Talk to me about philosophy, morality, and the meaning of life, and you’re likely to conclude that I’m a conservative. Yet I’ve voted exclusively for Democrats since 2004 — and I’m convinced my conservative assumptions entail voting that way.
I said as much, in passing, in a column earlier this month, and that raised some eyebrows, with several conservative acquaintances on Twitter and at least one prominent Republican friend requesting a broader explanation. Why am I “situated on the center left” despite holding “assumptions about politics and life [that] are more often held by philosophical conservatives than modern liberals”?
The answer is complicated in its details but clear in its conclusions: There is nothing remotely conservative about the present-day Republican Party. It injects moral nihilism into the body politic on a daily basis as a means of acquiring and deploying power primarily for the sake of enriching a class of plutocratic donors — mainly wealthy businessmen and defense contractors. Democrats may have their problems, including a contingent of online progressive activists who work to pull the party in directions that would be politically ruinous. But at least the economic policies Democrats support don’t actively shred the social fabric of the country, leaving workers and their communities in tatters while right-wing media rabblerousers get rich directing the resulting anger and blame at liberals.
At the center of the maelstrom is the singularly appalling figure of Donald Trump, but the GOP began trending in this direction long before he emerged to codify and consolidate the transformation. That’s where many conservatives will part ways with me. Rejecting Trump is understandable, but embedding him in the longer-term trajectory of the Republican Party goes too far. Yet this view of the party and its history follows directly from my conservative assumptions about politics, society, and morals.
What are some of those assumptions?
That the liberal vision of politics founded on the consent of rights-bearing individuals is a myth that badly distorts political reality. That the elementary unit of politics is society, not the individual, and that the customs and traditions we receive from our communal past deserve respect (though not unthinking deference). That the notion of historical progress is a fiction. That claims to knowledge and mastery need to be taken with a dose of skepticism. That the best we can reasonably hope for from politics is muddling through, enacting modest reforms that attempt to make things somewhat better while not unintentionally making them worse.
I’m both suspicious of absolute moral claims and consider them indispensable for maintaining social and political decency — which means the love of justice needs to be both cultivated and tamed. The best way to achieve this balance is through the encouragement of moderation and recognition of the reality of pluralism. As I explained in another recent column, pluralism holds that:
[T]here are many objectively good ideals or ends — freedom (in its multiple senses), equality, communal solidarity, piety, justice, to name just a few — and that they inevitably clash with each other. The liberty of a gay couple to marry, for example, will clash with the piety and communal solidarity of the bakery owner who doesn’t want to be forced to bake a cake for the wedding ceremony. And of course both sides appeal to conflicting notions of justice as well. [The Week]
I went on to note that the implications of pluralism for politics include a commitment to seeking “compromise and accommodation whenever possible, using every available means, including appeals to federalism and the crafting of highly nuanced and narrow court decisions that carve out space for different ways of life to flourish as much as possible.”
Both of America’s two major parties respond poorly to the reality of pluralism, with Democrats eager to use the power of the state to impose and enforce one set of absolute moral claims and Republicans aiming to do the same with another. Each affirms a comprehensive vision of what Aristotle called “the good life” and wants the political community as a whole to affirm it while ruling certain competing moral visions out of bounds.
Aristotle himself proposed ways that the city-states of ancient Greece could balance such clashing moral outlooks to produce decent polities. The challenge of achieving such decency in our vastly larger and more diverse nation-states is much greater — and the culture war makes it even harder than it might otherwise be, because it absolutizes political disputes, turning policy disagreements into assertions about non-negotiable goods.
But if both parties deserve blame for contributing to our civic turbulence, why do I so forcefully side with the Democrats in the voting booth? For one thing, because Republicans have come to believe that they benefit electorally by transforming policy disagreements into culture-war clashes. This has had the effect of turning increasing numbers of political disputes into total war, and driving a segment of Republican voters to embrace positions that in some cases actively threaten the common good — as we can see very vividly with absolute opposition on the right to gun regulations as well as the adamant refusal of some to wear masks in public during a pandemic that has already killed more than 100,000 Americans.
But Democrats also do much better than Republicans at responding in a civically healthy way to the challenges of self-government under modern conditions. They do so by focusing their attention on the advancement of lower-level goods. If appeals to the good life tend to spark disagreement and divisiveness about the highest goods, directing our attention to what political philosopher Leo Strauss called the “low but solid ground” of economic and material well-being — which Aristotle dubbed “mere life” — can be politically salutary.
That’s because everyone in a political community — even a political community as large and differentiated as a modern nation-state — benefits from a thriving economy. And because, again following Aristotle, one way to minimize rancorous disagreements in politics is to encourage the growth of a large middle class. The corollary of this view is that the immiseration of a large share of a country’s population is bound to produce an increase in unrest and political agitation.
From Otto von Bismarck to the advocates of the American New Deal and beyond, modern reformers have understood that preventing the rise of radicalism requires a robust social-welfare system along with regulation of the economy to help foster the flourishing of a large, dynamic middle class. In this respect, the economic policies pursued and enacted by the Republican Party since the election of Ronald Reagan — ever-greater tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations, support for trade policies that have contributed to the decline of the manufacturing sector and the communities that benefitted from it, the thinning out of regulations on business, the shrinking or elimination of welfare benefits, opposition to the expansion of access to health care — have actively contributed to the struggles of the middle class and the growth of political extremism on both the left and right.
Democrats have been complicit in some of these policies, but Republicans have been the driving force behind them — and that makes the GOP a party that deserves a lion’s share of the blame for the increasing radicalization of the electorate on both sides of the spectrum, very much including the distinctive moral degradation, vulgarity, incompetence, and corruption of Donald Trump.
For those, like myself, who desperately want to see the country pull back from radicalism and return to a more moderate style of politics, there is really only one option. The Democratic Party is far from perfect, but it will at least do what it can to address the inequalities and injustices that Republican policies have encouraged and exacerbated. That makes the Democrats the party in greater harmony with conservative insights and assumptions about the preconditions of a healthy politics.
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