My friend James Livermont shared this with me, and I thought it was definitely worth resharing this advice.
In my next few blog posts, I’ll expand on some of the terse statements in my Declaration of Interdependence. We already have a Declaration of Independence, but it seemed to me that today we need to counterbalance the American ideal of independence with a bit more awareness of our interdependence, and thus the counter-proclamation:
“Personal independence and individual effort are vital, but no one is totally self-made. Most of us get where we are through a combination of work and advantages, but we frequently misremember that. It doesn’t diminish our story to acknowledge our interdependence. Each of us owes a debt to our society.”
In American politics we repeatedly tell one of two stories about how individuals become who they are. One is a tale of independence and self-reliance: “I worked hard to get where I am; I earned everything I have.” The alternate story emphasizes external forces — personal trauma, poverty, racism, sexism, class, history: “I am where I am because of what happened to me.” The former is usually a narrative of success, the latter of failure; one is pitched as an empowering tale, while the other is about powerlessness.
Stories of being on the bottom make us squirm, unless of course the person hits bottom and bounces. We’re fine with hearing about failure – in fact we like it — as long as it leads inevitably to success (a narrative so sellable that some call it “failure porn”). We can’t get enough of stories of disability as long as they get turned into inspirational narratives, as long as those external factors get transformed into character-building hurdles to overcome in the race to success, as long as they avoid unhelpful, self-defeating talk about “blame.”
In the political sphere, the “blame” narrative and the “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” story are typically phrased as an either/or: either people wallow in their victimhood doing nothing or they need to pull up their big boy panties and work their way out of their circumstances. That has always seemed like a false choice to me. Why can’t you acknowledge the harsh reality of discrimination and trauma; call for change to those realities; and acknowledge that individual action is also necessary? Why isn’t this a “both/and?”
Why is it so hard for conservatives to focus on the soul-wounding forces of racism/sexism, as opposed to nodding toward them briefly before preaching about the importance of individual hard work? Why is it so difficult for liberals to acknowledge that perhaps not all poor people are industrious and noble, that the poor can be just as lazy and as unmotivated to quit bad habits as any of us, that effective social programs require individuals to buy into them?
The bootstraps story tends to treat disenfranchisement as backdrop. It’s an escape tale. Nothing changes except the individual’s position; everything else about the situation stays the same. The situation is simply an inevitable part of “the way things are.” You can’t eradicate poverty, after all. Even if politicians like LBJ declare a “war on poverty,” we know we can’t win that war. This provokes some Christians to pull out the Bible verse about “the poor ye have always with you” (out of context, by the way) instead of talking about Christ’s consistent advocacy for the poor. And all societies have been racist and sexist, of course; we’re no different. People will just have to accept that we will have poverty or racism or sexism with us always and then try to rise above those problems through individual effort (maybe with the help of a “hand up” – not a handout — extended by charity).
It is true, of course, that we can’t utterly eliminate poverty/racism/sexism, but as I note in the Declaration, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Just because we lack a perfect solution doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be working to make things better. Just because other societies have been racist/sexist doesn’t excuse our own bias. Instead, we need to take responsibility for our own particular history of prejudice. Poverty, racism, and sexism are not immovable, excusable, tolerable backdrops.
If individuals can work their way past the disadvantages of their bad situation, that allows us to believe that maybe things aren’t so bad after all. Such individual success stories therefore provide a great excuse for political inaction. Maybe we don’t need to be that concerned about combating racism/sexism/poverty. Maybe charity will be enough; no need for a commensurate push for justice.
We can even work ourselves around to say that disadvantages are really advantages, that our children are too soft today, that they would be better if they had gone through the school of hard knocks like we did back in the good old days. And there is something to be said for the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” theory of character development, but we only halfway believe this, and then only as a nostalgic abstraction.
No one really chooses the harder path. No middle class parents send their child to an underfunded school so that they can go through some hard knocks. We believe that advantages are advantages and that we should play the system to give those benefits to our loved ones. (The Declaration acknowledges “the temptation to save ourselves and our loved ones and no one else.”) Judging by our actions, we don’t really believe in the character-building power of disadvantages except in the past.
One could argue that the focus on self-reliance is actually kinder than encouraging people to dwell on their victimhood. This is “tough love.” Blaming your situation isn’t going to help anything, after all. The only thing that will benefit you is the decision to rise above, to take responsibility for yourself, to turn your back on your situation and get over it.
There are several problems with the “just say no”/”just do it”/”get over it” advice. First is that word “just,” which makes the decision to change sound easy. I do believe that the individual decision is crucial; nothing changes for you until that moment when you make that choice. But when you’ve got the weight of society/history on you, it does a disservice to focus solely on “just” flipping a mental switch, no matter how crucial that switch is. That’s only part of the story.
Another difficulty is that such advice does no good unless the person is ready to receive it. Actual change is a difficult process, and timing is crucial. Hearing the message to “move on” is only part of the solution; being ready to hear that message is probably even more important. And the source of that targeted advice is important as well. Usually it takes a trusted friend who knows your particular circumstances to intervene at the right time. Individual change is a highly personal matter.
But broadcasting that people should “get over it” is the opposite of personal. It instead sends the message that people aren’t being listened to, that they are being given one-size -fits-all advice by someone with inadequate perspective. If you’re a man telling a woman that she should ignore sexism and move on, good luck with that. If you’re a white person telling black people that you don’t think race is such a barrier anymore, that’s a tall order. If you don’t have standing within the community, why should members of that community listen to you?
(Communicating across communities is difficult, particularly if you truly want to do something more than hear yourself talk. Even well-meaning “inspirational” content from outsiders can sound very different when it lands within the community. When a person with a disability receives a bootstraps story sent from a well-meaning, able friend, that is often accompanied by an implicit challenge: “This person overcame their diabetes/dyslexia/disability; why can’t you? What’s wrong with you? All it clearly takes is will.”)
If conservatives are truly trying to get people to rise above their circumstances, then they’re not being very successful at getting their message across. The disempowered receive the message as uncaring. If this is tough love, it’s not working. It sounds like self-justification, congratulating oneself on one’s own success.
If it’s all about individual effort, if difficult circumstances can be transcended on the way to success by “just getting over it,” then we can apply a kind of reverse logic: our own success must therefore be earned. We got where we are because we worked harder than others, and so hard work is really the moral of our story. This allows us to downplay – or better yet, forget — any assistance we got along the way. We renarrativize our story with ourselves as the lone hero. If we made it without assistance (structural or otherwise), why should anyone else get any?
