As I search for middle ground where liberals and conservatives can work together, it seems reasonable to ask what the other side wants. If each of us can understand what our political rivals desire, then perhaps be can more sensibly steer the conversation toward a mutually acceptable compromise, one where we all get a bit of what we hope for.
Before I look for an answer to my title question, it’s only fair that I hazard an answer about liberals’ goals. My late conservative father-in-law frequently harangued me about what he saw were the false end-goals for liberalism: the idea of “equality” and a belief in the perfectibility of humankind. (Bob spent a lot of time telling me that he didn’t think liberals had gotten over Rousseau and the Romantics) He said that true equality was impossible, that people could not all be the same because they had different capabilities. Because of human nature, people would remain fundamentally flawed, and so it was hopeless to try to improve human interaction till we all join hands and sing “Kum Bah Yah.”
My reply was that I didn’t recognize these goals at all. I couldn’t think of a single liberal who would say that perfecting human society was achievable. Liberals believe that society can be improved, and incrementalists believe this change comes one hard-fought gain at a time, not through revolution (a more romantic and inspirational rallying cry, but revolutions are usually very tricky to implement). But just because perfection is impossible doesn’t mean that we should short-circuit our efforts to improve the lot of humanity.
Nor did I accept that talk of “equality” meant that people were literally the same (in fact, we’re the folks who are talking about cultural difference all the time!). Equality didn’t mean uniformity (either socially or economically). I suppose Bob could be forgiven for mistaking talk about “redistribution of wealth” to mean that everyone would receive an equal parcel of wealth (though discussions of a universal basic income do veer in this direction. Many liberals have too much in their 401(k) to support a fundamental equalizing of capital). We liberals often emphasize “equality,” but that may need a bit of elaboration to explain ourselves to conservatives.
This portion of my discussions with my father-in-law went nowhere because Bob kept accusing liberals of having goals that I didn’t recognize or accept. I learned from this exercise in frustration that if this dialogue is going to proceed, both sides should start with a version of liberalism/conservativism that that the group itself recognizes. If liberals tell conservatives what conservatives think (or if conservatives do the same), then the entire discussion becomes about whether that label fits. That may be a discussion worth having, but it’s not a discussion that can start us working together. I suggest that as a working hypothesis we should begin with a self-description that liberals and conservatives recognize.
My modest proposal is that Bob just needed us liberals to use a few more words. Utter equality isn’t the goal. I assert that goal for liberals is equality of opportunity. (Since it’s my blog, I get to speak for all liberals here. (wink) )
Equality of opportunity would mean (in part) counteracting the structures that make opportunity unequal: poverty, racism, sexism, and others. I want to emphasize that these are social and economic structures with long histories. It’s not simply a matter of changing people’s attitudes, though that’s part of it. Although Americans love to reinvent themselves, histories have weight; they’re hard to change quickly. And so rather than pretending that everyone exists on a level playing field, we acknowledge that everyone is not equal when it comes to the opportunities provided by birth. You can’t judge the race to success by who crosses the finish line first; you have to acknowledge that some people’s starting line is much further back than others.
And so working toward equality of opportunity can look like treating people unequally in the here and now because we’re looking at them as people with histories, not freestanding individuals without context. It may require programs targeted to help poor people gain life skills that middle class people gain for themselves along the way. It may require family leave policies that allow women a longer period of absence from the workplace. It may use affirmative action, Head Start, and summer programs to open up educational opportunities to those who may not recognize that such opportunities exist for them.
I’m not necessarily advocating any one of these policy suggestions (the advantages and disadvantages of policies always have to be weighed against each other). I’m simply making the point that a slavish adherence to “equality” of treatment in the here and now looks different from the idea of equality of opportunity that acknowledges we all have a history.
The list of pseudo-policy suggestions I just made is pretty slanted toward economic opportunity. We’re so conditioned to think fiscally these days that we forget that citizenship is more than just being a consumer. The government has impact on our lives beyond taxes and spending. When I say “equality of opportunity,” I also mean equality of opportunity to access the full range of the government.
This would include equality of access to justice. We all know that the justice system looks different if you have an expensive lawyer as opposed to depending on an overworked public defender. If we talk about being “equal before the law,” then some of us are more equal than others.
This would also include equality of access to policymaking. Lawmakers hold hearings to gather perspectives on policy, but often the only people invited to those hearings are technocrats who have an interest in shifting the policy in an economically self-interested direction. Lobbying also requires money to gain access to decisionmakers, and so well-funded interests have a stronger voice in shaping policy. Equality of opportunity would mean opening up those channels to influence how laws are made and enforced.
You might say this is liberal pie-in-the-sky thinking to believe that money can be counterbalanced, and you would be right. I have no illusions that the justice system will ever treat poor and rich people equally or that lawmakers will ignore special interests with deep pockets. Having money always is an advantage. But just because true equality of opportunity/access isn’t impossible doesn’t mean that this is an unworthy goal. That’s what makes it a goal. We don’t throw the concept of justice out simply because it’s an unattainable ideal. It’s an aspiration that we can work toward one step at a time.
I apologize for the lengthy sidetrack into what liberals want (at least my version of that), but I do think it’s useful to make your goals legible to the other side. If I ask conservatives to articulate their goals, I should be able to do the same for the left.
