I had two related thoughts.
First, I was considering the actual meaning of liberalism and conservatism. I noticed someone mention that conservatives rarely are interested in conserving and liberals are rarely interested in liberating. Actually, in the US, liberals are generally more interested in conserving than conservatives, but certainly conservatives aren’t more interested in liberating.
Second, I keep pondering what conservatism actually is about. Liberalism is more straightforward in some ways. Liberals may not put as much priority as left-wingers in liberating people, but liberals aren’t against liberating people. Liberalism more is about an attitude of openness which can express both in a desire to liberate from what is bad or conserve what is good. Conservatism, however, plays out on two levels where symbolism simultaneously represents and hides the deeper issues of meaning and values. For this reason, conservatism often can’t be taken at face-value.
These two thoughts relate in the data I’ve shared before about how most Americans self-identify as conservatives and yet support liberal policies. So, Americans tend to only find conservative principles attractive in the abstract, but what conservatives (and Americans in general) seek to conserve on the practical level are the achievements of the liberal movement, specifically the policies of the Progressive Era of the first half of the 20th century and the policies of Liberal Era around the middle of the 20th century.
How is symbolic thinking so powerful when it doesn’t seem to relate to concrete issues? The tricky part is that for conservatives the concrete conservative issues are the symbolic form of conservative values. So, conservative issues are never concrete even when or especially when they appear to be. For example, the conservative moral order grounded in in the conservative vision of family values is very compelling to many Americans. This gets expressed in concrete issues such as abortion, but when you get down to practical details conservatives don’t directly care about abortion, in terms of the gritty details of factual data. Liberal policies have proven themselves to decrease more abortions by decreasing unwanted pregnancies which is accomplished by better sex education, better availability of contraceptives, better women’s health services, etc. Conservatives won’t agree to liberal practices simply because they are more effective for the issue of abortions is symbolic, not practical.
The power of conservative symbolic thinking is that it conflates the symbolic with the concrete, the subjective with the objective, the metaphorical with the literal. This can be seen in religious fundamentalism where stories are so compelling because they are taken as real, even when there is no evidence of their reality. It is the refusal to submit to objective evidence that gives such symbolic stories their objective-seeming reality.
Liberals, on the other hand, seek to disempower such symbolic-minded conflation. This is why liberals speak more directly. When a liberal speaks about the issue of abortions, they are more genuinely concerned about the practical issue of decreasing abortions, among other concerns. Even religious liberals will tend to more clearly demarcate the symbolic and historical aspects of religion, sometimes even going so far as refusing to apologetically argue over historicity of religious figures. This is why liberals are greater defenders of analytical thinking and the scientific method. This is also why liberals aren’t as effective with political rhetoric. In undoing the conflation, liberals undo the very power of the conflation. Liberals love symbolic thinking taken on its own terms of symbolism such as with art, but symbols only have power as a political force when they become identified with concrete and social realities.
This creates quite the dilemma for liberals. Conservatives can never admit to their own way of symbolic thinking, can never admit that the superficial political issues are mere symbols. Conservatives intuitively understand that their effectiveness as a movement and that the compelling nature of their abstract principles necessitate never admitting this fundamental truth. For many of them, they can’t even admit it to themselves. Symbolic conflation can only work if there is no overt awareness of how it works, at least among average conservatives, although there are cynical conservative leaders (SDOs – Social Dominance Orientation types) who understand this and use it to manipulate the conservative movement (the relationship is very interesting between SDO leaders and Authoritarian followers).
Liberals seek to increase self-awareness, but this very kind of liberal self-awareness is the Achille’s heel of the conservative mind. Conservatives don’t want to question and analyze, not in this psychological introspective sense. They want to take action and create results. There is pragmatism in the conservative method, despite its apparent disregard of pragmatic details that get in the way of political ends.
There is a polar opposition between understanding and effectiveness. Liberals have better psychological understanding which ends up being the very reason they are politically ineffective, although it makes liberals into helpful therapists and service workers. This is a seemingly impossible situation. Liberals put so much emphasis on education and journalism because they understand liberalism can only operate effectively to the degree the conservative method is undermined, by way of undoing the conservative conflation that originates from anti-analytical intuitive thinking. In a world where rhetoric rules over facts, liberals will never win. Liberal ideals can never compete with the power of fundamentalist religion combined with right-wing think tanks. This is a major aspect of the pathetic weakness of liberalism. By its nature, liberalism is incapable of fighting dirty in this way. The moment liberals try to meet conservatives on the playing field of rhetoric, liberals are out-matched. Some liberals like Lakoff are trying to teach liberals to be able to play this kind of game better, but it’s not clear that liberals are capable of coming even close to competing with conservatives on this level.
The only hope liberals have is that which can be found in the younger generations. Kids growing up these days are more well educated relative to past generations, especially about the difference between religion and science. More importantly, kid these days are raised from a young age in the worldview of psychological understanding. Slowly over time, psychology and the social sciences in general have seeped into mainstream culture. This will eventually give liberals the advantage they need, but it isn’t clear that even this advantage will be enough.
I don’t wish to just criticize conservatism, but the conservative style of symbolic conflation is one of the most dangerous issues we face as a society. Liberals need to be criticized as well in that liberals aren’t well-equipped in dealing with the power presented by such conflation. Most liberals can’t even comprehend the conservative mindset or why their rhetoric is so persuasive. Liberals, despite their desire to understand, too often are clueless. Liberal values of mutual understanding are impotent in face of this conservative force that hits below the belt, that hits with an emotional punch that can’t be comprehended rationally. Liberals are barely even coming to terms with the problem, much less figuring out solutions.
In their desperation, liberals just cling tighter to their Enlightenment values. Liberals just don’t undersand why throwing more facts at the problem doesn’t persuade the public, why no matter how strong the scientific consensus a large part of the population will go on denying evolution and global warming. Liberals assume that there eventually has to be a breaking point where facts win over beliefs. This liberal faith in rationality is admirable, but maybe ill-advised. Time will tell.
I should add that in describing conservatives I have a basic sense of respect. They understand one thing about human nature seemingly better than liberals. They may not have a broader understanding, but this one thing they understand very very well.
In being so effective, conservatives could be argued to prove they are correct about human nature. Unlike liberals, conservatives don’t believe humans are primarily rational in this broad sense. Conservatives, instead, believe that humans only act responsibly (in a moral and social sense) for reasons of emotion: fear, shame, guilt, etc. It’s the punishment/reward model of both fundamentalism and capitalism. Conservatives are certainly correct in terms of it being easier to influence and/or manipulate people through negative emotions.
It makes me wonder. What does this say about human nature. Are liberals truly wrong about their faith in Enlightenment values and ideals? If so, where does that leave liberalism? If rationality will continue to fail or continue to not suceed to any great extent, then what value should we place on rationality? Should we all just accept the conservative assumption about human nature?