What are Liberals and Conservatives?

        November 2006

Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Simpson
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As divided as our society currently is between liberal and conservative, with almost no-one failing to identify themselves as one or the other, you'd think we would at least have clear and accurate definitions of what these terms mean.  But a close inspection of the discourse would reveal that we do not.  Most people are able to identify the liberal and conservative positions concerning certain high-profile issues — that a Conservative believes abortion should be illegal, and a Liberal believes it should be legal, for example — but this is not the same thing as being able to explain what a Liberal or Conservative is, without simply pointing to specific issues and repeating the Democratic or Republican platforms.  If you ask someone to try and do this, most people will respond with a list of stereotypes, or categories of people who fit into one camp or the other:  businessmen are Republicans; hippies are Democrats; rednecks are Republicans; feminists are Democrats; religious people are Republicans; African-Americans are Democrats, and so on.

But we shouldn't confuse the Democratic and Republican parties with the core philosophies of liberalism and conservatism, since the positions of a party can go back-and-forth:  Abraham Lincoln, a member of the Republican Party in its incarnation of the time, strongly opposed corporate power, whereas now the Republicans support the corporate world; Teddy Roosevelt, another Republican, was a strong environmentalist who started the National Park system, whereas now we associate environmental conservation with the Democrats; during the nearly seven decades that the Democrats held the majority in Congress, the Republicans waved the banner of states’ rights, but the states’ rights battle cry reverted to the Democrats during the first six years of Bush the Younger’s administration, when the Republicans controlled all three branches of the federal government; throughout most of the 20th Century, the Democrats were interventionist in matters of foreign policy, and the Republicans were isolationist:  all of America’s major 20th Century wars — World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War — were entered into by Democratic presidents who faced opposition from Republicans; it was only after Vietnam started seeming like a mistake and many citizens began favoring withdrawal that the positions switched, with Republicans favoring the continuance of the war in the name of patriotism and machismo, and since then, the Republicans have been predominantly interventionist and the Democrats predominantly isolationist.

As far as anybody knows, what the words are supposed to mean is that Conservatives favor stricter rules and Liberals favor looser rules in terms of what people are or are not allowed to do.  But if you tried to use this definition to predict what modern Republicans and Democrats logically should or shouldn't believe, you'd end up being wrong a pretty good precentage of the time.  In the case of gun control, for example, the Conservatives might seem technically to have the “liberal” position, in that it is they who favor a greater degree of freedom — the Liberals, however, might counter by saying that they defend the freedom of others to live in a society where they need not fear gun violence, rather than the freedom of the gun owners to own all the guns they want.  So here we see that it is sometimes a question of balancing one type of liberty against another.  The recent tendency of Liberals to subjugate the freedom of one citizen to do something to the right of another citizen to be free from the thing that the first person wants to do can also be seen in other arenas:  the freedom of believers in the majority religion to erect public displays of faith vs. the freedom of people of minority persuasions not to be made uncomfortable by those displays; or the freedom of prejudiced people to say certain words vs. the right of victims of prejudice to be free from assault by those words.  None of these examples is an allegation of hypocrisy against Liberals, since the freedom from something is just as much a freedom as the freedom to do something — they are only illustrations of the fact that the definitions of liberal and conservative are often an extremely tricky matter.

Since we here at The 1585 know that not all beliefs are equally valid, the question of the relationship of truth or falsehood to certain rights must be brought to the table:  opposition to displays of religious belief can stem from the knowledge that said beliefs are not in fact true; opposition to displays of racist ideology can stem from the knowledge that racist ideas are not in fact true.  Liberals, who tend to be more educated than Conservatives, must eternally deal with the paradox of how to confront an individual’s right to be wrong.  Here of course, we must speak of responsibilities in addition to rights — if individuals have the responsibility not to be ignorant, then where should the government draw the line between encouraging people to undertake this responsibility and denying them the right not to do so?  And yet it is the Conservatives who have made a buzzword of personal responsibility — although this is chiefly because it allows them to lower taxes by cutting funding for various social programs.  Liberals have typically drawn the line at denying the right to ignorance only in cases where others may be hurt by the ignorance — but certainly there are countless forms of ignorance that seem harmless now, but may eventually become hurtful, at which point it may be too late to do anything about them.  And yet it is the Conservatives who have lately espoused a doctrine of pre-emption in matters where people may eventually be hurt.  Conservatives (and many Liberals) would doubtless oppose a War on Ignorance, in which the ignorant would be forced to conform to the beliefs of the educated — and yet the Conservatives have already demonstrated that they support pre-emption in cases where an enemy may be building weapons, and is it not ignorance that compels people to take up the weapons they build?

