I’m wondering how ideas get combined into distinct packages of ideology. Nobody knows the answer, so far as I can tell. It just seems to happen automatically — but is there some underlying logic that unifies the components of a worldview? If so, I can’t identify it.
Oversimplifying a bit, I’ll contrast the packages of conservative and liberal beliefs. First I’ll list a few of the beliefs of political conservatives. My question is: why do our values come pre-packaged in this particular combination or in its counterpart, the liberal worldview?
Here are what I take to be typical conservative opinions:
• Social inequality is an inevitable phenomenon that should, within limits, be accepted. The privileged groups, in general, have earned what they enjoy. If the poor and less prestigious individuals want to change their situation, they should work harder and contribute in ways that are well-rewarded by society.
• Taxes should be kept low, even if it means reducing social services to a minimum. If individuals wish to contribute to charities and other worthy causes, they may do so voluntarily, rather than through taxation. Whatever is paid in taxes returns to people in “leaky buckets” and therefore is an inefficient way of paying for shared amenities.
• Competition is the most constructive factor in keeping an economy prosperous and in meeting human needs. Market discipline creates incentives that benefit both buyers and sellers. This is also true in other countries, and when business transactions are carried on by transnational corporations. Everybody benefits from expanding trade.
• Government has a built-in tendency to encroach on private life. The best government is the one that governs least and also regulates business activities the least.
• Nevertheless, the maintenance of a strong military is one of the most important responsibilities of government, even when it consumes most of the tax revenue.
• Another responsibility of government is to protect the country’s interests abroad by securing access to energy, water, raw materials, and markets. This will naturally require military action from time to time – not simply as a defensive matter but as pre-emptive action.
• Insofar as practicable, democracy should be promoted, both in domestic governance and abroad. The world will be a safer place when all countries are democratic, observing a rule of law, multiple party competitive elections, freedom of the press, and mechanisms for protecting human rights.
• The traditional Western nuclear family should be prized above alternative forms of intimate life and should be supported politically. The family should be responsible for the care of its dependent members. Taxation policies and laws should be constructed to encourage such families. Equal legal status must not be given to homosexual relationships.
• Society requires cooperation between the state and mainstream religions, which provide teachings that support wholesome values and ethical behavior. Public, collective expressions of devotion toward God should be encouraged.
• God wants us to preserve life, even when its quality cannot be assured. Therefore, there is no legitimate place in society for abortion or euthanasia. Capital punishment and warfare, on the other hand, are acceptable and frequently necessary.
• Citizens have a constitutional right to own guns to protect themselves from evil-doers.
• To maintain an orderly society, strict discipline is necessary, including the spanking of children and lengthy prison sentences for the infractions of adults. Military training is a good way to instill discipline in young men and prepare them to defend their country.
• Government should not be involved in providing services to the public. Institutions such as medicine, hydroelectric power, postal services, and prisons are more efficiently run by private companies.
• It is less important to protect the environment than to open up new resources, such as oil pipelines, to keep the economy flourishing.
You can make up your own versions of the contrasting liberal position on each of these issues; no doubt they are already perfectly familiar. Peace, social equality, secularism, tolerance, and environmentalism are certainly part of that worldview. (See photo.)
My question is: Why are those who endorse, say, the importance of the traditional family, the same people who also believe in democracy, the military, and the market economy? Or why do those who favor a clear separation between church and state also favor gun control, women’s right to obtain abortions, and the preservation of wild life refuges from oil drilling? What logical connections exist among these sets of opinions? Could the whole array of liberal and conservative views be shuffled and dealt out again in completely different combinations? Maybe.
A couple of years ago, researchers at UCLA carried out MRI scans on the brains of Democrats and Republicans as they watched photos of particular disturbing events, including the burning Twin Towers on 9/11. They found that the amygdalas of Democrats were much more active when looking at these distressing images than those of Republicans. The amygdala is a structure in the brain in which emotions are activated, so the researchers inferred that Democrats responded with more feeling.
Matt Young has reflected about the meaning of this finding on his blog http://www.pandasthumbl.oprg/pt-archieves/000568. He believes that Democrats react with empathy toward a wide range of people, whereas Republicans tend not to feel strongly about matters unrelated to their own interests or the people with whom they are close. He calls the Republican attitudes “social Darwinism.” I can agree only to a limited extent. The right-wing tough-mindedness in matters of foreign policy, military posture, and economic matters does have a certain coherence to it that differs markedly from the left-liberal soft-hearted concern for economic and social equality.
Still, the distinction between tough-minded right-wingers and tender-minded liberals does not explain everything. Why, for example, is religiosity a conservative rather than liberal worldview? And if conservatives are militarists who believe wars and capital punishment are inevitable and morally acceptable, then why do they “choose life” by opposing abortion or assisted suicide, as in the case of Terri Schiavo?
To me, the most incongruous belief has to do with democracy. After many years of exposure to political disputes, I should no longer be surprised that it is right-wingers who most strongly value democracy. But I am. The heart of liberalism ought to be a belief in human rights, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and competitive, multi-party elections — yet when one hears such values being promoted, it often turns out to be a conservative who is speaking. Why should democratic concerns come in the same package with support for a market economy, the right to bear arms, opposition to gay marriage, religious devoutness, and all the rest of the conservative doctrine? Historically, this may have something to do with previous liberal affinities for Marxism, which of course opposed parliamentary democracy and religion. It was material interests that mattered to Marx, who considered democracy a sham and religion an opiate. In most respects liberals of today differ markedly from radical Marxist leftists, but they may have retained some Marxist opinions of democracy and religion.
In any case, I think it’s time for liberals to undertake a re-sorting process. As a social democrat, I want to reclaim democracy as a main plank in the liberal platform. Moreover, I do not see why liberalism must reject religion as a constructive force in society. As Rabbi Michael Lerner has pointed out, religiosity is not declining in contemporary society, and many voters are repelled by a politics that regards secularism as an essential feature of liberalism. Today what is needed instead is a theology that is liberal — one that promotes compassion, charity, brotherly love, and empathy instead of social Darwinism.