There’s a fairly standard conservative “wish list” that would include: smaller government, lower taxes, a stronger military, fewer regulations, a pro-business stance, and a return to established values. My first question would be: are these directions or goals?
That may seem like a fairly academic difference, but I think the distinction has ramifications. Let’s say that conservatives successfully advocate for increased military spending in a given budget cycle. Do then they ask for another increase the next year, and another, and another? That depends on whether they think of a stronger military as a goal or a direction. Do they have an end result in mind — a particular vision of the military – or is military strength a never-ending direction, something that can always be improved on? Negotiation proceeds differently in these two scenarios. If I can picture your desired goal in a negotiation, that helps me in working toward an acceptable compromise. Negotiating with someone who always wants more military spending or more tax cuts is a very different thing.
The person who always wants more is someone who believes their politics pursues a direction, not an endgoal. And even that person can work within the system for the benefit of all if they believe the opposition is honorably doing the same. You can think of the opposing political party as a countervailing force that acts in the opposite direction, one that will always be there, dependably exerting pressure. In this scenario, you can advocate all out for your side (cutting regulations, cutting taxes) knowing full well that your opponents will provide a check on your advocacy and that the resulting policy will end up somewhere in the middle. In this conception (liberalism and conservatism as directions), both sides depend on each other to temper the potential excesses of the other’s rhetoric. Both sides at least implicitly acknowledge the value of the opposing view to make better policy for all.
The difficulty arises when single-direction politics believes its own excessive rhetoric, that things would be better if they had full control. That can lead to a wartime mentality where the opposing party becomes an obstacle that should be eliminated. A certain amount of the politics of elimination is inevitable in elections when the cry rises to “throw the bums out.” But an “everyone who doesn’t agree with me should be thrown out” mentality doesn’t work for the negotiations of everyday politics. Now that the cycle of election/re-election rhetoric is almost constant, I worry about the politics of elimination holding sway over the politics of compromise and reasoning.
One of the reasons I’m asking the fairly abstract question about goals vs. directions is that if we explicitly acknowledge conservatism/liberalism as a direction, we can explicitly acknowledge that we’re in this together to balance each other’s excesses. That seems like a productive framework for understanding the function of both sides.
Libertarianism has always seemed more understandable to me than conservativism because of the basic simplicity of libertarian philosophy. The libertarian goal is straightforward: to maintain as limited a government as is necessary to guarantee the welfare of its citizens. And so you get lefty libertarians who are interested in getting the government out of our bedrooms and righty libertarians who advocate budget cutbacks. I’m not a libertarian (I don’t have that much faith in enlightened self-interest to solve the problem of the commons), but I understand what they’re after.
Conservativism has always seemed more convoluted to me. “Let’s be fiscally responsible (except when it comes to military spending or cutting taxes).” “Let’s cut back on regulations (but increase them for those receiving ‘entitlements’ and keep regulations of private behavior).” The various appeals seem to pull against each other. A better understanding of what conservatives want would help liberals to see how these initiatives work together.
You’ll notice that I’m avoiding the hypothesis that the tie that binds conservativism together is racism. I’m not saying that that’s an invalid hypothesis; I’m just saying that for my purposes here, it’s not a useful one. Remember that I said that I wanted a definition of conservativism/liberalism that those groups would accept about themselves. While there’s an important conversation to be had about race and conservative policies (and I will take up race as an issue later in this blog), I don’t believe that conservatives are going to accept/acknowledge racism as a central tenet of their politics. That would be a long and painful conversation to have. I’m trying to find a working hypothesis that will allow us to move forward together. Part of the challenge of my question is to give conservatives the opportunity to explain how their various interests make sense without recourse to racism. Otherwise, conservatives would certainly leave themselves open to the charge that racism (and fear/hatred of the “Other”) is the glue that binds their politics together.
Helping us liberals to see how conservatism coheres around a goal or a direction would also help eliminate the other strongly negative hypothesis that circulates about conservatives: that they are interested in nothing but power. Of course, all politics involves power. If you eliminated the political figures that were interested in increasing their power, there would be no one left in the room, left or right. But there is a difference between gaining power in order to better serve your principles versus a raw power grab. Some on the left think that conservative politics is motivated primarily by the lust for power. This belief is so widespread that it circulates in our entertainment, as in the movie Vice when Dick Cheney asks, “What do we believe?” only to be answered by Donald Rumsfeld’s raucous laughter. We have reached a point where many liberals believe that conservatives seek nothing but power, that there is no basis in principle beyond self-aggrandizement and self-benefit.
I do not believe that is true.
If it is true for individual political figures, if they have been seduced by power and transformed into cynics, then I don’t believe that most begin that way. My sense is that most people enter politics out of a combination of conviction, ego, and hubris. I don’t see why or how you would seek a lifetime of abuse without some version of all three. And if that is true, then there is some core of conviction in the most cynical politician. Finding and connecting to that is a road forward.
If conservatives can help liberals understand what conservatives really want, this would take away the basis for liberals to believe that conservatives are interested in nothing more than self-serving power. It seems all too easy in these days of political mistrust for us to assume the worst. Understanding what the other side wants would help restore a bit of humanity to our politics.
2 thoughts on “What Do Conservatives Want?”
Another good one!
This is a really good one, Greg.
But what DO conservatives want?