Nothing focuses the mind of a group quite like a common enemy, and so Blue America has lately taken to the war path. There are phone calls to make, Indivisible meetings to attend, and fresh outrages about Michael Flynn and the future uninsured to circulate on social media. People who rarely leave the San Francisco Bay Area are suddenly taking an intense interest in individual congressional districts in Georgia and the precise definition of high crimes and misdemeanors. With this president, clearly, we are not about to give peace a chance.
Sadly, most of us are way too fired up to contemplate the sins that got us to this low point in the first place. When thinking back, we generally fire a few memory daggers toward gerrymandered districts, the Electoral College, and James Comey (Whoops! We like him now.), and then resume fretting over the Russia investigation and the midterms.
But lucky for you, I am not that kind of liberal. The truth is that we’ve been needlessly annoying you, our right-tilting fellow Americans, for too long. An explanation and apology are in order.
Our first mistake was an obsession with empathy. We found groups of people (say, for example, the chronically poor, illegal immigrants, and those who lack health insurance) and tried really hard to put ourselves in their shoes. What does it really feel like to live their lives, we wanted to know. What are their hopes, dreams, and challenges? Often, we found this a very easy task indeed, since we had been wearing those shoes since birth, or had friends or family members thusly clad.
Let me tell you: It sure did the trick for us. Feeling the intense pain of society’s weakest constituencies leads to exactly the sort of bleeding-heart agenda you would expect, and we were and still are totally fine with that. Our mistake was in assuming that conservatives would be fine with how we got there, too, and would welcome some friendly tips on exactly how to feel that pain. It was an annoying effort bound to fail, if only for reasons of personality.
Being liberal is not just a particular set of political dishes plucked from a buffet. It’s more of a state of mind, one often formed at an early age. Liberals tend to be more open to new experiences, new ideas, new ways of doing things – and not just in politics (certain college campuses notwithstanding). Take the case of two people arguing over where to eat lunch: One is lobbying for the tried-and-true sandwich joint, and the other wants to check out the new Cambodian place. You can probably guess which one is the liberal, and which one is standing athwart a bowl of num banh chok namya yelling “stop.”
From that mindset comes a fairly predictable set of freewheeling empathetic arguments on behalf of the poor, the immigrant, and the uninsured. Spend money, we say, because there but for the grace of God go you. Raise taxes, we say, because they are in need and it is your duty. Love, we say, because we are stronger together. There is an empathy machine inside all of us, but liberals crank it up to an obnoxious overdrive.
Uh, how about no, you reply, because you would rather keep that hard-earned money and not give it to folks you don’t know. Those people obviously don’t have their act together, you continue, something I can surmise quite well without getting inside their heads, like Brando in full method acting splendor.
That makes you evil/racist/stone-hearted, we reply, employing a rhetorical strategy guaranteed to not work and make things worse (our second mistake).
So bless us, conservatives, for we have sinned. We took a series of arguments that should have stuck to the boring practicalities of policy and turned them into moral indictments of your collective character. We were so caught up in empathizing with marginalized groups that we forgot to use the same trick on our friends in Red America. And we failed to realize that the process of putting ourselves in the shoes of others was not actually essential to solving the problems at hand. It sure must have been annoying.
The fate of the poor, for example, need not be an epic battle between heartless bastards and socialists who believe in a free lunch. Everyone would like to see reductions in poverty, after all. Liberals could just argue that some level of social welfare is a good foundation on which to eradicate poverty, because having lots of desperate starving people wandering the streets and sleeping on doorsteps just lowers economic productivity and property values and flushes away whatever slim chance the kids involved ever had to break out of it.
The fate of the uninsured, meanwhile, need not be so personal either. Liberals could simply argue that uninsured people still get sick and injured, and we’ll all end up paying for it when they rack up huge emergency room bills and then ignore them, possibly with the help of a bankruptcy judge. All the more reason to make sure everyone is enrolled in something and paying what they can, so maybe next time they’ll visit a cheap primary care doc before things get out of hand in an expensive way.
The fate of the immigrant, finally, need not descend into fights about whether laws were violated and whether a group of people is fundamentally good or bad. Liberals could argue instead that American businesses clearly need extra help from foreign nationals, and a basic respect for capitalism and free markets demands that we set up an easy-to-use system for making it work, because nobody likes these illegal workarounds they’re using.
These are not magic bullets that will bring about political peace and harmony, but they are potentially productive roads not taken. For those omissions, on behalf of Blue America, I’m sorry. Some of us on this side will keep working to refocus arguments on the actual issues at hand, which makes for bad television and worse tweeting, so you may have to strain a bit to hear.
But please, try anyway.
Peter Rice (@ricepeterb) is a writer based in Albuquerque and blogs at peterbrice.com. He is the author of “Liberal for Conservative Reasons: How to stop being obnoxious and start winning elections.”
