I’m responding to your most recent column, “What conservatives stand for” [Ken Trainor, Viewpoints, Jan. 4] as a sympathetic liberal who found useful your catalog of conservative public policy positions. But while it may not have been the aim of your column, a complementary bird’s-eye view may help to delineate the ideological divides on domestic politics.
Understanding requires not only close examination, but also an examination from afar. The wider, contextual view should be the starting point, into which the details can be ordered.
So I’d start with the question, “Where is the 50-yard line in American domestic politics and what constitutes the end zones?” A favorite myth perpetuated by the conservative myth-makers — along with Ronald Reagan’s trickle-down economics, Rick Santorum’s trickle-down piety, assertions that our current economic woes are due to over-regulation and burdensome tax rates, the federal debt being an immediate financial crisis (ignoring Treasury rates), voter fraud justifying widespread voter suppression, and “judicial activism” being something only liberal judges engage in — is the over-arching claim that this is a “center-right” country. This last claim is repeated so self-evidently by conservatives that liberals cede the point.
To evaluate that last claim (and the corollary that liberalism is a “leftist” ideology), one should identify the “center” of our politics or the “50-yard line.” Lacking precise measuring tools, the better approach might be to describe the space between the 40 yard lines, as well as the political field’s outer dimensions.
Looking at the field left to right, the spectrum is one of the relative standing of private property rights. The left end zone — representing the leveling collectivism of socialism/communism — is the near or entirely complete nullification of private property rights in the name of equality. The right end zone represents pure free-market capitalism and the complete ascendancy of private property rights and the individual over the communal in the name of “freedom.”
But when conservatives talk of “freedom” (or “liberty”) they’re referring primarily to an unfettered opportunity to acquire and horde private wealth. Ayn Rand, a favorite Tea Party authority, edited a book titled, The Virtue of Selfishness (“altruism,” in her formulation, is an actual “vice”). The right has become so single-minded in that selfish pursuit, that their bannered “don’t tread on me” rattlesnake is now the far more suitable symbol for the GOP than the traditional elephant: In the natural world the elephant exhibits a far-too-evolved intra-species identity.
If those are the end zones (socialism on the left and laissez-faire capitalism on the right), then what occupies that portion of the field between the 40 yard lines? I think it’s “liberalism,” which basically amalgamates the divide between the left and right, as well as the competing impulses of empathy/altruism and selfishness. Liberalism maintains a relatively free market economy, albeit a regulated one. In the modern world of connected economies, where failure cannot be satisfactorily quarantined, liberalism finds intolerable the massive dislocations that result from total dependence on a theoretical self-correction mechanism in a pure free market.
Additionally, liberalism abhors arrangements that leave the fate of individuals largely to the whims of circumstance — liberals support a social safety net. But in all of this, private property rights remain intact: the lucky talented, and the just-plain lucky, still get rich.
Properly “centered” in the public’s mind, one would expect liberalism to be the ideology of choice for most “independents” and those occupying the “Vital Center.” And that, most certainly, would favor the Democratic Party.
So is this a “center-right country”? No, it’s a center/liberal country, demonstrated by the continued popularity, among other things, of Social Security and Medicare and the recognized need for regulatory agencies to provide checks and balances.