On Liberals, Conservatives, Political Theater, and Civility

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 thoughtful preference for 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.

Logically, we would gravitate back and forth between conservative and liberal because the narratives would trade off objective soundness. But we never do. We commit to a team and we’re steadfast thereafter with the Talking Points, whether or not they’re sound.

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, because we want to be part of a consistent narrative — a story of goodness — and welcome the abundant “expertise” our sensibility high priests supply to our story.

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 over 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 with all those Talking Points 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 thoroughly 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 — steps that would triggered apoplectic rage on the left if done by a Republican. 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.

Why do we do this to each other? Why do we ascribe base and foul motives to conservatives doing conservative things and liberals doing liberal things?

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. Okay — then it probably wasn’t deception, venality and hatred of people when it came from the other side.

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 that is particularly and profoundly the case as to all of us ordinary people. I know professional liberals I suspect of bad faith. I do not know any ordinary liberal, and I know many, whom I suspect of bad faith.

The 21st-century explosion of citizen dialogue opens into a beautiful opportunity for civility. Professional conservatives and professional liberals are fair game, fine, but as between us, the peeps of diverse sensibilities, we keep it real and respectful. We teach America how to talk, always modest and always mindful that we might have been swallowing the Talking Points of the other side with a life-experience twitch here or there.

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17 Responses to On Liberals, Conservatives, Political Theater, and Civility

  1. John Myste says:

    I have made similar arguments to this many times. I have repeatedly argued that the “other side,” whatever that is, is not less intelligent than “our side” is, but instead just embraces different axioms. I have also written several very long essays about this topic, but did not post the long ones because they were too preachy, even for me.

    I did post this, which made the argument with satire: The Martian Fallacy.

    I don’t think people really got it.

    Most of what people believe is philosophical and most of their justifications for believing them are made with statistics and “facts.” People rarely argue what they believe for the reason they believe it.

    The thinks that make us think most of what we think are unprovable; and if there is not proof then we cannot know that the other side is a villain or an idiot, and not knowing this is completely unacceptable.

  2. Jeff says:

    Ken- The only thing you miss on a bit here, or at least gloss over, is that the professional liberal and conservatives really do lie, and quite often. If a number of fact checkers agree that something is completely wrong, and the speaker persists over and over in repeating the error, it becomes a lie, a damned lie. If there is mistake, a mispoken word, then that is easily cleaned up before the table is turned over and guns are drawn. But a willingness to just run with the untruth over and over moves the dispute over into another area. Propoganda.

    There is no reason to suspect it or respect it or defer to it. We must call it out. For us in the hinterlands, we do have our team, but I have said 10,000 times since 1972, I am a liberal but I could be wrong. I can also ackowledge worthwhile ideas and policies on the other side. It is still hard to figure how a guy who could have been so brilliant as to have gone to China, could almost bring down the Presidency with his paranoia and lack of leadership. To me it’s two separate pieces. There is the one piece like this one that cajoles and probes us to be more cognizant of our commonality and drop the game. The other piece would fact-strafe our leaders for being bought and paid for by special interests, while pretending to lead us, while lying about many facts, in order to win the next election.

    • I agree with everything you say Jeff, but (not surprisingly) I don’t believe there’s as much actual “lying” going on as you do. Yes, there is seriously ugly propaganda going on, left and right, via websites and services to which hardcore liberals and hardcore conservatives subscribe. Seen the ugliness on both sides. But professional liberals and conservatives — the high-profile warriors — don’t usually “lie,” as I use that term, because they cannot afford to. They spin, to be sure, and they distort at times, but they must always do so defensibly, or they lose credibility even with their base. I don’t like the breezy accusation of “lying” because it makes the sifting process so much more difficult. If everything with which we disagree is a “lie,” and the other side is always a bunch of lying liars, then “lying” is no longer a moral category. It’s just a piece of political rhetoric. And that’s a loss. Actual lying — what Nixon did and what Clinton did at clearly identifiable moments — is morally distinct from what Nixon and Clinton did in the spin game, the stuff we (respectively) despised in one and overlooked in the other. I’m easy on conservatives spinning. You’re easy on liberals spinning. But we’re both categorically intolerant of actual lying from either. And it’s important to maintain that moral distinction.

  3. Terrance H. says:

    I understand the point quite well. But I wonder if there is something to be said for inherency. Certainly this doesn’t apply to all liberals or conservatives and I think you and I are two clear examples of how quickly people can change.

    But I wonder about morality. Is one position more moral than the other? If so by all reasonable accounts, why is it wrong to point out the problem of the other side, and perhaps even the other person? Why is doing so wrong?

    I think the issue is more nuanced than simple disagreement and I’ve no qualms saying so. If that cheapens the discourse, then so be it.

