Our political discourse is going through a bit of a rough patch, to state the case mildly.
It is increasingly difficult for people on different ends of the political spectrum to have a civil conversation in our country, and we see clear examples of this every day in the news, on social media, and in public spaces.
This breakdown in political discourse is troubling because our country is (ostensibly) a democracy, and democracies only work when people who hold different viewpoints on all manner of things are able to discuss productively together issues pertaining to the common good.
One of the greatest factors contributing to the current breakdown in political discourse is the way we increasingly label and dismiss one another with labels such as liberal, conservative, etc.
Our careless and divisive use of these labels, as well as our increased hostility towards people* who hold political beliefs different from us, erodes our understanding of the things that connect us as human beings. It is also making it near impossible in some cases for us to have productive conversations about issues that pertain to the heart of our nation.
“Psyche’s Wedding”, Edward Burne-Jones
I could discuss the way in which talk shows, media stereotypes, and distorted religious and philosophical ideas have fueled this problem, but instead I would like to focus on why I believe that labeling and dismissing people as liberal or conservative is unreasonable and politically and morally unwise.
Why Is it Unreasonable?
At its most basic level, labeling and dismissing people according to political labels is unreasonable and based on poor logic.
When we label and dismiss someone because of their political affiliation, we suggest that all liberals believe and act in a certain way or that all conservatives believe in act in a certain way.
This is patently false. The terms liberal and conservative are umbrella terms that pertain to a wide range of political and social theories.
For example, the term liberal generally refers today to people who (among other things) tend to
Hold individual liberty and autonomy as a supreme value.
Believe in some or a great deal of government intervention in society for the sake of greater equality
Are highly critical of unregulated markets because of their purported negative effect on communities and the environment
Believe in a looser interpretation of the Constitution in order to apply its principles in a more nuanced way to contemporary culture.
Support higher rates of taxation to help level the social playing field through institutions like public schools, universal healthcare, and public museums and parks.
The term conservative is often used today to refer to people who (among other things) tend to
Value traditional institutions and social patterns over ideas and practices considered radical or revolutionary.
Tend to interpret the Constitution more strictly and literally in order to uphold the rule of law and the foundational principles of our nation.
Want greater market deregulation in order to stimulate economic growth.
Believe that the government’s primary purpose is protection of private property and defense of the nation and that a big government interferes with individual liberty.
Believe that inequality is natural, inevitable, and not really something the government should try to fix.
Believe that privatization is generally a good solution to quality control.
There is also a common idea today that conservatives are more religious and against things like abortion and LGTBQIA rights, and liberals are less religious and more in favor of abortion and LGTBQIA rights.
This article outlines some of the basic differences between liberal and conservative political theory.
The Varieties of Liberal and Conservative Experience
While there are obviously certain things that liberals are more likely to believe or conservatives are more likely to believe, liberals and conservatives actually hold a wide range of differing beliefs.**
There are liberals who hold socialist and communist views but are pro-life and pro- traditional marriage.
There are conservatives who are members of the LGTBQIA community and actively campaign for LGTBQIA rights but are completely supportive of market deregulation and increased military spending.
“The Syndics”, Rembrandt
There are liberals who believe that the government needs to regulate the market heavily but also believe in low taxation rates, generally speaking.
There are conservatives who believe the government should protect the environment but believe in minimal government interference in all other areas of life.
There are liberals who hate abortion but believe it should be legal for the sake of women’s physical and mental health and who work to decrease abortion rates by promoting birth control and education (both of which can reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy).
There are conservatives who are against abortion but, knowing how childbearing and child-rearing can take a tremendous and disproportionate toll on women, favor higher rates of taxation for extended, payed maternity leave, free childcare, and free college tuition for mothers (and everyone else).
There are Christian liberals, and there are agnostic and atheistic conservatives.
By the way, these descriptions of liberals and conservatives above are all based on people I know personally or professionally, and they are just a small sample of the variety of different beliefs that conservatives and liberals hold.
To suggest that all liberals and all conservatives believe and act a certain way is patently untrue and a hasty generalization based on stereotypes of liberals and conservatives. Hasty generalizations represent poor, clouded, and ineffective thinking patterns, and it is really hard to make good political judgments (or any kind of judgment) when our thinking is compromised in this way.
Labeling and dismissing people according to their political beliefs is not only an instance of hasty generalization, it is also an instance of ad hominem–the fallacy of attacking the person instead of the argument.
Ad Hominem–Attacking the Person Instead of the Argument
It is important to note that a person’s argument is never wrong because of who the person is. An argument is only wrong because the evidence supporting the argument is insufficient or untrue. For example, if you are in a building, and someone runs in and yells, “There’s a fire! You need to get out!” the proper response is not, “Wait, a minute. Are you a conservative or a liberal?”
You might look outside or down the hall to assess if there really is a fire, or you might ask the person how he knows there is a fire. But you recognize in this instance that the person’s political beliefs are irrelevant to the claim that you should get out the building. All that is important is whether there is actually a fire or not.
As another example, if someone said, “Hey, there is a burglar planning to break into your house at midnight tonight”, the proper response is not “Are you liberal or conservative?” The proper response is “How do you know?” or “Why do you think that?”
In the same way, a person’s sincerely held beliefs about taxation, abortion, military spending, or market regulation are not right or wrong because they are liberal or conservative. They are right or wrong depending on the accuracy and sufficiency of the evidence or logic used to support the argument.
