We talk about political issues on this blog, and one of my stated purposes here is to convince people that the politically conservative worldview is more in line with the Bible than the Liberal/Leftist/Progressive alternative is. But that raises an interesting (at least to me) couple of questions: What is Conservatism, and what is Liberalism? Or to clarify it further, what’s the difference between the two?
Is there one overarching principle or motif or dividing line between the two philosophies, a “fork in the road” which leads to their disparate takes on different issues, such as abortion, the death penalty, war, welfare, etc.?
Let me clarify and try to define what I’m examining here. In this discussion, I’m going to hold to Dennis Prager’s maxim, “Clarity over agreement.” I used one of my conservative friends as a sounding board on what really divides liberals and conservatives, and he immediately responded with “Liberals are wrong on the issues, enough said!” That’s not the approach I’m taking here at all. I’m going to leave aside—for the moment—all considerations of which side is right and which side is wrong. As opposed to most of my other postings on this blog, my purpose is clarification, not persuasion. At least, I’m not trying to persuade anyone of anything directly. I have a working theory on the dividing line between conservatives and liberals, and I’d like to put it out there for your consideration. After that, we’ll try to see how Scripture applies to this theory. I don’t have all that much invested in this, however, so if someone proves me wrong on it, I’m certainly open to correction.
So what’s the pattern, or is there one? Why are conservatives (generally) opposed to abortion but support the death penalty, and why do liberals tend to take the opposite viewpoint? Why are conservatives less reluctant to use military force than liberals? Why do conservatives distrust the U.N., while liberals see it in a much more positive light? There are whole host of issues on which they disagree: gun control, same-sex marriage, how to help those in need, the morality (or lack thereof) of Capitalism (which I like to call the Free Market System), etc.
Before we get to my theory, I’d like to examine some popular alternative ones.
Among conservatives, one popular idea is that conservatism is based on cold facts, logic, and a realistic view of human nature, while liberalism is based on emotionalism, on how you feel, along with a belief in the innate goodness of humanity. Let’s say that you have a conservative (hereafter referred for brevity as a “con”) and a liberal (hereafter a “lib”) who encounter a homeless man on a street corner begging for change. The lib says “Poor man! Let’s give him some money.” The con says “No. Before we give him any money, we need to ask ourselves if we’re doing him any good by handing him money. If he’s a drunk or a drug addict, then we’re harming more than helping.” The lib accuses the con of being cold-hearted and stingy, while the con accuses the lib of being naïve and harming the people he’s trying to help. The lib sees a needy person, and immediately wants to rush in and help them (using the power of the government), while the con is restrained by the Hippocratic Oath “First do no harm.”
I think there’s a lot of truth to that, although I could very easily be biased. And I have to admit that liberals might strongly disagree with how I presented their position above. Having said that, I thoroughly believe that Liberalism/Progressivism relies on emotion-based arguments rather than logic. Look at how quickly a con is called a name such as “racist” or “homophobe” or “intolerant” by a lib in place of a real argument against the con’s positions. How often do you see libs changing their position after examining statistical evidence on whether a government program works?
Dennis Prager asks a really good question regarding this. People tend to start out in life more liberal, then tend to become more conservative as they get older, get married, and have children. So he asks libs, “Do you think you’re wiser than you were twenty years ago, or less wise?” Of course, everybody says “More wise. I made a lot of stupid choices when I was young.” So if that’s true, isn’t it an argument against Liberalism? Younger people tend to think that they’re going to “change the world” and “make a difference,” which usually translates into a Leftist viewpoint. But as someone once put it, “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged by reality.”
Another theory that cons advance is that libs harbor a “power hungry” or “nanny” instinct. As Thomas Sowell put it so well in his classic Vision of the Anointed, and as Jonah Goldberg put it in Liberal Fascism, conservatives by and large just want to be left alone. We want less government interference in our lives and in society as a whole. As a joke I recently heard puts it, “Have you heard about the massive Tea Party conspiracy? They want to take over the federal government, then leave everybody the heck alone.” If you take Leftism to its extreme, it’s Communism. If you take Conservatism to its extreme, you get anarchy. Now, anarchy is really really bad. And no one seriously wants that. But we want—as a general rule—to have less control by force over peoples’ lives, not more.
Here's a cartoon I saw recently which illustrates the converse of this pretty well:
Here's a cartoon I saw recently which illustrates the converse of this pretty well:
Libs—with two exceptions, which we’ll examine momentarily—tend to want to control more and more of your life. As a thought experiment, when you get up next morning, try to find something that isn’t regulated by government. The bed you wake up in. The light switch you turn on. The electricity that powers it. The carpet you step out onto. The milk you pull out of the fridge. The clothes you wear. The car you drive to work. Et cetera. I’m not saying that all government is bad. But libs are always looking to regulate our lives more.
There are just a couple of issues I can think of off the top of my head in which the cons are more in favor of government regulation than the libs. One I can think of is abortion. Some libs are uncomfortable with abortion, and there are some Pro-Life Democrats. But those numbers are rapidly dwindling, especially at the national level. By and large—and reflected in their party platform and in their leaders’ statements—they tend to oppose any restrictions on the practice.
Another is the illegal drug trade. Conservatives tend to be more in favor of continuing the war on illegal drugs, such as marijuana, heroin, or cocaine, while libs tend to be more ambivalent towards the current drug policies. We should note concerning this, however, that support for or opposition against the current drug policies often crosses party lines: There are some Republicans (with a libertarian streak) who want to decriminalize “pot,” while there are quite a few Democrats who don’t want to change our drug policy, or at least aren’t making any such change a priority. I myself am trying to work out a coherent (not to mention biblical) viewpoint on this issue, and I kind of go back and forth on it.
Some might answer “But Keith, what about homosexuality and same-sex marriage? Don’t you want to tell people how to run their lives in that arena?” Well, I don’t know of any Christian who’s openly proposing to make homosexual practice illegal. I don’t think it’s the government’s job to regulate personal sexual practices; it’s the church’s job to share the Good News of Christ and call for repentance from all types of sin. What we can’t accomplish by prayer and persuasion we leave alone. But what most conservatives are officially opposed to is the legal redefinition of marriage to include homosexual couples. To expand this definition of marriage, to include all the legal benefits, is an expansion of state power, not a diminution of it.
But my point is that with a handful of exceptions, libs generally want to control your personal life more (with the force of government), while cons generally want to control your life less. We might come off as more moralistic, since we typically bemoan cultural and societal trends which we see as negative, such as the acceptance of homosexuality and other forms of sexual immorality. But to be brutally frank, the notion that libs are more tolerant of dissent is risible. They tend to be tolerant of people they like and who think like them. Others, not so much.
As I hope I’ve made clear, both of the theories above (emotion vs. logic, control vs. freedom) have some merit to them. But there is one aspect to the Left/Right divide which I think isn't discussed enough, and I want to correct that. There's a pattern I've noticed between political/social conservatives and those on the Left.
And that paradigm is. . . distinctions. Whether you tend to blur them or acknowledge them. The liberal viewpoint typically discounts them or ignores them, while the conservative focuses on them and tries to act accordingly. I think that this dividing line, this fork in the road, leads to just about every other position on which they part ways.
I’m running a bit long here, so I’ll go into this more in the next post.