How we came to be liberal and conservative dunderheads

Political theater is a constant re-education in the non-sinister motives of our elected decision-makers. We have to see a conservative doing something liberal, or a liberal doing something conservative, to ratchet back from our conviction that the other side is sinister.

As a political people, we typically take three steps:

  1. Identify as conservative or liberal.
  2. Embrace the respective narratives, which reinforce the goodness and soundness of our chosen sensibility and condemn the badness and unsoundness of the other narrative.
  3. Gravitate to news and opinion sources that reinforce #2.

The fascinating threshold question is what makes someone presumptively conservative or liberal, because so much turns on that decision. Is a conservative a liberal who has been mugged? A liberal a conservative who has been arrested? Is it life experience, parenting, peer group, or thoughtful examination that yields “conservative” and “liberal”?

To be sure, we all imagine our politics the product of sound thinking. Who among us says, “I’m a conservative, but liberals might be right” or “I’m a liberal, but conservatives are really persuasive”? At our very best, we say, “I’m a conservative, and liberals, bless their hearts, want to do the right thing” or “I’m a liberal, and conservatives occasionally make some good points.”

Wherever our threshold sensibility choice came from, we’re deliberately “liberal” or “conservative” because that choice supplies a reliable framework — a matrix (yes, see movie) — for every consideration of current events, for the perpetual reinforcements of our correct choice.

In effect, we join clubs and promise loyalty. We’re a social people that way. Nothing logically dictates that we be steadfastly “conservative” or “liberal.” We do so because we’re joiners, like to be part of a consistent narrative — a story of goodness — and welcome the abundant “expertise” our sensibility high priests supply to our story.

Why else would liberals consistently post liberal commentary and conservatives consistently post conservative commentary on Facebook (the ultimate social matrix)?

Because let’s face it, we don’t have a clue how to solve the massive domestic and foreign policy problems our nation confronts. Not only do we lack the expertise, we have fairly sound reason to suspect that the experts lack the expertise. Experts, and I do love this American formulation, have been defined as people who avoid all the small errors and sweep on to the grand fallacy.

We’re left with a choice between tedious case-by-case examination of the merits of frankly boring, technical details, or grateful embrace of a narrative that Explains It All. And who doesn’t prefer a good story to wallowing in technical stuff?

And that is the pathology of politics. But the pathology takes a darker turn. Having embraced our chosen narrative, the next project is too often to ascribe the worst motives to the competing narrative. “Liars!” we scream. “Horrible people who hate people!” we scream. “Vested interests!” we love to scream.

We don’t know this anymore than we know how to actually solve the massive domestic and foreign policy problems our nation confronts. But we’re certain the other side must be horrible people who hate people because our Google Reader and RSS feed club says so, persuasively. And if we can take them down, oh yeah, then we’re just a little closer to somewhat well-informed, we think.

This joiner mentality, coupled with our left and right paranoid style of American politics, yields a halting and disturbing debate. Sometimes we talk with each other, but more often we do narrative food fights. Silliness, perpetuated by cynical people with high profiles and ordinary people without time enough to determine whether it’s worth standing against the silliness.

And so I come full circle. Political theater is a constant re-education in the non-sinister motives of our elected decision-makers.

Horrible motives were attributed to many Bush policies that the Obama administration has fully embraced. An anti-war candidate more than halfway into his administration still has all the same wars going, still has Guantanamo, and has launched another war in Libya without even bothering to consult or obtain the consent of Congress. But where’s the virulent anti-war movement of the Bush years? It’s basically gone. What survives of it are a few independent ideologues.

And that’s because liberals can do some things conservatives cannot, and conservatives can do some things liberals cannot. Nixon could go to China. A liberal couldn’t have. Domestically, Nixon could propose a liberal negative income tax to reform entitlements. A liberal couldn’t have. Likud prime minister Menachim Begin could negotiate with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and return the entire Sinai to Egypt in exchange for a peace agreement. A Labor party prime minister could not have done so. Bill Clinton could target Sister Souljah’s hate speech. A conservative doing it would have been massacred as racist. Labour PM Tony Blair could eloquently make the case for cleaning out the Mesopotamian cesspool. A Tory would have been vociferously condemned as a warmonger.

We’re certain the other side is sinister, until our side forthrightly does it. And that is what educates us in motives. We may or may not embrace the merits of our standard-bearer’s troubling position — but we’re less likely to conclude (unless we really do wear the tinfoil hats) that the position itself is evidence of deception, venality, and hatred of people.

All of which is simply to say, however it is each of us came to be conservative or liberal, let’s at least start with acknowledging that the other side came to be so sincerely. And they may have some good points.

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10 Responses to How we came to be liberal and conservative dunderheads

  1. Hi Kendrick,

    Thank you for writing this great essay. We can make America a better place that would also ultimately benefit the whole of humanity. I do believe in the high ideals of what formed the basis of America. It all starts with how people “think”.

    Please check out my last post if you have not had chance to read it.
    http://yilmazalimoglu.com/2011/04/18/america-that-i-admire/

    Yilmaz

    • Thanks Yilmaz. Yes, I saw your essay shortly after you posted it. Very nice, though I had a little difficulty squaring with your surprising recent negativity about the UK on FB.

  2. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Oh, you are a difficult and challenging fellow. What a post. The issues you covered here are ones I’ve considered for a long while but have never been able to write so eloquently as you did. And this is what it is — people choosing a side in what so many politicians these days appear to believe is nothing more than a football game. Someone has to win at the expense of someone else. And all the while, the sportscasters call the plays, comment and “help” us figure it all out. But Kendrick, isn’t it simply how the human mind must make sense of all this non-sense? We build a framework so that whatever comes in can be put on the various shelves in our head – this one – Liberal nonsense, this one – conservative dogma, this one – a tea party rant. Everything is evaluated against a background of what is already there in our heads. When a politician takes a side these days it does seem like nothing more than stepping to the left or right to join a team. How do we not see it as sinister – or at least callous – when our leaders can’t even compromise and stop playing the game?

    • Nice points SDS. Yes, I agree it’s the way our minds work, and I want to delve deeper into this interesting question of “political epistemology,” how we come to hold our political beliefs and how we process “facts” accordingly. And yes, our leaders don’t often make it easy for us to trust their motives, but I do believe there is some genuine statesmanship amidst all the partisan bickering.

  3. Pingback: Pretending and Politics: Our Imaginary Worlds | Snoring Dog Studio

  4. We’re left with a choice between tedious case-by-case examination of the merits of frankly boring, technical details, or grateful embrace of a narrative that Explains It All. And who doesn’t prefer a good story to wallowing in technical stuff?

    Very nice. My response to taking that step and acknowledging the other side is, “easier said than done.” It’s always nice to see someone who practices what he preaches, though. 🙂

    • You’re one of the best at navigating opposing viewpoints!

      • Haha I wish. Sadly, while in forums and comment sections, you would not draw the same conclusion. That’s why I’m avoiding those places. 😉

  5. lbwoodgate says:

    Nicely stated Kendrick. I would split hairs with you on some comments but not my first visit here and leaving a comment. I’ve signed up for your blog so we will have plenty of opportunity to break down the “frankly boring, technical details,” another time.

    • Thanks very much. And you’re actually quite good at the “frankly boring, technical details,” 🙂 so I look forward to the dialogue.

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