It is taken for granted today in our ideologically and politically polarized society that one is EITHER a Liberal OR one is a Conservative, that the two ideas are categorically exclusive of each other. Yet any serious philosophical study of the abstract ideas of Liberal and Conservative or of their various meanings in historical development will suggest that the ideas are both polysemic, that is, containing a variety of meanings, and that they are not mutually exclusive.
I am liberal in the sense that I value progressive change when the status quo is unjust, oppressive, self-serving and stultifying. I am a liberal who is committed to the principles of social justice and equality before the law.
I am a “conservative” in the sense that I value the conservation of nature and the protection of vulnerable and unprotected life. I am a “cultural conservative” in the sense that I value the preservation and cultivation of historical knowledge of our western civilization’s intellectual and cultural traditions. I am a “conservative” in the sense that I am committed to the principles of personal excellence and what Emerson called “self-reliance.” This commitment does not contradict an equally important commitment to the preservation of “the commons.”
Are the principles of Liberal and Conservative mutually exclusive, as the mass-media and political machines would have us believe? Must one choose between excellence and equality, continuity and change? It all depends on how you spin it. What is needed today is something else besides the overwhelming preponderance of narrowly polarized ideologues and power-driven opportunists on both the right/ left divide. What is needed today are “radical centrists” and “principled pragmatists” who know how to build a collaborative relationships the foster “the middle way” between ideological extremes. Our entire social, economic and political discourse would change if we could get beyond our dualistic binary thinking that only cares about perpetuating the polarity of point/counterpoint. Lots of people live in “the radical center” but in today’s extremely sectarian media-driven environment their voices are becoming fewer and harder to hear.
Having said all this, the highest liberal and conservative ideals, which may not be mutually exclusive but rather a dialectical tension that are required for a healthy democratic republic, and both be subverted by those who would exploit and pervert these ideals. There is a shadow-side to human nature, and we should not be surprised that this distortion and perversion of values would reveal itself on the public stage of political and social discourse. When the liberal tradition is reduced to an ideology of resentment and the conservative tradition is reduced to an ideology of greed, then both traditions have betrayed what is best within them. One humorous political quip reads: “Democrats see the cup as half empty. Republicans see the cup as all theirs.” We can do better.
I have not said anything about “Libertarian” and “Communitarian” ideologies, and of those with these ideologies who remain largely marginalized on the sidelines of cultural and social discourse, but whose ideas and values are also important. Again, it is customary to set them up alongside each other as mutually exclusive matter, and to conflate the distorted shadow-side of each ideology with what it potentially represents at its best.
Today we need to rekindle our moral imaginations in such a way that conservatives, liberals, libertarians and communitarians can continue to hold to their particular ideals and values and at the same time find some common ground in our shared humanity and mutual interests at the radical center where all the lines converge on a truth that is larger than any narrow ideology and fathom.
- The history of the left-right divide: A centuries-old argument defines our politics, and offers a way forward (salon.com)