Again, let me be clear: I do believe in hard work. I believe that determination, drive, and discipline are crucial. But I don’t believe that those of us with some financial security can congratulate ourselves on being necessarily more worthy. Yes, persistence is required for success, but being in a precarious position doesn’t mean you haven’t been working hard. We tend to blame the poor for their poverty because the alternative is unthinkable: maybe if things had been different, we would be the ones living precariously.
It’s pretty easy for me to make my own story all about me. I started as the child of working class parents with a high school education, and I went to public school. I worked hard, both in school and outside, to prepare myself for an upper echelon college. I bought books on SAT and ACT preparation and drilled myself on vocabulary words I never heard in rural Tennessee. A book called Success in High School laid out the literary canon for me (from Hardy to Huxley), and I tackled a classic a week, determined to make up for my perceived deficiency in not having a prep school education (I later learned that this “catching up” exercise made me more well-read than virtually any of my Duke classmates). Hard work in college, followed by hard work in the corporate world, in graduate school, in academic publishing and teaching, in administrative service. I have no doubt that my drive and ambition led me to my current position.
And yet in this story of the meritocracy at work, I think about the numerous advantages I had along the way, particularly early on. Having parents who had an almost religious faith in education and reading was a huge benefit. The same is true for some key teachers showing an interest in me. Some of my privileges were small but vital. My auto bodyman father was able to provide me with my own car (a ’72 Oldsmobile Delta 88, back in the days when you could sleep in your car but you couldn’t drive your house). I never made a car payment till I was married, in my 30s, a father, and a homeowner. My first wife had bought a house before we were married, so she was comfortable with the terrifying process of getting a mortgage, which gave me the confidence that we could buy a home while we were in grad school, which turned into a financial windfall for us.
It’s easy to forget these advantages (of knowledge, of material goods) when telling the story of my path to one of the most economically stable jobs in Western civilization (a tenured university professor). But at the time these were significant privileges that not everyone had, and I materially benefited from each without really earning them. I was either born into them or married into them. Entering an elite university from a rural public school was probably as close as you’ll get to pure meritocracy, and I benefited from that diploma for years afterward. I saw how the word “Duke” opened doors for me, a great demonstration of how privilege works.
Most of us have a great deal riding on our own bootstraps story. That narrative is fundamental to both our understanding of who we are and our construction of how the world works; that’s why this material can be so politically touchy. I can see why discussions of white class privilege can endanger a sense of our personal identity as being fought for, won, and deserved (and we on the left need to keep that personal investment in mind when we address privilege). My message here is that it doesn’t diminish our story of hard work if we also acknowledge the advantages we had along the way. If you’re going to tell your bootstraps story, it’s ok to mention the things that gave you a leg up. In fact, it is honorable and honest to do so. And it doesn’t destabilize your own political identity.
I try not to mix the political side of my blog with the Christianity side, but it has always struck me how similar the language of “privilege” and “blessings” are. Christians often talk about being “blessed,” which is an acknowledgment that their situation is not entirely based on their own efforts, that their lot in life goes beyond what they “deserve.” Talking about your blessings is an attempt to reorient yourself toward your environment, to see the good things in your life as coming from God, to remind yourself that you participate in an economy of supernatural forces that goes beyond your own individual exertion. Remembering your blessings is a way to guard against pride, against seeing everything in your life as your own creation (lest we should boast).
This humility seems not that far from acknowledging the privileges and advantages that were important to your life story; the big difference is that privilege lacks the religious underpinnings of blessedness. And yet many conservative Christians who talk about being “blessed” balk at the idea of white class privilege. If you can accept the religious version of undeserved grace, why not at least recognize the logic of the secular version?
If life can be thought of as a race with “success” (however defined) as the finish line, then we should acknowledge that the racers have very different starting points. Certainly it requires effort for all to complete the race, but some have a lot farther to travel. We all know this; no one chooses a disadvantaged starting point. What we need to do is both admit that the race is hard and that it is not fair. One admission doesn’t cancel out the other. We need both stories, particularly in the political realm today. We need to acknowledge, understand, and combat racism, sexism, and poverty, and we need to encourage individual effort. There is little progress without both.
A friend (thanks, Tim Engelbracht!) suggested that conservatives prefer continuity and liberals favor change, and I’d like to explore that nugget. (Please don’t blame Tim for the length of this blog entry, however!) I’m expanding on an idea from a previous post: that if the right and the left see each other as counterbalancing forces leading in different directions, we can value what each group brings to the negotiating table.
In that blog entry, I focused on what liberals and conservatives want, on their goals for the future. In this post I’ll emphasize their different relationships to the past.
Conservatives make no bones about the importance of the past; it’s right there in their name. One of their primary jobs is to conserve what is best about our history, to make sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Conservatives have an important function: to remind us of the achievements of the past and to ensure that those legacies continue into the future.
Liberals have a tendency to say, “My, that baby sure still is dirty. Looks like it needs another bath!” Or at times we can say, “What baby? Look at the damage caused by patriarchy or whiteness or religion or capitalism. Throw ‘em out!” We can romanticize social revolution (admittedly, some right-wingers are a bit too in love with the idea of armed rebellion against the government). We liberals can overestimate the power of policy to change society. At times we can be in love with programs and their potential. Conservatives can temper our desire for change by rearticulating the values of the past.
The tricky question is: “which past?” There’s a broad thread of American life that glorifies our history: the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the battles won by the “greatest generation.” There’s another broad tradition of questioning and criticizing that vision of a shining past. This recognizes the tendency to bathe the past in the comforting glow of nostalgia. Although some assert that America should be a “love it or leave it” proposition, we need to recognize that that love can take very different forms. The nostalgic and the critical are both time-honored American traditions.
I remember hearing a news story about a college campus that decided to have a Fifties day in the dining halls. You can picture what this would be like: cafeteria workers in poodle skirts and ducktails, Chuck Berry and Bill Haley on the sound system. Someone suggested that this be turned into a different exercise in time travel: that food should be served only by black people; that only white students could attend classes; that water fountains be labeled “white” and “colored.” Both are visions of the past: one nostalgic and comfortable, one necessarily challenging and uncomfortable.
Liberals can come across as party-poopers when it comes to the past. Who wouldn’t rather go to the Bill Haley Fifties day than the “white/colored only” version? And so I think conservatives have an easier time celebrating and invoking the past as a repository of greatness. Conservatives often call themselves “realists” compared to unrealistic dreamers on the left, and yet liberals are often the ones asking for a more realistic, uncomfortable understanding of our past.
