Political Pathologies: Liberal and Conservative

University of Virginia political scientist Gerard Alexander ruffled some feathers back in  February when he claimed in a Washington Post op-ed that “Liberal condescension” was very real and politically-problematic; the moment passed, however, and in the intervening months fairly-passive media coverage of the Tea Party movement aimlessly seeking to fill time often had little to dwell on aside from alarming gaffes, such as an angry constituent’s demand to a Republican Congressman to “keep your government hands off my Medicare” and a completely unaffiliated but possibly Depression-driven bigot’s intention to burn the Koran.

Andrew Sullivan recently blogged about this, trying to navigate opposing charges of condescending Liberals and ignorant Conservatives.  Sullivan’s argument: Tea Partiers aren’t ignorant so much as rigidly-uncompromising, the consequence of a fear that the culture is changing around them and that they can’t relate to the society that is to come.

The Liberal Ironist can only hope that a sense of irony is sufficient to temper the solipsism or vanity Dr. Alexander purports to find among “Liberals.”  My own suspicion is, and has long been, more of a synthesis of Alexander’s and Sullivan’s clashing suspicions: Liberalism and Conservatism may foster different mental pathologies among those who cannot maintain a sense of imaginative sympathy for their political opponents.  If Liberals are arrogant, Conservatives are obsessed with their lack of power.  Both pathologies exist for the same reason.

Liberals and Conservatives tend to be in tacit agreement that “History” is on the Liberals’ side.  This assumption is given as often in the writings of Conservatives as in Liberals, just with a touch of melancholy rather than satisfaction.  Consider figures as seemingly-different as Edmund BurkeFriedrich Nietzsche, and William F. Buckley.

Edmund Burke, aghast while writing his Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1789, mourned the loss of the unequal but intimate relations of European chivalry, in a passage that resonates in different ways for Conservatives, Romantics, and ironists:

“This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the ancient chivalry; and the principle, though varied in its appearance by the varying state of human affairs, subsisted and influenced through a long succession of generations even to the time we live in.  If it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great…

“But now all is to be changed.  All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.  All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.  All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

In Twilight of the Idols, published in 1888 and one of his last books, the post-Enlightenment philosopher and Modernity-skeptic political theorist Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a passage entitled “Whispered to the conservatives:”

“What was not known formerly, what is known, what might be known, today: a reversion, a return in any sense or degree is simply not possible.  We physiologists know that.  Yet all priests and moralists have believed the opposite–they wanted to take mankind back, to screw it back, to a former measure of virtue…Even the politicians have aped the preachers of virtue at this point: today too there are still parties whose dream it is that all things might walk backwards like crabs.  But no one is free to be a crab.  Nothing avails: one must go forward–step by step further into decadence (that is my definition of modern ‘progress’).  One can check this development and thus dam up degeneration, gather it and make it more vehement and sudden: one can do no more.”

Finally the devoutly-Catholic William F. Buckley, in a fascinating agreement with Nietzsche about his historical situation, said that a conservative journalist in his mold “stands athwart history, yelling Stop…”  Actually, he said that in his “Mission Statement” for the National Review.

If, as Gerard Alexander says, Liberals are tempted to assume the self-evidence of the proofs for their argument (and thereby the ignorance or excessively-bounded rationality of the Conservatives who oppose them), Conservatives seem to have a sense that they will inevitably lose the argument, somehow.  This creates, at a minimum, a sense of wistfulness: It’s interesting to consider the essential fatalism Buckley took towards the key conservative social issues of opposition to abortion and homosexuality in a TV interview about 10 years ago.

The searing eloquence of Edmund Burke, the terse, sweeping lucidity of Friedrich Nietzche, the almost cheerful programmatic noble nihilism of William F. Buckley who is at least trying to halt the pounding surf of “History”…There is an unabashed Absurdist fortitude to these Conservative intellectuals, who champion a social order which they believe is fragile, maybe even dying.  The willingness to live with this Absurdist form of discreet opposition to political change is missing from the contemporary Conservative movement.

The Liberal Ironist can draw a contrast between Liberals and Conservatives which makes them more-incommensurable than exclusive: A Liberal is concerned about promoting a certain standard of living and the capacity to do something with it; a Conservative is concerned with promoting the good life.  Liberals have an easy time making fact- and logic-based political arguments because their political arguments are more-often exclusively-materialistic in their concerns.  This leads to a managerial approach to politics as opposed to one concerned fundamentally with producing a certain type of citizen.  As their education often doesn’t provide a vocabulary which would allow them to express their concern that a certain frame of mind is more-fundamental than a guaranteed standard of bodily health, Conservatives lose interest in the material arguments, which leads some Liberals to think of them as ignorant, which leads some Conservatives to become angry.  Rinse and repeat.

Actually, the Liberal Ironist doesn’t want to rinse and repeat; he wants to see a Conservative vocabulary which is neither embarrassed by its relative lack of material facts nor unwilling to address whether they think those material facts are the point of the issue.  History isn’t marching anywhere; the World isn’t simply changing from a Conservative one to a Liberal one.  Changing circumstances refocus the political trade-offs between securing a certain standard of living and promoting the (moral or virtuous) good life.  Conservatives literally need to come to terms with the qualities of character they are trying to protect, then we Liberals and Conservatives will gain the immense benefit of knowing when we are talking past each other and why.  The Liberal Ironist has a theory that the Tea Party movement has emerged as a result of the obsolescence, for whatever reason, of the Christian Right’s vocabulary for politics.


9 thoughts on “Political Pathologies: Liberal and Conservative

    1. liberalironist Post author

      I’ll offer a stylized for-instance. In a debate over the Health Care Bill passed last March, a Liberal might have made arguments about the long-public health benefits of government-mandated health insurance coverage for all Americans, and the long-term merits of government policies to encourage regular check-ups for preventive care. The benefits of these policies can be observed in many European countries. A Conservative activist could have objected on one of several premises: Personal responsibility for prudent health choices and health insurance planning, market efficiencies to resolve which medical procedures and risk-pooling schemes are most cost-effective, and even individual frugality in arguing people should save money in health savings accounts rather than spend so much on luxuries. The 2nd argument is partly-material and statistical in nature; the 1st and 3rd are purely-normative and an individual conservative may or may not have traded them off against claims that our current health care system is inefficient or that it sometimes sets up perverse incentives like going without health insurance to save money. I find the Liberal’s points convincing (I am after all the *Liberal* Ironist), but this is the point where the Liberal might have accused the Conservative of being selfish, callous or ignorant, when in fact he or she was seriously-concerned about the attitudes we’re encouraging in fellow-citizens. Such a concern is none of those things–and yet it is not primarily about the facts. If the Liberal didn’t detect the Conservative’s concern with a citizen’s autonomous character, he or she probably would have concluded that the facts settle that argument, and that he or she commanded the facts. If the Conservative unconsciously conceded that their moral or ethical concerns were “unreal” by virtue of being non-instrumental, he or she might even have internalized the premise of the Liberal’s superior understanding and thus become angry and uninterested in political argument.

      1. Leigh

        I’ve often heard the Conservative argument that lawsuits are the primary cause of the high cost of healthcare…which is factually incorrect.

        Another fact is that the marketplace does not provide health insurance at a low enough to cost for Americans to buy it. Literally, there is not enough cash in the bank to buy it. Therefore, the market system does not work. Facts. A person can have all the good intentions and character in the world, and still not make enough to buy it. That’s where the Conservative argument falls apart.

      2. liberalironist Post author

        I’d say your second argument is a pretty good example of why we Liberals should drop this premise of a monopoly on facts. The Republicans haven’t actually advocated simply buying health insurance out-of-pocket. They have proposed an assortment of measures, principally long-term health savings accounts and tax deductions, and collective bargaining of small businesses through health insurers. Republican proposals to reduce out-of-pocket health care costs often assume the maintenance of Medicaid.

        Granted, I don’t support these market-based measures and don’t think they would be adequate, but you can’t posit an ideal-type non-proposal, critique it, and say that the “facts” have spoken for themselves. I prefer not to go on the offensive over this, but it’s pretty unfair to assert that Republicans are uninterested in the facts pertinent to policy, then ignore the policies they actually have proposed to sustain that case.

  1. isaac azimuth

    I disagree. I think the lack of coherent terms stems from the impossibility of a functional two party government. only the most general ideas can be discussed when they are fit into the categories of “liberal” and “conservative”. like “good” and “evil” these categories are best left to philosophy, and works of fiction. if we want to talk about practice things of political importance we need a much more sophisticated way of communicating with each other.

    1. liberalironist Post author

      Actually, American politics from the Eisenhower Presidency on suggests that 2-party governments *work better.* Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush Sr. were able to accomplish much with a Democratic Congress, and President Clinton was very successful with a Republican Congress. (The House Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich did try to embarrass and undermine the President, but as Lewis Black joked, they actually damaged themselves during these confrontations, even losing seats in implausible circumstances in the 1998 midterms following the expensive and obscene Monica Lewinsky investigation.)

      I agree that “Liberal” and “Conservative” are general in the same sense as “good” and “evil” (though they certainly don’t relate to each other in that way and my point is actually that they aren’t inherently antithetical.) Obviously, I disagree that there is no benefit to Liberals and Conservatives acknowledging these philosophical differences. In practice it can sometimes lead to policy innovations that recognize that material and moral concerns aren’t always exclusive; Presidents Clinton and W. Bush actually governed that way. Whether there would be legislative benefits to addressing debate towards the contrasting premises of Liberals and Conservatives today, there is reason for doubt. I think the conventional account is basically right: Popular party primaries, the activist groups that spend money on elections, and the highly-specialized contemporary media environment centered on the Interweb all encourage ideological disdain for other points of view. I do disagree that this structural problem doesn’t have a philosophical solution, and I don’t think it naive to say that understanding the premises and concerns of those we disagree with has personal and, if they reciprocate, shared benefits even where it doesn’t lead to political solutions.

      What I’m trying to say is, I think this understanding of the sometimes-incommensurable premises behind our differing politics *is* the more-sophisticated way of communicating with each other we need.

  2. Jocuri

    I’d like to say that you always offer valid information and I have been an fascinated reader of your site for quite some time. I wanted to say thankyou really 🙂 for all the good work you do!

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