Democracy, Legitimacy, & Consent of the Governed

Here I continue my personal exploration of American conservatism. The topic of this post, the 2012 election, is what all of my recent posts have been building up to. The impetus to my thinking was experiencing the campaign season in stereo with the news media in one ear and my parents in the other. Frustration is the result.

As others have already explained: If America could survive 8 years of Bush without becoming a corporatist plutocracy and outright fascist police state, then America can survive 8 years of Obama without becoming communist. Besides, considering the GOP used to be far to the left of Obama: If as Bircher-inspired Tea Partiers claim Obama is a secret commie and as the Birchers claimed Eisenhower was a secret commie, why did the US government including both parties spend so many decades fighting the commies until the greatest communist nation finally collapsed?

Conservatives think they’ve somehow lost America. I don’t know that they ever had it, but certainly the it they thought they had was never what they thought it was. There is a disconnect that is perplexing. And when perplexed by some issue of conservatism, I consider how such things play out in the thinking and lives of my parents. I do indeed observe this disconnect in them and, although I’m sure it existed in the past, I don’t remember it always being so blatant. What happened?

My family moved to South Carolina and my parents ended up spending a couple of decades there. While there, many things changed, besides just their being surrounded by a more right-wing version of conservatives than is typically found in the Midwest where our family lived prior to that.

The right-wing backlash was going mainstream and becoming empowered during the 1990’s. Like most conservatives, my parents were swept up in the changing atmosphere. But one thing kept my parents going too far right while I was still living down there and in the years immediately following my departure.

For my entire childhood and well into my adulthood, my parents consistently attended very liberal churches, mostly the Unity Church. They, however, began to feel a growing chasm between their own beliefs and the worldview of Unity Church, a growing chasm that wasn’t caused by any changes within the Unity Church. The inner right-winger was awakening within my parents. So, they left the Unity Church and began looking for more conservative churches, finally settling on one that they remained with for their last decade in South Carolina.

This was also the time when my brothers and I were back in the Midwest. And this was the time when Fox News was launched (1996). This left my parents to have no source of liberalism to balance out an increasing influence of right-wing rhetoric. No liberal children, no liberal church, no liberal Midwestern community, no liberal local media.

On top of that, my parents were increasingly associating with a more upper class set of friends, having left behind their poor years when my dad had gone back to school. Furthermore, along with my dad’s business management friends, their new church didn’t seem to have the socioeconomic diversity found in the Unity Church. To clarify why this matters, I should explain that in the Deep South upper class tends to mean very conservative.

This gets at a point that few Americans and fewer conservatives understand. The South isn’t as conservative or as Republican as it seems. The South was a part of the Populist alliance that pushed for many liberal reforms. More importantly, most of the eligible voters in the South lean Democratic. Republicans have maintained power in the South by disenfranchising minorities and the poor, one method being voting laws such as how some Southern states disallow early voting, restrict who can use an absentee ballot, and close polling stations early. Such voter disenfranchisement in certain states causes the majority of eligible voters to not even vote.

There is a stronger class divide in the Deep South which, of course, goes hand in hand with a race divide. Private schools and gated communities (also, majority white conservative suburbs) separate the haves from the have nots. Plus, even churches are divided along the same class and race lines. If like my parents one is an upper class white conservative in the Deep South, it is easy to become disconnected from not only most people in the country but also most people in one’s own community. A similar dynamic plays out in the majority white conservative regions in the rural South.

This is how so many conservatives became so deluded about this being their country. They’ve been surrounded by people who are like them such that they didn’t realize how isolated they had become. The last two presidential elections were a slap to the face for conservatives. They could no longer be oblivious to the larger social changes that were happening all around them. It wasn’t just a change in minorities. The youth, increasingly multicultural and multiracial, were changing as well. Even in some Southern states (including South Carolina), Obama won the youth white vote which is the future adult white vote.

As a leftist, I don’t have the privilege to suffer the type of delusions conservatives indulge in. Even though I know from history that US politics has always been liberal in a general sense (as in having no tradition of traditional conservatism), I also know that the US never has been dominated by left-wingers. I’ve never even lived in a state that would be the radically left-wing equivalent of Deep South states. I don’t romanticize the past and so I don’t have the sense of doom as is more common among those on the right.

My parents think that democracy has become corrupt simply because minorities are growing in numbers, thus diluting the superior white culture that made American great… or something like that. Conservatives used to blame it on the dilution of Christian values; they can’t do that anymore since minorities are more religious than whites. Maybe I’m not being fair in pointing their racialist-tinged worldview, but that is how it looks to an outside observer.

Once again, as a leftist, I know there never has been a golden age of democracy in the US. I’ve been saying for more than a decade that US democracy is problematic at best, often saying this to my parents. But my dad always dismissed my criticisms and argued it was perfectly fine. This was easy for him to say when Republicans had power with gaining Congress in the 1990s and regaining the presidency in the 2000s, less easy now. Only when minorities, women and the youth voted Obama into the presidency twice did my dad all of a sudden think democracy was corrupt.

I find this response disingenuous, certainly considering how morally righteous my parents have expressed themselves.

In 2000, the Republican government in Florida targeted minorities with a voter purge and then when a recount was attempted the Republican majority Supreme Court stopped it. The entire democratic system was thrown to the side by Republicans as if it meant nothing. This is the type of anti-democratic event we’re used to hearing about from third world countries with recent histories of political oppression. And if this had happened in a third world country, there would have been intervention by international organizations.

But this didn’t bother my parents at all. My dad still to this day denies that a full Florida recount was never attempted and that the Supreme Court stopped even the partial recount, even though these are rationally indisputable facts. In typical conservative fashion, he simply denies inconvenient information.

If the entirety of democracy being unconstitutionally undermined doesn’t bother my parents, then what finally convinced them that democracy had failed? It wasn’t just that demographics with traditionally low voting rates now voted in high numbers. They certainly don’t blame themselves for the GOP trying to suppress the vote, thus unintentionally causing greater voter engagement and turnout. No, they blame the Democratic Party.

I should explain my parents’ experience. Since they are retired, they decided to work as poll workers for this past presidential election. That was probably a mistake, considering that they are now living in this city that is dominated by uber-liberal Democrats. That just made Obama’s victory feel even more traumatic.

