Liberal Trust vs Conservative Mistrust

The other day, I came across data that showed a difference between Republicans and Democrats (Republicans Support Big Government… just as long as Republicans are in power). Republicans support big government when there is a Republican president, but they fight, fear-monger, criticize and obstruct what they label as big government when a Democrat is president. Democrats, however, show more even support for big government no matter which party is in power. For example, almost the same number of Democrats support Obama as supported Reagan. This explains the point (which I think Cenk Uygur made) that bipartisanship is usually Democrats agreeing with Republicans but rarely the other way around.

There is a fundamental difference in worldview. This probably relates as well to my argument that liberals are less dogmatic in their ideology (Liberal Pragmatism, Conservative Dogmatism). Conservatives seem more likely to see themselves as principled and so more willing to stand by their principles no matter what. It’s not that liberals aren’t principled, but a major liberal value is trying to understand the views of others and working towards a middle ground of agreement or at least acceptance. Liberals aren’t against big business in the same way or to the same degree as conservatives are against big government. Instead, liberals think capitalism and democracy need to work together without either being subsumed to the other.

Obviously, this leads to a different view of the Federal government. Conservatives tend to reminisce about early America that was built on small farming communities that were largely independent of the Federal government (out of necessity since the early pioneer farmers were more isolated). Conservatives only like government when it serves their own ideology and purposes, but they overall mistrust the government. I think conservatives base their mistrust on the fact that the Federal government grew larger as industrialization grew (big government and big business inevitably grew simultaneously). The modern industrialized world is more complex, but conservatives wish the world was simpler like in the pre-industrial age. At the same time, the early industrialists developed a new conservative movement supported by the growing affluent ownership class. So, conservatives simultaneously support big business and criticize big government even though both were inevitable results of industrialized capitalism.

The liberal worldview developed out of the small town democratic values as they were translated into the scenario of the big city. Industrialization initially led to big business and big government being aligned against the working class. In the working class, there were conservatives who wanted a return to an agricultural-based democracy and there were liberals who wanted to empower the working class through organized protests and the forming of unions, but both conservative and liberal working class were aligned against big government and big business. At that time, the political split was more of a class war.

The unions did manage to win in certain ways, but the liberal vision of the working class was integrated into the Federal government. Eventually, the Democrats became the party for unions and for the poor. This altered the dynamic causing the class wars to be less clear, especially as class has been mixed up with race and culture. The Democratic party has done some good things for the working class and so that is why the poor working class is loyal to the Democrats to this very day. The vision of Democrats is that the average person can actually be served by his representatives in Washington. The vision of liberalism is that democracy is strong and not easily destroyed.

Conservatives are less confident. They see democracy as constantly threatened and that is why they are much more partisan in their support of big government. It’s also why conservatives support big military despite claiming to be against big government. Conservatives live in fear of democracy being destroyed. Enemies are everywhere. The enemy threatens both from outside (Russia, Islamic terrorists) and from within (Communist witchhunts, social programs, gun rights). Conservatives don’t trust any governments. They only trust our own state government to the extent it might protect us from foreign state governments, but idealy they’d love to live in a world where state governments didn’t exist at all or else had very little power which means they wish they lived in early America.

My above commentary was inspired by this comment:

John-in-Exile wrote:

It is fascinating to me to have “The Naked Communist” resurface, even as a second work of fiction by a newly rediscovered author. When I was in high school (1960 to 1963) I listened to a series of radio lectures by (apparently) W. Cleon Skousen which culminated in a pitch for his book, The Naked Communist, which was going to expose the evil plans of the terrifying international communist conspiracy. I bought the book and read it and found myself nagged by one question that stayed with me for years. The core presumption of Soviet communism was that people would work hard for the well-being of the state, even with no personal payoff. That always seemed unlikely to me–in fact so unlikely that I always believed that Soviet communism was destined to fall of its own weight. The communist conspiracies were inconsequential because the system was certain to fail. I was then struck by the odd perception that the people most paranoid about the rise of this doomed ideology were the conservatives who should have been the most confident of the ultimate success of the American economic experiment. They were instead the least confident and the most fearful of being overwhelmed by the Soviet system.

