Monday, April 26, 2010

Why Liberals and Conservatives Can't Get Along

WARNING: This observation is not meant to be comprehensive. I am purposely using broad generalizations, and don't mean to be offensive to anyone. This is just a general observation, and I realize that I may be wrong in specific areas.

It seems to me that liberals and conservatives are not all that different. They agree, in principle, on many core issues. But they seem to disagree on how those principles should play out in practical life.

What I mean is that among the issues that tend to define someone as liberal or conservative—such as perceptions about greed, the role of government, individual freedom and responsibility, and helping the poor—they seem to agree. Yet, at a glance, they only appear to differ in degree, not substantive, when it comes to these core issues.

  • Each agrees that greed is wrong. But liberals define greed as the desire to make large profits. Conservatives define greed as the desire to find security in wealth. In other words, you don't have to be rich to be greedy.
  • They both agree that the role of government should be limited. However, they differ on the amount and kind of limits government should occupy. For instance, liberals believe that government should not take all of a person's income, but as much as possible to achieve equality (in wealth) and justice (for the poor). Conservatives believe that government has no right to confiscate a person's income at all—except whatever needs to be given for the government to able to enforce the law.
  • They would both agree that individual freedoms should be protected. The problem is that freedom brings responsibilities. Liberals define those freedoms as being able to do whatever one feels is right, and not being told otherwise. However, they also believe we have a responsibility to respect the freedoms and rights of other people. Conservatives believe that freedom is the right to not be controlled by government fiat, our a minority of people. Yet they want government to curtail any encroachments upon individual freedoms by those who do not respect that.
  • Both groups see helping the poor as a social good. The problem is that liberals define helping the poor as a government mandate of redistributing wealth. Conservatives see it as an extension of individual freedom and responsibility. In other words, some people are free to fail or succeed financially. However, those who do well are to offer help to those who do not do well as an act of freewill kindness, not a government responsibility.
In all these cases, it seems evident that liberals and conservatives share common concerns, and it even seems logical that working out differences would be mutually beneficial. However, what appears on the surface as simple disagreements is anything but simple. Each difference stems from a central assumption that cannot be reconciled so easily. And that's the issue of truth. Are there values and realities that must be "conserved" or appealed to when making sense out of life? Is there a central reality that we must adhere to in making decisions that exists outside ourselves?

Each group answers that central question differently. As a whole, liberals say that human decision-making is not dependent on some mystical or ancient reality called Truth outside ourselves, but on practical outcomes. "Whatever works is right." Solving immediate concerns is more important than the possible impact of antiquated beliefs or historical lessons.

On the other hand, most conservatives disagree with this approach. They think, "Whatever works may not always be right." They favor the idea that there are proven values and truths that have existed for a very long time that will have an impact on our decisions whether we believe in them or not. Therefore, they must be preserved (or conserved) as foundational when making any decisions.

This fundamental difference is what causes conflict. Not the issues themselves.


  1. Broad generalizations aside, I think both conservatives and liberals accept truth - even some form of absolute truth... The complexity is in how to define this truth or set a benchmark for it. It's not completely fair to say that liberals consider truth to be some "mystical or ancient reality".

    The real issue is this - since were ultimately talking about Christianity, Monday through Saturday - Is God real, is Jesus real, is Heaven and Hell real? Political liberals can believe and live as if these things are true - they can be in the world but not of it, and still participate in "liberal" causes.

    Your thoughts?

  2. I agree that both liberals and conservatives accept truth. But I also believe they define truth differently, as you've said. So, we essentially agree.

    On the other hand, liberals do tend to define what conservatives would consider truth as mystical or ancient. They say things like, "that's old modernist thinking," "that's impractical," "it's too heavenly-minded to be any earthly good," or they'll create a host of moral dilemmas.

    Liberals believe in practicality. The truth must comport to practical outcomes (as they would see them). Otherwise, it is a useless exercise in futility. It may be good for personal comfort, but not valuable in the "real" world.

    For them propositional truth is esoteric. Only when propositional truth is used in practical outcomes, does it have "real world" value.

    This is not necessarily bad. Truth should be able to comport to the real world, otherwise it probably isn't the truth. However, they tend to do this as if there are two kinds of truth--rather than claiming something to be false. (Yet in reality they inconsistently claim things are false all the time.)

    Conservatives are more black and white about reality than liberals are. It is either true, or it is false. It can't be both. They differ in this approach.

    I know this doesn't sound fair, because there are religious liberals who espouse the truths we hold dear. But, they hold them not as practical realities, but esoteric beliefs. For instance a Christian liberal cannot reconcile the murder of innocent babies or homosexuality with biblical truth. But they are willing to put them to the side to deal with life in a more practical manner--by supporting liberal causes to murder babies and redefine marriage. They are more prone to redefine their religious beliefs to fit their ideas of practical outcomes. (Disobey the Bible in order to obey the "bigger" truths.)

    On the flip side, conservatives are prone to not see the ambiguities of life. Although, their black and white thinking can lead to the right conclusions, it may necessarily not lead to the right manner in implementing them.

    I am not even dealing with Christianity per se. Just observing a broad stroke tendency of these two ways of thinking about reality, even though they want the same sort of outcomes.