Two specific things about that poll work experience really hit a nerve.

First, my mom was bothered by how special needs people were not only allowed to vote but brought in by their helpers to vote. They were in a precinct that apparently included the place that houses special needs people with various issues: autism, low IQ, etc. It’s not that ton of these people came in, but the fact that they would be brought in at all made my mom outraged, maybe more upset than I’ve ever seen her in my entire life. I got the feeling that my mom thought this was a covert evil plan to get all the mentally challenged people to help steal the election for Obama.

Second, my dad was bothered by the official representatives of the Democratic Party. There were the typical poll watchers of both parties who are volunteers, but the Obama campaign also had two sharply dressed and knowledgeable professionals who stood there the entire time. They kept track of the names of who had voted and continually checked those names against the list of potential Democratic voters in that precinct. They would then call volunteers who would try to persuade these people to vote. My dad thought this was the “Chicago Machine” in action.

I sort of understand my parents’ general criticisms, but when they get to specifics they sound like conspiracy theorists. They feel that we need election reform. I agree as probably do most Americans, left and right. But too many eligible voters voting isn’t the problem that is undermining democracy and that needs reforming.

There is a big difference between voter reform and voter suppression, a difference that my parents don’t understand. They believe that if people can’t get themselves to the polling station without any help or encouragement, without any absentee ballots or early voting, then they shouldn’t vote (or be allowed to vote?). As the rhetoric goes, voting is a privilege, not a right… well, the constitution happens to disagree with conservatives on this issue.

Besides, conservatives are ignoring the history of voter suppression with roots in racism and classism which in turn has deeper roots in slavery and plutocracy. Ignoring this past isn’t just being historically clueless. It verges on being morally depraved. This is a very dark history, and a history that specifically has privileged people like my parents… how convenient.

So many conservatives don’t seem to understand democracy (or are they playing dumb?). Consent of the governed necessitates that the public (or at least a very large majority) is convinced of the legitimacy of the government. When people are disenfranchised from the political system, it brings into doubt this legitimacy. The act of voting, based on the right and ability to vote, is the most basic expression of the consent of the governed. When the majority doesn’t even vote, epecially because of voter suppression, the cornerstone of democracy is shown to be crumbling. The fight for voter rights and against voter suppression was a fight for democracy, and this fight was hard won.

After the country was founded, only a few percentage of Americans were both eligible to vote and eligible for election to public office. It took almost two centuries for nearly all Americans to get the right to vote. In fact, my parents were already adults when the Voting Rights Act was passed. The history of previous voter suppression is not just within living memory but specifically within the living memory of my parents’ generation. Even so, growing up, my parents were probably oblivious of it.

When I told my mom that she experienced privileges that others didn’t have, she denied this by literally screaming over and over, “I worked hard!” So fucking what!?! Most people work hard, including the poor and minorities, including liberals and civil rights activists, including all the Americans throughout history who’ve experienced voter suppression and other forms of political oppression.

I take democracy very seriously. It’s not that my parents simply dismiss democracy out of hand. Part of it is that, sadly like many other Americans, they lack a fundamental grasp of what democracy is about. Another part is even more basic. They don’t understand democracy because they don’t prioritize it as a value. If my parents were to be honest, they’d have to admit that they put their ideology, their belief system before democracy. What this means is that religion (social conservatism) and capitalism/’meritocracy’ (fiscal conservatism) will always come first, even if that means underming or sacrificing elements of democracy in the process.

My parents are closer to some of the founding fathers. Most of the founding fathers didn’t want democracy, maybe because they didn’t even know what it was. But the problem that the founding fathers faced was that most early Americans did want democracy. Right-wing conservatives now face a similar problem as they find themselves in the minority.

There is very interesting data about American democracy in terms of voting.

This past election inspired high rates of voter turnout which is a heartening thing to see for us lovers of democracy. Actually, voter turnout has been rising for about a decade now, although it hasn’t risen back up to the 1960s level when more than 60% voted.

After the 1960s, the voter turnout continuously dropped until hitting a low point in the 1990s. It was in 1994 that Republicans gained majority in Congress which hadn’t been seen in 4 decades, even with the popular influence they had earlier with Reagan. A sad thing happened in 1996, two years into this Republican majority in Congress, interestingly the same year that Fox News was launched. It was the precise moment when the voter turnout dropped below 50%, voter turnout having barely hovered above 50% during the 1980s. The right-wing had become so loud as to dominate the media narrative. Instead of being energized, voters apparently became demoralized.

In 2000, however, voter turnout became an irrelevant issue since votes literally didn’t count or rather weren’t counted. For a democracy based on consent of the governed, the rise of the right-wing between 1994 and 2000 was a precarious time. Like Obama or not, there is some reassurance in having a president that won the popular vote twice (a rare event) during a time of increasing voter turnout.

For those on the right, this provokes paranoid conspiracy theories. For me as a leftist, this gives me a glimmer of hope.

Advertisements

Conservative Focus on the Negative

Considering ideological predispositions, there is one study I came across that I’ve never focused on before. I realized it allows for useful perspective on a particular distinction and on general confusion.

The study had to do with what people focus upon. The conclusion of the results was that conservatives spend more time focusing on that which they perceive as negative whereas liberals spend more time focusing on that which they perceive as positive. Now, that is beyond interesting.

It makes sense according to other research.

Conservatives are shown to on average have a higher fear/disgust reesponse. It’s easy to see this just by observing politics where conservatives often have long lists of all the things they are against. This was obvious with the Tea Party. It can lead liberals to calling them obstructionists.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be drawn toward the new and different, toward possibility and change. Liberals often push visions of hope wtih optimism and expectation about what good can be achieved. This was heard particularly in Obama’s first campaign. But conservatives see it as naive and moreso dangerously naive.

Liberals point out the positive results being blocked by conservatives. And conservatives complain about the negative results they fear from the agenda liberals push.

This made me wonder about the debate on the nature of conservatism. Is conservatism most fundamentally about defending tradition against change? Or is conservatism more primarily motivated by reaction to what it is against?