If a government exists at all, then on some level its existence automatically will involve asking or compelling citizens to surrender certain individual freedoms for the greater good.  These citizens will eventually become so used to some ways of doing this that they barely notice them, while remaining painfully aware of others.  Since, deep in the animal brain, no-one likes having to surrender any freedom, regardless of what greater good is achieved, both parties attempt to win support by calling attention to the ways in which the other party is denying freedom, while concealing and obscuring the ways in which they themselves are doing so.  And despite what the names would imply, in recent decades it is Conservatives who have been more successful in calling public attention to the ways in which Liberals ask this. The Liberal PC movement provided Conservatives with a seemingly endless supply of rhetorical ammunition in this respect:  requests by Liberals that we stop saying certain words, or that we recycle diligently, or drive more efficient cars, were more noticeable to people because they tend to come up in day-to-day life, even though most of them weren’t really that big of an imposition.  Conversely, the Conservative impositions on personal freedom — the demands that we refrain from having sex, or that we go die in a war, or surrender various Constitutional rights — are much bigger, but less noticeable in the day-to-day life of the average person.

The case in recent years has seemed to be that Liberals would impose on personal freedom in a larger number of very small ways, and Conservatives would impose on it in a lesser number of very big ways.  Logical or not, this has caused public opinion to shift in favor of the Conservatives — most people being both uninformed and lazy, and tending not to lead very exciting lives.

Well, what do you think the average America does more often in a lifetime:  get laid, or throw away a soda can?  Exactly.

It sometimes seems as if the only arena in which the two terms actually make literal sense is that of sex — of the liberty of the body itself.  And for years, it was indeed Liberals who championed greater sexual freedom and acceptance and Conservatives who opposed it.  Perhaps part of the reason that so many arguments between Liberals and Conservatives always seem to come down to sex is that, deep down, we realize that this is the only context in which the two terms really mean anything.  But even in the bedrock of the pure fact of sex, allegiances may shift.  Thousands of years ago, the human race had not yet separated the concepts of sexual freedom and sexual impropriety, largely because we had not yet evolved the belief that women are just as human as men — and so truly horrible acts like rape were viewed through the same lens as simply free acts like sex with multiple consenting partners for the sake of pleasure or marrying against the wishes of one’s family.  A contemporary Liberal who idealizes the earthiness of the Classical World may be shocked to learn that it was the Hebraic religions — Judaism and later, Christianity and Islam — that first championed the right of women to own property, among other rights.  But in condemning the sexually horrible things that some Pagan religions allowed, these new religions also condemned the merely sexually free — and today, they have evolved into the sexual oppressors (Judaism less so than Christianity and Islam; probably because, over the centuries, Jewish scholars retained an emphasis on philosophy, whereas Christian scholars were concerned more with politics, and Islamic scholars with science).

Still another level of irony is added by the fact that the Liberals — who, remember, were the religious types during the First Millennium and the non-religious types during the Second Millennium — were so successful that, by the advent of the Sexual Revolution in America during the 1960s and ’70s, disingenuous sexual behavior (largely on the part of men) began to creep back through the door under the umbrella of freedom, eliciting a reaction from the modern Feminist movement, which ensuingly began to condemn the sexually free along with the sexually disingenuous, just as Christianity had done two thousand years prior.  And so Feminism now stands in the same relation to Christianity in which infant Christianity stood to the Pagan and Hellenic religions — and now, as then, the entire problem is that people are either unwilling or philosophically ill-equipped to make distinctions where distinctions should be made:  between sexual practices which may be uncommon but do not hurt anyone, and those that do hurt people, regardless of how common they are.  (Of course, Feminists would say that they are in fact making this distinction, and are only against the practices that hurt women — but there is often cause to dispute with them over whether these accusations are always well-founded, as in the ongoing debate about the supposed effects of pornography.)

The fact that the passage of time is a concern brings us to another popular method of defining Liberal and Conservative:  the American Romantic philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson proposed that a Conservative is simply someone who tends to have the gut reaction that change is bad.  But while this definition may seem accurate in terms of any given present moment, it is inaccurate in terms of an ongoing timeline.  This is because it tends to be the case that, in terms of any given issue, a Conservative is someone who believes now what Liberals believed in the past — depending on the issue, it may be 50 years ago, or 200 years ago, but it is nearly always the case that if you go far back enough, the present Conservative position was the old Liberal position, whereas the Conservatives of that time believed something that no-one believes anymore.

