Monday, January 17, 2011

Conservative Anger and Liberal Condescension

The vitriol that liberals and conservatives perceive in each other is only the symptom of a larger cause. There is something rooted in the two ideologies that generates anger and condescension respectively, and that is why a simple call by the President for participants to be more civil will find few adherents.

Liberals are thinking, what is it about conservatism that it can produce its own antithesis, radicalism? Whether these be conservatives of the anti-government variety, such as Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bomber) or Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), or conservatives of the anti-abortion variety such as Clayton Waagner, Eric Rudolph, or the Army of God -- all conducted terrorism to preserve a way of life.

One of the deepest paradoxes of American conservatism is that the preservation of the past takes effort. As William F. Buckley put it, conservatives "stand athwart history, yelling Stop." As the Founder of modern American conservatism noted, the enemy is History itself, because History moves. Congressman Joe Wilson took Buckley's yelling advice to heart in 2009, when he blurted out "You lie!" to the president when he was addressing the Congress in the chamber of the House. Yelling is a far cry from shooting. But the point is that conservatism on this side of the Atlantic wasn't exactly born a phlegmatic creed.

Conservatism in America has always been about fighting back and taking back, articulated with a healthy dose of bravado and second amendment rhetoric. Sarah Palin understands this and that is why her crowds cheer her on. People like her because she is feisty. But that has also worked against her. Palin just couldn't help herself but fight back when she was accused of inciting Jared Loughner into his shooting frenzy. Whereas the very liberal John Kerry thought he was above the fray and was slow to respond to the Swift Boat veterans' attacks against him, Sarah Palin is often too quick to respond to her attackers, and sometimes she does so without having considered her choice of words (like "blood libel.")

That is why House leaders about to stage a vote against Obamacare are about to traverse a dilemma-ridden path. To say what they want to say requires outrage and gusto, but when they do this they risk being accused of giving fodder to the would-be Jared Lee Loughners in their midst.

This is not to say that there isn't vitriol on the liberal side. But it is of an entirely different form. Whereas conservatives are apt to feel anger, liberals project condescension. Again, part of this is structural, because Progressivism of any variety has one thing on its side - History itself. Because in the long run, Progressives have change on their side, they only need to wait and the world as conservatives know it shall pass. This, in part, explains liberal condescension. Conservatives conserve because they want to insulate themselves against the vicissitudes of life and History’s inexorable movement. Progressives or liberals, on the other hand, embrace change because they feel it is inevitable.

This is why the liberal response to feisty conservatives is equally fraught with political landmines. Barack Obama learnt this the hard way in 2008 when he observed that for structurally unemployed Americans who lack the skills to acquire the jobs of the modern economy, "it's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them." The liberal tendency to denigrate what is felt as righteous anger is exactly what cultivates more outrage.

A national conversation won’t just happen because of Barack Obama’s call for civility, and it certainly doesn’t begin with telling Republican leaders in the House to postpone their vote to repeal health-care reform. The president can take the lead by taking seriously rather than dismissing what is heartfelt in those who disagree with them. With less condescension, there will be less anger. Republican leaders, for their part, can reciprocate by considering that change isn’t always change for the worse. With less anger, there would be less condescension.

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