This could appear like simply a difference of emphasis, but it is an emphasis that might make a world of difference. A difference of emphasis could cause a drastic difference in political behavior and policy. This is what Corey Robin argues in his theory of reactionary onservatism. He actually argues that it goes past just emphasis, and he makes this argument by pointing how contemporary explanations of conservatism don’t fit the actual ideological history of conservatism.

What is intriguing about Corey Robin’s argument is that I don’t think he is claiming or even implying that conservatives are necessarily trying to be deceptive. Most conservatives probably believe the narrative told of conservatism as traditionalism.

The disconnect maybe just comes from the typical human challenge of self-awareness and self-understanding. Often, outsiders have more perspective to objectively assess a group or movement. This would be true for liberals as well, and I’d love to see a non-liberal write an equally compelling analysis of liberalism.

I have no desire to repeat Corey Robin’s argument here. Instead, I’ll follow a recent line of thought I’ve had about popular entertainment. What many see as liberal entertainment I’d argue is actually conservative in the reactionary sense. Two examples of this are film noir and action movies.

The argument for these genres being liberal is that authority figures often aren’t the heroes, sometimes the authority figures are challenged by or even disrespected by the heroes who not unusually are lone vigilantes. Furthermore, these movies often glorify what traditionalist-identifying conservatives claim to be against: sex, violence, etc.

The argument for reactionary conservatism, however, brings forth an explanation that seems to be confirmed by the study I mentioned above. These movies are conservative precisely for the reason that they are obsessively focused on all the issues that cause conservatives to feel fear or disgust. They are being invoked in presenting a sense of moral order or the need for renewal of moral order, even if only manifest in the hero fighting the good fight or standing by his personal principles.

This is where the confusion is brought to the surface. At least for conservatives, the best way to see what they are about is by looking at what they are against. Film noir and action movies probably will tell you more about conservatism than even the most scholarly tome written by a conservative thinker.

Why Did I Become a Leftist?

In a previous post, I threw out some observations and conjecture about empathy in the context of recent interactions I’ve had with my conservative parents. My parents aren’t happy. Their having worked as poll workers in a liberal town on the day of Obama’s victory didn’t help matters.

Politics lately have rubbed salt into the open wounds of conservatism. The media gives us daily updates on the writhing that this has caused in the Republican Party and in the conservative movement in general, especially in relation to the Tea Party whose supporters are always going on about RINOs versus real conservatives. I don’t personally care too much about who those on the right end up sacrificing from their ranks. I’m perfectly fine with them eating their own, as they are apt to do at times like these.

However, I do care about my conservative parents which means I can’t help but personalize the issue of conservatism. I’m easily affected by the unhappiness and distress of those around me. I have a hard enough time keeping myself in a moderately good mood on the best of days, even when the people in my life are feeling satisfied with their place in the world. It would be different if I didn’t see them as often, but their moving back into town has made regular interactions the norm.

I actually like my parents in a general sense, by which I mean when they aren’t explicitly in righteous conservative mode. I’ve always been closer to them than my brothers have, for reasons that I don’t wish to entirely explain at the moment. To put it simply, I guess it comes down to understanding on a fundamental level why my parents are the way they are. I see how much I am my parent’s child. Every trait I love and hate in myself I can find correlates to varying degrees in my parents. Only circumstances clearly distinguish why I became a liberal-minded leftist rather than following in the rightward footsteps of my parents.

Looking back on my high school years in South Carolina, I can see how my left-leaning tendencies weren’t entirely formed and so not inevitable. Any number of events could have caused me to have become a conservative or at least more conservative-minded. At that time, I hadn’t yet returned to this liberal college town in the Midwest, i.e., Iowa City. I also hadn’t yet discovered the wonders and glories of the internet. My intellectual world back then was severely confined relative to my present situation living in a literary town full of book stores and libraries (public and university), all within short walking distance.

Growing up, I talked to my dad about all kinds of intellectual topics (and I still do). It was from him that I learned my intellectual abilities. This was eased both by the fact that I wasn’t yet fully a leftist and my dad wasn’t yet fully a right-winger (my dad could actually watch and enjoy the most liberal of tv shows such as Star Trek: Next Generation without any complaints). At that time, I didn’t have any other role models for what it meant to live a life of the intellect. So, my dad’s conservative intellect, albeit not without some basic liberal-mindedness, was profoundly influential upon my tender young emerging psyche.

I specifically remember two things we discussed around then in my late teens during the mid 1990s: 1) a book about the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of homosexuality, and 2) Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve which discusses race and IQ.

I look back now and see these ideas in a larger context. The right-wing culture wars were heating up and my dad was pulled into it. But at the time, I wasn’t a liberal and wasn’t versed in the liberal criticisms. I didn’t know, for example, that Murray’s book wasn’t intellectually credible. I actually took those ideas seriously for the simple reason that I took my dad seriously. I even remember repeating these ideas to others. If my intellectual development had stopped there, I would be an ideologically very different person.

The reason I took those ideas seriously was because of the social environment I found myself in. I was living in South Carolina during high school. After high school, I spent three summers in a conservative Christian YMCA camp in the belt buckle of the Bible Belt. Also, the colleges I went to (Clemson and a local community college) weren’t exactly bastions of liberalism and leftism.

I had no larger perspective at the time, but I knew on a gut-level that there was something wrong with the world I found myself in. Maybe it was depression that saved me. The tidy conservative vision of life appealed to a part of me. Like my parents, I just wanted to be a good person… which in the conservative worldview goes hand in hand with being ‘normal’. There was just one problem. I was incapable of being normal. I had profound sense of dissatisfaction and suspected that it was more than a mere personal problem.

Nonetheless, on a basic level, I understood the attraction of the simple vision of life offered by the conservative worldview. I can’t emphasize that enough. Even to this day, a strong element of conservative-mindedness has survived within me. This is why I’m so conflicted in my relationship with my parents.

If I had never discovered the wonders of liberal-mindedness, I would have ended up as a tragic figure in a conservative story. But my parents had unintentionally planted within me the seed of liberal-mindedness. My parents taught me to think independently, especially my dad who taught me to question and doubt and to think analytically. My parents also kept plenty of liberal-minded literature around the house which formed the background of my mental development.

