Our primary problem is not “conservatism” or Donald Trump. Our most pressing problem is the Republican Party: an anti-government cult based on racist, populist resentment that serves the interests of would-be plutocrats. This cult scorns compromise, ignores fact, demonizes the opposition, and will accept virtually any abuse of power by the President. This dereliction of duty will open the door to untold abuses in the future unless Trump loses in November. Even then, the dogmatic, irrational Republican cult will remain intact and more effective leaders could be more dangerous.
Republicans frame this conflict as “liberalism” vs “conservatism,” and hurl “liberal” as a label to rile up their base. But this frame is false. Trying to place all political opinions on the left-right spectrum creates confusion. No one spectrum can capture the full range of political beliefs. Multiple spectrums intersect.
The conflict is actually between autocracy and democracy. If Democrats accept the left-right frame and attack Republicans for being “conservative,” they reinforce the Republican strategy. In so doing, they undermine the potential for gaining support from people who embrace a “conservatism” that includes (at least some) positive values.
Weaponizing left-right labels inflames destructive polarization. Not all polarization is destructive, but the polarization we witness today is asymmetrical—only the Republicans are cultish. Alternative frames that are more accurate could counter the Republican strategy.
The Democratic platform is labelled “left,” or “liberal,” and the Republican “right,” or “conservative.” Partisans use these labels to tarnish the opposition and motivate supporters. Aggravated by winner-take-all elections and single-member districts, “liberals” want to crush “conservatism,” and vice versa. But there’s no clear agreement on the meaning of the terms “liberalism” and “conservatism.”
The Democratic and Republican platforms are cobbled together for tactical reasons—to form diverse coalitions of interest groups large enough to win a bare majority in the next election. The planks in their platforms are not tied together with a coherent abstract philosophy rooted in concrete beliefs.
Rather than talk about certain candidates wanting to “move the Democratic Party to the left,” it would be more accurate to say those candidates are more transformational, expansionary, ambitious, aspirational, idealistic, radical, revolutionary, extremist, utopian, or some other similar term. Given the distinctiveness and stability of Republican Party policies, Democrats can simply call objectionable proposals Republican, radical, dogmatic, doctrinaire, ideological, or some similar term. There’s no need to rely on the left-right spectrum.
Issues can be placed on one of many spectrums with polar opposites at each extreme. When issues are considered concretely, positions often do not correspond to the traditional left-right spectrum. When they do so correspond, there’s no need to use left-right terms. Regardless, the assumption that “liberals” or “conservatives” must defeat the other side due to irreconcilable differences is incorrect. Consider these examples.
Income equality/Concentrated wealth. On one end of this spectrum, unrestrained capitalism allows wealth to accumulate with no governmental intervention, even if the rich get richer and the poor get poorer forever, and corporations form monopolies and set prices at whatever level the market will bear. On the other end of the spectrum, everyone would hold the same amount of wealth and receive the same income. At various points on this spectrum, economic egalitarians advocate more or less progressive taxation and enlightened capitalists accept more or less income redistribution.
Hierarchy/Equality. At the ends of this spectrum are totalitarianism and anarchy. Authoritarianism and egalitarianism are near the ends. Their position on the spectrum is determined by the degree to which established power is unquestioned. Authoritarians nurture domination and submission. Egalitarians nurture co-equal partnerships and cooperation, want to delegate power democratically, hold representatives and administrators accountable democratically, and develop collaborative leadership as an alternative to traditional leadership, which defines leadership as the ability to mobilize followers. “Liberals” are said to favor equality, but in fact they rarely talk about social equality and often favor policies that are paternalistic, meritocratic, and elitist—and some “leftists” have been very authoritarian. “Conservatives” are said to favor hierarchy, but they agree that all people are created equal and should be equal under the law. Almost everyone accepts that some hierarchy, or power inequality, is essential.
Permissiveness/Cruelty. On one end: an emphasis on compassion, lax discipline, and few boundaries. On the other: strict, harsh punishment and torture. Toward the cruel end: policies like separating migrant children and cancelling Native American treaties. Near the middle: private charity, tough love, and the “success sequence.”
Small government/Big government. “Conservatives” are said to oppose “big government,” but many support “strongman leaders,” the “imperial Presidency,” military spending, and massive programs such as Social Security. “Liberals” are said to favor big government, but oppose governmental powers on many issues and want to limit government to needed functions. Arguments about small government versus big government tend to be disputes about abstract ideologies disconnected from opinions about concrete realities.
Individualism/Communitarianism. On one end: isolated, selfish individuals. On the other: tight-knit, oppressive communities. Both “liberals” and “conservatives” affirm both individualism and strong communities. Supportive communities that affirm mutual responsibility.can nurture self-determination and avoid being oppressive. Strong individuals can build strong communities, and strong communities can build strong individuals.
Unconditional welfare/Personal responsibility. On one end: unconditional cash. On the other: oppressive work requirements. Many “conservatives” who are said to oppose government spending for poor people support the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, childcare subsidies, and Social Security. Many “liberals” who are said to favor welfare prefer assuring good, living-wage job opportunities and argue that traditional welfare has often been a debilitating tool of social control.
Free Speech/Censorship. Absolutely no limits vs very tight control. With regard to the government, private institutions, and informal social interactions, there’s no clear distinction between “liberals” and “conservatives” that predicts what stance an individual or group will take on specific issues. Both affirm individual rights and free speech.
War/peace. “Liberals” are said to be anti-war, but many supported the Vietnam War for years and more recently have supported the War Against Yugoslavia and the War Against Terror. “Conservatives” are said to be pro-war, but many are isolationist.
Local/Federal. What position “liberals” and “conservatives” take on specific questions about the relative powers of different levels of government depends more on the concrete issue than it does on abstract notions. Almost everyone agrees that a balance of powers within “federalism” is viable, federal revenue sharing can minimize wasteful bureaucracies, and only the federal government has available the resources to fund many valuable programs.
Socialism/Capitalism. On one end: government ownership and control of major businesses. On the other: totally free markets. In fact, almost everyone accepts a mixed economy with some government intervention, regulation, and ownership, as with water supplies. The differences derive from various opinions about the degree and nature of government intervention. On this spectrum, there’s no clear dividing line between “liberalism” and “conservatism,” as reflected by “left-wingers” who want to strengthen free markets by busting up monopolies, and “right-wingers” who want the government to weaken free markets by imposing tariffs on China.
Materialism/Quality of life. “Conservatives” are said to support the accumulation of wealth, while “liberals” are supposed to be less materialistic. But most “liberals” strongly affirm economic growth and social mobility, accept an extreme concentration of wealth, and merely seek to equalize opportunity at the starting gate. Almost all Americans are very materialistic.
Many other similar spectrums could be addressed with the same result: No one spectrum can capture the full range of political beliefs and left-right terms are not necessary. The rational position seems to affirm multiple identities. Nevertheless, a coherent political program needs to “market” a single identity. At the moment, my option is to affirm libertarian-communitarianism — supportive communities that affirm individual rights and nurture self-development.
Originally posted here.