Do Liberals Need Conservatives And Vice Versa?

While contemplating life the day after an historic US election, I decided to jot a bit about basic, ironic, differences between political liberals and conservatives, and how small group dynamics (in particular, religious group dynamics) play into this. For background, I highly recommend Jon Haidt’s TED talk at…. Haidt is one of our most consistently insightful social psychologists. I look forward to his soon-to-be published book with regard to religion.

We consistently hear conservatives, such as many Republicans, talk about the importance of individual rights and liberties, and therefore the importance of electing governments that will leave the people alone to the greatest extent possible. This sounds like an individualistic stance, but as Haidt points out and I will explain below, conservatives tend to be more community oriented in some ways than liberals. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be more individualistic and yet end up supporting minority rights and other similar social issues such as universal health care that are foundational to strong national communities. What follows is my attempt to explain this paradox.

Before going further I should define my terms. In the United States, Republicans are generally conservative and Democrats generally liberal. Conservatives tend to favor retaining the status quo in social terms (keeping the traditional definition of marriage, for example), reducing the size and influence of government, and therefore lowering taxes. Liberals, on the other hand, are generally more prepared to innovate socially (and otherwise), and believe that government intervention in a variety of ways is a lesser evil than what would occur without that intervention. A larger government influence, such as would be required to create a publicly funded health care system, publicly funded educational systems, etc. inevitably leads to higher taxes.

As Haidt and others have pointed out, liberals tend to be more individualistic than conservatives, and conversely, conservatives tend to be more community oriented than liberals. This is what causes liberals to emphasize individual choice, and to protect the rights of minorities. The gay marriage issue exemplifies this. Liberals also tend to be more oriented toward continuing exploration of various kinds. In fact, one of the best ways to predict whether a person will vote liberal or conservative is to measure her openness to new experience. The more open to new experience, the more likely that person is to be individualistic in orientation, and to vote liberal.

Conservatives, on the other hand, are not as open to new experience and are more orientated toward a particular community — their small tribe. They often like the beehive or choir metaphors as ideal community descriptions. This means that the emphasis is on the majority — those who make a choir a choir. Discordant voices – minorities, for example — are viewed more as threats and less as sources of creativity. “Stand on your own two feet” and other individualistic slogans are, ironically, commonplace in conservative communities. Conservatives tend to fear forces that will disrupt their closeknit communities, and tend to fear change in general. Many of these behaviors can be explained in terms of their collective relatively closed stance when it comes to new experience.

Big picture social behavior is easier for me to understand if I think of social groups as organisms, co-existing and competing with each other in an environment. Once using the organism analogy, the next step is to remember that individual organisms tend to cluster together into macro organisms. For example, our bodies are comprised of a multitude of individual organisms. At the most macro level possible with regard to the human species, that species itself is an organism. It competes against other species and life forms for resources within our ecosystem.

As we move from one level of macro analysis to another, wonderful irony often appears. Within our bodies, for example, the integrity that we experience as human individuals is made possible by a multitude of tensions. Cancer is an example of what happens when one of our physiological processes becomes inadequately constrained by others. Many of our vital functions are performed by organisms that were once separate from us — and often were parasites — that through time and close association became part of “us”. They continue to create a dynamic tension with other parts of us that allow us to function. Creative conflict and competition between integrated parts is one of life’s most common themes.

So, it should not be surprising that when we look at life from the perspective of the human species as a whole, the differing attributes of liberals and conservatives look a lot like part of the human toolkit that helps us adapt to varying environmental conditions. Those who are less open to new experience, and therefore more oriented toward maintaining stable small group relationships, are particularly valuable during times of strife and scarcity. Think of how the Mormon pioneers survived in 19th century Utah, let alone how the Hebrews got along in the desert before taking over their Promised Land.

Conservatives, however, are less likely to innovate and therefore find ways to solve their problems. For this, the individualistic and more-open-to-new-experience liberals are more likely to be of use. And, in times of plenty, liberal individualism and creativity will produce a blossoming in the arts that will be both pleasing and disturbing, and a plethora of other behaviors. The liberal tendency toward chaos could, if unconstrained, lead to the disintegration of society. A conservative counterbalance in this regard is useful. So, as is so often the case, the dynamic tension between opposing forces facilitates long-term growth and creativity.

Within a large, pluralistic group, there will be conservatives of many stripes. Each of these forms a separate tribe within the larger group. And within these tribes, allegiances are felt primarily with regard to the small group, not with regard to the nation and other larger groups of which is a part.

