Conservatives are smacking their heads these days wondering how the USA could have arrived at such an unbalanced state. On the one hand, Obama suffers little, if any, punishment for his blatant lies and mischaracterizations: “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.” The American deaths in Benghazi resulted from an out-of-control demonstration in protest of an anti-Islamic video, not an organized terrorist attack. The targeting of conservative organizations by the IRS was the work of a few rogue agents in Cincinnati and not a systematic attempt – ordered at the highest levels of the Obama administration – to undercut conservative efforts to influence the 2012 presidential election.
On the other hand, conservatives are lambasted for defending the classic principles of the nation. Mitt Romney is demonized for succeeding in business. Paul Ryan is depicted as a grandma-killing loon for proposing what was in reality a minor attempt to put America’s fiscal house in order. Scott walker is vilified for asserting (in a bluish State – how dare he!) the peoples’ right to negotiate contracts with government employees without the compulsory and corrupt influence of public sector unions.
It’s enough to make you scratch your head in wonder and ponder how the public arena in which the classic give and take between liberals and conservatives could become so warped. The struggle between Right and Left is as old as the Republic. But in the last two generations, the nature of the public battlefield has been so skewed that one cannot avoid the conclusion that the field of battle is no longer level. Indeed it is not. It is my purpose here to identify several subtle reasons why the political contest between Left and Right in America no longer represents a fair fight.
The explanations range from the philosophical to the practical. Let’s begin with the former and work our way to the latter:
Dynamism. Liberals are constantly urging change. The last two Democratic presidents won their elections in no small part due to their promise to fundamentally transform the nation. Liberals assay what is, pronounce it rotten, propose sweeping changes and promise that said changes will make things better. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more interested in conserving what is worth preserving. Conservatives assess the current status, identify what is working, seek to strengthen and entrench it, and warn that tampering with success will lead to disaster. Now, human beings, being what they are – which usually involves a less than sterling self-assessment of their condition – are hopeful that change will improve their situation. They prefer the dynamism of the change artist to the stodginess of the play it safe mode. Alas, they frequently fail to assess the worthiness of the change artist’s plans and they equally often fail to appreciate the value of the tried and true, if somewhat stale, current mechanisms. It’s more fun, and the potential payoff might be better, to follow the fellow advocating change.
Self-confidence. What liberal have you ever encountered who’s not thoroughly convinced that Obamacare is the right way to fix the nation’s health care problems, that its passage was justified – even with the chicanery and skullduggery that was required, and that it will succeed as has Medicare and Social Security? Liberals are absolutely certain that their government-centered, redistributionist, egalitarian and anti-business programs will improve the lot of middle and lower class Americans. No past failure in any comparable endeavor has ever diminished or reversed their enthusiasm for and belief in their statist political, economic or cultural programs.
Conservatives, to the contrary, who are always reluctant to mess around with long established traditions, are inherently skeptical of change, especially radical change. Even if it is change that they espouse. They might recommend the so-called Fair Tax over the Income Tax; or charter schools over public schools; or enhanced vocational training programs over welfare handouts. But their recommendations always come with a tinge of self-doubt as they recognize that the most important law in the universe (which is the law of unintended consequences, not – pace Einstein – compound interest), always applies. Well, what is the average guy drawn to: confidence or wariness? A second advantage for liberals.
Belief. Liberals have an inordinate faith in human reason. They are drawn to the concept, which reached full flower in the French Revolution, that human beings are endowed with enormous capacity to evaluate their surroundings, develop meaningful plans to improve their lot and then successfully implement those plans. All that is required is calm reflection, a cadre of experts in the matter at hand and the will to formulate and follow through on concrete plans. Thus society, acting through change agents, can overcome the political, economic and cultural problems that confront it.
