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Jeff Maurer's Politics Blog
Thursday, 15 December 2005
Conservatism and Liberalism
Topic: Political theory

  Slow day today, so I'll go ahead and write about something that I've talked about with people but never written down.

  What follows is how I think of the political spectrum.  Political scientists often make grids, or Vin diagrams, or various other axes to describe the spectrum of political ideologies.  Here's a common one that you might have seen:

  In this diagram, desired level of government involvement is the explanatory variable.  I have also seen similar diagrams that use concern for the individual (as opposed to concern for the collective) or concern for the working class as explanatory variables.  These analyses, though accurate and descriptive (except for the one that examines concern for the working class, which has nothing to say about social issues or foreign policy whatsoever), fail to describe why people hold the views that they do on the vast spectrum of political issues. 

  The government involvement explanation and the concern for the individual explanation (which, it seems to me, uses "concern for the collective" as an exact proxy for "government involvement") fail to explain a number of anomalies that result from their analyses.  Why, for example, are the two cognitively inconsistent political viewpoints (liberalism and conservatism) also by far the most common?  Why is it true that certain policy preferences tend to correlate in spite of the fact that the arguments in favor of those policies are often diametrically opposed (for example, people who are pro-choice tend to also favor regulation of businesses, even though the first resists government intervention while the second encourages it.  Similarly, people who favor low taxes also tend to support anti-sodomy laws)?  In addition, political ideologies sometimes defy these compartments; on the issue of gun control (a social issue), liberals encourage government involvement while conservatives want the government to stay away.  Likewise, conservatives are more likely to favor government support for failing businesses (sometimes called corporate welfare) than are liberals.  Furthermore, what can explain views on foreign policy, which also tend to correlate with political ideologies but in a way not addressed by the chart above?  Current theories fail to describe the logic that underlies the most common political viewpoints.

  In my opinion, the factor that determines whether a person is a conservative or a liberal is their view of what I call the "traditional status quo".  The more a person desires change from the traditional status quo, the more liberal that person is.

  Essential to understanding this definition is understanding what I mean by "traditional status quo".  The tradition status quo DOES NOT refer to the way things CURRNETLY are; it refers to things AS THEY WERE BELIEVED TO BE at an unspecified point in time.  It is not a year, nor is it a set of factors that can be objectively measured; it is a thing that existed at some point in the past.  For example, in this country, I generally consider the traditional status quo to be "America".  Plug "America" into my original sentence: in the U.S. what determines whether a person is conservative or liberal is their view of America.   All of the traditions and things generally associated with America make up the traditional status quo.  The things associated with the traditional status quo change over time, and the traditional status quo can be different things in different places (it depends what are the traditions and valued institutions), but most people in a political culture are generally oriented relative to the same status quo.  And, ultimately, a person's feelings about that traditional status quo will determine whether they are conservative or liberal.

  As I mentioned, I generally consider the traditional status quo in this country to be America.  I use the term "America" instead of "United States" because "America" evokes a more generalized visceral reaction, and the traditional status quo is a difficult to define, difficult to nail down thing.  It is more of a feeling than anything else.  It is meant to be what people view as traditional and accepted.  It involves specific practices and values, but precisely what those practices and values are is impossible to determine.  Similarly, precisely where we currently are in relation to the traditional status quo is impossible to determine; that traditional status quo existed at some time in the past, and our current point in time represents some unspecified level of change from that original point.

  The more a person desires change from the traditional status quo, the more liberal that person is.  Therefore, the ultimate conservative wants a complete return to the traditional status quo; they want to turn back the clock all the way to year zero (remember, the present represents a change from the traditional status quo).  Conversely, the ultimate liberal dislikes everything about the traditional status quo and wants total change; they want to turn the clock forward to what they believe to be the future.  The ultimate moderate supports all changes that have been made to the traditional status quo up to the current point in time but will support no others; they want to freeze the clock.

  To put this theory into a relevant context, let's once again use America as the traditional status quo.  Though, as I mentioned, it is impossible to determine precisely what traditions and values "America" represents, a generally agreed upon list might include: military strength, the Christian religion (and the restrained sexual practices associated with it), low taxes, small government, capitalism/free markets/private industry, the rugged individualist/self-reliance, family, racial purity/Anglicanism.

