You Say Po-tay-to and I Say Po-tah-to!

Our political divide between left and right is most often characterized by the media as an ideological battle between liberalism and conservatism. Yet the meanings of these ideological terms are too often misinterpreted and mischaracterized – mostly by the opposing point of view – in order to fit a preferred political narrative. For those on the left, liberalism implies tolerance and empathy, while conservatism connotes bigotry and selfishness. For those on the right, liberalism infers intellectual naiveté and moral degeneracy, while conservatism assumes moral rectitude and time-tested reason. A clear understanding of political ideology can be useful; false stereotypes much less so. We should unpackage these terms as they are used in the popular vernacular to understand just how unhelpful and misguided they have become.

The etymological root of liberal is liber, or free, as it pertains to individual human rights and freedoms. Merriam-Webster offers this definition: a political philosophy based on belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race, and the autonomy (i.e., freedom) of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties. Liberalism shares the same root as liberty and it would be difficult to find an American conservative who was not attuned to the universal idea of individual liberty.

Likewise, the root of conservative is conservare, meaning to preserve. Merriam-Webster offers the following definition: a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change. If one assumes the evolutionary perspective, it would be difficult to find a society, American liberal or otherwise, that did not seek to preserve certain time-worn traditions in the interests of stability and self-preservation. We should also note that conservatism shares the same word root as conservation, so nature weighs in on this meaning as well.

So where did we get the idea that these ideologies are opposed? Merriam-Webster is partly culpable by posing these ideologies as antonyms but, as we will discover, they should be mostly viewed as useful complements.

Jonathan Haidt, in his psychological studies summarized in The Righteous Mind, explains how our ideological leanings can be expressed through complex moral matrices, where differences arise in moral interpretations and priorities. Haidt cites six moral precepts: 1) care; 2) liberty; 3) fairness; 4) loyalty; 5) authority; 6) sanctity. Haidt results show how liberals privilege the first three, while conservatives employ a mix of all six, giving additional weight to loyalty, authority, and sanctity.

One should read Haidt’s book to understand the nuances of these moral matrices, but the major divergence between our conceptions of liberal and conservative seem to revolve around the moral values of care and fairness. Haidt argues that everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds.: “On the left, fairness often implies equality, but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.” Implicit in these interpretations is the idea that consequences follow actions, but some consequences are rooted in contextual factors that are outside the individual’s control, such as educational opportunity. The takeaway from Haidt’s studies is that these moral matrices are hardly set in concrete and can be easily reconciled through a fuller understanding of the different emphases. They do not really divide us into red vs. blue.

The other dichotomy posed by our definitions of liberal and conservative is the implication that conservatives are intolerant and resistant to change while liberals seek to remove institutional barriers to change. Conservatives may be guilty of saying ‘don’t fix what ain’t broke,’ while liberals may be guilty of forcing change without due regard to the uncertainty inherent in change. But there is a way of reconciling these two approaches to inevitable change.

All societies embrace change to a certain degree, what matters is the pace of change. Change that is disruptive to social traditions naturally will be resisted by those it disrupts. This does not mean change will not occur, it merely means the pace must be managed prudently. Pushing change beyond the limits of social adaptation often leads to reactionary backlashes, causing undo conflict over the inevitable. The gradual evolution of cultural mores is a good example of how change occurs within the limits of order and stability. Naturally, there will be those in society who object to the too slow or too rapid pace of change.

Finally, opinion polls and surveys suggest that fewer Americans define themselves as truly liberal or conservative, with conservatives exceeding liberals by roughly 35% to 26%, though the gap has been closing. I would also guess these poll numbers are biased by the partisan mischaracterization of both ideological labels.

If this is the case, how do we politically define or classify most American voters? Perhaps we don’t. I would suggest that average non-political Americans are neither conservative nor liberal as strictly defined by their true ideological meanings. Elsewhere I have suggested that most of us, regardless of our politics, are both tolerant and traditional. I have called this dominant ideology based on liberty and justice tolerant traditionalism, as opposed to conservative or liberal. Americans are generally willing to adapt to societal changes as best we can, embracing the good to come of it while feeling wistful for the past we know. Societies that evolve and endure by adapting to change have a proud past and an ever-brighter future.

Political Autopsy

The following is the Executive Summary of a report authored by Democratic Party activists titled “Autopsy: The Democratic Party in Crisis.” On a quick read of the summary, one is left with a mishmash strategy that seems to try to be all things to all people (except for those Republicans, that is! The stated goal is “to end Republican rule and gain lasting momentum for progressive change.”)