Yes, the greatest generation had mighty military and industrial achievements; there was also much more misogyny and sexual abuse going on at that time than we ever realized. Yes, the Founding Fathers created a remarkable new system of government; they were also wealthy landowners looking out for the interests of their property (including human property). Yes, the public education system in America (particularly in the G.I. Bill era) was the envy of the world, but remember how many women and people of color were excluded from those hallowed halls. The triumphs of the past depended on a system of unpaid/underpaid labor from women, the poor, and people of color, and it’s misleading to extricate the achievements from the system that made them possible. And so a return to poodle skirts and rocking around the clock is a return to a fiction, a Marty McFly journey to a world that never existed except in a few isolated pockets.
Nostalgia’s lens is further clouded because it often focuses on the era of our childhood. The “good old days” we want to return to are simpler times partly because we were children then; we weren’t aware of the complexity of the adult world. My favorite example of this is John Boorman’s 1987 film Hope and Glory, rooted in his childhood memories of being in WW2’s London Blitz. Rather than a traumatic experience, it’s a sunny film with children playing among the rubble. When the local school is bombed, the kids shout to the sky, “Thank you, Adolf!” Childhood of course is not sunny for everyone, but Hope and Glory reminds me how childhood memories can put a rosy patina around even the most difficult times. The question of “whose past?” is important.
As L.P. Hartley noted, the past can be a “foreign country; they do things differently there.” The battle lines in the past are always clearer, given hindsight’s clear seeing. Every new era looks shabby and messy compared to the Golden Era, and politicians can always make use of this narrative of decline. (It’s at the heart of any fundamentalist movement, whether that revival is religious or political.) The story of civilization’s decline and decay is such a constant that Patrick Brantlinger has written a history of such rhetoric called Bread and Circuses (to be honest, the book is a little disappointing – wink). Seeing the past clearly (and not solely through the rhetoric of decay or nostalgia) is tough, and thus the importance of liberals’ annoying questioning of the uses and value of the past in today’s world.
Competing visions of the past recently re-emerged in the controversy about Confederate statues. Supporters of these statues usually argue with H-words (“heritage” and “history”). Someone has said, “When you hear the word ‘heritage,’ it always means ‘bad history.’” (Clearly a liberal talking there.) There was an uptick in Confederate statues and the use of the stars-and-bars on flags during times of racial unrest, and so these markers of “heritage” have a clear but coded message in the way they repurpose history for contemporary purposes. History has its usefulness in the present.
The controversy over statues is about who we commemorate and why, not about history. No one is asking that we erase the books written about Robert E. Lee; they are arguing that we stop commemorating the action of rebelling against the government to promote the continued enslavement of black people. Heritage necessarily whitewashes.
Both left and right tend to cherry-pick from history. On the one hand, Michelangelo and the modern economy; on the other, protests and the poor. One difficulty with conservative cherry picking is the temptation to think that history is over, that we have accomplished the goals of the civil rights movement or worker’s rights, and now we should just move on. Liberals, to this way of thinking, are too obsessed with race, gender, class, and the Sixties. It’s counterproductive for us to dredge up the difficult past. Let’s move forward.
The standard liberal reply is William Faulkner’s classic “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And thus the weirdness of the conservative’s relationship to history: they advocate that parts of our traditions should remain alive and well while discounting the past’s full influence on the here and now. History for conservatives alternates between being really important and not important at all.
Liberals can’t help but note that “let’s move on” also means “let’s ignore how conservatives in the past opposed crucial progressive changes that are now widely accepted” from the minimum wage requirement to Social Security to voting reform for women and African Americans. Conservative pushback on such initiatives often emphasizes the possible unintended consequences of change, and it often foregrounds the frightening possible outcomes (economic or social) of a new program (and fear, as I noted in a previous blog post, is a particularly dependable touchstone emotion of the right).
Yes, conservatives are correct: there are always unintended consequences, which (by definition) can’t be predicted. But liberals would rather be on the side of change rather than not trying anything and thus avoiding unintended consequences. For liberals, we’d rather try a new solution than do nothing. For conservatives, doing nothing is not a bad thing because trying new things can do more harm than good (a political repurposing of the Hippocratic oath).
True enough: change CAN do more harm than good. But that argument can be raised about any new idea or program. If you emphasize how frightening the unintended consequences (economic, social, whatever) can be, you’ll never implement any change. If you want a guarantee that a program will do exactly what it hopes without causing collateral problems, then you would never start any program. Avoiding all unintended outcomes is a recipe for the status quo. Which is not a bad thing for conservatives because they are designed to be a voice for preserving the status quo (or at least returning to a version of the status quo in the recent past, whether that’s Reagan or Eisenhower or even Hoover).
Forgive the extended flashback into history (or our attitudes toward it), but my argument here is that our differing visions of the future (and the means we trust to get us there) have much to do with our different relations to the past. Our understanding of the past and its value shapes our decisions in the present.
It’s hard to imagine a purer distillation of American conservativism’s relation to the past than “Make America Great Again.” It acknowledges the nation’s superiority but then suggests that’s not so true right now (because libs have been mucking it up). It locates that greatness in the indefinable past (but not so far in the past that it’s out of memory). Let’s go forward by going back.
Nor can one imagine a terser call to arms for liberals than Obama’s “Change.” Change to what? From what? Such details matter less than the need to change what’s wrong.
Here’s where liberals have an obvious advantage in the culture. Every advertisement in our consumer world tries to convince you that buying a new and improved thing can give you a new and improved life. Virtually every narrative is about how characters change for the better. There are few novels and films about staying the same; change is the basic material of drama. Morals and mores necessarily change. No wonder conservatives feel that their values are under attack; the cultural cards are structurally stacked against them.
The other rhetorical awkwardness of the conservative appeal is that Republicans can become the “party of ‘no.’” Instead of being able to argue forcefully for what they want to do (“so what IS your alternative to the Affordable Care Act?”), conservatives can more powerfully assert what they don’t want to do: no more taxes, no more regulations, no more immigration, no more Obamacare, no more expansion of Constitutional rights, no more new forms of gender and sexuality, no more having to worry about what pronouns to use. That is their job, after all, but it’s not a particularly sexy one. Our society has a prejudice toward those who build new things; demolition is not nearly as glorious a job. And thus need to anchor the conservative appeal to when America was great (as opposed to a strong affirmation of the ongoing “American experiment,” which is necessarily open-ended and exploratory).
