Our political thoughts and conversations are too often confused by our ambiguous political vocabulary. Saying you’re “Liberal” can mean you want more health and safety regulations or that you want less health and safety regulations. Saying you’re “Conservative” can mean you want a muscular foreign policy, an isolationist foreign policy, or a hard-nosed prudent foreign policy. These words aren’t useful anymore.
Attempts to clarify this ambiguity — such as the famous square of “liberal vs. conservative” on one side and “cultural issues vs. economic issues” on the other (creating the ever-popular and often-misapplied label of “I’m socially liberal and fiscally conservative”) — give us a much-too-narrow set of concepts than are needed to (1) paint an accurate picture of what’s going on underneath the surface in American politics and (2) begin a much-needed reimagining of American politics.
So, for the sake of just that — (1) clarifying our understanding of the present fault lines of American political belief and (2) providing tools for political re-imagination — here is my first stab at a POLITICAL VOCABULARY RESET.
I aim to reset 12 words, each representing the two poles of six political spectrums. These spectrums are, of course, not comprehensive of all of American politics, but they are my attempt at identifying the range of opinion on a few major foundational questions that are not only present in politics today, but will probably still be present in the coming decades after the specific ‘issues’ debated today — gun control, gay marriage, ISIS, etc. — are past.
1. FUNDAMENTALISM: “Fundamentalist” vs. “Pragmatist”
Politics is a response to Uncertainty. If we were Certain that some formula or prescription contained all the answers, we wouldn’t need to politically deliberate on what is to be done.
Some people are Certain: they believe that some past, external and eternal formula or prescription contains the answers to some political questions. On those questions, they should be called — at least politically — “Fundamentalist.”
On the other end of the fundamentalism spectrum is the “Pragmatist“: someone who believes that present people should use their present intelligence — aided by their own creative problem-solving, learned wisdom and institutional practice — to make ad hoc decisions in response to present circumstances.
This is the first spectrum, because it determines how big a role one believes politics should play, if at all. An extreme Fundamentalist denies politics completely: why deliberate when we have the Truth? An extreme Pragmatist, meanwhile, says “with no Truth, everything is up for deliberation.”
2. PRAGMATIST TEMPERAMENT: “Conservative” vs. “Progressive”
Most of us aren’t Fundamentalist on everything. Even those who follow a literal interpretation of the Bible (or, say, Sharia Law or Marxist dogma) still have to awake their inner Pragmatist when it comes to discussing how to, say, apply Biblical edicts to present circumstance (Biblical fundamentalists, for example, still need to deliberate pragmatically about how the Bible speaks to, say, net neutrality or corporate tax rates).
Our pragmatism often comes in the form of two distinct major flavors: “Conservative” pragmatism and “Progressive” pragmatism. Progressivism and Conservatism are often described as polar opposite ideologies, but this commonly held idea is misleading. They’re not ideologies (systems of ideals that one believes we should move society towards), but rather idea-neutral temperaments of pragmatic politics: they’re sets of moods, rules of thumb, tolerances, best practices and dispositions that inform how to practice politics, no matter your ideology. By this, I mean you can have, say, a Conservative Leftist or a Progressive Libertarian… these temperaments can be applied to any ideology.
So how do we define these two temperaments? They are not the easiest to pin down, but I’ll do my best, aided by quotes from Yuval Levin’s great book “The Great Debate” about Tom Paine, Edmund Burke and the origins of Progressivism and Conservatism in America, as well as a few articles that came out about the book.
Progressives “start with rational, abstract ideals” and then attempt to move society towards those ideals. When they do, they call it “progress” (thus the name “progressive”). When some area in society does not meet an ideal, progressives see it as a “problem” that needs to be “solved.” They often turn to technical, rational experts to solve these problems, centralizing authority in those with scholarly knowledge in the problem area. They, in Levin’s words, often “desentimentalize politics”, saying that rational progress towards a shared ideal should trump sentiments for preserving old, irrational ways. Often, Progressives find themselves struggling to apply their rational solutions “to an often ungrateful and unpredictable society.”
