Most of the political candidates vying for your vote nowadays put a great deal of emphasis on their bipartisan methods for solving problems. To me it comes across as mildly insulting, since many of these so-called champions of nonpartisan politics are or were active in blocking progressive policies advanced by the other side – often in extremely unscrupulous manners. To my knowledge, the most vicious example involved Republicans adding a clause to a piece of liberal legislation that allowed government employees to watch porn on the job so that they could tear it down. But I digress.
While the hypocrisy is sometimes painful to listen to, there are things we can learn from this. It shows that politicians understand voter’s frustration with the lack of progress, but it also shows that voters understand that the two party’s views are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Ultimately, the commonly-espoused idea that one side or the other is completely wrong is itself completely wrong, but to understand why, we have to know a thing or two about the core beliefs and principles behind each ideology.
Thomas Sowell provides an excellent explanation of these differences in his book “A Conflict of Visions,” in which he argues that liberals generally see the world optimistically, while conservatives tend to see the world pessimistically. Democrats tend to view human beings as essentially good and capable of anything they set their minds to, while Republicans generally view their fellow man more suspiciously and focus more on defending the good aspects of society than building and advancing towards what is lacking.
In terms of social commentary in literature, one could say that liberals focus on works like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” that show the necessity of government regulation and intervention in society to maintain order and to protect citizens from corporations. The government is a trustworthy force for social progress. Conservatives, conversely, tend to point toward the issues brought up by the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek in “The Road to Serfdom,” in which he echoes Thomas Jefferson in arguing that sacrificing freedom for security ultimately gives up both. Government is untrustworthy, and its corruption scales with its size.
As it turns out, both sides are correct. The food industry in Chicago during Sinclair’s time was awful, and the government regulation spurred by public awareness of those problems resulted in markedly better sanitary and economic conditions, and this action has been mimicked to a similar effect in various contexts around the globe. On the other hand, we can look back in history and also see Hayek proved right again and again in Russia, Germany, Japan, China, the Middle East and even the United States. In our country alone, reactionary federal policy has landed us with outrageous acts like the Espionage and Sedition Acts under Wilson, Executive Order 9066 under Franklin Roosevelt, and the recent Patriot Act created by Bush and continued by Obama – all of which have put American citizens in prison or prison camps for no actual crimes.
The difference goes deeper than perception however. Social-psychology experts studying political tendencies say “…liberals and conservatives do not just see things differently. They are different” (Laber-Warren) . Their brains are literally wired differently – conservatives focus on threats while liberals zero in on opportunities. Not only that, but people’s ideological tendencies can be swayed right or left through the addition or subtraction of fear. More fear leads to more conservative tendencies, while less fear leads to a more liberal outlook.
What this means is that people like Rachel Maddow and Glenn Beck are giving a skewed perspective – the other side isn’t stupid or an enemy of freedom. The behaviors of Obama and Romney in last week’s debates was dichotomizing. The opinions of commentators like Rush Limbaugh and Al Sharpton are wrong, where Orson Scott Card was right – you can’t truly understand someone and not love them. Well, maybe “love” is a bit of a strong word for politics, but honest and open-minded understanding is greatly underappreciated in the political arena, and that gap is holding us back from seeing reality without the tinted lens of political ideology and consequently, from getting anything done.