Again, here’s where an understanding of the yin and yang of politics can be useful. We liberals can acknowledge that a shiny new program is usually tempting for us and that we need questions and opposition from the right to temper our optimism and shape better policy. Conservatives could recognize that their tendency to distrust the new can hinder the republic’s progress, that they need the questions and ideas of the left to move forward (not back into an all-too-imagined past). You need both an accelerator and a brake to drive a car.
So how would such a discussion move forward? Conservatives would need to address liberals’ questions seriously and not sneer at these concerns as silly or disingenuous or uselessly navel-gazing. What is good about patriarchy, or whiteness, or capitalism? What of these historical forces should we hold onto, and why? Are their advantages inextricably caught up in their disadvantages, or can they be separated? Are they worth the damage that they have caused? In spite of our idea of “progress,” there are always tradeoffs. The past wasn’t simpler; there were tradeoffs made (some good, some not so good). The same is true for the balance of stability and adaptability in our current institutions.
I’m in an interesting position here myself because I’m a political liberal who is personally invested in one our oldest, most stabilizing institutions: organized religion. I recognize that there’s an awful lot of bathwater here. I acknowledge that organized religion has been one of the most retrograde, violent, repressive, damaging forces in human history. And yet I still believe in the Baby. I believe in working from within rather than throwing the whole thing out. I believe that clearly seeing our past (both our collective sins and our collective glories) is vital to the process of living fully in the present and moving toward our future.
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.
My recommendation for how to begin your new year is to take a holiday from a political emotion.
I’m not suggesting that emotion is bad for politics or that it is necessarily counter to reason. A lot of my scholarly work has been about how emotion and cognition can work hand in hand. But the left and the right have particularly tempting emotions, and if these become dominant – if they become part of your everyday stance toward the world – then they can hijack your political attitudes. (One thing I’ve learned in my scholarship is that emotions have inertia. They tend to self-perpetuate; if you are feeling down, you tend to seek out parts of your environment that confirm that emotional stance over and over. That’s part of the power of emotions.)
If you’re on the right, I suggest taking a break from anger. If you’re a liberal, may I suggest a holiday from sanctimony.
I recall watching Jon Stewart soon after George W. Bush had taken the White House along with a majority in both the House and Senate. The Daily Show showed a speech on the floor of Congress in which a Republican was spewing vitriol, which caused Stewart to ask, “What is he so angry about? They control the government. Who is he mad at?” Anger had become such a common stance among the Republicans that it continued even when the opposition had been politically defeated.
Anger is a terrific motivation to marshal the troops. Beginning with abortion and the Moral Majority in the 70s and continuing through focus on immigration in the most recent election, the Republican party has gotten very good at finding trigger issues that anger and mobilize their base to go to the polls. It’s easy to get hooked on the righteous rush of political anger.
But anger is not so helpful when you’re trying to work together to run a government. The difficulty is being able to pack that oh-so-useful anger away when getting down to the ordinary business of building coalitions and crafting legislation. When anger becomes a habitual stance, it feeds itself in ways that are counterproductive to basic governance. I suggest that conservatives take a holiday from anger so that they can recognize how much of a habit that emotion has become.
For liberals, I recommend taking a break from sanctimony (yes, I realize that sanctimoniousness is more of an attitude than an emotion, but I’m sticking to it). My experience has been that conservatives find a liberal’s holier-than-thou attitude to be infuriating.
As sins go, I think that sanctimony is not such a bad one. After all, being holier-than-thou at least means that you’re aspiring to some moral high ground. But it really seems to rankle many Americans, perhaps particularly conservatives who feel they’ve been painted as immoral, racist, unfeeling. Even if liberals do believe that conservative policies are immoral, a sanctimonious tone is hardly the way to convince conservatives of their error. Self-righteousness feels great, but it’s a cheap sensation, and the person on the receiving end recognizes how unearned that superior air can be. It tends to provoke a defensive reaction, the exact opposite of a productive dialogue.
This doesn’t mean that I believe we should give conservative policies a moral pass. Far from it. But I think that if we on the left want to do more than make ourselves feel superior, if we want to establish bridges and move forward, if we want our moral charges to be heard, then we need to find a way to talk slowly, compassionately, and without condescension about moral issues. Take a break from sanctimony, and see if that has become a too-easy prop for your own ego.
So historically speaking, sanctimony and anger are long-term temptations for the left and the right. And yet I wonder if we liberals haven’t been learning the wrong lessons from conservatives lately, if we haven’t been adopting a bit of the anger they’ve displayed for years.
Anger no longer feels like quite the same distinguishing characteristic that it did a decade ago. Lately many of us liberals seem to have adopted it almost as much as conservatives have. The temptation to anger is considerable, and, as I said, so is the political payoff. But unbridled anger makes civil discourse almost impossible. I believe that we on the left cannot abandon the great hope of the Enlightenment, the idea that we can reason with each other and convince each other through argument. I am not ready to throw that intellectual and political heritage away, to sacrifice it on an altar of anger, in spite of contemporary evidence to the contrary.
In such matters, I look to Martin Luther King as one of my patron saints, and I encourage both liberals and conservatives to do so (MLK belongs to all of us; he’s history, not just black history). If anyone deserved to speak in anger, if anyone felt disenfranchised, it’s a black person in the 60s. But how did MLK publically express that anger? Through moral language that was forceful without being dismissive, through action that was peaceful and public.
Certainly very few of us today have the same claim to anger as King did; how then do we rationalize namecalling and insults as justifiable expressions of anger? Maybe we need to take regular holidays from our default political emotions. I recommend New Year’s Day; maybe the next scheduled one should be Martin’s birthday.
As I mentioned, one of my academic research fields deals with film and emotion, and recently I had the privilege of hearing one of the most famous emotion researchers (Joseph LeDoux) speak at my university. For somewhat technical reasons, LeDoux said that he will no longer talk about “fear responses;” instead he will talk about “threat responses.” Anger and fear are both responses to perceived threats; the latter is an avoidance response (fleeing the threat), the former an approach response (encouraging us to attack the threat).
One might say that this is just an academic rearranging of words, but it started me thinking about how perception of a threat is crucial for fear and for its cousin, anger. If we focus on political opposition as threat, that leads to fear and anger responses. It leads to a siege mentality that encourages us to think only of eliminating the opposition, not working with them. Perhaps the key to taking a break from our habitual political emotions is to recognize the danger posed by thinking of political opposition as threat. I encourage us all to take such a holiday.