Words like “God” and “patriotism” are used liberally within these groups. However, these words are so vague that they can be used for many purposes. Hence, radically different notions of God and patriotism are used to strengthen the walls around individual tribes, instead of applying to the large group as a whole. This is particularly ironic when it comes to patriotism. The patriotism, for example, of a literalist Southern Baptist in Texas has little in common with the patriotism of a gay couple in San Francisco. However, Southern Baptist patriotism has a profound effect in terms of strengthening the Southern Baptist community.

Vague concepts like patriotism and God are basically social mirrors into which we look. When we see there our most important values, highlighted for us by our group’s history, our group is thus strengthened. This is a classic self reinforcing feedback loop. And, as Goethe put it:

As man is
So is his God
And thus is god
Oft strangely odd.

Understanding the nature of the small tribe conservative orientation makes sense out of the paradox I outlined at the beginning of this note. That is, if conservatives are so community-oriented, why do they tend to consistently elect governments and vote against initiatives that would strengthen the communal fabric of their nations? Countries that tend to be more conservative, for example, tend to be less supportive of universal health care, have weaker employment retraining systems, have weaker welfare systems, provide less funding for public education, and tend to have more social unrest and distress than countries that tend toward more liberal political systems.

The answer to this conundrum is found within the conservative definition of community. The conservative orientation is toward the small tribe, not the large, pluralistic group that comprises a nation. Therefore, conservatives tend to maximize the influence of the small tribe. They do this by electing governments that promise not to interfere with individual rights, which means that the small group will be free to exercise maximum influence over its members. Think of Brigham Young in Utah’s early days. His explicit objective was to establish a theocracy. Once Utah was part of the United States, that goal had to be modified. So, within the US system, the Mormon Church tried to maximize its influence. The larger the influence of federal, state and local governments, the smaller the influence of the Mormon Church. Hence, Mormon politics tend to be conservative.

This can get a bit ugly. For example, in places where there are universal health care and generous unemployment and job retraining funding, individual reliance on small social groups (such as religious institutions) is radically reduced. This weakens tribal influence.

Within Mormonism, for example, a 10% tithe is extracted from the membership. Part of the rationale for paying Mormon tithing is that in times of trouble, a strong Mormon social institution will be there to back you up. In the United States, where health insurance is often difficult to get and frequently coverage is denied, this is of particular importance. However, financial assistance from the Mormon Church in the case of medical emergency, loss of job, etc. is only available to fully participating members. Dependency on the religious tribe in this way is a powerful incentive to obey. This contributes significantly to the strength of the membrane around the social organism.

I would never accuse the Mormon institution, or individual Mormons, of voting against initiatives with regard to things like universal health care on the explicit basis I just outlined. The fact remains, however, that the tendency of social organisms like the Mormon Church is toward maximizing their influence, and this means minimizing government influence. As the regrettable consequences of this social dynamic become better understood, it will hopefully moderate.

The conservative tendency to weaken national communal strength is not the end of our irony. The individualistic liberals, whose tendencies are feared to lead us toward chaos, end up championing minority rights and hence strengthening national institutions. This is a result of the liberal orientation toward self-determination – a strong form of individualism — combined with the democratic ideal that the rights of every individual should be protected. It is as simple as this — liberals take individual rights more seriously and apply those rights to larger groups than do conservatives.

Therefore, liberals are the ones who tend to back universal health care, public education, workers rights, job retraining rights, etc. This creates a communal fabric that spans a nation, thus creating a powerful economic platform on which small groups of a conservative nature can prosper. And, the larger group orientation of liberals will likely be crucial as we move into an unprecedented period of international cooperation. The primary problems facing our species are now global. Environmental issues; terrorism; pandemics; overpopulation; global financial crises; etc. None of these can be solved on a small group basis. Precisely the same kind of principled one protect-the-minority orientation that leads to the establishment of universal healthcare within a nation, is required to make the individual sacrifices in Canada, for example, that will ultimately be necessary to slow the melting of the Antarctic ice fields.

But then, the ironic screw continues to turn. Those liberals are a difficult bunch to herd around. They will come up with the ideas, but in terms of coordinated action, they may well deliver too little, too late. On the other hand, once the leaders of important small groups choose to define global problems as problems for a particular small group, the communal orientation of these groups will instantly marshal potentially massive resources.

The bottom-line is this. Our liberal or conservative tendencies appear to have genetic roots, and this appears to be yet another part of mother nature’s genius. The human species has been endowed with different capacities that will come to our collective aid in different ways as our environment changes. The dynamic tension between these orientations is useful in many ways. However, we tend to tribally cloister so as to hear as little of the irritating views from other tribes as possible. This is unwise. Organizations that foster dialogue across tribal divides are far more likely to create wisdom than organizations that follow traditional paths. And civility while in dialogue is crucial to learning.

It behooves us all to devote more energy to listening, and understanding points of view that differ from our own.

Wisdom is found in the strangest of places, for both liberals and conservatives.

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