When communism fell at last I was not surprised because it seemed to me always destined to fall. Why was my liberal mind more confident of our system than the conservatives that constantly pronounced us doomed to fall to the evil Soviets?

8 thoughts on “Liberal Trust vs Conservative Mistrust

  1. I think the conservatives largely lack pragmatism. I’ve always found the name “conservative” to be misleading in US politics anyway. By definition, a conservative is one who conserves, maintains status quo. US Conservatives are not dragging their heals. They are trying to restore what they imagine to be a Utopia that existed in the past, but in fact only exists in their minds. This is why the constantly make appeals to the Founders, yet have no problem with blacks and women voting. They don’t really want the Founders’ America…they want their fantasy of the Founders’ America. They aren’t conservatives, they are Fantasy Retrogradians, like the SCA only political.

    • From a liberal perspective, it seems conservatives lack pragmatism. From a conservative perspective, they see themselves as being principled.

      I always think the abortion issue illustrates this perfectly. Countries that ban abortions don’t have lower rates of abortions. They just have more women who die or are injured and more babies born with problems from failed abortions. When I bring these facts up to most pro-life conservatives, they say it doesn’t matter or will dismiss the data. For them, their principles are more important than even practical results. They believe that the important part is that the government shouldn’t condone the killing of life… except, of course, in the case of criminals… principles get a bit hazy at times.

      I agree with you about the misleading notions of American “conservatives”. It would make life easier if they used a different term to label themselves. Looking at the history of Western conservatism. American conservatives don’t seem all that conservative. In Britain, the conservatives are the Tories. In early America, Tories defended Britain against the radical revolutionaries. I find it odd that American conservatives worship the founders who were radicals. Thomas Paine inspired the entire revolution and his writings were as liberal as they get.

      I was reading Henry Fairlie’s view on Toryism. I realized that traditional conservatism more closely describes Democrats than Republicans. Democrats are the ones interested in conserving our present system. On the other hand, Republicans attack our present system. And, as you note, their fantasies about the past are actually radical visions that would entirely remake American society. They don’t want to conserve anything. If American conservatives actually wanted to conserve the past, they’d first have to read something other than revisionist history.

      My suspicion is that the idiosyncrasy of American conservatism makes a bit more sense when taking into consideration the psychological research done on ideologies. Brain scans show that conservatives tend to have a larger part of the brain that deals with fear. Other research shows that conservatives have a stronger disgust response toward anything unusual or improper (such as rotting fruit).

      America is unusual in that the status quo of our society isn’t the power of a particular church or of a royal lineage or of a specific ethnicity. The only status quo we have in this country is that of change. Ever since the first Europeans came here, it has been endless change. At a fundamental level, conservatives hate change and so American conservatives hate the status quo of the society they were raised in. They would like to create a status quo that never changes which, oddly, would require radically changing the present status quo. Conservatives seem like hypocrites because they are conflicted by their own psychological predispositions. In the US, they can’t win for losing. The country was founded on a radical liberal vision and has continued to radically change ever since. To be an American conservative is to hate the founding status quo of America.

  2. My government textbook in college made the interesting point the the US is an intrinsically liberal society, and the left and right in the US have different meanings here because they mean the left and right of liberalism. The PET scans revealing the people who identify as conservative have a larger “fear-er” than other folk doesn’t surprise me. I have before noticed that conservatives answer for everything problem seems to be increasing the level of fear. To much violence? Make criminals fear more. To many abortions? Make women fear sex more. To much government assistance? Make people fear the government.

    I would also not that liberals tend to focus a bit more on freedom from, while conservatives tend to focus more on freedom to. However, this isn’t perfect, and I have noticed the conservatives often seem to have immorally reversed freedom froms and freedom tos.
    They think they should be free from seeing to men holding hands, but free to starve without government aid. I find it very confusing, and I grew up ultraconservative.

    • I’ve just started a book titled ‘Thomas Paine and the Promise of America’ by Harvey J. Kaye. It’s very fascinating. It’s odd that I don’t recall having learned much about Paine in my public education or even in various documentaries I’ve watched about early America.