Conservatives start by acknowledging the complexity of the social world and the fallibility of human rationality. They are skeptical about the experts’ rational blueprints to solve social problems, for they have seen even the smartest grand plans foiled by the unpredictable reality of our complex social life. What do Conservatives trust in then, if not the experts? They trust in the natural, gradual accumulation of practices and institutions over time that we inherit from our ancestors and pass down to our descendants. To the Conservative, these social norms probably evolved that way for good reason and thus we should always lean towards conserving them (thus the title “conservative”) and avoid bulldozing them just because we are excited about some new problem-solving blueprint. When Conservatives acknowledge the need to reform a part of our “precious inheritance” (conservatives are open to reform — remember, they’re Pragmatists, not Fundamentalists), they believe the reform should be more like “medicine than engineering: a process of healing that seeks to preserve by correcting.”
There is much to love about each temperament and I hope more of us learn to practice the best of both Progressivism and Conservatism.
The Progressive temperament held up the abstract ideal of Liberty against the inherited institution of Slavery and forced American society to progress out from it. The Progressive temperament said the irrational scattershot hodge-podge of late-1800’s urban life was harmful and thus helped establish the modern city with rational expert-run municipal sanitation, sewage, fire, police and health systems. But, alas, the Progressive temperament has also led to dark places like Eugenics, as the abstract project of producing “a more fit populace” bulldozed over conservative safeguards against such major human dignity violations.
The Conservative temperament fought back against Eugenics. The Conservative temperament also helped save our National Parks from being overrun by the market fundamentalism that had sold out wonders like Niagara Falls to commercial interests. The Conservative temperament helped preserve Constitutional principles — like First Amendment rights and separation of powers — from executive overreach at various times throughout the past centuries. But, alas, the Conservative temperament has also held back the women’s empowerment movement, mistakenly treating varied patriarchal practices as “inherited wisdom” instead of what they really were: irrational injustices.
I mention this spectrum second because it is perhaps the most confused in American politics.
For example, many corporate ideologues are called Conservative, but — under the more-precise definitions above — are in fact radical Progressives. Take libertarian Silicon Valley technologists, like Peter Thiel: They constantly speak about abstract, rational ideals, like “Efficiency” “Openness” and “Transparency”; they want to centralize authority in technological experts; they want to “disrupt” every “irrational” practice of today with some more ideal practice of tomorrow; and they have disdain for 1,000+ year old institutions, like the university or face-to-face schooling. They may be opposed to unions, support corporate tax breaks, and want limited government, but they simply don’t have a Conservative temperament when it comes to politics.
One final note on this point: you can see how “Progressive” and “Conservative” can be temperaments of any ideology by seeing how you can argue for the same issue with each different temperament. For example, you could argue for gay marriage Progressively: “We believe in equality and gay people are being denied equality, so we must solve this problem by granting them equality in marriage.” Or you could argue for gay marriage Conservatively: “Marriage is an important inherited institution for wisely structuring our relations. The more people that participate in this well-tested practice, the better. We can’t risk a portion of the population being outside of this practice, so we should expand it to include them.”
3. COMFORT WITH HIERARCHY: “Left-wing” vs. “Right-wing”
If “Progressive” and “Conservative” are not words to describe ideologies, but rather words to describe political temperaments, then what are some words to describe ideologies?
Perhaps the primary ideological fault line is what one might call “Comfort with Hierarchy.”
If you are uncomfortable with a world where some are socially higher than others and thus want to actively work to lessen such a hierarchy, then you could be called “Left-wing.”
If you are fine with social hierarchy — if you find it natural or even find it beneficial — then you could be called “Right-wing.”
What do we mean by social hierarchy? Well, one can exercise their Left-wing or Right-wing ideologies at any or all levels of social hierarchy, from the smallest of inequalities to world-wide disparities. Thoroughly left-wing people are and were uncomfortable with the parent-child hierarchy, the male-female hierarchy, racial hierarchies, the hierarchical-design of organizations like the military or high school, the geo-political hierarchy that leave smaller nations at the mercy of those with mightier militaries, and – perhaps most significantly today – the capitalist hierarchy that leaves the rich (be they nations or people) more powerful than the poor. Thoroughly right-wing people aren’t bothered by these hierarchies: they even find them natural, necessary and beneficial.
Leftists often practice politics with a Progressive temperament, for they hope to re-structure society to meet their ideal of less hierarchy. Rightists often practice politics with a Conservative temperament, for they hope to conserve the inherited hierarchies of the past. However, this is not always the case. Those who argue that we should replace elements of Democracy with rational experts and systems (you might have been caught at a party with someone saying “the country should ditch Democracy and have an ‘enlightened CEO’ that runs everything through Google-like metrics managed by smart people”) could be called “Progressive Rightists.” Those who argue that we should, say, preserve the inherited non-hierarchical community spirit of the teaching profession against the onslaught of nationalized quantitative standardized metrics for merit pay could be called “Conservative Leftists” on that issue.