This blog post was inspired by a Hidden Brain podcast that posited that the central difference between liberals and conservatives is their different reaction to threats, that fear is a more powerful trigger for conservatives than liberals. Without getting into possible nature/nurture considerations, I want to take seriously the idea that many liberals and conservatives respond to the world differently when it comes to danger and threat and to think about how we can talk to each other from our different worldviews.
The idea that a different response to danger is at the heart of the right/left split is an old one: “a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged.” As someone who has been mugged (over thirty years ago now), I can testify that the experience brought up some dark, unexpectedly racist thoughts. An urban friend gave me good advice: “Be vigilant. Don’t be stupid. But don’t let this change your relationship to the city.” That encouraged me not to withdraw into a fearful, protective stance.
The centrality of fear-based appeals (and the resulting narrative of “protection”) helps explain the political conversion stories for some people who are close to me. My late father-in-law (who inspired the political portions of this blog) was a liberal for most of his early years before he switched to become a staunch conservative for the rest of his life. Guns became a large part of Bob’s life (he kept a “Dirty Harry” gun in his living room in his final years), and I suspect that the liberal opposition to guns played a big part in that shift from left to right. I think many liberals think of gun ownership as a hobby when it comes closer to being an identity for many folks (at least in its contemporary form). The NRA has been particularly effective in arguing that a criticism of gun ownership is not a criticism of your possessions but it is an attack on who you are. The narrative of guns as “protection” is an emotional touchstone for many, and if we criticize this as being fundamentally misguided, we risk losing those folks entirely as political allies. If you talk sensibly with many gun owners, they will acknowledge that conditions have to be exactly right for the “protecting myself with a gun” scenario to work (after all, many trained police officers mess up under such circumstances). But that doesn’t mean that the possibility of successful protection from a threatening world isn’t emotionally important for them.
There are relatively few examples of people switching political teams nowadays based on argument about issues. One of those possible turning points appears to be guns, or rather the combination of fear/threats with the narrative of protection through guns. My late father-in-law’s story demonstrates this, and to a certain extent my son’s story does as well. After a lengthy stretch of occupying geeky fan territory (Doctor Who, Firefly) as his central identity markers, he has pivoted more toward the emotionally powerful narrative of being an armed protector. Asking my son not to do concealed carry is not a simple request like taking off his hat indoors; it is a challenge to his values and identity. He has channeled these beliefs into a socially valued form (I am proud to say that he’s a corpsman in the Navy), but I recognize up close the transformative power of the threat/protection mythos in our culture.
I am struck by how our media consumption and fan allegiances play a role in all this. Following Doctor Who involves embracing a broadly humanist set of values emphasized in the show (which also de-emphasizes the idea that the Doctor is essentially a vigilante, albeit a vigilante with humane goals and a sonic screwdriver). One of the cultural axes activated by the current superhero boom is the need for the vigilante to overcome the obvious breakdown of official institutions. The omnipresence of apocalyptic fictional universes feeds the WTSHTF mentality (that’s WHEN The Shit Hits The Fan, not “if”). The survivalist version of this may seem paranoid, but it’s not that far off from the imagery that circulates.
I am certainly not making an attack on the “evils” of popular culture here. I am writing this as a comic fan who mourns the end of the superhero book Invincible and who is a Walking Dead follower (both the TV and comic series). The pleasures of pop culture can’t be simply read from the pop texts by an outsider. Pop culture can be both apparently simple/direct on the surface and surprisingly complex/polyvalent when it’s adopted into people’s lives. (Superhero stories, for instance, continue to allow people who are marginalized by race, age, body image, gender identity, and sexuality to feel what power might feel like and to envision alternative worlds.) But there are certainly aspects of our pop culture environment that can bolster a fear-based outlook on the world: a need for a Dirty Harry or a Captain America to operate outside the system, which can only squelch or hinder their righteous pursuit of justice; the seeming inevitability of social collapse as a way to envision the future; the apparent utility of the gun in dealing with threats (it’s much more difficult to shoot accurately than it appears on The Walking Dead). The combination validates a stance: shit can go down anytime, anywhere (true); you can’t depend on anyone else to protect you (also true); therefore you should approach the world with constant vigilance and maximum defense.
More official media sources boost our fear quotient, too. (I believe that I can recognize Fox News just by hearing the vocal intonation, which is always at crisis fever pitch.) There’s still a strong “if it bleeds, it leads” factor across all news reporting (though it takes a large amount of brown people’s blood shed outside of America for such tragedies to register in mainstream news). Although “the media” are often accused of having a liberal bias, this tendency plays in a conservative direction, stoking the fires of fear. Culture (official and popular) presents us with pieces that we can use to erect a terrifying edifice.
We need to recognize that fear is a product that can be sold and to recognize that it is economically advantageous for businesses (security firms, insurance, gun manufacturers, news organizations) and politicians to sell that compelling product, even if it’s not an “accurate” picture of the world. This should make us all suspicious of whether we’re being sold a bill of goods when we hear fearmongering claims. Conservatives (who tend to react particularly strongly to fear and threat) should be particularly vigilant, knowing their tendency.
Liberals, on the other hand, should recognize that it’s perfectly reasonable to see the world as threatening and to feel the need for more protection. (There’s always more protection you can purchase. It’s never enough) We are unlikely to convince conservatives that their fears are misguided, misplaced, or overblown. The confirming data circulate all around us, after all. But if we don’t learn how to talk about threats with conservatives, we will lose them as potential partners for the future. Talk about fear doesn’t have to be irrational. We can learn to talk about how to evaluate threats without having them becoming all-encompassing.
Maybe we liberals need to say to conservatives, “I understand how scary the world can look. It makes sense why you believe we need such strong protections, given what you see in the media. While I do recognize that bad things happen, that doesn’t mean the world as a whole is dangerous. Protection can cause problems, too.
“If you agree to consider the possibility that the world’s threats are particularly vivid for you (they are real but they aren’t perhaps as pervasive as you are encouraged to believe), I will agree that we can target the most specific threats facing us. I’m not going to oppose increasing security in certain areas that really need it; I’m not going to tell you that your view is unfounded or to repossess your gun. You will agree that a limited response to threat is what is needed. Let’s agree that threats may look different to both of us, and let’s find the largest threats that we both can agree on. There are real threats, but let’s agree that the whole world is not under siege.”