  How does that list sound?  Does it sound like music to the ears of an ultra-conservative?  Is it also a list of everything every ultra-liberal hates?  If there's anything to my theory, it should.  Please note: this is not meant to be a description of present-day conservativism (I'm sure that "racial purity" pissed off most conservatives reading this).  This is America as it used to be.  If you have negative associations with some of the things on the list, you are not an ultra-conservative.  Anyway, things break down like this:

   One strange feature of this axis continuum is that conservatives are on the left, while liberals are on the right.  I understand that that is confusing.  But I've arranged it like I have in order to demonstrate the temporal relation of the viewpoints; liberals, for better or for worse, seek change, whereas conservatives, for better or for worse, think we not only should resist change, but that we should go back to the way things used to be.  I believe that this theory explains the following phenomenon:

1.  Conservatives are more demonstrably patriotic than liberals.  Al Franken once said that conservatives "love America like a four-year-old loves their Mommy.  Everything Mommy says and does is good, and anyone who criticizes Mommy is bad."  This, I feel, is an accurate depiction of many conservatives' attitude, and seems to stem from a general reverence for America.  They root for America like a sports team; they identify with it, and they wave their colors proudly.  Ultra-liberals, on the other hand, are often described (sometimes accurately) as the "blame America first crowd". 

2.  Younger people tend to be more liberal than older people.  Younger people feel a need to rebel against authority.  The concept of America represents authority, causing young people to rebel against it, resulting in views that are generally liberal.   Older people, however, who came of age in a time when current values more closely resembled the traditional status quo, tend to be more conservative in their beliefs.

3.  Conservatives are very nostalgic for the past.  Conservatives often have a glorified, even idealized view of the past - much more so than liberals.  They speak of eroding values, crumbling families, and moral decline.  These sentiments reflect a sense of social decline that is only possible if one assumes that times past were preferable.

4.  Conservatives embrace the term "conservative", while liberals prefer the term "progressive".  In a rare case of accuracy in political labeling, conservatives do, in fact seek to conserve: specifically, they seek to conserve the values of the past and resist change.  Liberals, on the other hand, usually prefer the term "progressive", indicating their belief that the policies they promote constitute progress.

5.  Liberals generally believe in a much more active government.  Democrats like to refer to themselves as the "party of ideas."  Conservative activist Grover Norquist, on the other hand, expresses the sentiment of many conservatives when he says: "I don't want to eliminate government.  I just want to make it small enough to drag into the bathroom and drown in the tub."  Liberals are unsatisfied with things the way they are, and therefore they develop programs in an attempt to fix the problems they see.  Conservatives, in contrast, spend much of their time attempting to undo what liberals have done, creating very little of their own.

6.  Conservatives invoke the founding fathers much more than liberals.  Conservatives often cite the founding fathers in the course of arguments against change.  Strict constructionists, in particular, have a great deal of reverence for the founding fathers.  They decry "activists" who seek to change what they believe to be the intent of those who existed during the idealized time in the past.

7.  Conservatives are more likely than liberals to be deferential to authority.  One of the primary characteristics of Adorno's "authoritarian personality" is obedience to and reverence for authority.  Conservatives are generally more likely than liberals to have unyielding respect for sources of authority, such as parents and the church.  Their politics tend to be conservative because this same impulse drives them to have unyielding respect for the concept of America as well.

  If we look at extreme cases of conservatism and liberalism, the ways in which a person's orientation relative to the traditional status quo manifests itself become more clear.  The Nazis, who can be considered extreme conservatives, aggressively promoted things that they considered to be traditionally German - be it in art, music, or sports - and railed against the forces that they believed were conspiring to destroy the idyllic, pre-World War I Germanic existence.  On the other end of the spectrum, the Communists, who - whether in the Soviet Union, China, or Cambodia - were extreme liberals, threw out every vestige of the past and attempted to accelerate progress towards what they believed to be the future.

  I believe that a person's feelings about the traditional status quo is the best explanatory variable for the wide range political beliefs that constitute conservatism and liberalism.  Conservatives believe in small government, codification of majority values, and an America-fist foreign policy because that is what this country has traditionally done (that is, historically we have done these things more than we presently do).  Meanwhile, liberals are unsatisfied with the way things have traditionally been done, and therefore seek change in all three areas (the opposite of an America-first foreign policy being a foreign policy that takes into account the rights of other peoples).  I feel that this theory explains why there is an apparent contradiction within the two predominant political views and why certain behavioral characteristics tend to correlate with certain political viewpoints.

Posted by jeffmaurer1980 at 1:51 PM EST
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