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This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Conservatives and Progressives redux

Nearly two months ago, I posted on some of the assumptions that lie behind conservative and progressive ideas in America. That was a pretty widely read post for my blog, so I decided to do a follow up with some additional thoughts about the subject. This one’s likely to be a bit more controversial than the last, but it is based on my experiences and observations with people on both sides. Your mileage may vary, but if you disagree and feel the need to respond, please explain where I’ve gone wrong rather than just tell me I’m wrong. Thanks.
OK, let’s go.
Another difference in underlying assumptions between conservatives and progressives is how the two sides conceive of individual vs. group identity. For the progressive, group identity seems paramount: we are seen as part of groups identified with race, class, gender, and sexual orientation; similarly, we identify with labor (i.e. unions), and possibly with other types of groups as well. This is why progressives frequently are involved in identity politics.
If you are part of a group identified as among the oppressed—women, racial minorities, homosexual, etc.—it is assumed that you will hold progressive views. Conservatives from these groups are seen as traitors: Black conservatives are routinely labeled as “Uncle Toms;” conservative women are savaged by the media with nary a peep from feminists and accused of “not being women,” etc. Of course, if you are one of the privileged, then holding progressive views demonstrates that you are enlightened and have risen above the limitations of your class.
To take this further, problems are also caused by collective entities. The most recent villains are greedy corporations, “Wall Street,” bankers, etc., though it could also be the rich (“the 1%”), or as was the case a few years back, upper class white heterosexual males. Perhaps the reason for this is that progressives tend to believe people are basically good, so they generally don’t want to blame individuals (other than the Koch brothers or members of the Bush administration). It’s easier to blame a group and then challenge individuals to cross sides and align themselves with the good guys. Thus because he sided with the Occupy Movement, Michael Moore isn’t part of the 1%, despite the fact that he is well within the 1% top incomes in the country.
If collective entities are the problem, they are also the solution. Unions must balance the power of corporations and increasingly of governments, and progressive government (i.e. government in the hands of the Democrats) is the ultimate solution to undermining the power of those that exploit or abuse less powerful groups.
Conservatives tend to think in much more individualistic terms. They genuinely do not see group identity as being primary. Thus when Mitt Romney says “corporations are people,” he does not mean that a corporation is a person. He means that corporations are made up of people—the owners and employees are the corporation. As a result, you can’t pit corporations against “the people” because “the people” include those that make up the corporation. Progressives misunderstand his statement because they think in terms of the corporation as an entity, not as a collection of people working together for a common economic purpose.
Similarly, criticism of Pres. Obama is often seen as racism, as were Newt Gingrich’s comments about welfare—despite the fact that race was never mentioned. Conservatives hear criticisms of the president as being about policy, and comments about food stamps as being about increasing rates of poverty; progressives hear a racial subtext that must be present even if not stated because they see things in racial terms and because they assume conservatives are racist, along with sexist, homophobic, etc. The difficulty in communication comes about because of different assumptions about collective vs. individual identity.
For conservatives, group identity is secondary, but it still exists. The most important groups, however, are not based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Rather, they are the groups which you join voluntarily. This includes churches and service organizations, political parties and PACs. This idea of voluntary association even extends into your job—you are not owned by the company that employs you, and you can always quit and work elsewhere. This emphasis on voluntary association is the reason why conservatives support right to work laws. Where union membership is mandatory, rather than voluntary, it violates the right to free association. To put it simply, if you want to work for an employer, you should not be required to pay another organization for your right to do so.
Conservatives tend not to see problems as being caused by a clash of interest groups per se; rather, they see them as driven by individuals promoting specific ideologies and translating those into policy. It isn’t typically a matter of group identity. As a result, the solution is to promote a different agenda built primarily around entrepreneurial action on the part of individuals acting for their own and for their community’s good. This is where many of the voluntary associations conservatives support fit in: religious groups and service organizations can deal more effectively with many problems than the government can, and thus they should to be promoted ahead of government action.
None of this is absolute, of course, and there are exceptions. For example, there are conservatives who are bigots, though not nearly as many as progressives seem to think there are. But based on my observations, the distinction between individual and corporate identity seems to be another piece in the puzzle behind the thinking of progressives and conservatives in America.