Someone might say, “I don’t care if I am committing hasty generalization and ad hominem attacks. I don’t care about logic.”
I would suggest that everyone should care about using good logic and argumentation because when we use poor logic and argumentation, it clouds our thinking and makes it difficult to be politically wise.
“Une Cause Celebre”, Honore Daumier
Why is Labeling and Dismissing Politically Unwise?
I think most of us understand the value of trying to be politically wise. If we are not politically wise, we are politically unwise, foolish, imprudent, ill-considered, and reckless. These are just of a few of the problems we fall into when we stray from or abandon political wisdom.
The question is, “What does it take to be politically wise?”
I would suggest that among other things, it takes the following attributes:
1. The humility to know that no matter who we are, we don’t know everything because the world is complicated. It doesn’t matter if we are Christian, atheist/agnostic, a scientist, and/or a person with a PhD. We still have a lot to learn.
2. The humility to recognize that it takes a lot of input from various and differing sources to make well-informed decisions. If we only carefully consider the political opinions of people who look like us, think like us, and worship like us, we are missing really important pieces of the political and life puzzle.
3. A commitment to clear and careful thinking about facts and theories (political beliefs are based on these two things, more or less)
4. A commitment to treating people with dignity, compassion, and respect, no matter if we agree with them or not.
5. A recognition that people who are very different from us might know something or a lot of things that we don’t.
The implication of this is that we cannot make wise political decisions in a democracy if
We think we know everything.
We think that we only need input from people who are like us and think like us.
We don’t care about thinking clearly or carefully about facts and theories.
We don’t care about respecting others or treating them with dignity.
We think we don’t have anything else to learn.
And this is why logic and argumentation are important. Logic and careful argumentation require us to practice #1-#5, and the more we practice these habits, the wiser we are, as wisdom is not really a matter of book-smarts (although that can be involved) but a result of living carefully and thoughtfully in the world and learning from each other and our mistakes in the spirit of virtue.
And this idea of virtue brings me to my last point.
Why is Labeling and Dismissing Morally Unwise?
When we label and dismiss people, we are failing to be moral, virtuous people. Labeling and dismissing people is arrogant, condescending, unkind, uncompassionate, and ignorant.
There is no major system of ethics, nor is there any major religion, that holds these character traits as virtues or good states of character, and there is a reason why. The more we display arrogance, condescension, unkindness, etc. the more we erode our ability to demonstrate character traits like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc. that are at the heart of every religious and ethical system and that bring us closer to God (if we believe in God) and to each other.
Someone might say, “Well this is just the way politics is. Politics is different from morality.” This is what is called “the ends justifies the means” thinking, and there is also no major ethical or religious system that condones this kind of thinking. It is easy to see why: if the end justifies the means, this justifies basically any behavior. That’s not really a world anyone wants to live in.
What is the Alternative?
Luckily, there is an alternative to labeling and dismissing.
It is being humble.
It is being willing to listen to and learn from others.
It is wanting to understand first instead of wanting to be understood first.
“The Founding Fathers”, John Trumball
It is practicing faith that we have more in common than we think we do and that this commonality can lead us to discover good solutions together.
It is hope that we can find answers together.
It is loving each other enough to try even when it is hard and we are scared and uncomfortable and angry.
And by the way, our Founding Fathers, although they were flawed individuals just like us, frequently demonstrated these virtues of humility, listening, understanding, faith, hope, and love.
The Founding Fathers held really different beliefs.
While many of them were Christian, some of them diverged significantly in their beliefs from orthodox Christianity (You can read about this here.)
Our Founding Fathers also held really different political views, views as sharply opposed as those of liberals and conservatives today. (If you would like to read more about this, you might enjoy reading about the Federalist and Anti-Federalist debate, which you can read about here.)
Nevertheless, despite these significant differences in beliefs and political views, the Founding Fathers (in their best moments) believed that through discussion, civility, and careful and moral deliberation, they could create a thriving nation.***
Reclaiming this spirit is the right way to make America great again.
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You might also like this post:
Peaceful Political Discussions: How Not to Be an Idiot in Six Easy Steps
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I taught a class last semester on theories of economic justice which covered basic conservative, libertarian, liberal, socialist, and Marxist views. My goal was for my students to understand the basic premises underlying these different political viewpoints.
Here are some book you might enjoy reading to help you gain a solid understanding of these different political views. And, by the way, it is important to note that both Christian and non-Christian, religious and atheist folks can be found holding to every single one of the above-mentioned political views.
No Salvation Outside the Poor by Jon Sobrino
Justice: An Anthology by Louis Pojman
The Conservative Mind by Russel Kirk
*I am not arguing in this post that we tolerate all views as equal and deserving of respect. For instance, racist and white supremacist views should not be tolerated and do not deserve respect. There is a difference between taking a firm stand against views that lead to radical dehumanization and dismissing everyone who holds different political beliefs from the beliefs you hold. The second problem is the problem I am addressing in this post.
**Here are some books I have read or been exposed to that show the diversity of beliefs liberals and conservatives can hold:
Crunchy Con by Rod Dreher
Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans
Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne
What are People For? By Wendell Berry
No Salvation Outside the Poor by Jon Sobrino
***I do not intend to excuse the shortcomings of either the Founding Fathers or our country in my praise of them here. The founding of our country is inextricably intertwined with slavery, native-American genocide, and other atrocities and monstrous errors. We must own up to both these sides of American history–its revolutionary principles of liberty and its failure to apply these principles consistently.