Perhaps we need to take a break from apocalyptic thinking. If we believe that we’re headed toward the end of the world, why should we be concerned with repairing damage to the social contract? After all, we’ll inevitably end up at each other’s throats anyway in either a race war (the right-wing apocalypse) or an ecological disaster (the left-wing apocalypse). The apocalypse is an economic product that’s going through a boom cycle. If we let it have too strong a command on our vision of the future, it can discourage the energy needed to work together.
I planned and started writing this blog a few days before a couple of highly publicized acts of hate-inspired political/ethnic violence (pipe bombs sent to leading liberals; a massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue), and I could almost feel the argumentative ground shift under my feet. I sense how many of my left-leaning friends are beginning to think of the world as a fearful place, how the emotional gap I’ve been talking about between liberals and conservatives may be closing (except with different visions of “the enemy”). In the face of such events, I feel how tempting it is for the left to adopt and adapt a fear-based politics of our own. After all, we’ve seen how effective fear-based appeals are at rallying the troops for the right. But fear is a greedy emotion. It is the perfect commodity; it calls to be fed endlessly with no end in sight.
I’m not advocating a politics of pure logic with emotion expunged, as if such a thing is possible. Passion is part of politics. But I do believe that one of the roads back to a shared politics is for us to dial down the fear. That’s easier for liberals than for most conservatives, and I believe my people (left-wingers) have a responsibility to model what a politics of decreased fear looks like. We have to keep the faith.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about identity politics, so when I watched Happy Valley (a documentary about how the Penn State football community dealt with a child molestation scandal), it suddenly seemed like a perfect laboratory to observe how mainline identity politics works in its rawest form. After all, there is no right-wing or left-wing side in this struggle. The moral lines are clear: criminal assault against children is a more important issue than football. But watching how Penn State fans reacted to protect their community helped me recognize some standard rhetorical moves that mainline groups make when their identities are threatened. In this blog post I’ll lay out some of those strategies in hopes that we all can see them better when they appear in our politics.
This exercise worked particularly well for me because I know full well the power of sports tribalism. The longest-running emotional relationship in my life is the one I have with Duke basketball. That was formed through my participation in the interactive organism that is a Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd, which is still one of the most powerful collective experiences of my life.
Sports affiliations, like all identity politics, are about pride and love. They also thrive on something that’s not quite hatred, though it can look and sound a lot like it. It’s perfectly ok for me to tell Carolina to go to hell (in my lifetime I have shouted many more obscenities at the North Carolina Tarheels than I have at any political group). There’s a ritualized antipathy that is simultaneously good-natured and truly heartfelt, and it operates within well-established historical norms. Those norms function much like the prescribed boundaries of the playing field where official rules try to protect the players from unfair injury. As a fan I take on the language of the sports participants: possessives (“my team,” “our season”) and martial verbs (“attacking” and “defending”), although my efforts have little to do with the outcomes (though I still mystically participate in that collective by waving off televised opponents’ free throws from my living room).
All is ok when sports remains within the boundaries of the magic circle. What happened in the Penn State case is that the ugliness of the real world intruded into the protected space of football. When that occurred, then it became clear that the identities formed through these ritualized activities had never entirely stayed within their apparent boundaries, that they bled into the hearts and minds of fans. And once “my team” is “attacked” (though those “attacks” are really “criticisms”), I defend my people regardless of the charges against them using whatever means I have.
For those who may not know or remember the history examined in Happy Valley, longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted on several counts of sexual abuse of minors during his time at Penn State, attracting enormous media attention. Everyone interviewed in the film admits that Sandusky was guilty, and they all condemn his actions. The thornier sticking point is how complicit legendary head coach Joe Paterno was.
When thousands of Penn State fans demonstrate on campus in support of “Joe Pa,” they physically attack reporters, overturning a television truck. Throughout the controversy, fans express considerable hostility toward the very presence of “the media.” In the less violent version of this hostility, they rail at the media for not achieving some impossible level of fairness: Why are they reporting on us? There’s a lot more corruption in football elsewhere!
The obvious reason that people were reporting on Penn State was the simple fact that there was evidence of wrongdoing. Reporters don’t survey the entire landscape, collect data from all parties, weigh the relative levels of transgression, and then report solely on the worst case. They work on the evidence that is available to them. By saying “there are worse places; go there,” that excuses you from paying attention to problems that you know. (This is similar to people who say that WalMart shouldn’t be boycotted because of its unfair business practices: “After all, I’m sure everyone does that.” Well, when you get the evidence about other businesses, I’ll listen. In the meantime, I’m avoiding doing business with the wrongdoer I know.) Having evidence of wrongdoing is enough to justify the need for investigation. If we assume that the worst wrongdoer should be dealt with first, then the present allegations get a pass.
In the name of “fairness,” these insider fans also seem to want a full accounting of the pros of Paterno’s career (the high graduation rate for Penn State players, for instance) to “balance” any new developments about criminal activity and possible coverups. This seems a fundamental misunderstanding of what “breaking news” journalism does. Other forms (opinion pieces, longer features, investigative journalism) can spend more time placing events into context, but “breaking news” obviously emphasizes what is new over what is well-established. The fans seek an impossible level of fairness, and when the press inevitably fails, when the message is not crafted exactly as the fans desire, then that allows the community to discount the charges as being “biased” or not “balanced.”
Of course, providing feedback for the press about their “fairness” is fair game. We should monitor the press, just as the press needs to vigilantly monitor the institutions of power for the good of the republic. But finding them inadequately “fair” is not an excuse to ignore the substance of the press’s (or anyone’s) claims, particularly since “fairness” is an impossible, infinite horizon. You can always demand that your treatment should be more fair, more balanced. Charges of unfairness don’t feel like personal defensiveness because they lay claim to an impersonal standard. But if you’re focusing on the messenger’s lack of fairness or balance rather than on the substantive claims they’re making, then you may be defending your identity/community more than you are listening to what people are saying.
Penn State fans rush to “Joe Pa’s” defense even when they couldn’t possibly know the details about what happened behind closed doors. They do so because Joe was a “good guy,” and the “good guy” defense is an emotionally important one within a community, though it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. A significant part of Happy Valley involves an artist’s decisions about whether Joe Paterno should have a halo in a public mural he painted. There are very few of us who deserve halos, but communities tend to offer them to their leading figures. The understanding of Joe Pa that emerges in the documentary is one that almost everyone can agree on: Paterno did a lot of good in Penn State; he is also quoted as saying he should have done more about the sexual abuse he knew was happening. One can certainly still be a “good guy” in public actions and engage in ethically questionable conduct in private.