Conservatives tend to rely on faith more than reason. They recognize that man is basically a flawed creature. It is the height of folly to impose and then (try to) implement complicated schemes for perfection without accounting for the inevitable human screw ups. One critical way to deal with that recognition is via faith – that the universe is under the guiding hand of an unseen force and that the hand might even be influenced by the entreaties or behavior of mankind. Well, once again, who are you throwing in with – the optimistic rationalists or the pessimistic pietists? Yet another advantage for the liberals.
Constraints. This might be an oversimplification, but liberals believe that the ends justify the means. This is most clearly demonstrated in the passing of Obamacare. Employing every legislative trick available to them, ignoring unanimous GOP opposition and engaging in bribes, kickbacks and payoffs to secure the support of reluctant Red State Democrats, the liberal architects rammed Obamacare through in the most blatantly partisan fashion. They were convinced that Obamacare is vital to American society – at least their conception of it – and so any tactic was legitimate to pass it.
Contrast this with (arguably) conservative initiatives (Medicare Part D and No Child Left Behind), which were passed with broad bipartisan support. Indeed, conservatives generally do not subscribe to the “ends justify the means” paradigm. They value process, rules, consensus and the need for persuasive argument. But again, consider the impression on the public. In the choice between unconstrained and constrained systems, for those who want to get things done, the choice is likely to be for the unconstrained modus operandi.
Hope. Because of the liberal’s belief in rational man, he subscribes to the idea of man as perfectible. Human beings have the innate ability to correct their flaws and create a perfect society. Conservatives, on the other hand, due to their intrinsic belief that human beings are flawed, subscribe to no such theory. The best we can do is structure our society so as to maximize the likelihood of beneficial social behavior and punish those who violate our legal norms. Alas, which of these is cause for hope and which for despair? It’s beginning to sound like a broken record, but once again: advantage liberals.
Feelings. It is a well-worn adage that liberals play to our emotions, while conservatives appeal to our intellect. The adage reflects truth. Liberals feel deeply about how society should work and they invoke emotional arguments to express their feelings. People shouldn’t be poor; it’s not fair that some have more than others; it’s shameful that anyone – regardless of race, gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, whatever – should not have access to the same opportunities as anyone else. And if the statistical breakdown of our population according to any particular category reveals disparities in income, accessibility or rights, then we feel badly and the imbalance must be corrected.
Conservatives agree that at birth, we are all equal and that society should afford equal opportunity to all. But they also accept that because of innate drive, motivation or other inherent qualities – but alas sometimes just because of luck – some will do better than others. It is an immutable law of human life. Keep the playing fields of life level, but – just as on the sports fields – some will get to the finish line before others. It may be unfair in some cosmic sense, but the only way to rearrange society so that all finish equally is to trample on the individual rights of the people.
Which of the above approaches is more likely to make you feel good about yourself and your chances in life? Not a hard choice, and yes one more time – advantage to the liberals.
Coup de Grâce. As powerful as the preceding arguments may be, the fact that the battle between liberals and conservatives is not a fair fight is overwhelmingly determined by the fact that the liberals control virtually all of the opinion-molding organs of American society. Following a century-long march through the cultural organs of the society by the progressive movement, it is indisputably true that liberals are in command of America’s: media, public schools, federal bureaucracy, higher educational institutions, seminaries, legal profession, libraries and major foundations. With rare exceptions (Fox News, Heritage Foundation, Hillsdale College), the information that flows from liberal-dominated organs into the brains and hearts of America’s population is heavily slanted to the left. It’s as if in a contest between two armies, 95% of the weaponry is supplied to one side. Not likely to result in a fair fight.
These biases (the six that I outlined plus the opinion-forming imbalance) have been in place for quite some time. Therefore, it is somewhat of a miracle that the contest between Left and Right still rages at all in America. It is a testament to the resilience and value of the fundamental ideas that animate American conservatives. And cause for us not to despair. The lefties may have the guns, but we have the truth. David slew Goliath in an unfair fight. Conservatives: load up your slingshots.
This essay also appeared in The Intellectual Conservative.