I wish I could forget about politics and political divisions. But regularly interacting with my conservative parents constantly reminds me of how different my liberal-minded view can be. And this causes me to think about politics in very personal terms.
I keep coming back to some basic truths about conservatives and liberals along with other related differences. I was at the moment focused on the issue of understanding that is informed by these respective ideological worldviews and how this makes communication challenging. Certainly, communication with my parents can be challenging at times.
I’d like to think that I’m slowly gaining in wisdom or something approximating wisdom. Over time, it has become clear to me how there are positives and negatives to all psychological traits, especially as they manifest in terms of ideological worldviews. This has caused me to become increasingly accepting and forgiving… or at least that is how I’d like to be. I’ve been trying to learn to just feel the frustration and let it ride.
Most importantly, I have no choice but to accept my own limitations in dealing with the limitations of others. No matter what I identify as, no matter how I may shift from time to time, I’ll most likely forever remain centered in liberal-mindedness. At this point, it just feels like who I am and I can’t easily imagine myself otherwise. It would be nearly impossible for me to shift into the full mode of the conservative mindset, although I do have enough experience with and tendencies toward conservatism to make it not an entirely alien reality.
Here is my frustration. Even with some understanding, the bridge between the two predispositions can seem insurpassable. I sometimes think this bothers the liberal-minded more for we can tend to be over-sensitive bleeding hearts who just want everyone to get along. The conservative-minded seem more inclined to just assume that the liberal-minded are so clueless as to never understand their worldview, thus communication being impossible and cooperation undesirable. This can be hard for the liberal-minded to accept. Polarized partisanship may inspire the conservative-minded and mobilize the conservative movement, but it instead tends to depress the liberal-minded and immobilize the liberal movement.
I’ve noticed how the conservative-minded are more likely to see this difference as a moral difference, specifically those who are moral versus those who are immoral or amoral. It’s the typical dualistic thinking, this or that, right or wrong. This is not unusually portrayed as a battle with the moral imperative to fight and win. For many conservative activists, this is seen as a cosmic war of good versus evil where victory must be sought at any cost. For the fundamentalist, one’s mortal soul and all of humanity is at risk. The enemy, even if not entirely evil, isn’t seen as a worthy equal and so compromise is a moral danger not to be risked. Every step toward liberalism is one step closer to Godless Communism or some such thing.
The liberal-minded, on the other hand, tend to take a more emotionally detached approach, whether psychological or philosophical (more detached, anyway, from such emotions as fear and hatred). This emphasizes differences without judging them in as absolute of terms, seeing both sides as potentially having something positive to contribute. If there is a moral danger to be feared, it is the divisiveness that makes cooperation toward a shared vision beyond all hope.
One side is fighting a battle or else guarding their territory in preparation for war while the other side is simply confused about how to respond. The former mentality, specifically when in this reactionary stance, isn’t very open to sitting down and talking. It is only when the fear response is dampened that liberal-minded can satisfy their own approach because only then are the conservative-minded willing to accept terms of truce.
Fear is the determining factor, for both sides. When the social atmosphere is fear-ridden, two things happen. First, the conservative-minded can become even more conservative-minded which means not just resistant to change but reactionary. And, second, the liberal-minded can become more conservative-minded as well which means leftism as a movement falters and splinters while leftists either become radicalized to the point of being excluded from respectable company and/or become defensive of that which the conservative-minded are reacting against.
Fear is only good for dealing with narrowly-defined threats such as immediate attacks by known enemies, problems that are short-term situations that require quick response, or situations that are localized so as to allow them to be easily defined and isolated. Fear is the most reactionary of emotions. It focuses the mind and prepares the body for action.
This is what conservative-mindedness is all about. Conservative-mindedness is defined by being low on the trait ‘openness’ and high on the trait ‘conscientiousness’. This adds up to a sense of focus and control. Research shows that conservative-minded traits are useful for clearly defined tasks and situations. The conservative-minded make good surgeons for they can focus intently while ignoring all distractions. They make good lawyers for they find it easy to deal with clearly worded laws and tangible precedents. They make good businessmen because success is so much more straightforward with either one making a profit or not, all other external factors being insignificant if they don’t add to or subtract from the bottom line. And they make good soldiers and generals in their ability to act quickly and decisively.
All of this relates to fear, whether fear of death or loss or failure or whatever. Problems arise for the conservative-minded when the situation is vague or complex, hence when fear and hyper-focus is an inadequate or unhelpful response.
Because of this, the conservative-minded will only feel comfortable and confident in certain situations and so they will constantly seek to create a society that conforms to their predispositions. This is why conservatives would love to create a society that is built around capitalism, the military, and/or fundamentalism. Capitalism is particularly clear in our society for conservatives perceive it in Social Darwinian terms where they seek to eliminate or weaken nearly all safety nets and so where one is driven to succeed out of fear of what would happen otherwise. Loss of status can be worse than death for the conservative-minded (and it is a good way to enforce social order in general). And so it is the fear of loss of status that makes life meaningful to them for that is their measure of morality and self-worth. Confrontation with fear strengthens the conservative mind or else just exaggerates it.
The strengths of the conservative-minded are clear. In those situations where they excel, they can utterly defeat the less aggressive and focused liberal-minded. And the conservative-minded are talented at creating the conditions for their success (also the conditions for the failure of their opponents). But their success doesn’t always translate into the success for the society they come to dominate (for this larger democratic society includes many potential ‘opponents’, including competion amongst the conservative-minded in their attempts to enforce their various and even contradictory preferred social orders).
The conservative-minded, however, don’t see it this way for their focused mindset only allows them to see what they choose to focus upon, all else being unnecessary or unworthy. The complex and diverse world of the liberal-minded simply doesn’t exist for them (heck, even the diversity among the conservative-minded isn’t ever fully acknowledged). They only see an issue or problem when it comes into their focus which means when it is no longer possible to ignore. Issues like global warming and economic inequality are vastly complex and so they seem unreal to them, mere abstract fantasies of the liberal elite.
This is a conundrum for the liberal-minded. Whether or not the conservative-minded see it, the problems of global warming and economic inequality remain as the reality we all face. Not even the most conservative-minded can ignore these problems forever. However, decades or even generations can go by before the point comes when the conservative-minded can no longer ignore them.
Here is the wisdom I’ve come to. All that the liberal-minded can do is repeat the truth and restate the obvious, over and over again, continuously and patiently. There is nothing else to be done. The liberal-minded has to accept that the conservative-minded will eventually come around, hopefully before it is too late. Either they come around or they don’t, but only reality itself can eventually force anyone to shift their focus. This is the Taoist approach to politics. Swimming against the tide is pointless and tiring. It is wiser to save one’s strength in order to use it when it can make the most difference. Timing is everything. If the conditions are not right, no amount of effort can make a difference.
This conflict of predispositions and worldviews isn’t essentially a moral issue, as the conservative-minded tend to think. Nor is it necessarily an issue of educating the public or reframing public debates, as the liberal-minded tend to think. It might involve all of those factors, but social change happens for reasons we don’t always understand.
This is where the understanding of a trait spectrum is helpful. It is best to remember that no one is entirely conservative-minded or entirely liberal-minded. The present responses we see from either end of the spectrum are situation-dependent. As the world changes, people shift, predispositions shift, ideologies shift, whole paradigms shift, etc. It doesn’t matter if the conservative-minded react against it or the liberal-minded try to force the issue. Reality always wins out in the end and one can only hope that one is on the side of reality.