There is a fallacy at the heart of the political discourse of late 20th and early 21st century America: that conservatives and liberals are diametrically opposed, unable to work together, and committed at their very core to one another’s destruction. Certainly, when ideology comes into the debate, there are hotly contested arguments to be had. But honest conservatives and honest liberals have a lot more in common than we normally admit.
At the heart of what motivates people to call themselves conservative, there is an impulse to gravitate toward clarity, toward what is known to be good in people and in society, toward a set of principles by which society can find its way through the turbulent waters of an unknowable future. At the heart of what motivates people to call themselves liberal or progressive is a not-too-dissimilar impulse to gravitate toward reason, toward what is known to be good in people and in society, toward a set of principles by which we can work together to calm the seas of a turbulent and unknowable future.
There are attacks on both sides, some of which are brutally unfair. We know the specific distortions all too well, so suffice it to say: there are very few conservative Americans who would be in any way truly sympathetic with real fascism, and there are very few liberal Americans who would be in any way truly sympathetic with real communism. In fact, the opposition is a false comparison to specific European contexts in which the two forces clashed ideologically.
Neither communism nor fascism was really in line with the ancien regime, to borrow from the European historical context, and neither would do well trying to live up to the values demanded by liberal democracy advocates. In both cases, the use of those terms is hyperbole meant to illustrate a point about ideological “direction”, but the US has done reasonably well for most of its history in privileging the democratic process over ideological extremism.
Even now, with the intense rhetoric of Pres. Obama’s fiercest critics, it is a widely held view that extremism discredits leading politicians and obstruction, while counterproductive, is mostly a political tactic, not a genuine attempt to destroy democracy. We hear a lot from the self-fashioned “conservative” side of the political spectrum about “values” and “morals” and “red-blooded American ideals”. In defense of that self-styling, they often seek to paint progressives as somehow out of step with basic American values or even as intent on altering them so fundamentally as to “endanger our way of life”.
And yet the truth is that conservative and progressive are not such different terms; what is different is what specific ideological obsessions certain extremists focus on. Progressives often associate the more strident conservative vocabulary with regressive politics akin to the Tory loyalists of the revolutionary period; by this thinking, one must be liberal or else one is a monarchist, someone who supports the old regime, feudal ideals and the serfdom of the masses.
There are appropriate historical comparisons, and the more strident conservative vocabulary is in some ways borrowed from those traditions, along with the assertion that liberals and dissenters against the status quo are “rabble” or “troublemakers” or “inviting chaos”. Those are criticisms that emerge from the loyalist camp during the revolutionary period, and which were designed specifically to suggest that common sense and the prudence of sensible minds would always prefer continuity to revolution and instability.
But most of us know that even strident conservative voices are not interested in propping up an American monarch or regressing so far into the past as to institute slavery. There are fantasies on both sides, where a kind of longed-for splendor appears possible, but might in fact be all-too-close to some bygone ideology rejected not by one’s opponents but rather by the ongoing practice of democracy as such.
The true opposition between “right” and “left” has its roots in the French revolution of 1789, where the resulting people’s assembly put those who favored the ancien regime on the right of the hall, and the revolutionary democrats on the left. It is not an opposition between communism and fascism or between Republicans and Democrats. “Right-wing” in reality means in favor of absolute monarchy (dictatorship) and “left-wing” means in favor of a people’s democracy.
In American politics, in this sense, everyone is left-wing and “conservative” tends to refer more to specific policy priorities intended to be a more prudent or moderate approach to democratic progress. It was the argument of monarchists in Britain and in France, in the 18th century, that bred the politico-psychological paradigm whereby “the left” was seen as a gang of revolutionary extremists intent on shedding the blood of “noble” aristocrats, people who had “earned” their privilege in what their own class viewed as a completely merit-oriented political environment.
This kind of language should always be suspicious when it seeps into the American political landscape, because neither conservative democratic thinkers nor liberal democratic thinkers favor the idea that putting democracy ahead of aristocracy is criminal, dangerous or disrespectful. In both cases, it is the core of their political philosophy that putting democracy ahead of aristocracy is preferable and far more moral.
So-called “red-blooded conservatives”, if they are honest in their conservatism, use metaphors like “red-blooded”, because they believe it references common sense ideals and invites people who happen to have red blood to join their cause. Progressives are not, however, any less principled in their aims (after all, their blood is also red): if we want to maintain the red/blue dichotomy of the 2000 electoral map, progressives consider that society should be like a deep blue ocean: clean, working in harmoney with natural principles—”that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unailienable rights”—, and able to sustain life without promoting fear and injustice.
There is room for celebrating this red-blue distinction, shaping it as something more unifying than divisive, something more of a glimpse at the character of each individual citizen than a way to divide the citizenry into hardcore factions. We can ask, for instance, not whether you are red or blue, but what issues inspire the red-blooded conservative or the blue-ocean progressive feeling in your soul.
It has gone out of fashion to admit that such complexities exist. Blue, after all, is blue, and red is red. But we have learned, as a people, that we cannot achieve justice, equality, freedom or humanity, if we build a society that separates black from white, or tries to by forcing the point.
These radical oppositions are lies which serve no constructive purpose for anyone, and cannot actually prove useful for fostering true conservative or progressive values, and we can safely get beyond them. We know this, but we are too often trapped by the fashions and the passions of the moment. There is a bittersweet flavor to hardline language that many people wish to savor, and which drives them to call forth the spirit of intense historical urgency to oppose those who disagree with their point of view. But we need to distinguish between conflicts of opinion and conflicts of fundamental commitment to democracy.
Red-blooded conservatives and blue-ocean progressives share a core interest in building a society where politics is clean and humane, functional and imaginative, practical and responsible. The “red-blood” view may be focused on what is within us, while the “blue-ocean” view may be focused on how we treat those around us, or how we shape and honor the environment we live in, but their ideal aim is similar, and neither group is out to build a system that undermines the freedoms cherished by all people of democratic mindset.
It may be that in 2011, we can begin to follow the example of the Egyptian people, see the virtue of coming together, and give moral support to those leaders, both red and blue, and also in between, who seek to reach constructive compromise in order to achieve the best result for all of their constituents.
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Originally published February 12, 2011, at IndependentsOfPrinciple.com