In short, the Liberals have always won.

A Conservative, then, is not someone who opposes change so much as someone who opposes any more change — a Conservative is someone who looks at the present day and says “Stop — we have finally reached the point where we don’t need to get any more liberal,” whereas a Liberal is someone who believes we have not yet reached that point.  To be fair, it should be pointed out that someday, of course, the Conservatives will be right — assuming that society goes on long enough, we must eventually reach a point where it would be a mistake to go any farther to the left.  Contemporary Liberals must try to understand that in the future, the people who will be believing what they believe now will be considered Conservatives by future Liberals who believe something that no-one believes yet, just as contemporary Conservatives must try to understand that if they were to somehow travel back in time with their current beliefs, they would be considered Liberals by past Conservatives who believe things that no-one believes anymore.

We have spent much time analyzing people’s beliefs concerning the issues, but where do these beliefs come from?  The 1585 takes the stance that most people’s beliefs are rooted in their psychological needs, and even in their respective abilities — for example, the reason that university English departments are bastions of liberalism may not be so much because of a bias forced onto the students by the professors as because, growing up, we learn that English class is the place where there are no right or wrong answers, and so the subject of English appeals more to people who are comfortable discussing matters that involve shades of gray; a child who prefers math class, where there is always one definite right answer and all other answers are wrong, might be more likely to grow up to be a Conservative.

People of both political persuasions, however, must realize that external reality is not dependent upon their personal psychological comfort zones:  sometimes there are definite right answers, and sometimes there are shades of gray.

Examine the liberal and conservative dreams for society:  the Left wants everyone to be different but equal, and the Right wants a hierarchy of power where everyone is the same — i.e., Liberals are comfortable in environments where everybody is really individualistic and weird but no-one is telling anyone else what to do, whereas Conservatives are comfortable in environments where no-one behaves in a way that is unfamiliar to anyone else but there is a clear picture of who gets to tell whom what to do.  This would make sense in terms of the stereotype of Liberals coming from homes with weak or ineffectual parents and being good at school, and Conservatives coming from homes with strong imposing parents and being bad at school.  And yet, contrary to popular belief, there are more divorces and broken homes in the Red States (this is because the most common cause of divorce is money problems, and the Red States are poorer; people also tend to marry younger in the Red States, often for religious reasons, and marrying young increases the likelihood of divorce).

In his depictions and analyses of Hell in the Divine Comedy, Dante posited that all sin is actually an unbalanced permutation of Love, since Love is the basis of everything in the Universe of a loving God:  gluttony is excessive love of food; pride is excessive love of self, and so on — and The 1585 believes that, in the modern world of political and social psychology, all ignorance and error is also the result of love; not because the world was created by any God, but rather because, in our developments, we begin by loving the people and things around us, and only learn how to hate when, accurately or inaccurately, we perceive someone or something as a threat to the people and things we love.

When someone is defending something that needs no defense, of course, to an outsider their love looks like fear.  Liberals and Conservatives each accuse the other of being primarily motivated by fear and see themselves as being primarily motivated by love, and in a sense, all of this is true.  Both sides are motivated by the fear that what they love might be destroyed — in the case of Conservatives, that what they love will cease to exist, and in the case of Liberals, that it will never be allowed to exist.

This is made even more complicated by the fact that, sometimes, we are not even sure just what it is we love.  Many political stances, even the most fervently held ones concerning the most contentious topics, are really only expressions of a psychology that would have been expressed in a nearly opposite way had the person been raised in a different environment.  For example, a woman who has been hurt by the men in her life, or who feels insecure because she considers herself unattractive, might develop this into a religiously-based anti-sex philosophy if she is raised in Kansas, but would have developed exactly the same psychology and emotions into a far-Left feminist stance if she had been raised in New York.  A man who feels that his own physical form is inadequate because he was bad at sports as a child might develop this into a liberal anti-sports philosophy if he grows up in California, but the same person with the same experiences might simply become a Conservative racist if he grows up in Alabama.

It is a fine line between hating models and hating sex, or between hating sports and hating minorities, since the culture teaches us to associate models with sex and minorities with sports — yet in each of those examples, one permutation of the mindset is the far-Right position and the other is the far-Left position.  And when we consider that the positions discussed in these examples would almost certainly develop into the corresponding opinions on abortion or on the war, we can see that even the most divisive issues in the country are often being argued by two opposed sides that, psychologically speaking, are nearly identical to each other — psychologically speaking, what makes people “similar” is not a matter of  their positions on the issues, but rather a matter of which issues they are more interested in than others.