    • As to politics, no, one position is not more “moral” than the other. Individual proponents of a political position may be more or less moral — but the positions themselves have no inherent moral superiority. This of course is what makes politics so exasperating. Proponents of opposite political propositions both purport to assume the moral high ground. And from their respective perches, they are both defensibly correct. Which is what makes the moral shriekers so absurd. They appeal to an absolutist morality that doesn’t properly apply to politics. So, no, I wouldn’t invite cheapening the discourse quite so readily.

      • Terrance H. says:

        Kendrick,

        I don’t see how you or anyone could believe that. Clearly there are some positions that are so far beyond the pale that one has no choice but to render it immoral. Fascism, for example. Hitler’s brand of it, specifically. Totally immoral and inherently so, in my view, and my whole point is that it’s not wrong to, well, point it out.

        • No disagreement Terrance. I’m not staking out moral relativity and capitulation here. In fact, as some of my earliest posts exemplify, I’m a big believer in right and wrong, and the greater likelihood of doing good if you have a core sense of right and wrong. My point is narrower here and has to do specifically with political dialogue in America. In American politics (as opposed to, say, German politics in the 1930s), it is virtually never the case that the other side is “evil” or “liars” or “heartless” or any of the other moral slams we might wish to impose. The other side may well be wrong, confused, misdirected, misinformed or uninformed. But they are not evil. In fact, they are sincere. And it is a stupendous waste to attack their “morality” rather than challenging their facts or assumptions. The latter advances dialogue on the merits. The former creates pointless ill will and squanders any discussion of the merits.

  4. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    Your premise, that those with opposing views aren’t evil or rotten or whatever term we’d use – I continue to struggle with letting that go. And, yes, though political positions may not have any inherent moral superiority, they are not spouting from nowhere. They are the output of either a moral individual or one I’d refer to as being immoral. I’m to divorce my faith and morality from weighing in on political views that come from humans?

    When I hear that people have applauded the death of an individual because he lacked health insurance, how can I not think “evil”? Or when I hear, repeatedly, from conservatives and libertarians that welfare recipients are lazy and don’t deserve government assistance – how can I not think “immoral” and “heartless”? How, Kendrick? When my morality stands in stark contrast to viewpoints like these – I’m supposed to assume better intentions from those who not only speak it, but from those politicians that promote it? The fervor of “the other side” in going after Obama’s citizenship and birthright, which went undefended by Republican politicians – that was rotten behavior rising out of something I consider to be very sinister. And “spin”? Well, for me, Kendrick, spin is lying. Calling out lying is not another piece of political rhetoric – when we begin to allow, and stay silent over, the big and small lies that are told everyday in the political arena, we are lost. We might as well simply vote according to whichever letter the politician wears. We’ll encourage the politicians we support to continue the deception, the exaggerations, and distortion. And then we’re no better than they are.

    • Terrance H. says:

      I totally understand where Kendrick is coming from by saying that no one position has moral superiority. But I don’t necessarily buy it, because saying there are no absolutes is, in itself, an absolute statement.

      I think, however, that there are just some things that we as human beings know, without question, to be right and moral and wrong and immoral.

      Perhaps I’m wrong, but that’s what I think.

    • No, they’re not “evil” or “rotten.” They’re human beings. Perhaps misinformed, confused, disturbed, or even flat-out wrong (in our considered opinion). Now here’s the thing Jean, human beings can be evil. They can embrace the dark side and embark upon a program of fraud. I do not dispute condemnation of these people, where they are found. I simply say we ought not be profligate in calling the Other Side “evil” and “liars” and such. Doing so destroys any chance for dialogue.

      Let’s take an example you have featured in certain of your posts. Someone calls welfare recipients lazy and undeserving of government assistance. Break it down. The claim, wherever you may have heard it (and it is not typical of conservatives to make such a claim) is exaggerated and inept. I, as a conservative, would say to the person making such a claim, you are making a claim you cannot possibly support. And then he would tell me about the welfare recipients he knows, and has read about, who are in fact lazy and scamming the system, and give me one particularly juicy anecdote of a scammer. And I would say of course there are some of those people — but they are not the majority and you have no basis for making a claim that they are. And then he would make a broader claim about the tendency of welfare to produce dependency and “laziness.” And he would invoke Bill Clinton. And I would say, now that’s an argument you can make, so long as you don’t presume to claim you know anything about the generalized “laziness” of actual welfare recipients. Because I know welfare recipients who are desperate for a job, who are manifestly not lazy, and whom I would hire in a New York minute if I were in a position to do so because I admire their work ethic. And he would say, okay, but generally speaking, welfare encourages bad behavior, and I would say, okay, let’s talk about that.

