I still remember when I first self-identified as “conservative,” in July of 1990, in a family-style restaurant near my house. I don’t recall the exact conversation, but for some reason, I called myself “liberal.” I didn’t know what that meant exactly, but Opus the Penguin from the Bloom County comic strip called himself liberal periodically. Like Opus, modernity’s disconnect between common decency and everyday experience left me flummoxed.
So anyway, I called myself “liberal,” which bothered my father. “So you’re a liberal, are you? What makes you liberal?”
Unprepared, I flapped my lips momentarily, before mustering a lackluster “I dunno.”
“Well, let me try this,” Dad said. “What do you think they should do with this bus stop guy in the news?” San Diego news was dominated by a serial killer who apparently stalked women at municipal bus stops.
I had this one. “Fry the guy,” I said without hesitation.
“And that,” Dad said, slapping his hand on the table triumphantly, “is a conservative position.”
Thus I became conservative. Because of a fifteen-year-old’s flippant comment and the desire to please my father, Opus became a curiosity from my past; I identified myself as conservative from that point.
My father’s conservative self-identification was weird. If you’d polled him on individual issues, he’d return mixed results: conservative on law-and-order issues, ambivalent on welfare, but progressive on race and gender, foreign aid, and financial regulation. Despite his diverse opinions, he just considered conservatism a theory for “people like us.” Thus party loyalty became an identity issue, not an ideology.
I began reading politics, but having chosen my alignment based on family loyalty, I didn’t bother with diverse sources. Particularly, I selected information filtered through humorist PJ O’Rourke, rabble-rouser Oliver North, and columnist Thomas Sowell. Factual accuracy, balanced argumentation, or legitimately treating opposition positions as worth serious consideration didn’t enter my reasoning. I simply wanted pundits to tell me what I already believed.
Sadly, I see this pattern repeated broadly. The snap judgement of a high school student too young to drive, bleakly uninformed about topics where feelings run hottest, exactly matches the arbitrary opinions dribbling forth from mass media pundits. Whenever Fox News pseudo-specialists unthinkingly demand more tax cuts, without the relevant math, or more capital punishment, or another Iraq war, I remember that befuddled teenager, eager to please his dad.
Politicians, who face actual voters and could lose their jobs for sufficiently egregious screw-ups, try to avoid such behavior; but talking heads get paid for riling up audiences, making juvenile theatrics a lucrative option. Mass-media political discourse actively discourages deep thought. TV pundits want audiences to sit passively, absorbing another’s opinions, and regurgitating them whole at town hall meetings and voting booths.
This conclusion cuts both ways.
Twelve years after first identifying as conservative, I discovered the Genuine Progress Indicator, an alternate economic model that undercuts the much-lauded Gross Domestic Product. Forced to recognize that the neoclassical economics I’d learned from school (and Thomas Sowell) sucked, I started to question every conservative principle my hand-picked sources had carefully conditioned into me. And as people do, I ran straight to the opposite extreme, which proved a rude awakening.
Having found conventional conservatism unsatisfactory, I jumped headlong into conventional liberalism. This time, I much more quickly recognized my position’s limitations. Where Laffer Curve conservatives cut taxes heedlessly, Great Society liberals won’t eliminate programs whose purpose was served generations ago. Conservatives see Affirmative Action and feminism as relics of bygone eras; liberals paint every member of the Designated Oppressor Class with the same broad brush.
Moreover, they lump incompatible issues together pell-mell. If you support active American military involvement in global situations, you must perforce oppose abortion, even in extreme cases. If you believe government should intervene when banks play baccarat with consumer deposits, you must believe direct cash transfusions can redress poverty. The binary split in American politics excludes depth and complexity. American politics has no place for doubt, nuance, or ambiguity.
Conservatives and liberals both start with the answer, and go in search of the question. They get the process of solving life’s problems backward. Rather than facing reality as it is, they frame what parts they prefer, and forcibly conform those parts to their prefab opinions. Unsurprisingly, as we keep refighting the same old fights, old problems linger. Nothing, fundamentally, gets any better.
And I’m back where I started. Opus and I can see the problem, and we can see common decency. We just can’t see why others don’t see it, too.