I am still trying to understand the political fracturing that is taking place in these United States. The level of rhetoric on both the Right and the Left has become deafening, and the issues now seem to be more a question of ends than means.
When I was growing up and becoming politically aware, the differences between Democrat and Republican presented themselves as preferential and procedural. The Democrats seemed to favor more pluralistic solutions, with people banding together to achieve their aims, and government stepping in to support the poor and weak. The Republicans seemed to favor more individualistic solutions, with people striving to do their best in the marketplace of effort and ideas, and government enforcing the rules to ensure fair play. Each political decision revolved around which approach—pluralistic or individualistic—would provide the best outcome for the case in hand. Both parties adhered to the same essential aims: make the nation strong, help people live better, build for the future. They shared a tacit agreement about the meanings of “strong,” “better,” and “future.”
Perhaps that was all a dream, my own personal naïveté.
Today, the discussion about means and method is over. Democrats seem to want total government control of the economy and collectivization of the population—the Soviet Union or Maoist China but without those ugly, repressive bits. Republicans seem to want no government at all and free-range capitalism—the economics of winner-take-all robber barony amid perpetual cycles of boom and bust. Like two football teams on the line of scrimmage, each party is dedicated to moving the ball over their own goal line while denying the opposing team an inch of ground. Collaboration, let alone reconciliation, is out of the question. Victory or death! The ultimate solution! Yee-HAH!
Perhaps this is all a nightmare, my personal penchant for seeking the heart of things.1
The fact that the extreme wings of either party have taken over and now drive the rhetoric with unassailable positions, litmus tests, and apocalyptic visions tells me that there’s an emotional disjunction at the root of their disagreement. It’s not just that “they’re wrong and we’re right.” It’s not that the sides disagree over either means or ends. Instead, they experience a complete difference of vision, a different level of comfort with the universe.
Democrats, liberals, progressives, Marxists—wherever you vibrate along the spectrum to the left of center—are idealists. They view the world as an imperfect place and see all too clearly how it could be made, not just better, but perfect. Their glass is half-empty and they don’t see why it cannot be filled to capacity.
In their ideal world, everyone should be happy. Everyone should be free to act as they please, equal in stature, and able to live as brothers.2 If people are not free to do as they choose, then some condition imposed from outside must be holding them back, whether it’s a repressive society, bourgeois morality, or harsh parenting and a mean boss. That condition should be identified and removed. If people are not equal, then some condition is dividing them, whether it’s class structure, lack of inherent opportunity, or denial of basic resources. Find and remove. If people are not brothers, then their feelings are estranged by some external influence, whether it’s competitive capitalism, religiously inspired hatreds, or teachings of racism, sexism, and classism. Find and remove.
Human nature, they believe, is perfectible—if only the idealists can find the right mix of emotional, aspirational, linguistic, and legal levers to pull and push. And the negative levers like private property, individualism, elitism, greed, and anger must be set to zero and then broken off. The idealists have seen enough success in this venture through the activities of religious reformers and popular writers that they believe a wholly secular approach, dedicated to teaching and promoting the right impulses, can perfect the human soul.
Idealists are focused on the future—what the state of the world can or should be, rather than what it is at present. They find nothing to like or preserve about the past, because previous conditions and traditions were the source of humanity’s failure and half-emptiness. The existing social order, religious teaching, forms of transaction, personal relationships, and ways of thinking about the world are all clearly flawed because they have not produced the perfection the idealist desires. They need to be rooted out and remade according to a better, more workable, more effective model.
The more deeply one believes in human perfectibility, the more cavalier he or she will be about uprooting society, wiping the slate clean, and beginning again with fresh clay. Since people past the age of reason, the older generation who are set in the ways that have worked for them in the past, are reluctant to change, they need to be either silenced, eliminated, or leapt over. The idealist focuses on the young, the changeable, those whose links to the past can be weakened and easily broken. The idealist looks ahead and dreams of utopia for future generations.
Of course, people are not clay. People who act out of perfect personal freedom usually make a mess of the world around them. No two people are equal in their inheritance of talents, energy, ambition, or even the perception of what “perfection” might be. And people are not all born brothers.3 So the idealist is doomed to suffer disappointment.
But disappointment is not disproof of the underlying impulse, which has great emotional strength, personal fascination, and power of attachment. Disappointment only leads to renewed attempts, with greater vigor, stricter parameters, narrower goals. The idealist who does not examine his or her disappointments and re-evaluate personal goals can, over time, become the zealot, the martyr, the destroyer.
The unexamined ideal, driving to its logical ends, can become the enemy of personal freedom, human growth and expression, and love of humanity.
Republicans, conservatives, traditionalists, fundamentalists—wherever you vibrate along the spectrum to the right of center—are realists. They view the world as an imperfect place that could be, and has been, a whole lot worse. Their glass is half-full because they know that, long ago, and sometimes not so long ago, it was really empty.