      He never lied and he wasn’t “evil.” He had a notion. Sincerely held. His notion could be challenged on the merits — but not if I considered him “evil” or a “liar” at the outset. That’s a conversation-stopper, and by the way, incredibly arrogant and stupid.

      The same goes for Obama’s citizenship, which, as you know, I considered a dumb issue from the beginning. But I know genuinely good folks who were sincerely concerned about it, and they weren’t “sinister” or “evil.” They had a notion. Which could be challenged on the merits — but not if I considered them “sinister” or “evil” or “racist” at the outset. The more we honor the humanity and sincerity of people with suspect notions, the more likely we are to forge common ground. Conversely, the more we demonize people with suspect notions with epithets like “evil” and “racist” and “sinister,” the more certain we are to entrench them in their suspect notion and the more obviously we are indulging in self-aggrandizing moral arrogance.

      As for spin, that’s another post. I take your point and want to delve into it more deeply in due course. I do not believe spinning is lying, and I think our discourse takes a heavy hit if we collapse the two. But more in due course.

      • Snoring Dog Studio says:

        I won’t argue with the general thoughts you present, Kendrick. I can only leave you with this, my belief, which originates from places you can’t know about: we DO live among people in this world who are inherently evil. We DO live among people who are bereft of compassion. We are not all of “good intent.”

  5. Jeff says:

    Ken, Snoring Dog, let me add my perspective, a little more clearly. There are grades of spinning / lying but when the most blatant of these are labeled by the fact-checkers as “pants on fire”, then it isn’t okay to just call them spin. Spin is where there are at least two distinct possible interpretations of a single set of facts. Lying is spinning an interpretation from a set of non-existent or irrelevant facts. Ken, you give people too much credit. Yes, you can figure out what’s BS, but large pluralities on both sides have not the time, the inkling or the resources to find out the truth. The professional liberals and conservatives, though more of the later, don’t lose their base for lying about policy. They get a nod and a wink and a campaign donation. They can be told something and they will believe it because they are emotionally vested in their team. You really think that through the filters of Corporate Media, and huge money, buying candidates left and right, that some single family with three jobs and three kids and some health issues and car payments can actually get at some information that is close to the truth? I long for the civil society, that you do. But civil discourse and rational discussion and practical, non-partisan policy is dead and gone. I liked the 50’s when my grandfather implored me, Never talk about Religion or Politics, outside your home. If that was still our manner, if no one watched Fox or MSNBC and they therefore failed and went off the air, because our culture detested their looseness with the truth, their propogandizing, we would have a much more civil society. Our Democracy seemed to work pretty well when people were left to seek out the information they wanted and the media was low key and tried to be non-partisan. The media wants us jazzed up and chasing all their rabbits, Big Money has their jackle teeth, encouraged by Citizens United, locked into the scruff of our neck. And, we the people, are buried in debt and worry and fatigue and do not have the energy to fact check and fight, and more and more just decide to sign on the bottom line. It’s their world, we’re just living in it. As Twain popularly repeated from an unknown source, “there are lies, damned lies and statistics.” We are living in a time of some treachorously damned lies, the first being that we have any knowledge of what the problem is.

    • Yes, I probably give people too much credit, and will always wish to do so until they give me a reason not to. I’ve found that expecting the best of people sometimes produces it.

      Your demonization of Corporate Media, and demonization of corporations generally, is classic spin. See, I could go on and on about the millions of dollars labor unions spend featuring television ads showing Republicans pushing granny in a wheelchair over the mountain. That puts us in different spin zones. Neither of us is “lying.” We have different assumptions and different framing theories of governance. That’s why I want to draw a distinction between spinning and lying and suggest that we join hands in condemning the latter — when it is truly lying — and spend the rest of our time debating the faulty assumptions of the spinners on the merits. Then we have a civil citizens debate rather than a moral mudfest that accomplishes nothing except making us hate each other more.

      Since I love talking about religion and politics, I cannot concur with your grandfather’s notion, even though my beloved grandmother, who lived to be 98, said exactly the same thing. I think we’re going to keep talking about religion and politics, notwithstanding the cautions of our distant elders, and so what really matters is coming to terms with how we talk about religion and politics.

  6. 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.

    I have to remind myself of this constantly. It’s super duper hard, though, when I hear “let him die” and applause. I know not all Conservatives are like that.

    Actually, you and my mom pop into my head when I start thinking that Conservatives are evil and heartless. You guys remind me that it isn’t true. .

    • And not even those conservatives are like that, really. Nearly everyone with a nasty thought will back off if anyone says forthrightly, “that’s nasty.” Unfortunately, conservatives don’t call out conservatives often enough and liberals don’t call out liberals often enough. And so the huddled nastiness persists.

      I’m honored to be with your mom in head-popping.

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