4. COMFORT WITH CULTURAL MODERNITY: “Traditionalist” vs. “Modernist”
Unlike “comfort with hierarchy”, “comfort with cultural modernity” is less an eternal human question and more of a question specific to this past century. The basic gist of the question is: “How do you feel about the extreme cultural modernization that took place during the 20th century?”
Folks have filled tens of thousands of pages on what 20th century cultural modernism is and means, so I am not going to be able to capture it here in full. But, here’s the basic gist:
Before the modernist explosion in the 20th century — an explosion that was particularly rapid in the 1920’s and 1960’s — women were disenfranchised homemakers, being gay was unspeakable, romance was governed by strict Victorian rules and most people were Biblical fundamentalists who lived in rural villages with their tight-knit large families. By the end of the century, women are – for the most part – liberated and working outside the home, gay people have come out, romance is wild and public, Biblical fundamentalists are a small minority, our relatively-few children spread far and wide across our Interstate-Highwayed nation when they grow up, and most people live in and around urban metropolises wired with internet browsers and cable televisions that are pumping in all kinds of images of all kinds of Truths from all kinds of places.
Some people think most of this is a good thing and that we should continue the cultural march forward… we can call them “Modernists“.
Some people think most of this is a bad thing and we should return to (or to the best of our ability, cultivate in the Modern landscape) our pre-Modern ways… we can call them “Traditionalists.”
Again, these words often get confused with Progressive, Conservative and Liberal. True, it was probably people with a Progressive mindset who pushed Modernism back in the day and it was probably people with a Conservative mindset who fought against it. But, now that modern culture is here, those temperaments don’t necessarily have to match your comfort with Modernism. You can be happy with where Modernism brought us up until now and then have a Conservative attitude with regard to attempts to march it further (for example, a Conservative Modernist might be happy about feminism but skeptical about doing away with the gender binary).
Being ideologies, Modernism and Traditionalism — like Leftism and Rightism — are susceptible to Fundamentalism. There can be Modernist Fundamentalists (“we will not rest until all traditional chains are deconstructed!”) and Traditionalist Fundamentalists (“I don’t care what you say, we won’t be satisfied until the traditional family structure is the law of the land!”). Most of us, though, are probably Modernist or Traditionalist Pragmatists.
5. VIGILANCE FOR INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY: “Illiberal” vs. “Liberal” (vs. “Communitarian”)
Notice how I have yet to include the most loaded word in politics today: “Liberal.”
It’s time to reset ‘liberal’ it’s original meaning: to be “Liberal” is to be vigilant in protecting the liberty of the individual. Liberals believe we should, in the course of political projects, both actively broaden the scope of individuals’ freedom to do what they want while vigilantly avoiding restricting individuals’ liberty. Civil rights (“freedom of speech” “freedom of religion” “due process” “equal participation in government power”), international human rights, and private property protections are Liberalism’s children.
Those who act in ways that oppose established Liberal principles and safeguards — and, in doing so, sacrifice individual rights or liberties for the sake of some common Good — can be said to be “Illiberal.” For example, ‘War on Terror’ wiretapping for the sake of some common Good of security is an Illiberal program. Those who try to ban speakers from coming to campus due to their racist or misogynist past comments have often been accused of being the “Illiberal Left.” The same goes for those in favor of violence against individuals as a means to any political ends: they are being Illiberal.
Somewhere between the Illiberals — who want to actively roll back Liberal safeguards — and passionate Liberals — who see the sole end of Government as protecting individual liberty — are the “Communitarians.” They don’t fit in any spectrum well, so here is the best place I can put them. Communitarians might believe in all the present Liberal safeguards, but also believe that there is more to government than protecting individual liberty. They emphasize how we are shaped by our communities and thus support public action to promote community life and some sense of a Common Good. Communitarians of the “civic republican” variety specifically criticize liberals’ neutrality towards the Common Good, for they argue that a lack of any devotion to the preservation of a communal spirit (i.e. only focusing on individuals’ rights and desires) will eventually lead to the erosion of even basic neutral liberal rights, for no one will care enough to defend them.
