question.  It probably starts with brain differences we have at birth which are then affected during the next 25 years of wiring up, altered by our specific family micro-cultures, the various subcultures we find ourselves in and, of course, the wider national culture.  However this all happens – and it will ultimately be understood – the results, your mind and my mind, are robust processes, not amenable to radical alteration with a few words.  Words are an effect, not a cause.  First comes the feeling, then the words.

Thus the title’s “Illusion.”  The torrent of words, the arguments, about any “liberal” or “conservative” policy decision – for example, the current one regarding the debt ceiling, with the discipline of deficit reduction by cutting spending on the one side and the nurturing of Social Security and Medicare by increasing tax revenue on the other – suggest an actual debate about objective, third-party facts and their implications.  This is the illusion.  The words are not carriers of facts we can share, but indications of emotions that are felt and may be triggered in those who hear them.  That is why a call for “an up or down vote” feels like simple fairness when your tribe has the votes and feels like gross bullying when it doesn’t.  Most unfortunately, it is an illusion that words will necessarily lead us to a common ground of reality upon which we can work out our differences.  We appear to be arguing about principles but we are, instead, expressing feelings.

But why “Dangerous”?  Because our form of government presupposes that common ground of reality.   Without it, a group of people can’t continue to assess complex problems and make the hard decisions that will benefit the group as a whole. [3] The farther we sink into tribality, the more we are motivated by what makes us feel good rather than what is likely to work best for all of us collectively and the less effective our government is at permitting the common good to flourish.  The illusions created by “liberal” and “conservative” inhibit our desire and ability to get down to where we may find common ground; they waste our energy in dichotomous squabbles about which illusion is “true” or “best” or “patriotic” or “American” when neither describes the ground that we have to stand on together to solve these urgent national problems.  That is the danger.

As I write this, we approach the eve of a perfect, and perfectly awful, example.  The Conservative Tribe says, we will let the nation default on its debts – damn the collective consequences – unless our demands are met:  spending cuts and no tax increases.  The Liberal Tribe says, these demands are unreasonable; we’ll agree to some spending cuts, but we need more tax revenue also and we must raise the debt ceiling now while we negotiate.  As the default date rushes towards us, both sides and much of the punditocracy minutely calculate which tribe will be hurt most if default happens.

How delightfully ironic then that President Obama, who many in the Conservative Tribe believe to have been born in Kenya, may be just what we need:  a post-tribal president.  He seems to have recognized both the illusion and the danger.  As a consequence, even the Liberal Tribe from which he came is at least somewhat dissatisfied with him as he searches for common ground.  His electoral fate in 2012 will tell us whether the liberal/conservative illusion, and the dangerous tribalism it fosters, is firmly embedded in the culture or whether a majority of us are able to look beyond our feelings to that critical common ground.

ARC – 7/10/11


[1] I note that David Brooks, the day after I wrote this, concluded in his New York Times column, that the Republican party “may no longer be a normal party”; that it “has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.”  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/05/david-brooks-republican-party-debt-ceiling_n_890738.html

[2] George Lakoff, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, The University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed. 2002.  First published 1996.

[3] That is why some of the drafters of the Constitution tried so hard to wall off religion from government:  religions, at least the various monotheisms that have predominated during the last few hundred years, tend to limit common ground to that which is narrowly circumscribed by their specific belief systems.  They are, by definition, exclusionary.  My way or the highway.

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