The media elites in America are always trying to divide us. They divide us by age, sex, religion, and race. They divide us into extroverts and introverts. Most of all, they divide us by political party affiliation. They use misleading labels such as “conservative” and “liberal” to make us believe there are two distinct groups of us with a large gulf in between. The reality is that no two people agree on everything and there are often more differences within groups than between them. Independent individuals exist across the political spectrum as one large, sprawling group.
How people are classified depends much on the questions asked and on how such things are framed. It is entirely possible to believe the death penalty is sometimes justified, but to still believe it to be bad policy. It is entirely possible to believe the wars in Iraq and Libya were justified, but to still believe them mistakes. It is entirely possible to believe that drug use and extramarital sex are unhealthy without considering them immoral, and possible to consider them immoral without believing they should be made illegal. It is entirely possible to be deeply suspicious of big corporations and yet even more suspicious of big-government attempts to reign them in. The same person taking two different surveys may seem very liberal to one and very conservative to the other. Depending on which points candidates emphasize, the same person could vote either Republican or Democrat.
Sometimes people will support the same policies for very different reasons. One can support anti-capitalist economic protectionism not to protect the jobs of American workers, but to protect national security and self-determination. Some people may oppose affirmative action not because it divides us and perpetuates unequal treatment based on race, but because they are secret segregationists.
Whether one supports particular policies often depends how the policies are applied. One might be perfectly happy to let the state decide to legalize or criminalize abortion or drug use, but not believe it is the role of the federal government to tell the states how to rule. One might believe it perfectly permissible for government to fund with taxpayer money things such as health care and education, but not the federal government. One might believe that the congress should pass a law to define marriage to include homosexual unions, but still call foul when unelected judges impose their own will on the people.
Sometimes what policy someone supports depends on what the given alternatives are. The same individual might support a flat tax when the alternative is a complex income tax with multiple brackets, exemptions, credits, deductions, and different rates for different types of income, yet support a sales tax over a flat tax, and a tax on the states over a national sales tax, allowing the citizens of each state to decide how they will be taxed. This is what gets politicians into trouble more than anything else. They will support one policy one year and another policy another year because the given alternatives have changed, not their principles. The media will still cast the change as a flip-flop. Sometimes the problem is one of pragmatism. On one hand, one might support democracy over anarchy because of the political reality that without government there is no protection from criminals or foreign governments, though in an ideal world without such threats they would support anarchy. On the other hand, one might support separation of powers, a bill of rights, and term limits that thwart the will of the voters over pure democracy because of the political reality that most voters are easily manipulated and too willing to impose their will on each other, though in an ideal world without such things they would support a pure democracy. On yet another hand (How many hands do people have again? I’ll use a foot.), one might not support term limits or separation of powers because of the political reality that such things are not politically viable.
Over and over I see people that actually agree or have very similar positions argue with each other – and this phenomenon happens outside of politics as well. Sometimes two people who are both moderates on abortion and can see merit in both the pro-choice and pro-life arguments will misinterpret where the other is coming from. One person might react to recent pro-choice extremism by repeating a pro-life argument and another person might assume the first to be pro-life and respond with a pro-choice one, in turn leading the first to assume the second is a pro-choice extremist. They can go back and forth for hours and never realize that they agree. We aren’t as far apart as the media would have us believe. I encourage everyone to be patient and tolerant and really listen to each other. We are more alike than most people know.
What is the difference between liberals and conservatives anyways? I find that what I am told by pundits, politicians, and even scientists does not make sense to me. We are told that liberals support big government while conservatives support small government. Is this true? There are many different ways to measure the size of government. It can be measured in the number of agencies, the number of employees of those agencies, the fiscal costs of running the agencies, the number of individual laws and regulations, the expansion of the ability to enforce the laws (e.g. greater punishments, greater surveillance), the tediousness and intrusiveness of those laws into realms that many consider private (e.g. how many ounces of soda one can order), and the expansion into realms not directly related to governance (e.g. spending money on welfare or corporate subsidies rather than on law enforcement). It is very difficult to find data on these things except for spending, and spending has been increasing under both Republicans and Democrats since the forties.