Still, that wouldn’t have been enough to have made me into a liberal or leftist. My earliest strong introduction to the liberal worldview was public education. Despite being in the Deep South, public school introduced me to a wide variety of people, both my peers and teachers, but particularly teachers.

I had an English teacher who was British and who taught the clssics of the traditional liberal education. Two books that I discovered through his class were Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Hermann Hesse’s Siddharha. The two protagonists were typical liberal heros dissatisfied with the conservative world they were born into, both ending up alone in poverty, one ending in tragedy and the other in spiritual vision. I internalized the liberal hero and the two possible endings continue to play out in my psyche.

The other teacher I had was in an art class. He loved art with almost a sense of mission. He was one of those rare teachers who realized the power and rsponsibility of being a teacher. What he taught me was to think outside the box, to never assume anything, and to not be afraid to experiment. He is the only teacher I hated to disappoint for he saw potential in me and so allowed me to see it for myself.

Before moving back to liberal Iowa City, I had this basic liberal foundation, although I didn’t yet have a comprehension of liberalism on its own terms. The classical liberal hero, as found in Jude the Obscure and Siddhartha, lived in a conservative society. That was my situation in South Carolina, but Iowa City was a different world. All of a sudden, I found myself surrounded by well-educated liberals, authors regularly visiting for readings, aspiring writers everywhere, and numerous libraries and bookstores. My liberal-minded potential blossomed into my present bleeding heart self.

My mom recently asked me why her children all became so opposite of her and my dad. There is no way I could explain this so she could understand. Asking why I failed to become a conservative is inseparable from asking why conservatism itself has gone off the rails.

As I came into young adulthood, one thing became abundantly clear. Conservatism has offered no good answers or solutions to the problem of human suffering. This isn’t to say conservatives never will, but it would require a lot of deep soul-searching. I’ll be more than willing to reassess conservatism if it ever as a movement decides to offer a compassionate response to the struggles and sufferings of the the least among us.

Giving the Real a Voice

Empathetic Imaginaton.

Empathy: Compassionate Understanding.

Seeking to feel what someone else feels is to feel with them, is to extend one’s felt sense of identity into the worldview of another, is to reach out toward them with an open hand and open heart.

Striving to know the lived experience of another is to care about them, is to claim a common humanity, is to acknowledge the other on the most basic level.

Imagination: Epistemological Anarchism.

Challenging ideological or cynical realism is to open oneself up to possibility and uncertainty, is to question and doubt, is to root at the ground of received wisdom.

Demanding freedom of thought is to empower ideas, is to let loose forces unknown and unknowable, is to risk all.

Empathetic imagination means letting the Real have its own voice… and then to listen.

Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism

Let me clear up the issue of ideology as it relates to my own thinking. I’ve discussed this before, but it can never be emphasized too much.

Conservatism isn’t necessarily the same thing as conservative-mindedness and liberalism isn’t necessarily the same thing as liberal-mindedness. (You must forgive my sometimes using, in other posts, conservatism and liberalism as a shorthand for conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness.) A conservative can be relatively liberal-minded and a liberal can be relatively conservative-minded. Conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness are on a spectrum with most people in the middle with varying development and ability in both directions.

The confusion comes from extremists having more influence over politics than does the average person. Also, with mainstream American politics in recent history, conservatism and liberalism no longer clearly or simply correspond with their respective psychological predispositions. It’s a mess with labels meaning almost anything, depending on who you ask.

Conservatism has come to mean extreme conservative-mindedness combined with or aligned with authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. Liberalism has come to mean moderate conservative-mindedness combined with or aligned with moderate liberal-mindedness, but with a constant pull toward the right for the last several decades or so. So, this has caused Democrats to take up the moderate conservative position that used to be the standard position of Republicans (e.g., Nixon and Eisenhower), leaving even moderate liberals without much of a home, not to mention stronger liberals and more radical leftists.

We have a party of extreme right-wingers and a party of moderate conservatives, a party of the extremely conservative-minded and a party of the moderately conservative-minded, a party of authoritarians and a party of lesser authoritarianism. However, neither of the main parties is left-wing nor even overly liberal-minded. Liberalism has come to mean mild-mannered centrism at best. There is no need to fear communist revolution or anarchistic terrorism coming from the Democratic Party, not even from the liberal movement for that matter. Heck, there is no need to fear from Democrats even the popular reforms that used to be promoted by the past Republican Party that was far to the left of Obama.

This problem can’t be solved by conservatives or liberals as such, at least not defined according to present mainstream politics. Left-wingers are correct in their analysis when they point this out. However, liberalism isn’t inherently weak and conciliatory, as some left-wingers assume. Liberalism can manifest in radical ways and indeed it has at other periods of history. Genuinely and strongly liberal-minded liberalism both seeks to liberalize and liberate.

But such liberal-mindedness necessitates a meeting and maybe a merging of liberalism and leftism. Liberal-mindedness is the key part, not any particular ideology. Liberalism without liberal-mindedness is pathetic. Leftism without liberal-mindedness is dangerous.

More importantly, conservative-minded conservatism without liberal-mindedness to balance it will fall off the cliff into authoritarianism. If conservatives genuinely fear authoritarianism, then they should do everything in their power to make room at the table for the liberal-minded (and make room within their own souls for a bit of liberal-minded hope and vision). I’m not asking conservative-mindedness to be sacrificed or even necessarily constrained. I’m arguing that liberal-mindedness is at the heart of democracy and of a free society, for liberals and conservatives alike. Conservative-mindedness can serve the purposes of democracy and freedom or, without liberal-mindedness to offer balance, it can serve the purposes of authoritarianism and oppression.

I speak of the necessity of balance, of interdependence, and of psychological wholeness.

The problem is conservative-minded conservatives (along with the conservative-minded of other persuasions) don’t understand the need of balance when they are in a state of fear. This is why the onus of responsibility ultimately falls on the shoulders of the liberal-minded (including liberal-minded conservatives). Only the liberal-minded are capable of envisioning an alternative narrative to that of fear and doom, paranoia and xenophobia. Only the liberal-minded are capable of offering both/and, win/win solutions. The conservative-minded aren’t capable of pulling themselves out of a death spiral of fear once it has begun.

