It occurred to me a while back that the conservative ideal of “individual freedom,” taken to its logical end, promotes anarchy. If everybody does only what appeals to them as being in the best interests of themselves, their family, or their tribe, it prevents them from fully engaging in the interests of broader civic and societal responsibility. If you are primarily looking out for yourself, you aren’t being a good citizen.
Of course, it also occurred to me that the liberal ideal of “common good,” taken to its logical end, promotes totalitarianism communism… or maybe the kind of selfless love of neighbor that Jesus endorsed. None of these extremes seem practical for America at this point in history.
Isn’t there some balance, some moderate center ground where we can meet and agree to compromise if not find consensus? If you consider American political history during the last few decades, an interesting dynamic appears. It used to be that both the Democratic and Republican parties had their liberal and conservative wings. However, increasingly, the Republican party has been swinging more and more to the radical right and adopting rigidly-held extreme positions and an unwillingness to compromise. At the same time, the Democratic party has been edging more and more toward a moderate center and adopting positions that already have compromise built in.
But, I digress. It seems that the Republican party is structured for divisiveness and conflict rather than constructive citizenship. They are a loose coalition of conservative interest groups, each tightly focused on their own subset of specific issues. They lack unity on almost every philosophy except “leave me alone.” Commentators have described these factions, giving them names such as: traditionalists, conservatives, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, moderates, and libertarians.
For example, there is the religious right that doesn’t want to have anyone disagree with their [conservative Christian] religious convictions while insisting that they press their values on others. There is the individual-liberties right that just doesn’t want to be told what to do about anything, such as register their guns or wear a motorcycle helmet. There is a blue-collar economic right that doesn’t want to have taxes collected that benefit anybody but themselves. There is the elite financial right that doesn’t want anyone to interfere with their pursuit of short-term profits. Each of these positions seems to make sense if repeated often enough and without a discussion of broader context and consequences.
This conservative disposition tends toward “Leave me alone, I’ll take care of myself and you take care of yourself,” or simply “fuck you.” (Witness the audience’s unsympathetic reactions during the GOP debates to the hard consequences on disadvantaged citizens of some candidates’ policies.) The moderate liberal center, however, tends toward “we’re all in this together.” Oddly, while this conservative position pointedly rejects the interests of others, the liberal position embraces and empathizes with the interests of others including, ironically, conservatives.
Why would the kind of conservatives described above want to get involved with any civic sacrifice that didn’t promote the interests of themselves or someone who is part of the limited group that they consider to be “us.” The difference is that liberals have a broader perception of “us.” While liberals can still embrace an appreciation for personal liberties, the moral benefits of religious faith, and the importance of family values, they are more likely to also feel heightened responsibilities for the needs of their communities, their overall nation, and others with whom they share this planet.
Very few Americans want “communism” as practiced in the former Soviet Union or in China under Chairman Mao. Nore are there very many Americans who want the kind of “cradle to grave socialism” of some European countries (despite the recent name calling against liberals by conservative candidates). But, as Albert Einstein, and generations of Complex Systems and Developmental researchers have pointed out, the significant problems that we face can not be solved at the same level on which they were created. We must come together to solve problems that are bigger than ourselves. That is why we form communities and that is why we need government. That is why we should (and do) sacrifice individual liberties for the greater good of ever-larger populations. That is why we give governments limited power to regulate our affairs and tax us so as to act for our collective welfare.
The bottom line is that, between impractical extremes, there is an important place for layers of community and government. In the balance between individual liberties and and the state’s ownership of all means of production, there exists a range of options that allow for our pursuit of happiness while remaining interested and involved in our common good. It is the urge to active citizenship. It is the position of empathy, moderation, compromise, and consensus. It is the sweet spot of the modern American Democratic Party.