I am sometimes told that conservatives value tradition while liberals are for change for the sake of change. Is this true? There are different ways to measure change. Liberals keep proposing new policies all the time, but from my perspective they seem like only tiny tweaks to the same top-down, one-size-fits-all, all-in, big-government model that they have been using since The New Deal and The Great Society. In contrast, conservatives propose many creative new ways to order public life, such as partial Social Security privatization and school vouchers. It is only a tiny minority of them that propose tearing the whole system down.
I am sometimes told that liberals are idealists and conservatives are pragmatic. Is this true? While it makes sense to say that the free market is a practical alternative to failed liberal welfare-state policies that only create dependency and it makes sense to say that training and equipping good citizens in gun use is a practical alternative to failed liberal gun-control policies that the criminals don’t follow anyways, conservatives are idealistic in that they cannot see that neither the free market nor repealing the gun laws are politically viable. When the majority supports an impractical ideal, the practical thing is not to fight it.
Some students of political science classify people in two dimensions – one pertaining to the degree of economic freedom they support, and the other pertaining to the degree of personal/social freedom they support. Others use three dimensions – one for economic issues, one for personal/social issues, and one for foreign policy issues. I have even seen models using four and five dimensions. With all of these models, there is the problem of classifying which issue fits in which dimension. Are school vouchers a personal issue or an economic one? Is participation in NAFTA an economic issue or a foreign policy one?
Just to make things even more confusing, the way pundits and politicians arrange possible positions on a given issue into a political spectrum often defies logic. It is highly misleading. There is a school of thought popular among Republicans that we must meet every potential threat to our national interest with overwhelming force before they become big problems. There is another school of thought popular among Libertarians that the best way to avoid wars is by not being so quick to escalate. The best policy is probably somewhere in the middle. Where do the Democrats fit on this spectrum? Listening to the politicians, they would have you believe that they are Libertarian-esque when running against Republicans, but as soon as they get into office they get us into wars everywhere even when there is no compelling national interest, instead citing “humanitarian reasons” – but humanitarian reasons exist in every conflict!
Spectra can be divided up differently depending on how an issue is conceptualized. Purely pro-choice people obviously go at one end and purely pro-life people obviously go on the other end, but who goes in the middle? Those otherwise pro-life who make an exception for rape and incest, or those otherwise pro-life that make an exception during the first trimester? There exist those that dislike verbal obscenities but have no problem seeing them in print. There exist those that dislike written obscenities but have no problem hearing and using them verbally. Some people prefer an income tax, some prefer a sales tax, and some prefer a property tax. What fair way is there to arrange those people onto a political spectrum?
Among those who are called moderates there can be larger differences than between the most radical liberals and the most radical conservatives. Some are called moderates because they are radically liberal on social issues and radically conservative on economic issues. Others are called moderates because they are radically conservative on social issues and radically liberal on economic issues. Some are called moderates because they are right in the middle on nearly every issue. Still others are called moderates because they don’t care much what happens on many issues of little importance to them. There are those that care deeply about the environment but have little preference whether gay marriage is legal or not.
Even on a given issue there are at least three different ways to be a moderate. One can hold a position that is an equal distance from the extremes in potential positions one can have, one can hold a position that is identical to that of the average voter (mean, median, or mode?), or one can hold a position that is an equal distance between the official positions of the two parties in Washington at the moment. One extreme school of thought is to grant the federal government complete power to overrule the state governments. The opposite extreme school of thought is to give each state the complete power to rule without interference from other states. To some, the perfect compromise between the two is to grant the federal government only those powers explicitly granted to it in the constitution, leaving everything else to the states, and prohibiting from the states only those powers explicitly prohibited from any government. As far as they are concerned, they are moderates, but because this puts them out of step with the majority who clamor for more federal intervention, it makes them extremists. Still, the average citizen does not want to grant as much power to the Washington as both the Democrats and Republicans seem to want to take recently, yet the media will often treat those that lie between the two parties as the true moderates and paint average citizens as extremists.
The truth is that the words liberal, conservative, moderate, centrist, radical, statist, fascist, and libertarian have no constant meaning. The labels are misleading at best and divisive at worst. Don’t let words get in the way of understanding. We are all Americans. We all want to be safe, free, and prosperous, but many of us are confused and misguided. They are not the enemy anymore than those we think of as our allies. That is the greatest illusion. Start talking to each other again. More importantly, start listening again. The nation and the world depend on it.