Fortunately, most people have a combination of varying degrees of conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Unfortunately, it’s easy even for these people to have fear shut down their own sense of liberal-mindedness. This is how moderate conservatives and also moderate liberals sadly end up supporting immoral actions such as the Iraq War and Gitmo. The two-party system, without any strong elements of liberal-mindedness, will inevitably lead to bipartisan corruption and complicity.

This complicity comes from a lack of imagination. That is the talent of liberal-mindedness: imagination (see the psychological correlates: Openness to Experience of traits theory, Intuition and Perception of Myers-Briggs, and Thin Boundary Type of Ernest Hartmann). I sometimes speak of conservatives lacking empathy, but that actually isn’t quite true or rather I’m not communicating the truth well in stating it that way. What is true is that conservative-mindedness (as a theoretical construct distinct from and separate from liberal-mindedness) lacks empathetic imagination and open-minded imagination in general.

This lack of imagination is exemplified by the cultural myth of capitalist realism — as described by Mark Fisher:

“Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”

This invisible barrier is the boundary within which mainstream American politics operates. This is why liberal-mindedness is key, specifically as it relates to Ernest Hartmann’s thin boundary type. Only the thin boundary type has the ease and capacity to see past barriers and transcend constraints. That is imagination, not as mere fantasy but as a potent force of social action, even to the point of revolution when all else fails.

The trick, though, is that liberal-mindedness at its best is capable of operating without any inevitable opposition for it undermines the oppositional attitude typical of conservative-mindedness. Conservative-mindedness has no way of defending against this other than to promote fear that undermines liberal-mindedness at a gut-level. In a direct fight, conservative-mindedness will always win. Liberal-mindedness can only win by shifting the narrative of the debate, by refusing to play by the rules of conflict and antagonism.

Liberal-mindedness isn’t opposed to conservative-mindedness nor, I would argue, is conservative-mindedness by itself opposed to liberal-mindedness. Rather, it is conservative-mindedness combined with or in alliance with authoritarianism (and social dominance orientation) that is opposed to liberal-mindedness. Without authoritarianism pulling conservative-mindedness into extremism, conservative-mindedness is simply the yang to the yin of liberal-mindedness. The liberal-minded can understand this because it is at the core of their worldview. The challenge is to help the conservative-minded to realize that they too contain liberal-mindedness within themselves, even if only as a potential.

An example of unnecessary and unuseful polarized opposition is that of public versus private. In reality, both are required for a well functioning society. I see this in the debate of welfare. Conservatives construct a narrative of charity in opposition to welfare, as if private charity could solve all of the world’s problems. This is usually promoted by religious conservatives and so it is an argument for giving churches more power over society, deciding who gets helped and who doesn’t.

The problems with this are many, but one basic problem is that private charity has never proven itself to be effective. The very communities and regions that are the most religious and have the least taxation also have the worst social problems. If they can’t solve their own problems at home, what makes them think that their strategy will work for the entire nation?

Liberals aren’t against charity. As a liberal, I praise conservatives who do their best to help others through volunteering their time and donating money. But in the end such charity only deals with symptoms. By saying this, I don’t mean to disparage or devalue charity. Anyone who has dealt with a serious illness or had a loved one deal with a serious illness knows that symptom management can be one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine, especially when it comes to pain management. As nice as it is, no rational person would argue that symptom management should replace procedures that may cure the illness that is causing the symptoms.

It’s both/and. This is what liberal-mindedness can offer. Conservative emphasis on charity and liberal emphasis on social safety nets are both necessary for a civil society. So, it is left to the liberal-minded to make this case and to provide the vision, the empathetic imagination that will make this case compelling.

Ideology and Empathy

My relationship with my parents has been stressed. It’s not just this past campaign season and the elections, but it does have to do with politics in general. I’ve seen this coming for years (by which I mean the larger social trends beyond just my parents), even if I couldn’t predict the personal impact it would have on my parents.

Back in the Bush presidency, I began to more fully understand the trends that were shaping the future. Conservatives thought they were on top of the world. Their narrative had dominated national politics since Reagan, even finding ways to capitalize during Clinton’s presidency. They had been angry and righteous for a long time, and it made them feel powerful, almost untouchable. They knew that they were the Real Americans. They knew they were the moral majority. The problem was that their knowledge was incomplete and not perfectly correlated to certain social realities.

George W. Bush was the culmination of the entire Southern Strategy: white Texan good ol’ boy (at least in persona), born-again Evangelical who spoke in grand religious terms (of America as a Christian nation and of good vs evil), social conservative who gave up alcohol and funded abstinence-only sex education, fiscal conservative who pushed tax breaks (especially for the “job-creators”) and trickle-down economics, and on and on. But it all ended in failure. It turned out to not be all that they dreamed of. They were lost and confused, and then they were defeated.

Along came Obama. He had vision and narrative, just like they once had. He pointed out the failures of conservative rule. The anger and righteousness of conservatives was magnified a thousandfold, verging on bitterness and cynicism. Out of this, the Tea Party formed and swayed the entire Republican Party along with the entire right-wing media.

Now, conservatives like my parents claim that Bush never was a real conservative and that they never cared about him, but they sure didn’t feel that way at the time. Anyone who questioned the Great, Wise Leader (particularly in his first term) was considered un-American and possibly a terrorist or at least a terrorist sympathizer, definitely someone of questionable morality and allegiances. I find it odd that my dad in the past often reacted with sensitivity to any criticism of Bush as if it had been a personal insult, yet now doesn’t even consider Bush a conservative. If it’s fine for “real conservatives” to criticize Bush, why isn’t it fine for everyone else to do so?

I’m not blaming my parents for changing their minds. I wouldn’t like a conservative call it flip-flopping for as a liberal I highly value the ability to change one’s mind. It would just be nice for them to acknowledge how much they once praised Bush and how they didn’t at the time argue that Bush wasn’t a real conservative.