I use the term “good guy” intentionally, fully aware that we offer this defense quite often to men through what Kate Manne calls “himpathy.” (For more about this, listen to Scene on Radio’s terrific podcast on “Men,” particularly this episode.) As the podcast notes, we extend “good guy” protection much more freely to white guys than black men (and, I might note, more often to men with class/wealth/position than to lower class men. The nickname “Joe Pa,” by the way, is a lovely acknowledgment of paternalism). I am struck by how often Trump’s defense of individuals is a variation on “he’s a good guy; I can’t believe he’d do that.” The world isn’t a morally simple place that sorts people into obvious “good guys” and “bad hombres” as if they’re out of central casting. Most of us fall somewhere in between, and so we should all acknowledge that one’s public “good guy” persona may not be relevant in discussing their private or sexual behavior.
Once people do accept the criticisms of the community, there’s a tendency for the community to demand that we just move on. Now that this unpleasant incident is over, let’s get back to the important stuff: football. The “just move on” strategy allows the community to feel virtuous (after all, the wrongdoer has been punished) and then to shift the blame onto those who irrationally want to dwell on what happened. By my time clock, we’re ready to get past this. But other people may have a different clock, particularly those who were directly affected (such as the victims of abuse, who can’t move on as quickly as the community wants). Policing other people’s “timing” has been a great way for communities to protect themselves from criticism. “You need to wait; people aren’t ready for this yet.” “We need to move on; it’s not good for you to wallow in this stuff.” Somewhere between those two prescriptions is the elusive “right time,” which is almost as difficult to find as the right “balance” of criticism and contextualization. The community asserts its authority about when we should “move on” to a time when they no longer are being criticized, which is a paternalistic way to shut those criticisms down.
So when a community says “Other people are doing the same or worse!” or “You aren’t telling the full story! I don’t have to listen to this!” or “He’s a good guy. Let him alone!” or “We’ve already dealt with this. We should move on,” we should stop to consider what these statements are doing. Are these truly claims about “fairness” and poor “timing,” or are they attempts to shift the focus off my community? (After all, we seem to make these claims much more often about “our people” and tend to be much less concerned with fairness and poor timing with other groups) Recognizing these tactics can help us hear the identity defensiveness behind our pronouncements. Hopefully we can pause first and think about how such statements can simply be veiled versions of “Stop picking on me!”
When I first set about to find common ground between left and right in America, I thought I had an easy answer: money. We may disagree about abortion or corporate regulation, but certainly we could all agree that rising debt levels pose a danger to society. Although Republicans characterize Democratic politics as being all about “taxing and spending,” I don’t know anyone who actually believes that throwing money at a problem will fix it. The left believes that it’s possible to spend money wisely, that paying more up front (on medical prevention, on education, on the environment) can save money in the long run. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy for us to agree on what “wise spending” is. I know that conservatives are often suspicious of the effectiveness of new programs (it is, after all, the job of a conservative to put the brakes on). I also know that liberals can be a bit too in love with the promise of new initiatives. But money would save us.
Regardless of which side you’re on, we all know that a government has to make choices of priorities and agree on a budget, which is always a compromise. There is no viable alternative. If we could focus on whether a program was effective and whether it saved money or cost money over the long haul, maybe it wouldn’t matter so much whether that program originated with Democrats or Republicans. We could have a common language to talk to each other, one that we all recognize and respect. That language would be dollars, which work the same way regardless of whether they’re held by a liberal or a conservative. After all, dollars are facts, which seem to be the most precious of currencies these days.
If we on the left agreed to pursue one of the right’s most strongly advocated goals (reducing debt), then conservatives might be able to admit that both sides have made significant contributions to our current fiscal situation. We could maybe get on with the business of deciding how to spend money wisely for our society. We could talk about priorities and the costs of achieving those priorities. If we agree to boost our military, then let’s pay for it. If we agree that it’s important to strengthen our economic safety net, then let’s do that now and not depend on the next generation to pay for that. Such decisions are certainly tough, but keeping an eye on dollars at least would mean that we are making decisions in an honest way.
I also believed we could be at least a little bit smarter than some of the sound bites that circulate about the federal debt, such as: “My family doesn’t spend more than we take in. Why should the government?” This bit of homespun wisdom ignores a basic difference between microeconomics and macroeconomics (after all, these are two different fields for a reason). The federal government doesn’t behave like a family, nor should it. The fed has the ability to print money (which hopefully your family doesn’t!), and that complicates the equation. Those who advocate a totally balanced budget ignore the ways that a certain amount of national debt is a good thing, that it promotes growth. Virtually every economist would agree that a national balanced budget requirement would be a bad thing for the economy, that it would limit our ability to deal with moment of economic stress. We’re a long way from acting like a truly balanced budget, but some talk as if that should be our goal. Most economists would also agree, however, that our current overexpenditures are not a sign of fiscal health.
Cynicism is tempting here. “People won’t understand the basic difference between micro- and macro-economics.” (As a teacher, I am committed to the idea that we can indeed learn such things. It’s not that tough.) “You’re not going to find that kind of moral courage in politicians today.” “Once you start a program, you can never stop it.” And so on. But this blog is committed to the idea that the way things are today isn’t the way things have to be. I am not going to declare in advance that we lack courage or intelligence or initiative (in spite of evidence to the contrary). To do so would be self-defeating. I believe there is a way for us to talk to each other; we just need to find it.
Unfortunately, I have grown to believe that dollars are not going to be the currency we need to restore a common foundation for debate. I increasingly believe that the left and the right mean different things when they talk about “spending money.” By saying the same words, it gives the appearance that we are talking about the same thing, but we are not. The words are part of the problem.
By portraying themselves as the sole advocate of fiscal responsibility, the Republicans ignore the times that they act in ways that counter that: the tax cuts under Reagan and Trump, the unfunded Medicare drug benefit under George W. Bush, the consistent advocacy for raising the Pentagon’s budget. When Republicans talk about “spending,” they’re usually talking about social programs. They can talk about cutting back “spending” while simultaneously advocating for raising the Pentagon’s budget, as if the words if the words “money” and “spending” don’t mean the same when they apply to the military as when they apply to entitlements. We don’t treat all dollars the same. Most Republicans appear to be fine with increasing expenditures in areas they support, but they need to own and justify these expenditures and not pretend that they are somehow not “increased spending.”