That would be the starting point of my critique. What we’ve learned over the past 16 years is that most voters in the US are tired of partisan posturing and could care less about which party wins elections if only their elected representatives would be accountable and serve voters’ interests. Voters are far less partisan than party activists and the media. With Trump’s election, roughly half the population across 85% of the county landscape voted a pox on both their houses. So, let’s start with that inconvenient fact.

Specific comments in red below:

Executive Summary

The Party’s Base

• Aggregated data and analysis show that policies, operations and campaign priorities of the national Democratic Party undermined support and turnout from its base in the 2016 general election. Since then, the Democratic leadership has done little to indicate that it is heeding key lessons from the 2016 disaster.

• The Democratic National Committee and the party’s congressional leadership remain bent on prioritizing the chase for elusive Republican voters over the Democratic base: especially people of color, young people and working-class voters overall. [Yes, but that’s because in a country where whites comprise 70% of the electorate, identity politics based on race and ethnicity have a ceiling of support that is insufficient to win national elections. Identity politics that is based on preferences also leads to zero-sum games over who gets what.]

• After suffering from a falloff of turnout among people of color in the 2016 general election, the party appears to be losing ground with its most reliable voting bloc, African-American women. “The Democratic Party has experienced an 11 percent drop in support from black women according to one survey, while the percentage of black women who said neither party represents them went from 13 percent in 2016 to 21 percent in 2017.”

• One of the large groups with a voter-turnout issue is young people, “who encounter a toxic combination of a depressed economic reality, GOP efforts at voter suppression, and anemic messaging on the part of Democrats.” [The problem with young voters is that they cynically perceive “politics as usual.” Sanders appeal seems to have transcended that, but the question is whether “socialist” policies can. The historical record is not promising.]

• “Emerging sectors of the electorate are compelling the Democratic Party to come to terms with adamant grassroots rejection of economic injustice, institutionalized racism, gender inequality, environmental destruction and corporate domination. Siding with the people who constitute the base isn’t truly possible when party leaders seem to be afraid of them.” [Politics against “injustice, racism, gender inequality, environment and corporate malfeasance, etc.” must be based on some unifying principles in order to filter out subjective grievances that merely favor narrow interests. The party has not made those tough distinctions.]  

• The DNC has refused to renounce, or commit to end, its undemocratic practices during the 2016 primary campaign that caused so much discord and distrust from many party activists and voters among core constituencies. [Yes, there is internal discord.]

• Working to defeat restrictions on voting rights is of enormous importance. Yet the Democratic National Committee failed to make such work a DNC staffing priority. [Empirical data and the appeal of voter ID laws discount this grievance strategy. Thus, deploying it is not likely to have positive effects. Better to advance GOTV efforts.]

Populism and Party Decline

• The Democratic Party’s claims of fighting for “working families” have been undermined by its refusal to directly challenge corporate power, enabling Trump to masquerade as a champion of the people. “Democrats will not win if they continue to bring a wonk knife to a populist gunfight. Nor can Democratic leaders and operatives be seen as real allies of the working class if they’re afraid to alienate big funders or to harm future job or consulting prospects.” [There’s a difficult choice for the party highlighted by the Perez-Sanders split: identity politics or class politics? The mishmash of this manifesto results from trying to pursue both. To do this the party advances an implicit assumption that ‘white’ voters are only virtuous if they are poor. This is blatantly hypocritical to middle class whites.]

• “Since Obama’s victory in 2008, the Democratic Party has lost control of both houses of Congress and more than 1,000 state legislative seats. The GOP now controls the governorship as well as the entire legislature in 26 states, while Democrats exercise such control in only six states…. Despite this Democratic decline, bold proposals with the national party’s imprint are scarce.” [So, trying to pursue a triangulation strategy while paying lip-service to identity racial and ethnic grievance groups for the past 8 years has led to defeat across the spectrum. Yet, this new party manifesto really refuses to make a choice. So, it’s more of the same: trying to appeal to white middle class voters while implying that the party is really for social justice that disfavors them because they are white. This is a losing contradictory strategy.]

• “After a decade and a half of nonstop warfare, research data from voting patterns suggest that the Clinton campaign’s hawkish stance was a political detriment in working-class communities hard-hit by American casualties from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.” [Yes, but they point with pride to their sacrifices for country. Disrespecting their patriotism by implying they’re dupes is not a winning strategy.]

• “Operating from a place of defensiveness and denial will not turn the party around. Neither will status quo methodology.”

Recommendations

Party Operations and Outreach

• The Democratic National Committee must make up for lost time by accelerating its very recent gear-up of staffing to fight against the multi-front assaults on voting rights that include voter ID laws, purges of voter rolls and intimidation tactics. [As explained above, not likely to be productive.]

• The Democratic National Committee should commit itself to scrupulously adhering to its Charter, which requires the DNC to be evenhanded in the presidential nominating process.