They know that human nature can be fairly raw, driven by impulses to seek advantage for oneself, one’s family, one’s tribe or nation. They know that people are neither good nor bad by nature but have been bred and trained to survive. Humans, like all products of evolution,4 are strivers and strugglers against a planet which cares not whether we live or die. The solar system with its collection of loose rocks did in the dinosaurs, and it has no greater regard for the bipedal, talking apes that currently sit on top of the heap.5 In most cases, the realists believe, life is all too often “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”6
Human nature, as they perceive it, is about as perfected as it can be right now. They see the world as slowly, naturally—sometimes despite the efforts of messiahs, reformers, and intellectuals—getting better. Where advanced societies of the ancient world once freely practiced slavery and human sacrifice—and justified them as appropriate—our now more enlightened, educated view relegates these practices to backwardness and barbarism. Where people once believed in the anger of gods, our more scientific view posits causes and effects. Where human nature once went untamed and rapacious, society now promulgates laws and teachings that promote equity and balance.
The realist looks back a hundred or a thousand years and knows it was better to be an old Greek or Roman than an ancient Egyptian or Akkadian, and it’s now better to be a modern Englishman or Frenchman than either of those ancient peoples. The realist looks at the sweep of history, of social order, of technology and sees that positive changes tend to be preserved and embellished while destructive changes tend to die out. The advancement is not perfect, and there are periods of loss and savagery,7 but things are getting steadily better overall.
The realist is backward-looking to the extent that he or she does not want to lose these improvements in social organization, moral order, knowledge, and technology that humankind has built into our current legacy. Proposals to forcibly modify human nature and “remold the clay”—rather than waiting for gradual improvement—risk losing the gains we’ve received from the past. The realist knows all about the law of unintended consequences. He or she believes that, while individual humans may be the drivers of art, science, literature, and invention, no one person is smarter than the aggregate of minds in the society her or she inhabits. The realist knows that societies will try new ideas when they seem right but will also discard those that don’t work. He or she is content to accrete new layers slowly, like a conch building its shell, adopting what does work only after it’s been tried and tested.
Conservatives and traditionalists are not pleased by the remnants of poverty, illness, indifference, ignorance, desperation, and wickedness they can see in the world around them. They are not pleased that the glass is still only half full. But they are hopeful that the upward trend will continue. Despite the occasional slides into war and savagery, they expect that new understanding, new teachings, advances in science, and the upward trend in technology since the Industrial Revolution will make tomorrow better than today. They are hopeful that the human enterprise will eventually overcome all obstacles—perhaps even death and the destruction of worlds.
Of course, those remnants of poverty, illness, desperation, and so on mean that some people are suffering now. Their lives are short, and they cannot wait for human history to glide incrementally to that better place where everyone will be treated equally well. The conservative’s accepting attitude can lead to complacence, to disregard, and to callousness—especially if one is already on the upside of that gradual improvement.
Unexamined preservation and celebration of things past can lead to stagnation. If one is surfing the wave of gradual improvement, one accepts the troughs when the wave subsides and “creative destruction” leaves more losers than winners. To accept that every boom comes with its bust leads to an expectation of recurring dark ages and long slides back into barbarism. Unexamined acceptance of such failures can be the enemy of personal freedom, human growth and expression, and love of humanity.
Which view is correct—the idealist’s or the realist’s? Both and neither. The choice is more than intellectual and emotional—it’s almost glandular. Yet these two aspects are the yin and yang of our human nature. They reflect our simultaneous acceptance and rejection of the natural world and of our place in it. The ultimate triumph of either view, or the abandonment of its opposite, would diminish us as humans.
1. I can be a little stupid sometimes—“a bear of little brain”—and I like to put things in simple terms. This is reflected in my tendencies toward lumperdom: pushing things together and finding their similarities; instead of splitterdom: separating things out on a plate into ever smaller, more refined piles and counting up their differences.
2. Echoing the first Jacobins: Liberté, égalité, fraternité!
3. And, of course, not all brothers are loving, caring, and sharing. The fact that siblings are by nature born at different times in the lives of their parents and families, and that their parents may acquire skills or lose patience along the way, tends to create a natural pecking order. And some children can peck pretty hard!
4. Yes, many Republicans believe in evolution. If you can leap over the literal interpretation of the Bible and that whole Six Days thing, anyone can see that (A) tetrapods all share a common bone structure, all animals share a common molecular structure, and all life shares a common DNA coding system; (B) eons of geologic time and tectonic shift have created changing environmental conditions for which the flora and fauna that were representative of biblical times in the Levant might not have been well adapted; and (C) an intelligent, an observant, a clever God who created a changeable planet might easily have created a mechanism for generational change, so that the creatures inhabiting that planet would always prosper and enjoy their surroundings. From a certain viewpoint, DNA-driven evolution is simply another aspect of His wondrous creation.
5. This formulation, of course, leaves out the whole God question, where He loves us and cares for us and wants the best for us—except when He sends a Mongolian horde to burn down cities at the edge of the Christendom, or the Black Death to burn out half the population of Europe.
6. With thanks to Thomas Hobbes, even though he posited the necessity of the all-encompassing Leviathan state.
7. Which pretty much defines the horrors of the 20th century.