I spend a lot of time with my parents. I care about them. Even as I judge conservatives, I all too well understand there is a personal side that goes beyond mere politics. My parents feel hurt and attacked, as if people like them no longer matter. From their perspective, they’re just trying to be good people, just trying to be responsible citizens. They’ve always played by the rules. They’ve worked hard. They don’t understand how everything went so wrong. They just don’t understand and they don’t feel understood.

What I wish they understood is that everyone wants to be understood. It seems to me that they want something that they haven’t always been willing to offer to others.

Yes, my parents have worked hard. But so have many others. There are hundreds of millions of people in America and billions of people in the world who have lived more difficult lives than my parents. Most of these people have suffered and struggled for no fault of their own, just circumstances of their birth. They get less understanding than my parents have received. They get less benefit of the doubt. They get fewer opportunities and fewer second chances. My parents have never known the lowest depths of poverty, extended unemployment and welfare (or, worse, depending on welfare despite being employed, never being able to make ends meet with minimum wage), having to choose between paying the bills or feeding one’s children, a life of homelessness with few if any prospects of escaping the streets, being treated with negative prejudice by the police and courts because of their skin color, etc. Relatively speaking, my parents have lived a life of privilege (and so have I, although my generation fared worse than did theirs).

Conservatives like my parents often feel very little empathy and compassion towards those deemed different or other. It’s not that conservatives are intentionally trying to be mean-spirited. They just don’t feel it on a gut-level. It’s not a part of who they are, not part of their life experience. The undocumented immigrant seeking to escape the violence and poverty of Mexico (that Americans have helped to cause), well too bad for them, they are foreigners, not ‘us’. The poor who have known generations of poverty along with oppression and prejudice, well too bad for them, it’s their own fault, they should quit complaining and work harder. Obviously, this isn’t the response Jesus would give, but that doesn’t seem to bother many conservatives, if they ever think about it. That said, my parents are more likely to think about it than some conservatives, but I’m not sure it often causes them to deeply question their own privilege.

In the end, I want to understand conservatives, even if many conservatives are unwilling or unable to return the favor to others. The reason I want to understand is that I have that basic liberal/leftist sense of all of us being products of our circumstances. My parents didn’t choose to be the way they are and I didn’t choose to be the way I am. There is no credit to be taken or blame to be given. People are just people, doing the best they can for the situation they find themselves in. Sometimes understanding is the best thing we can offer to others.

What frustrates me the most is knowing that my parents genuinely are good people. I’m sure most conservatives, like most people, are good people. It’s not that my parents lack the ability to empathize, but it’s just not their first response when dealing with people they don’t personally know or identify with, especially when it comes to groups that have been made into political scapegoats.

Let me return to the example of undocumented migrants from Mexico.

Mexican immigrants aren’t coming here for the fun of it or even for the free goodies (e.g., welfare). They are coming out of desperation. They risk their very lives to cross the border. They could die of heat, be murdered, kidnapped, sold into slavery, or any number of horrible ends… yet they come anyways, risking everything, many of them putting their entire faith in God to protect them and their families. They are that desperate, but most conservatives still wouldn’t naturally think to first compassionately empathize or to consider how American policies contribute to their misery. The US War on Drugs has created a thriving black market. American money funds Mexican drug cartels, criminals and corrupt politicians. American guns go across the border to help fuel the endless violence (and then Americans complain when a tiny fraction of that violence spills back over). All of us Americans are part of the problem for our government is part of the problem, but it never occurs to most conservatives to accept responsibility for being a part of the problem; instead, they blame the victims who are just trying to escape the misery.

I could present all of this to my parents. If I pushed the case hard enough, I might be able to get them to give a more empathetic response. However, they wouldn’t likely come to such a response on their own, at least not about such issues as undocumented immigrants. I don’t want to twist someone’s arm just to try to get some empathy. I’d like to live in a world where most people respond with empathy as their default position, idealist that I am.

I was just now reminded of the quote conservatives like to repeat: “A conservative is a liberal who got mugged the night before.” There is some truth to it. Fear will make even liberals more conservative-minded, even if only temporarily. But the underlying worldview is questionable, that fear represents the norm of reality and mugging represents the norm of human behavior. I wouldn’t claim that the conservative response is always wrong, but it is problematic if one is stuck within a worldview of fear. When fear closes down the normal human response of empathy, that is when people act without compassion such as mugging others. A lack of empathy sadly too often leads to a lack of empathy, fear to fear, violence to violence to even more violence; a vicious cycle of crime leading to desperation and desperation leading to crime, ever escalating (as seen with the War on Drugs which has led to an increase of drug use, drug sales and drug-related incarcerations; and similar to what is seen with abstinence-only education and abortion bans which lead to an increase of teen pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies, abortions and STDs).

In considering the conservative response, I see something even more fundamental going on. It’s not just an issue of ideologically moralizing about empathy and compassion. It goes to a deeper level of how we view the world and experience reality, a level of the psyche that isn’t easily accessed by the conscious mind for our fundamental worldview is formed prior to even our sense of self being fully formed. This has to do with how one is raised or rather the environment in which one is raised. I keep coming back to the research that showed kids who grew up in multicultural environments tended to become socially liberal as adults (and vice versa for kids who grew up with monocultural environments).

That is essentially what differentiates my parents and I. A simple, yet crucial difference. More importantly, a difference that neither my parents nor I chose for ourselves, like everyone else simply a given of the social world we were born into.

This is why it’s so frustrating. After reaching adulthood, people rarely change. My parents experienced plenty of multiculturalism as adults, but they didn’t experience it during the key formative periods of youth. They can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a multicultural world, just as I can’t fundamentally understand what it means to be raised in a monocultural world. Morality and ideology fails us in this conundrum.

I can’t say my parents are objectively wrong for putting their principles before empathy. All I can do is argue that principles not based on and instead contrary to empathy aren’t worthy principles… but that is an opinion that is only persuasive to those who already agree with me.

Is there a way to frame the discussion so that conservatives would understand the central value of compassionate empathy? I know my parents would like to be empathetically understood by others. Such a desire is a potential beginning point for developing an ability and willingness to offer this to others. But why does the plea for mutual understanding almost always end up being characterized as a liberal agenda? Doesn’t mutual understanding benefit all, conservatives included? Is there a reason conservatives don’t want mutual understanding? Do they think some people don’t deserve it because they didn’t morally earn it? Do they see understanding offered freely as a moral danger, both to the person receiving and the person giving?