• Because “the superdelegate system, by its very nature, undermines the vital precept of one person, one vote,” the voting power of all superdelegates to the Democratic National Convention must end.

• “Social movements cannot be understood as tools to get Democrats elected. The ebb and flow of social movements offer a rising tide in their own right that along the way can lift Democratic Party candidates — if the party is able to embrace the broad popular sentiment that the movements embody.” [Both parties have willingly dragged their constituencies into cultural conflicts that are largely unresolvable. Thus, the parties gain by making compromise untenable: Vote for us or else!]

• “This is about more than just increasing voter turnout. It is about energizing as well as expanding the base of the party. To do this we must aggressively pursue two tracks: fighting right-wing efforts to rig the political system, and giving people who can vote a truly compelling reason to do so.” [Enthusiasm based on negative opposition (i.e., anti-Trump or anti-liberal) is not very durable.]

• “The enduring point of community outreach is to build an ongoing relationship that aims for the party to become part of the fabric of everyday life. It means acknowledging the validity and power of people-driven movements as well as recognizing and supporting authentic progressive community leaders. It means focusing on how the party can best serve communities, not the other way around. Most of all, it means persisting with such engagement on an ongoing basis, not just at election time.” [Yes, but to do so successfully requires an appeal beyond the particularistic identity of the individual. How can I be part of something bigger if it’s all about who I am?]

Party Policies and Programs

• The party should avidly promote inspiring programs such as single-payer Medicare for all, free public college tuition, economic security, infrastructure and green jobs initiatives, and tackling the climate crisis. [Here we get into the problem of the viability of socialist policies – when they fail, it discredits the bigger goal.]

• While the Democratic Party fights for an agenda to benefit all Americans [Does it? What about those Trump voters?], the party must develop new policies and strategies for more substantial engagement with people of color — directly addressing realities of their lives that include disproportionately high rates of poverty and ongoing vulnerability to a racist criminal justice system. [And then there is an immediate turn back to biological identity. This is not to deny the problems of disadvantaged communities, but merely questions the best way to empower them.]

• With its policies and programs, not just its public statements, the Democratic Party must emphasize that “in the real world, the well-being of women is indivisible from their economic circumstances and security.” To truly advance gender equality, the party needs to fight for the economic rights of all women. [Better to let the economy and the demand for labor sort this out. It works.]

• The Democratic Party should end its neglect of rural voters, a process that must include aligning the party with the interests of farming families and others who live in the countryside rather than with Big Agriculture and monopolies. [Agree. But these are not people looking for pity or hand-outs or victim status. They want to be able to take care of themselves.]

• “While the short-term prospects for meaningful federal action on climate are exceedingly bleak, state-level initiatives are important and attainable. Meanwhile, it’s crucial that the Democratic Party stop confining its climate agenda to inadequate steps that are palatable to Big Oil and mega-players on Wall Street.” [The trade-offs the majority of voters are willing to make here are not clear. It’s not a choice between clean air or the death of the planet, but clean air at what price?]

• “What must now take place includes honest self-reflection and confronting a hard truth: that many view the party as often in service to a rapacious oligarchy and increasingly out of touch with people in its own base.” The Democratic Party should disentangle itself — ideologically and financially — from Wall Street, the military-industrial complex and other corporate interests that put profits ahead of public needs. [Yes, welcome to the corruption of 21st century American party politics. Why do you think Americans of all stripes voted for Trump?]

Who Knew What and When?

IRS

You can’t make this stuff up. Bradley Smith quoted from the WSJ:

The Internal Revenue Service’s scandalous targeting of tea party and conservative groups refuses to die, as one by one the administration’s explanations prove untrue.

We were told that the White House, like the rest of the country, learned about the program on May 10 through a planted question asked of then IRS official Lois Lerner at an American Bar Association conference. Turns out the White House knew earlier. We were told the targeting was the work of a few rogue IRS employees in Cincinnati. Then those employees insisted that they were being managed from Washington.

We were told that no political appointees were involved, but now we know the scandal goes at least to the office of Obama appointee and IRS Chief Counsel William Wilkins. We were told that liberal groups were targeted, too. But then the IRS’s inspector general, whose report exposed the harassment, clarified that only conservative groups were targeted.

Now the administration line is that the scandal is nonetheless “phony.” That assertion is part of a Democratic counteroffensive contending that the tea party and conservative groups applying for “charitable” tax status never should have sought such IRS approval.

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, argued on “Meet the Press” on May 19 that conservative groups were, “under the guise of a charity, [using] undisclosed millions of dollars to do political campaigns.”

Rep. Becerra argues that 501(c)(4) status should be reserved for “something good, not groups that are in business to do politics.” That’s a remarkable statement from a man who has spent the past 22 years in elective office.