Although conservatives talk a lot about money, I increasingly believe that reducing expenditures is not a primary goal for contemporary conservatism. We are having a battle over what feels like an aesthetic preference: do you prefer a smaller government or a larger one? Do you like ‘em big or little? “Money” often coincides with the big government/small government argument, but it doesn’t always, and we do a disservice by pretending that it does.
I had an “aha” moment listening to a story on the podcast This American Life. The story (“Do You Want a Wakeup Call?” https://www.thisamericanlife.org/459/what-kind-of-country/act-three-0) examined a fiscal crisis in the Colorado Springs government. Rather than increase taxes, the local government decided to make residents pay a la carte for basic services such as having a streetlight. A Colorado Springs official told the story of a citizen who thanked her for the new policy as he paid the bill for his street’s lights. She reminded him that he had just paid more money than he would have if his taxes had been increased, and he said that he didn’t care. He preferred a government that didn’t rely on pooled resources (one of the benefits of a larger government), even if that put him at a financial disadvantage. The fact that he was paying more money wasn’t the important thing.
There will be times in this blog when I focus on how the words that we use can create obstacles to our political understanding. I’m very loosely adapting the central insight of Michael Calvin McGee’s concept of the “ideograph,” which refers to the ways that certain individual words can by themselves make arguments. It’s hard to argue against “freedom,” for instance. By associating something with “freedom,” you’re already making an argument in its favor. It’s similarly hard to advocate for a “terrorist,” so if you can make that label stick, you’ve already carved a rhetorical hole for that person that’s hard to dig out of. Such single words can short-circuit reasoned thinking.
I have come to believe that much of our “money” talk does just that, that it allows us to appear to be discussing one thing when really we are discussing another. The recently adopted federal budget revealed that Republicans are more committed to the idea of cutting taxes than they are to responsible monetary policy. The relative lack of honest discussion about the ramifications of tax cuts (increasing the debt for future citizenry) undercuts the argument that conservatives are more concerned with being good shepherds of taxpayer money. The value placed on a smaller government outweighs the publically expressed value placed on spending money wisely.
And so I’m less hopeful about money being a key term to anchor our debate in an agreed upon reality. We can’t use the Republican emphasis on “fiscal responsibility” as a common goal because the Republicans maintain only a loose, flexible allegiance to wise spending. Money is a factor, certainly, but both sides have shown the ability to lay that factor aside when pursuing more central goals.
In this blog, I’ll try to cut through our language and find a firmer common ground. Next time I’ll articulate what I hope is a better starting place.
The obvious question for someone starting a new blog is: why? What do you have to contribute that is of value? What perspective can you add to the mix of voices out there?
I think there are two poles that my blog is likely to circle. One involves politics. We mourn the lack of dialogue between right and left, but I see very few people who trying to bridge that gap (if you’re one of them, let’s talk!). Mostly I see people sniping at each other from their respective positions with very little effort to phrase their arguments in ways that can be heard by the other side.
I believe that finding common political ground is a valuable pursuit. I continue to believe that dialogue is possible. I am a lifelong liberal, and in this blog I will try to weigh liberal principles against my understanding of conservative fundamentals as a way to promote/model an open conversation about both. I hope you’ll listen with an open mind and help me understand where I’m wrong.
This part of my blog is an outgrowth of an email discussion I had with my late father-in-law Bob Catale. Like many relatives nowadays, we occupied different ends of the political spectrum. Unlike many relatives, we maintained a friendship and an intellectual respect for each other, as well as a certain amount of good humor. (As Bob lay dying in his hospital bed, I told him, “In your heart, you know I’m right.” That little riff on Goldwater by a liberal made him laugh.) Bob was incredibly well versed, with graduate training in English literature, history, and criminal justice. He could run laps around me in history (in particular), and so I am grateful for his tolerance of my relative lack of knowledge (I’m a spotty 20th century guy at best). Mostly I think Bob appreciated and enjoyed having a debate with someone who could marshal counter-evidence instead of simply letting him steamroll over their opinions.
After several late-night bull sessions, I decided to instigate an email version of our wide-ranging discussions, seeking to do exactly what I want to do in this blog: boost my understanding and find common ground. We never quite reached consensus in that discussion (which he generously participated in with two-finger typing!), but it helped me think about how such a conversation might proceed. The political portion of this blog is dedicated to the memory of my late father-in-law and his powerful, passionate intelligence.
The other likely focus of my blog is on Christianity. I don’t particularly have anything new to say about following Christ. What I do have (at least according to my wife) is an ability to talk about following Christ without using too much “churchy” language. My wife likes “the gospel according to Greg” as a way to help a relative newcomer find the way toward faith and Christian practice, and so I plan to share my perspective on following Christ in hopes that others might find it useful. The religious portions of my blog are dedicated to my wife Vivian.
I’ll also probably drop in sundry content along the way (I’m planning a “Three Great Novels about Sex!” post), but I will circle back to those two main topics (on political common ground, on Christianity) repeatedly, so if either of those are of interest to you, I encourage you to join in. (By the way, this is probably not going to be a blog that deals much with the relationship BETWEEN politics AND Christianity, a topic I don’t have a lot to say about)
I want to highlight a couple of words I used above. One is the word “weigh.” I hope to weigh political and religious practices so that we can better see their advantages and shortcomings. I will be critical not only of other positions but also of my own home teams (liberalism, Christianity). We should all take a hard look at our own tribe, I believe, if we are to move forward. And so it is necessary to weigh or “assay,” to use an old verb, one that is at the origin of my favorite written form, the “essay.”
The essay is a time-honored form that feels a bit out of step with the current media landscape. I also feel increasingly out of synch with the timing of communication today. Unlike many people, I seem to be unable to say something interesting in a timely fashion in 120 characters. I also am increasingly aware of my own introversion. While others feel the ability to speak their minds about politics or other topics in real-time conversation, my tongue tends to seize up, unable to convey orally the complexity I see before the conversation moves on. And so I have found myself sitting on the sidelines without “putting myself out there,” and that feels both cowardly and selfish to me. The essay allows me the time to weigh what I have to say, to explore what I really believe through the process of writing. I hope you will take the time to read these meanderings (another time-honored tradition of the essay). I hope that my serpentine pursuit of a better understanding will be interesting, honest, and useful.
That’s the other word I wish to emphasize: “understanding.” Instead of proclaiming a definitive answer, essays seek to understand. They make tentative pronouncements to assay their worth. By putting my not-quite-formed opinions out into the blogosphere, I hope to improve my understanding. By doing this as a blog (which already feels like an old-fashioned media form), I hope to engage with people in pursuit of common ground.