It’s not like lion versus zebra. More like squirrel versus squirrel.
It seems likely that everyone is wired to be either right or left of dead center. How far right or left depends on a lot of sensitivities, all of which seem to be sorely inflamed in America today. The middle of the road is an unpopular place to be, even though in a representative democracy that’s where sensible policy has to be made.
But what are the fundamental, underlying differences between liberals and conservatives? The manic fringes of the political parties are not definitive, and neither are the purely emotional ways that people align themselves with parties and movements. There might be some underlying psychological survival mechanisms at work here.
It’s tempting to think of a parallel with the animal world and the difference between, say, the lion and the zebra; the individual predator versus the herd animal whose chances are improved simply by being one of many from the predator to choose from. But the parallel isn’t right, because every person shares characteristics of both lion and zebra, predator and herd member. It would be more accurate to say we’re all like squirrels — convivial but territorial, sometimes endearing and harmless, often pushy, sometimes quite vicious and deadly, and more alike than unique.
Consider the difference between faith and reliance in one’s self versus faith and reliance in the group. Both instincts are normal, both are present to a greater or lesser degree in everyone, and of course there are balances and overlaps and reversals.
People who describe themselves as conservative often seem to feel that they’re hardier, more reliable, and more likely to be able to live and die, especially on their own terms, when free of rules that subjugate the complete freedom of the individual to the welfare of the group. They may well understand that a society that requires and promotes fairness and equality for all of its citizens and strives to provide the greatest good for the greatest number is also likely to provide the best context for individual survivability, and that a society in which every man is simply out for himself isn’t a society at all — just a very dangerous place to live.
But they don’t trust the democratic political process to promote fairness fairly. They view with distrust and bitterness any attempt by the governors of the group to take any of what they have earned or accrued and make it available to others, whether by direct handout or funding for government programs, especially if some or many of those others are not deserving. And they are distrustful of anyone but themselves to say who is or is not deserving.
They fear laws that would sap, to any degree, the stronger, more self-reliant, more resilient and productive members of society in order to bolster the weaker and less productive. They do not agree that weaker, less productive people should simply be given money and privileges they did not in some way earn. They believe that anyone, given equal rights, should be able to pull himself or herself up by the bootstraps with enough sheer effort.
As it manifests itself in today’s politics, this viewpoint is rife with irony and hypocrisy. Anti-federal, pro-states’ rights politicians scorn federal money while asking for it and spending every penny of it. Anti-federal retirees scorn entitlement programs and public funds while relying on Medicare. The rugged anti-big-government individualist believes strongly in the ultimate team — the military unit, in which both group survival and self-sacrifice for the group are paramount.
Very often this viewpoint has been shaped by a particular set of circumstances or a single incident that is interpreted as a full representation of the human condition. (There’s a saying: “A Republican is a Democrat who has been mugged.”)
These people are not the early colonist-patriots, the frontiersmen, the iconoclasts, the risk-takers. They are frightened — precisely because they regard themselves as isolated, beleaguered heroes in a deteriorating and dangerous world.
Meanwhile, on the left, people tend not to be as wary of society as a whole, including its poor, its immigrants, or its diversity, and think of themselves relatively less as individuals out for themselves and relatively more as parts of a societal machine that is not complete without the sum of its elements. They do not automatically doubt the ability of democratic government to improve the machine if its elements can be persuaded to act reasonably and in concert. They more closely relate their own chances for survival with the overall welfare of the group. When it comes to politics and lawmaking, they favor legislation that promotes balance throughout the group instead of rewards and punishments for individuals at the extremes. In practical terms this very often involves taxation of the richer elements of society and distribution to the poorer elements.
These people also tend to look with distrust at competition that allows the more successful elements to get too far out in front, or that is rough or unregulated enough to allow bullying or shame. However, this very often leads to a kind of societal leveling and top-down equalization (not the same as equality) in which an oppressive welter of laws and rules lower standards for everything from education to safe driving. Progressives defy common sense when they strive to protect one set of rights by curtailing or diminishing other rights. Their compassionate efforts can undermine the importance — both to the individual and the group — of hard work, learned skills, thrift and savings, self-reliance, and emotional resilience.
In promoting equality in both policy and perception they are sensitive to the slightest slight, and then seek safe spaces from which they can cast their own judgment bombs. They mistake boorishness and unintentional affront for evil; they condescend, and their self-righteousness is confirmed when they bring out the worst in people.
Self-righteousness and feelings of affront on both sides, particularly at the fringes, prevent people from doing the mundane and often frustrating work of finding common ground and hammering out policy together. It’s more entertaining and feels more vital simply to stay furious and unforgiving. But without a serious effort to find common ground the American experiment will be over, and the aftermath may well be more a matter of personal survival than any of us can quite imagine.