As always, I wish I understood.

Is Reactionary Conservatism Conservative?

I’ve written about this topic quite a few times before. I don’t have any grand insights to add to my previous commentary. I just find myself constantly perplexed by American conservatism.

One particular thing keeps coming back to my mind. America has no tradition of traditional conservatism. This has been more or less true going back to colonial times, but definitely true at least by the revolutionary era. The Europeans who immigrated to America mostly came from traditionally conservative societies and communities, although modern liberalism was already beginning to take hold in certain countries such as Britain and the Netherlands. The important part is that these people were usually leaving traditional conservatism behind on purpose, sometimes even being forced to leave by the defenders of traditional conservatives of their homelands.

The Enlightenment eventually led to the demise of traditional conservatism in  the West. What replaced it was reactionary conservatism. This took hold earliest in America because there was no other conservatism to compete with it. But what exactly is this reactionary conservatism? Is it even conservative in any basic sense?

Traditional conservatives were the strongest opponents of classical liberalism, most specifically laissez-faire capitalism. Modern conservatives have come to embrace many of the major issues that classical conservatives opposed. Conservatives no longer even promote conserving such as the precautionary principle which goes back to the origin of the word itself.

They don’t resist change, but react against it. In reacting, they oddly end up embracing so much of what they reacted against. There is no core set of beliefs or values to reactionary conservatism. It just depends on what they happen to be reacting against at the moment?

Being predisposed to the liberal worldview, it doesn’t bother me that liberalism lacks any core principles. I’ve always thought of liberalism as more of an attitude, a mindset. Liberalism is all about changing with the times, all about embracing the new and different. But that isn’t how conservatives think of conservatism… which makes reactionary conservatism a very odd beast.

Am I not fully grasping what conservatism is all about? Maybe I’m doing what conservatives tend to do by pushing the idea of the idea of a genuinely conservative conservatism of the past. Maybe conservatism has always been reactionary. If one were to seek an origin of conservatism, one would have to look to the most traditional of societies which are hunter-gatherer tribes. Even the traditional conservatism that existed when the revolutionary era came was far away from tribal societies.

All of civilization was built on largely liberalizing forces. The merging of cultures and syncretizing of religions in such civilizations as the Roman Empire. Civilization is fundamentally liberal in bringing local people into an increasingly cosmopolitan world.

By following the strands of conservatism back in time, do we find a beginning point of conservatism? Or does the entire idea of conservatism simply unravel?

The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, Where Exactly?

Another blog (Reach the Right) brought to my attention an article by Jonathan Chait (The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy Is on Your Screen). It’s a good article that offers a detailed analysis, but I couldn’t entirely agree (nor could some other bloggers; for example, Erik Lundegaard).

In Reach the Right, I responded to the comment that “I think it’s an unusually difficult line of reasoning to argue with”. I didn’t find it difficult at all. Below is the reposting of my response.

I think there is truth in the article, but it also misses some of the context.

After many decades of narrative rule by conservatives, liberals are finally winning the narrative war. This more has to do with demographics than any effective strategy by liberals, demographics and overreach by conservatives, overreach that has turned away many Americans from the GOP. Liberals, or rather Democrats, have capitalized on this conservative overreach, but they can’t take much of the credit or blame.

The context, of course, has many factors.

It is true that what is deemed as ‘liberal’ has come to dominate much of the media. Then again, this so-called liberalism has come to dominate most of modern American society. Most Americans are liberal on many issues and becoming increasingly liberal. In fact, most Americans are more liberal than the MSM (and more liberal than the MSM portrays the American public) on many central issues such as the majority supporting pot legalization and being against overturning Roe vs Wade, just to mention two obvious examples.

The MSM, with much lag time, reflects the American people who are increasingly diverse — in terms of: races and mixed race individuals, interracial dating and marriage, ethnicity and culture, religion and atheism, etc. But the reality America has always been vastly more diverse than the conservatives would allow for in their vision of America. What is surprising is that the norm of the American people is seen as ‘liberal’ in the MSM. Liberalism in the MSM often just means a tepid middle-of-the-road position on issues, the real political correctness of liberalism is in between the right-wing and the left-wing, if anything favoring the former more than the latter in that you’ll see right-wing libertarians in the MSM more often than you’ll ever see left-wing socialists or anarchists (or even left-wing libertarians).

Anyway, why is it ‘liberal’ to portray gay people as normal people with normal problems and normal interests? In reality, most gay people are normal by all standards other than the standard of heterosexuality. Why is it ‘liberal’ to speak honestly about global warming? Truth knows no ideology. If certain facts and realities are perceived as liberal, that can’t be blamed on liberals.

America is an ideologically confusing and confused country. There never has been in America a tradition of traditional conservatism. What gets called ‘conservatism’ is too often just a variety of liberalism from the past such as classical liberalism.

This has caused liberalism to become conservative in many ways. Since, American conservatives often are against traditionally conservative positions, liberals have oddly taken up their defense. Traditional conservatives were at least against unregulated capitalism and for most of history supportive of non-capitalist economic systems, partly because capitalism destabilizes social order and undermines moral order. Traditional conservatives in particular were against usury which has become a major pillar of modern capitalism. Also, the precautionary principle is a core principle of any normal sense of conservatism, except of course American ‘conservatism’.

However, there are certain ways America is conservative and so is the MSM, especially Hollywood. American politics and media are obsessed with certain conservative themes such as good vs evil, us vs them.

Hollywood constantly portrays a conservative worldview with action movies that have men of action who are superior to men of thought and action movies that glorify (and otherwise normalize) war, violence and vigilante justice.

The genre of noir is an inherently conservative worldview (although more in the line of reactionary conservatism, rather than traditional conservatism). Noir can be found in the Dark Knight Batman movies, in Watchmen, Blade Runner, Dexter and in various gritty movies and shows that portray the world as fallen into darkness where a lone hero, usually a white male, has to fight the good fight, whether he wins or loses. In general, the conservative ideal of the white male protagonist still surprisingly dominates most of the entertainment these days.