Lindsay Wood says
As a liberal I’m not sure if I should like this post or not. Maybe someone out there can tell me how I should feel. lol
fat albert says
Although I wouldn’t presume to speak for all conservatives, please allow me to respond to a few points.
First, thank you for a reasonable tone. It’s so much easier to have a conversation when the other person isn’t comparing me to Hitler, calling me a racist, or accusing me of misogyny.
Second, please allow me to disagree a bit. I don’t think it’s your obsession with empathy. There are plenty of folks on the right side who are empathetic, just as there are people from all economic levels that are conservative. Np, I believe that the problem is not the lack of empathy, rather it’s a monotonous obsession with using the government as the solution for every ill that befalls mankind. The problem is that the government is ill-fitted to supply the solutions. Poverty, sickness, economic distress, even racism, are not generic maladies. There are lots of different causes, and even more solutions, and one solution simply will not fit all of the problems.
But, when you try to use the Government, especially the Federal Government, to solve these problems, what you get are one-size-fits-all solutions. And since one size definitely doesn’t fit all, we end up with lots of waste, and a lot of folks that still have problems. If you try to write a bill that contains all of the solutions, you end up with ungainly, unmanageable behemoths that end up causing just as many problems as they solve (at best). I’m old enough that I was around when LBJ announced his “War on Poverty”. Now, 50 years later, we’ve spent more than $8 Trillion (!) on this war – and we have just as many people in poverty as ever.
Another problem is the coercive nature of Government. I cannot begin to tell you how much it offends me when someone tells me it’s my “Christian duty” to help the poor, and then takes my money by threat of force. By the way, as a side note, it’s a bit strange to be lectured about the need for “separation of church and state” and then told that the State is helping me fulfill my Christian duty. Not to mention the absurdity of advocating for free abortions while begging for “Christian charity”. Logical disconnects make for weak arguments.
The fate of the uninsured is something that almost everybody deals with (or worries about) at some time or other. But, once again, using the government is akin to driving a screw with a hammer. What resulted 8 years ago was a hodgepodge of unworkable edicts filling thousands of pages that no-body who was responsible actually bothered to read (remember “we’ve got to pass the bill to find out what’s in the bill”?) Now, 8 years later there are just as many uninsured (different ones to be sure), and the insurance industry is bailing out as fast as they can. Perhaps we might try a solution that involves less government rather than more.
One of the issues that is persistently frustrating is the one of immigration. Now, once again, I don’t presume to speak for other conservatives, but from my perspective, this is not one, but two problems. The first (and far more pressing) is the problem with our porous borders. Before we begin to address the issue of how to deal with those who are here illegally, we have to figure out how to make sure we know who’s actually entering our nation. And, as an aside, this is not a “racist” issue. I don’t care where they come from, what language they speak, what their skin color is, or what their religion is. If they are here illegally, they shouldn’t be. It’s also not simply a matter of the border between Mexico and the US, we have an equally large problem with overstayed visas, unguarded ports, etc.
Once we can honestly say that we have control over our borders, then we can discuss how to deal with the folks that are here already. I’m perfectly willing to discuss a wide range of solutions, which don’t involve separating families or deporting people who have put down substantial roots. On the other hand, I’m really getting tired of endless stories of immigrants who commit crimes, drive drunk, etc. If you want to live in the US, you should act like a good citizen. I remember when we called America a “melting pot” there needs to be a commonality that we all share. It will not benefit our nation for us to continue to focus on our differences.
At any rate, It’s nice to actually have a conversation with a liberal who’s willing to listen. Thanks.
Peter Rice says
Thanks for the kind words. This may come as a bit of a surprise, but I too share a healthy skepticism of government’s ability to solve problems, something I picked up as a reporter whose job it was to follow the government. Probably not as much skepticism as you, but it’s there.
Suffice it to say I would have some disagreements with your conclusions about the three example issues, but you nonetheless take the debate exactly to the point where it should be: How do we solve these problems. If the question on the table is “how do we best lower the uninsured rate and stop this situation where broke desperate people fling themselves on emergency rooms and bankruptcy court (the real socialized medicine)” then we might get somewhere. If the question is “what creative insults can we hurl at each other to distract from the problem,” then I’m less optimistic.
We have the move the debate to that civilized point not for any cheesy “can’t we all just get along” sort of reasons, but because the viciousness lets us off the hook from actually crafting good ideas. In an ideal world, liberals propose wild and crazy ideas with noble goals, and conservatives reject the crazy but help to find a way to the noble goal. (Hopefully one that’s cheaper and more efficient.) Give the checks and balances we’ve had built into the system for centuries, that’s generally the only way stuff gets done.
We’re counting on you more than you know. Take care! -Peter