If we take the issues out of the picture, and examine in isolation the rationales, it would appear as if we all agreed about nearly everything:  Liberals call the Republicans the party of the rich because they protect corporate interests, and Conservatives call the Democrats the party of the rich because many Liberals have had expensive educations and live in fancy cities, yet all agree that being the party of the rich is undesirable; Liberals call Conservatives heartless because they cut funding for programs that help the poor, and Conservatives call Liberals heartless because they favor science over religion, yet all agree that being heartless is a bad thing; Liberals accuse Conservatives of wanting everyone to be the same because they oppose the rights of gays and other marginalized groups, and Conservatives accuse Liberals of wanting everyone to be the same because they demand that people unite in the acceptance of these groups, but we all agree that wanting everyone to be the same is a bad thing.

When the average person forms their political identity, it seems they often do so by starting with one “pet” issue close to their heart, and moving outwards from there — deciding based on that central issue whether they are liberal or conservative, and subsequently seeking out rationales for why all the other unrelated things that Liberals or Conservatives believe must also be true (lest their “pet” opinion turn out to be false by association).  Political parties (which many of the nation’s founders believed we should not have, instead believing that issues should be decided on a case-by-case basis and not be associated with one another) are loose confederations of special interests that arise because there is strength in numbers:  If you agree with me about my pet issue, I will agree with you about yours.

This, in turn, leads to the disturbing tendency of people on both sides to think of a political orientation as a team, rather than as an expression of personal belief; I call this tendency disturbing because it encourages loyalty even to beliefs that have been proven wrong.  We have all known many people who at one time will admit that an argument made by someone of the other persuasion is a “good point,” or even that it is “probably true,” but then, the next time the subject comes up, will continue to argue their old position without even acknowledging the objection that they had previously admitted was valid.

When asked why they do this, most simply say that their opinion is still their opinion — but is it?  Once you have admitted that there are flaws in your position, or that you believe an objection to it to be valid, does this not mean that your opinion is in fact no longer your opinion, at least not in exactly the same way that you had always explained it before?  People are able to do this because they think of their opinion not as an expression of what they do or do not believe to be accurate concerning a certain subject, but rather as an expression of what team they play for, almost as if political belief were a sport.  To them, admitting that someone of the other persuasion has a valid point is like admitting that the other team has a talented shortstop — they are being good sportsmen by admitting this, but it doesn’t mean they have to change teams.  

Continuing to believe something even after it has been proven wrong seems to many people to be admirable loyalty, like continuing to support your team even when you know it’s going to lose.  But truth is not a competition between two teams labeled Truth A and Truth B — either something is true, or it is not.  And if you know that something is true, then that is your opinion — so why pretend that something else still is?

If party identities were actually the result of citizens examining all issues simultaneously and with equal scrutiny, then the parties themselves could not possibly exist.  Political identity is the result of people having one issue that they care about more than the others, and their opinions on the other issues falling into place by association — here at The 1585, we call this the Linchpin Theory.  I encourage all people to try to identify their own personal linchpin issue, and subsequently to examine whether they actually truly believe what they claim to believe about all the others, or have only been lending them credence in exchange for other people lending credence to theirs.

Let's all keep in mind Freud’s idea of the Heimlich (“homelike”).  He believed — as I do — that people seek out and try to replicate that which seems most familiar to them, but that, since no-one’s formative experiences were perfect, and the pain inflicted by those experiences is still close to our hearts, people also react to the too-familiar as something horrible, or unheimlich.  This serves to explain our tendencies to develop our identities around “pet” concerns, as well as why our opponents on those issues are often the people who are the most like ourselves, and why it is precisely these people for whom we reserve our deepest animosities:  the Christian and the Feminist, who both seek to deny the fact that human beings are animals with unexpurgatable instincts; the redneck and the poor urban minority member, who are both keeping it real; the religious zealot and the scientist, who have both dedicated their lives to the pursuit and dissemination of the only acceptable right answer.  (NOTE: this does not mean that neither one is right — just that they are both more psychologically comfortable with black-&-white issues.)

The 1585 is here.  It is a haven for those who demand truth, no matter whom it angers — and who demand it from themselves before anyone else.

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