5b. MODE OF INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY: “Positive” vs. “Libertarian”
Notice how I said above Liberals believe we should, in the course of political projects, both (1) actively broaden the scope of individuals’ freedom to do what they want; while (2) vigilantly avoiding restricting individuals’ liberty. The tension between these two projects form the final spectrum: “Mode of Individual Liberty.”
Those who believe that avoiding explicitly restricting individuals’ liberty is more important than actively broadening all individuals’ freedom are who we call “Libertarians“. Even if a government program helped millions have more choices, they would oppose it due to the increased taxes to pay for the program limiting the liberty of taxpayers. Their vigilance for individual liberty is more focused on preserving freedom from government restraint and interference.
Those who believe that actively broadening the scope of individuals’ freedom to do what they want might be worth the government partially restricting the liberty of certain individuals can be called “Positive Liberals.” Their vigilance for individual freedom is more focused on ensuring freedom from non-government restraints, like poverty and workplace belittlement.
Being a Libertarian vs. being a Positive Liberal comes down to Governmental Power vs. Non-Governmental Power. The libertarians believe the best we can do to protect individual liberty is to restrict government intervention. The positive liberals believe that because there are many assaults on individual liberty (corporate, religious, family, cultural, etc.), we need to deploy the People’s tool – the Government – to help strike a balance that maximizes individual liberty. A Libertarian draws a bolded line between Governmental power and other power because Government is the only one that isn’t explicitly voluntary whereas everything else, in some sense, is voluntary (you *can* get another job; you *can* move somewhere else; you *can* figure it out). Positive Liberals don’t buy it (you *can’t really, seriously* get another job when you’re in dire straights; you *can’t really seriously* move somewhere else when you don’t have a car; you *can’t really seriously* figure it out when your whole environment is bearing down on you…”because, come on, let’s get get real here”).
In some ways, Libertarianism and Conservatism are connected, for the Conservative skepticism of expert opinion is connected to Libertarian skepticism about the alleged threats of Non-Governmental power. If you are skeptical about whether we can even say that a certain non-government structure in society is implicitly limiting freedom (say, workplace discrimination or low wages or capitalism as a whole), then the prudent, Conservative thing to do is to not meddle and just avoid the worse action of government explicitly limiting freedom to achieve its plans. If you are more trusting of expert opinion — part of the Progressive temperament — you are more willing to be a Positive Liberal, encouraging the government to act on expert opinions about Non-Government powers limiting freedom.
Positive Liberals are similar to Communitarians in the sense that they support active government programs, but are different in how they see their work. Positive Liberals see their work as helping guarantee individuals more equal freedom to other individuals in society. Communitarians see their work as building the community as a whole. For example, a Communitarian might be more likely to support a public investment (like a park or school) whereas a Positive Liberal might be more likely to support a tax-and-transfer program like Social Security or Food Stamps.
So there we go. Here’s a summary of my POLITICAL VOCABULARY RESET:
- Fundamentalist: One who believes political answers are found in past, external and eternal formulas and prescriptions.
- Pragmatist: One who believes political answers are found in the present intelligences of present people making ad hoc decisions in response to present circumstances.
- Progressive: Temperament of pragmatic politics that starts with rational, abstract ideals and attempts to move society towards those ideals, solving problems often through rational expertise.
- Conservative: Temperament of pragmatic politics that starts by acknowledging the complexity of the social world and fallibility of human rationality, trusting in inherited practices and ‘social knowledge’ over present grand blueprints.
- Left-wing: Discomfort with social hierarchy.
- Right-wing: Comfort with social hierarchy.
- Traditionalist: Discomfort with the cultural modernization that took place in the 20th century.
- Modernist: Comfort with the cultural modernization that took place in the 20th century.
- Liberal: Vigilant defender of individual freedom and liberty.
- Illiberal: Showing a willingness to ignore established rights and practices set up to defend individual freedom and liberty.
- Positive Liberalism: Branch of liberalism who is willing to have the government partially interfere with certain individuals’ liberty for the sake of actively broadening all individuals’ freedom.
- Libertarianism: Branch of liberalism housing those who believe that avoiding government interference with individuals’ liberty is more important than actively broadening all individuals’ freedom.
I hope you find this reset useful. As I said before, this is a first draft, to be judged by how effective it is at clarifying the present fault lines of American political belief and providing tools for political re-imagination. I might have mischaracterized something or fallen victim to my predisposition towards Left-wing Conservative Modernist Communitarian-Liberal Pragmatism, so push back. I look forward to reading in the comments what you think.