Liberal & Conservative
— Buying a ready-made suit.
"Are you liberal or conservative?"
The American political debate continues to be characterized by dualistic thinking. The rancorous public division into "Liberals" and "Conservatives" does the nation – and rational discourse – a great disservice.
What a peculiar question! It's odd that it has become the norm, both in politics and in general conversation, not only to publicize one's social and political bias, but to be proud of it! In science or mathematics, when we tackle a problem we take care to ensure that our approach is objective, without bias, considering all aspects of the problem, to ensure that the result will withstand scrutiny. We submit our results to others in our field for their comments and corrections, and we take those comments seriously in modifying our method or conclusions. Further, conclusions are always tentative, acknowledging the incompleteness of our knowledge. Admittedly, in science we're looking for a more objective truth than we'll find in politics, but surely the practice of looking at issues from all sides without bias will improve our chances of finding workable solutions even in the social / political realm.
Imagine that you and I are in a museum, at the moment admiring a great sculpture, say Rodin's "The Burghers of Calais". The curator has placed this matchless sculpture in the open for a reason. You walk around the artwork to catch its intricacies and to appreciate the entire work. Imagine that I, on the other hand, announce that I prefer to view the piece from one spot. I've picked a favorite point of view, I've parked myself and will not budge from there. You tell me that the work gives marvelous insights when viewed from other aspects, but I'm immoveable. You can't understand how I can be satisfied with seeing the sculpture from one viewpoint. I can't possibly grasp the full meaning and complexity of what we've come to see. My guess is that you would consider me hopelessly strait-jacketed in my thinking. And so it is with political "liberals" and "conservatives". They announce a priori what their bias – their "point of view" – will be, they refuse to be moved, and their grasp of the issues being considered is as curtailed as my appreciation of Rodin's great sculpture.
This odd situation is linked to the development of political factions and parties. Political parties exist because many working together have more influence than one. Naturally, in joining a party, the "ones" give up part of their independence to the "many". The party's success takes priority over individual interest, and the party's approved ideas and thought rule over the individual's ideas and thought. So positions or "platforms" are developed for the party that will identify the party and give voters something to attach themselves to. In adopting the party's platform and consistently voting for the party the voter buys a ready-made philosophical suit.
Now there's nothing wrong with buying a ready-made suit. It's quick and easy and we may not consider suits very important. They affect nothing essential. (Well, our social standing, perhaps, but nothing essential.) On the other hand, political decisions are often important. They affect our future, and when we vote in the U.S., they may affect the world's future. But a major reason why voters do accept the parties' ready-made "platform" is that – like the pre-cut suit – buying into it is convenient. It requires little thought, since the thinking has been pre-cut, so to speak; and in the bargain it gives the voter a feeling of identity, of belonging, even of philosophical consistency without having to develop this for himself. But the party line is never actually a case of philosophical consistency, but rather of horse-trading compromises of which the voter is by and large unaware. The party-loyal voter buys into a heap of political baggage and inconsistencies, in an effort to feel philosophically rooted.
The current public political chasm between America's avowed (and narrow-minded) "conservative" and "liberal" factions serves no constructive purpose. It serves only the self-serving purposes of the political parties; it provides them a faithful horde of believers. While we may shake our heads at the folly of the meaningless, ferocious, and seemingly unbridgeable divisions of Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, or of Sunni and Shia in Iraq, we seem to accept as inevitable and normal the equally mindless and nasty division of "conservatives" and "liberals" in the U.S. The political scene appears to have become nearly devoid of the calm and rational discussion about issues, alternatives, and solutions that we need in order to find our way through our national challenges. We need to learn that truth, or the best course of action, cannot be arrived at through headbutting by inimical antagonists, but is reached through common and mutual understanding, serious and nonpartisan analysis, and thoughtful crafting of solutions, considering all sides of the issue. For there are almost never just two sides to an issue – there are many. (See my essay on Debate from June 2004.) For anyone who expects our national leaders to take a rational approach to solutions of our national issues, the venomous, small-minded, partisan bickering by Senators and Representatives that are daily fare on Capitol telecasts must give a sickening feeling deep in the gut.
We all know people who are rabidly partisan; otherwise intelligent people who nevertheless, when it comes to politics, prefer to strait-jacket themselves in a predetermined point of view. Such narrow-mindedness is not only inconsistent with every civilized person's own need for intellectual freedom and growth, but also with the necessity for unfettered thought which is vital for the success of a democracy.
But back to the opening question: "Are you liberal or conservative?" The question only makes sense to one who wants to limit his view of the world. The thoughtful person is neither, and is both. "Libervative", let's say.