Horror is another conservative genre. A popular horror trope is to show kids partying or somehow being naughty right before being killed. Like noir, horror tends to be about a fallen world. We live in a time of fear and uncertainty when the conservative worldview becomes attractive, although we are getting at the point when people are starting to want a new narrative.

Related to these, drug-taking and dealing is typically portrayed tragically. This is beginning to change some, but change has come slower in politics and media than it has in the general public. Obama laughed at the idea of taking seriously pot legalization, even though most Americans take it seriously. Despite all the negative drug portrayals or maybe because of it, drug use such as with marijuana has become more widespread.

No matter what one considers ‘liberal’, what interests me is that the media remains mostly closed off to the left-wing. As liberalism has become separated and distinct from the left-wing, conservatism has become aligned with or even conflated with the right-wing. This is largely why conservatives have turned away so many Americans and thus lost control of much of the MSM. It’s not so much that the conservative narrative has lost power, rather the conservative narrative turned into a right-wing narrative that has lost power. Most Americans want a moderate centrism which just so happens to be where liberalism is at the moment.

Whites Understanding Whites

I’ve been struggling with negativity lately. It’s partly just the campaign season that had forced it to the surface. There is negativity in the media and I see it in other people in my life. I’m good at noticing negativity because I have a strong streak of it myself.

I have the dual problem of not being able to deal well with negativity and not being able to resist being drawn into negativity. I see so many problems in the world. I find myself judging people for being judgmental, criticzing people for being critical, etc. I’m overly sensitive and too often hypocritical.

My oversensitivity isn’t all bad. It’s also what helps me feel empathy and compassion. It is what helps me gain insight and understanding. Even my hypocrisy usually leads me back to self-awareness, eventually.

I was contemplating the failings of humanity mostly for reasons of my personal life. But at the same time other things were tumbling around in my skull.

I came across data about pollution causing a large percentage of deaths worldwide, a good example of unnecessary suffering. I was reminded of James Gilligan’s book about a particular cause of particular social problems, a good example of the type of understanding we need more of. Yesterday, I heard a public radio show about John Howard Griffin who sounded like an interesting guy, a good example of how compassion and lack thereof plays out in the real world.

I’ve already discussed the first two in recent posts. The third one I haven’t written about before and so I’ll explain a bit of why it interested me.

John Howard Griffin was a journalist and author. An accident in the army left him blind for 11 years before regaining his eyesight. During that time, he came to the realization that he couldn’t tell the color of someone’s skin just by listening to their voice as people from the same place have the same accent, no matter their race. Around this time, he wrote for a publication with a black readership and in talking to blacks he was told the only way to understand the black experience was to be black. So, he decided to do just that. After having a doctor darken his skin and shaving his head, he hitch-hiked across the Deep South and journalled about it which became the book Black Like Me.

He had some interesting observations and insights. He was surprised that people assumed he was black simply because his skin was dark, ignoring his ‘white’ features. He noticed that black people had a diversity of racial features as most American blacks are of mixed race. He also had the typical observations about prejudice. For example, it didn’t matter that he was well educated and had many practical skills. No one wanted to give him a job, besides the most menial of labor.

What stood out to me more than anything was his experiences of hitch-hiking. Mostly lone white males would pick him up and they would ask him about his sex life for they assumed all blacks were sexually uninhibited like animals. He was so offended by this kind of racism that he would confront these white guys. They usually made him get out of the car, but he at times felt threatened. One particular incident brought home an insight about racism. He looked into the eyes of one threatening white guy and he knew that it would be impossible to elicit empathy from such a person. What frightened him wasn’t that his life was in danger. Rather, he was frightened by how low human nature could fall. Racism didn’t just dehumanize blacks. It dehumanized the racist as well for their humanity was lost.

Anyway, I appreciated how Griffin felt compassion for both the victim and victimizer of racism. He didn’t just want to judge the racist and portray the ugliness of racism. He wanted to understand. That is the type of compassion I strive for.

The other aspect of Griffin’s experiment is that it wasn’t done as an outsider. He wasn’t a Northerner travelling down to the foreign land of the Deep South. He was born and raised a Southerner and was a white man. So, in this basic sense, he was trying to understand his own people.

This reminds me of two other authors. Joe Bageant wrote Deer Hunting with Jesus in which he explores the culture and history of his own people, Appalachian Scotch-Irish Evangelicals. I read that book a while ago and started another book by him, Rainbow Pie. The second author is Joan Walsh. In What’s the Matter with White People?, she explores her own people, New York Irish Catholics. I’m in the middle of reading her book right now and am appreciating the insights.

Along with Griffin, what is offered is three different inside views of white people. Each of these authors is sympathetic in  a very personal sense, although I’m less sure about Griffin as I haven’t read his book. The other two are definitely in the same category. Certainly, all three authors present the leftist trying to understand the conservatives around them (Bageant a Marxist, Walsh a liberal, and Griffin a lifelong Democrat).

As a Midwestern mixed ethnicity white (on the left side of the political spectrum), I appreciate getting a glimpse of how America looks from the perspective of other groups of white people, and the differences are large. In my blog, I have been presenting my own version of this type of book. I want to understand what makes my own family tick, my Republican parents and my Hoosier extended family on my mom’s side. I also want to understand the world I find myself in general. 

It’s easy to judge. The challenge is always in the seeking for genuine understanding.

Socialized Medicine & Externalized Costs

This is what complicates the whole issue of “socialized medicine”.

A large number of diseases and deaths are caused by collective problems. Why should the individual have to pay the externalized costs of others? This is particularly problematic as the poor live in the most polluted areas while it is the rich living in the least polluted areas who benefit most from the externalization of costs.

I’ve never come across a conservative or libertarian who can offer a useful response to this kind of data:

Pollution Causes 40 Percent Of Deaths Worldwide, Study Finds

“About 40 percent of deaths worldwide are caused by water, air and soil pollution, concludes a Cornell researcher. Such environmental degradation, coupled with the growth in world population, are major causes behind the rapid increase in human diseases, which the World Health Organization has recently reported. Both factors contribute to the malnourishment and disease susceptibility of 3.7 billion people, he says.”