Late last year, Republican House Speaker John Boehner noted in frustration that it seemed that he and Barack Obama lived on completely different planets. Boehner was making a more astute observation about the current state of American politics than he knew.
The intense polarization in our politics has become so dominant that we are in a state of almost total dysfunction. Both ideological worlds are legitimate and make significant contributions to the health of our nation and its people. Only increasingly, neither the liberal nor conservative impulses in our politics coexist in any proper balance.
The conservative Republican ideal of a strong national defense, limited domestic powers for the Federal government to make it less intrusive of citizen rights, the need for a robust and unfettered marketplace to promote economic prosperity, and a strong sense of personal, individual responsibility for hard work, and right moral action supported by religious conviction are all much needed perquisites for a healthy America.
The liberal Democrat ideal of placing limits on an unregulated marketplace to promote fairness, the upholding of the rights of minorities both racially and ethnically, and the presence of a strong Federal government to relieve the misery of the masses of the populace when that marketplace periodically is dysfunctional during economic depression, and the furthering of a strong middle class that can strengthen our democracy lay equal claim as necessary absolutes for a healthy America.
These are the two competing, and at the moment, irrepressibly conflicted ideological worlds. If Boehner is unable to see any connection between these two ideological dogmas, it is a measure of just how far the Republican Party and the Tea Party conservative constituency has moved away from what used to be the reliable, common sense center of the American political spectrum. Boehner’s Tea Party House Caucus bears no resemblance to the Party of Lincoln of the 1860’s, nor does it even approximate the Eisenhower or Rockefeller or even Reagan permutations of Republican conservative ideology.
Democrats are primarily playing defense and trying to protect Federal government programs that have become long accepted and are still wanted by a vast majority of Americans: Social Security and Medicare to name but two. Support for the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments and their attendant Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 are also under attack. It was Abraham Lincoln himself, who said that “labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Republican support for the working man is dead and direct and unmerciful assaults on labor unions of working men and women and collective bargaining rights that even a President Eisenhower and to a large extent Reagan accepted are no longer within the pale of that conservative ideology. Civil Rights legislation that protects minorities is seen as no longer needed and counterproductive to the rights of those people. Latinos in America and the immigrant generally are seen as dangerous and unwanted foreigners who are out to destroy the country. This is the strongest nativist surge we have seen since the 1920’s.
It is meanness and a moral blindness born of anger and fear, which has come into the conservative ideological framework in the past decade that has been destructive of the domestic tranquility and republican form of government, (small r) guaranteed under our Federal Constitution, the supreme law of the land. Democrats and liberals may honestly benefit from a stronger dose of personal responsibility and the moral accountability that their conservative brothers and sisters so crave. But liberal America has not moved far if at all from the just left of center position that represents the common sense center of American politics. And a large number of Democrats and liberals are people of faith; still the largest majority believing and practicing Christians like their conservative brethren. We have reached a point where long-held agreement over a common set of principles regarding the functioning of our government and citizenry are so at odds that some sort of moral conflict over them is certain to occur if Republican conservatives don’t come to their senses.
The only other such irrepressible conflict was the American Civil War and its battle royal over the morality of slaveholding and racial prejudice. Only this time, the push is coming from the right and not the left. We are being asked to adopt principles that are neither constitutionally sound, nor socially and morally just. The growing resistance of the 99%, from which you must subtract the committed Republican Party base, is evidence of this.
Cognitive Linguist George Lakoff identifies in his research and writing, both in Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, and The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and its Politics, research that models these two modes of thinking. One, that of conservatives, is dominated by what Lakoff calls a Strict Father Model, where authority, obedience, and punishment for violating that authority are paramount. The other, the liberal framing of political morality and issues comes from a Nuturant Parent Model, where empathy and compassion for others predominates, and restitution rather than retributive justice is prized. Thankfully, Lakoff assures us that we all think biconceptually, that is every one of us uses portions of each cognitive model in how we think and frame our moral and ideological framework. So neither Republican conservatives nor liberal Democrats can morally cover the entire ground.
But Lakoff makes it clear that the liberal Nurturant Parent Model with its compassion and empathy for others is the superior of the Strict Father model. He implies that an over reliance on the Strict Father conceptualization of morality is both harmful in family relationships as shown by research, and to the larger political family to which we all belong.
In light of what cognitive brain science can tell us, the extremism of conservative ideology of the recent past must be moderated. Does this mean that conservatives must become liberals? Or that they cannot feel empathy and compassion? Of course it does not. But it does suggest they have lost their way. The extreme conservatism displayed over the Republican Party Presidential nomination process, to appeal to ever more radically right-wing voters is testament to the problem.
So Mr. House Speaker, come over and visit our planet for a change. You’ll like it and you’ll feel an empathy and compassion for Democrats and their constituencies that might head off the ideological irrepressible conflict that is American politics today.