Politics seems to dominate every aspect of the American conversation. Whatever the event or issue, it gets interpreted through a political lens and a divisive one at that. Is there anything political that Americans agree on? According to a July-August 2020 report from the Pew Research Center American Trends Panel, the answer is yes. For what it’s worth, respondents were equally divided between Democrats, Republicans and Independents. The report doesn’t indicate geographic, racial or gender distribution.
As close as Americans are likely to get to universal agreement, they give high value to the importance of: Government transparency; Separation of powers; Checks and balances; Minimizing money’s influence over public policy; Expecting serious consequence to misconduct in high office; Maintaining judicial independence; Respecting rights and freedoms; Expecting equal opportunity for all; The right to protest peacefully.
They’re also in general agreement that the government doesn’t do any of it very well.
Two items are of particular interest to me. One is the question about the importance of respecting the rights and freedoms of all people. The other asks how important it is that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.
Both conservative and liberal acquaintances place a high value on respecting the rights and freedoms of all people but use different words to describe what they mean. Conservatives work from the perspective of nonnegotiable individualism. Individuals, acting ethically in their self interest, are sufficient to keep each other in check. Private charity is sufficient to care for those in deserving need. Life is full of consequences, and if some can’t make it, that’s sad, but it’s their own fault. Government, as little as possible, is always a threat to rights and freedoms.
Liberals, placing and equal value on rights and freedom, use a different vocabulary constructed around the systems that establish and govern the community as a whole. Government defines what rights and freedoms are, who has access to them, what their limitations are, and how matters of justice are to be resolved. It is society’s responsibility, working through government, to assure that rights and freedom are broadly defined and assured as equitably as possible. They believe individualism can exacerbate selfish injustice and facilitate accumulation of power among a few wealthy elite.
Conservatives and liberals agree that respect for the rights and freedom of every person is “very important” (very important is the phrase used in the survey) to the future of our democracy, but it’s hard to see how the two vocabularies can be reconciled if each refuses to listen with understanding to the other. Intransigence has become a deliberate political strategy that bets on a winner take all outcome in which negotiation is neither desired nor tolerated. There’s a temptation to blame each side equally, but, as a strategy, it was employed in force after the 2010 elections exclusively by tea party-freedom caucus conservatives, although Newt Gingrich used it as much as he could during his speakership in the late 1990s.
The second item of special interest is the near universal agreement that it’s “very important” to the future of the nation that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. Liberals look at the history of systemic racism built into the fabric of American life through law, regulation, practice and prejudice, and assert that equal opportunity has been, and continues to be, denied to people of color, especially blacks. Conservatives deny there is systemic racism in contemporary America, and that past historical injustices should be left there. They appeal to the difficulties the white lower classes have had to endure, and to examples of people of color who have risen to high levels of accomplishment. It’s proof enough for them that equal opportunity is available to anyone willing to work for it. Liberal vs. conservative opinions on whether women are systemically disadvantaged are less certain, and complicated by positions on abortion, so for the moment that has to be set aside as a subject worthy of its own discussion at another time.
It comes down to more than finding ways to improve communication with understanding across the legislative aisles. More is at stake. Conservatives of our era are determined to abandon the liberal social and economic policies that have defined the American way of life. Today’s conservative leaders are fully aware that they prefer a democracy in which centralized power resides with those who control economic wealth. They’ve convinced their base that the liberal alternative leads to radical socialism of the worst sort.
Liberals desire to continue progress toward realization of the American promise we now read into our founding documents. It requires an active government creating conditions in which rights, freedom and opportunity are cemented into legislation and policy. They believe an adequately informed and educated public can be trusted to vote for representation that will work for the good of the whole while preserving individual rights and freedoms. Liberals believe the health of our republic requires diversified centers of political and economic power, and leaders who are committed to equality and social justice.
The 2020 election requires more than a massive liberal shift. It must also result in the energization of a new conservative movement equally committed to liberal democracy, but acting as agents of caution with a determined concern for efficient, effective use of public resources.