      There seems to be a love/hate relationship with Paine. His writings were what inspired the American Revolution and probably what kept it from failing, but his vision was so radically democratic that he fell out of favor with many of the others in the founding generation who just wanted to create a new ruling elite (which essentially is what they did).

      It’s very interesting that this radical vision is at the heart of what defines America. Paine wanted to end slavery, wanted Native Americans to keep their land, wanted women, blacks, and the poor to have as much power as rich white men. He wanted America to become an example of genuine freedom that would inspire revolution all over the world. Paine was a bad ass. His vision is radical even by today’s standards.

      America would not exist without Paine’s far left democratic vision. He inspired the revolution, inspired people to keep fighting, inspired people to support the fight for independence in all ways. The American people, especially the lower classes, were fighting for Paine’s vision of America. Paine dedicated his whole life to the cause of liberty. He never made any profit from any of his writings. He risked his life many times and even fought hand-to-hand combat. He was a hardcore revolutionary. He didn’t grow up with privilege. Unlike the most of the Founding Fathers, he was born working class and was an immigrant. Paine believed in the American Dream before there was a country called America.

      Paine is the reason conservatives are endlessly outraged in America. Like many in the founding generation, conservatives are scared shitless about the vision that Paine proposed and that vision still exists as a seed waiting to sprout. Paine failed because the rich white males of the time were too afraid to embrace a truly free society. The Populists in the late 19th century attempted again to achieve that vision, but once again the ruling elite coopted the revolutionary energy for the purposes of the corporate elite. Now, we once again face the potential of Paine’s vision. People once again begin to remember what inspired the founding of this country in the first place. Those in power and those on the right will do everything they can to squash democracy. Everyone understands that democracy is the most dangerous vision that any human has ever conceived.

      Maybe you’re right about liberals tending to focus on freedom from. When considering radical freedom, we can only know the past from which we are trying to free ourselves from. We can’t know where radical freedom will lead. It’s an experiment. Paine explicitly thought of America as an experiment. If you want safety and security, then you can’t have freedom. That is the hypocrisy of what America has become. Paine realized that even the ruling elite could only have as much freedom as everyone was allowed. Paine knew that the only way to have democracy was to have an educated public and the ruling elite knew the only way to control the masses was to keep them ignorant. But control can never lead to freedom.

      Even the data proves this. In societies with high economic inequality, there are more social problems. The rich may be relatively better off than the poor in such a society, but the rich in such a society are relatively worse off than the rich in a society that has more equality. The rich people in an unequal society have, for example, more health problems (probably from the stress of living surrounded by poverty, crime, and social conflict.

      Paine understood this centuries ago. The ruling elite at the time dismissed his radical vision. And the ruling elite today continue to dismiss his radical vision. Yet his radical vision remains. The potential of America continues to be wasted because of those who have power don’t have vision and those who have vision don’t have power. Paine began the revolution and the revolution is still happening. The reason America has never stopped changing is because a large segment of American society has always refused to give up on the vision Paine first described.

      Many might consider Paine to have been naive for actually believing in freedom. But dammit I wish there were more idealists. The only thing that makes ideals unrealistic is the cynical ruling elite that always stands in the way. Why is democracy considered naive? Why is freedom seen as a threat?

      To this day, the conservatives still fear the masses of the poor and minorities. If you look at the demographics of the Southern states, they actually aren’t solidly Republican by a long stretch. If all the poor and minorities voted, Democrats would win by a landslide in the South and all across the coutnry. Conservatives know this and that is why they do what they can to destroy organizations like Acorn and unions that represent the poor and disenfranchised. Most Americans don’t vote because the entire history of America has been about the ruling elite disenfranchising the masses. Even when they do vote, their votes might simply not be counted as happened in Florida. It’s fucked up.

      If Paine was here, he’d start a new revolution. Paine was a Marxist revolutionary before there was a Marx. He realized that the fundamental issue is always class war. It was so when immigrants first came to America, many of whom were political dissidents, oppressed poor people, and indentured servants. And it’s still true.

  3. “America is conservative in fundamental principles… but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical.”
    – Gunnar Myrdal (1942)

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