For a while now, I’ve been trying to sort out some of the political distinctions we make in America: progressive/conservative, liberal/libertarian, and so forth. Also where I fall in these groups or why I dislike the whole division. I finally have enough that I think it’s worth sharing. Strangely enough, I found myself really not fitting into this way of dividing up the body politic.
Do read it through and let me know what you think. Am I botching these concepts? Are my own positions too out there? And where do you fit in, if at all?
What Got Me Thinking: I’ve written several posts for the Forward Thinking project, which Dan and Libby Anne described as a response to this assumption you sometimes see, that only conservatives have values. To that end, they invite several “progressive” people to discuss a certain topic every two weeks, and then do a round-up of all the posts. It’s great for me because I find it really fun to talk about ideas, and also because it gets my ideas mentioned in the same round-up posts with some very influential bloggers. As soon as I heard about the project I knew there was very little chance that I wouldn’t be involved.
But I was a little put off by the progressive label, because I’m not sure where I fit in the political scene. On a lot of social issues I’m actually something of a traditionalist, and I certainly don’t think of myself as a liberal for a lot of reasons. So I thought I’d look at some political divisions and try to work out where I think I fall.
Progressive versus Conservative: As I understand it, conservatives start with the idea that society is somehow noble, good, in its beginning – and that new-fangled moves away from the way things always done things are somehow less good. Progressives, on the other hand, see all kinds of faults in the way things are and want to progress to something better.
I’m not actually sure either of these accounts is quite accurate. Often, the things that survive history are the best that that particular generation produced. We still read Hamlet five hundred years from now, but will the same prove true of The Hunger Games? Probably not (though I do like them), and that suggests to me that Hamlet has an enduring goodness that The Hunger Games somehow. The same applies to morals and customs: if a practice survived and is carried out by billions of people over thousands of years, maybe it’s good in a way we don’t entirely understand. On the other hand, there’s obviously quite a lot wrong with the “good old days” and just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s good.
As for me? There’s a practical benefit to preserving the past, and we should be cautious about throwing it away. We should move slowly and only when we have good reason, because the past has already been vetted through trial and error of past generations. But we shouldn’t hold onto it because we think the past is always good. Which seems to put me outside both the progressive and conservative camps.
(Rawlsian) Liberalism versus Libertarianism: In terms of practical consequences, liberalism and libertarianism probably couldn’t be more different. Liberalism gives us the welfare state whereas libertarianism treats this as a kind of slavery. But philosophically, they’re very closely related. Both seem to come from a focus on autonomy, from the fact that we should respect people’s right to make their own choices. Libertarianism takes from this that we should have a very minimal government – that while people are free to give to food banks because they choose to do so, for instance, it’s deeply immoral to require that they give their income to pay for food stamps and other social programs to help the poor. This focuses on negative freedom, freedom from having to do things you don’t want to do.
On the other hand, classical liberalism recognizes that freedom requires the ability to actually pursue the things we choose, and so you only have true freedom when you have a minimal level of economic prosperity across the board. Add to that the fact that we often give people benefits for things that they don’t really deserve – for instance, we pay high salaries to highly educated people, but they inherit both the intelligence (through DNA) and the infrastructure to develop it (through the luck to be born into a society with accessible education or a rich family), none of which really boils down to the smart person being good. This focuses on freedom to, and the reason we collect taxes and redistribute that wealth is that without it, the poor would not have the freedom that all people lack. Liberalism is pretty allergic to the idea that we should interfere what those choices are, even when they’re using money received through benefits to do it.
As for me? When we’re talking about a national political system or even a stat political system, I have a high respect for tolerance. I’m a little put off by the government limiting choices; I’d much rather them see that citizens and communities have the resources they need to actually act on their choices and stay out of the way. I guess I’m not a libertarian in a big way because I think they’re entirely too atomistic (they treat individuals like separate units rather than parts of a certain community, which carries with it benefits and duties.) But at the same time this discussion always leaves me feeling very cold – my liberalism is more coming from the fact that (national) government seems ineffective toward doing the really interesting work of communities and narrative-building that you can get into at the community level.
Put it this way: When a far right group wants to put up a sign saying all Muslims are terrorists on buses, I’m uncomfortable with the government (and the closer to national/international we get, the more uncomfortable I get) saying this sign isn’t acceptable. And when several politicians on the left reacted to Chick-fil-A by trying to deny them business permits, I’m just as uncomfortable with this – I may disagree with what you say but I’ll protect to the life your right to say it, etc. But I also think I’d be a pretty miserable excuse for a human being (let alone a neighbor) if someone I knew, someone I lived with put up that sign and I just let it slide as “none of my business.” It’s hard to draw the distinction in the abstract, but I believe there’s a difference between “not the government’s place to judge” and “nothing someone who loves you as a neighbor should be concerned about.”
