As of two months ago, I’ve officially spent ten years living in California, a blue state. That term never meant anything to me while I was growing up in Hong Kong, except for early in my senior year of high school when I watched the 2000 election boil down to a handful of people in the hurricane state.
My understanding of politics was really pretty elementary–don’t give people in power too much power, because they’ll eventually abuse it. And as I went into my first year of college, that’s the only thing I held close to heart, along with a pastiche of opinions I’d picked up from the people around me. Reagan’s economics were silly. Jimmy Carter was a good man stuck in lousy predicaments. FDR was a great president. Dubya seemed dishonest–well, that last one was my own opinion that last winter before college, after watching him talk in the TV debates. He reminded me too much of people I didn’t trust.
One night early on in my college life, I got to sit down with a new friend and talk shop. To him, Ronald Reagan was the greatest president we’d ever seen, the one who’d ended the cold war and ushered in the greatest decade of American prosperity. I’ve met other people since then who have carried the same opinion, and I know people who consider Reagan’s presidency a fine example of successful mediocrity. And the more time I spend in the US, the more I’m realizing that it has an astonishingly polarized political culture.
George Lakoff once argued that America’s two dominent political worldviews stem out of differences in parenting–that kids brought up in families deeply rooted in sharing and diversity end up celebrating those values and naturally leading them towards liberalism, while kids brought up in families with clear and immutable rules and authorities end up gravitating towards those principles of property rights and strict discipline later on, steering them towards conserativism.
There are other theories, of course. One interesting one holds that kids’ ability to count on other people for trust and support can get eroded away by the brutality of the playground, especially for smart kids who find themselves ostracized or picked on. With less reason to trust people, those kids end up turning to systems and structures as a means of establishing order, instead.
Or how about a third? The prevailing one that I see in everyday culture goes something like this: liberals are leading America off a cliff with their reckless spending and permissiveness, and conservatives are screwing America over with their callous belief in having everybody fend for themselves, and ridiculous obstructionism of obviously beneficial policies. Oh, and both of them have scumbag media that lies and cheats the general public out of the truth.
The peculiar thing for me has always been how little room the champions of the two fronts afford for the merits of the other side. So I think it makes sense for me to take a shot at it, using a series of simple statements. Here goes…
The greatest virtue of liberalism is its ability to think about social problems as they exist in the present, fully engaged in the reality of those issues and granting them proper gravity and insight. The greatest virtue of conservativism is its ability to recognize the wisdom of the ages, and recognize how social problems as they exist in the present might relate to issues that have been seen before, so that time-honored tools might be properly used rather than summarily dismissed as being unsuitable.
The greatest risk of liberalism is that it is fundamentally unable to know the effects of the changes that it seeks to enact, and may fail to grasp the lessons of history well. The greatest risk of conservatism is that it would placing undue trust in the wisdom of how things have been, at the expense of devising new solutions that might prove far wiser.
The strongest contribution that liberalism can make to a society is its ability to allow for the introduction of new elements into it–new cultures, new situations, new capabilities. The strongest contribution that conservativism can make to a society is its ability to recognize how things actually work with proper depth and reverence, and prevent the errors of the past from being reenacted.
And so what might society look like if these two mindsets were to properly unite? What might happen if they realized their own limits and could actually count on the other to shed additional light on those problems which they are both commissioned to solve?
I doubt I’ll see it happen in Washington to the degree that I’d like it to, but perhaps we could bring it about on the individual level. Next time you find someone of the opposite political persuasion, don’t settle for being shocked by their positions…be curious about what soil those positions are rooted in. Find out what elements are legitimate and noble in their worldview. It’s the responsible thing to do. (Makes you smarter, too!)