This gives me a certain sympathy for the idea of states’ rights. Maybe this is my Southern upbringing coming through, but I’ve always thought the closer you are to the people affected by a decision, the better. Of course, I’m not sure the people in Albanay or even downtown at City Hall in Manhattan understand my life and needs better than the folks in Washington do, so states’ rights is still too broad in its reach. It’s also a problem when you use it as an excuse to fight the same fight time and time again, particularly when you have a concerted effort to get similar state bills going on all over the place, like you see with gay marriage and abortion rights these days. I think the local decision-making process can sometimes be broken, too, like what you see with regard to racism in the 1960s and with drug policy and access to welfare these days in several Southern states. But still, the states’ right movement (if not its abuses) always seemed basically good to me on some level. I certainly think there’s a danger in the radical individualism you see in both Rawlsian liberalism and libertarianism, where you treat each individual as a separate entity without looking at the crucial relationships between different individuals. I’m also not onboard with focusing on rights so much we ignore the good. All of which makes me uncomfortable in either camp, really.
Modern Democrat/Green vs. Republican/Tea Party. Most people on the American left call themselves progressives or liberals without really taking those underlying assumptions with them. They don’t necessarily respect choice more than happiness (in fact, most seem more concerned about avoiding suffering). Similarly, the American right call themselves conservatives, but it’s hard to make the case that they want to limit the scope of federal government when there is such a push to handle gay marriage, abortion, and other “culture war” issues.
As for me? On the particular issues I more often than not side with the political left. I would love to see drug sentencing laws reformed so they’re no longer racist. I believe quite passionately that we need an immigration system that provides legal protection to everyone living here, whether they’re “legal” or not. I believe perpetual war is wrong and that the militarized police state is worse. Anywhere that we extend a civil benefit to a married heterosexual couple. I believe that access to quality education and quality healthcare are basic rights of living in an economically developed society, and I am willing to pay my share of taxes to support this.
But on other issues I am remarkably conservative. I believe in the rule of law, and it really bothers me when I hear people encouraging politicians to not enforce laws they disagree with. While I don’t believe the government should make abortion illegal, I’d also love to see fewer of them, getting as close to zero as we possibly can. I’d love to see more kids raised in stable families with two parents living together. I believe it’s immoral to put government programs – including those I agree with – on the credit card and pass the expense to future generations. I believe work and earned money brings dignity with it, and whenever possible we should get people off of welfare and into jobs that allow them to earn a decent living. (Which of course requires such jobs exist – minimum-wage isn’t the way to go here for anyone past the age of sixteen.)
I usually vote Democrat because they seem to emphasize the common good more than Republicans do, and they recognize the interconnected area of modern society – the way I didn’t get everything I have through my own merit, that someone helped me somewhere along the way. And we usually agree with each other on most policy issues, although our reasoning is often drastically different.
Moral individualists vs. Communitarianists: This isn’t a political division but rather one you see in political philosophy and ethics. Moral individualists think there are only two types of obligations: those duties that apply to all humans and whatever obligation we take up ourselves, voluntarily. So maybe everyone has a duty to do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, etc. Fair enough. And maybe you personally have made certain promises or taken on certain obligations like a duty to pay your credit card company. Again, individualists are with you there. But that’s all they’re on board with. Familial obligations (at least from child to parent or between siblings) are out. I didn’t choose to be born into my family so individualists can’t explain why I have a special duty to take care of my parents in their old age. So are historical debts, like the idea current-generation white Americans owe something to the descendants of African-Americans for the slavery and other slights done to their ancestors.
Communitarians say we do have obligations to others. The basic idea is, we are born into a narrative. We have certain obligations and benefits and responsibilities and things to be proud of, all because of a sort of moral network that we inherit. You see this a lot in Tolkien’s book, the moral responsibility Frodo and Aragorn carry as Bilbo’s and Isildur’s heirs. Think of Sam’s and Frodo’s conversation about the “same great story,” and ask yourself why it matters what people did centuries before Frodo and Sam were eer born. Aside from the encouragement they take from “look, someone already did pretty much what we’re trying to do,” they take a sense of obligation from this: we are part of that narrative, and so we are compelled to see this tale through.
As for me? This is one division where I fall pretty heavily on one side or the other. I am definitely a communitarian, because I think moral individualism can’t explain family and cultural ties. We are proud of what our ancestors accomplish and do feel compelled to help out those closer to us, and that’s not just self-interest playing out.
So what do I believe?
- And it harm no one (yourself included), do what you will.
- Do good. Do it as much as you can, in every way you can, to all the people you can.
- Think local, wherever possible. The best decisions come out of a community of relationships with each other.
- Paper beas rock.
- Living in a society means helping each other out. Sometimes that means putting other folks first.
- Living in a society also means giving up your own prerogative to have things always going your way. Other people have a right to make their own decisions, and sometimes your tax monies will go to support things you don’t approve of.
- Where the economy cannot provide a living wage, social welfare is a good thing. This isn’t a handout or a personal failing; it’s more like back-pay.
- But rock beats scissors.
- Laws are blunt instruments, but sometimes necessary to restrain people who aren’t morally developed yet. But the best case scenario is where they aren’t necessary, or are only minimally necessary. The goal is to build good character, not restrain action.
- Our politics are mucked up, lar ely because we’ve become too situational. We need guiding principles for what makes actions (political or otherwise) right or wrong. We also need to respect the guy on the other side of the political aisle isn’t always being an idiot when we disagree.
- … yet paper beats rock. Go figure.
- And finally: