RIGHT-WING LIBERALS AND LEFTIST CONSERVATIVES
Allow me to make an observation that isn't really new, but one for which I'm finding new evidence: the right are the new liberals, and the left are the new conservatives.
I remember in college that a point came where I realized my political beliefs put me in the "conservative" camp, but having been raised to think that "conservative" was a bad word, I didn't want it applying to yours truly. And I found some good evidence to support the notion that I
was a true liberal. For one, on a university campus, we conservatives were the ones fighting against an entrenched status quo in the classrooms, in the student government, and in the administration. Meanwhile on the national stage it was conservatives who were pushing new policies such as privatizing Social Security, ideas that threatened the status quo of liberals whose decades-old programs were failing or are projected to fail (i.e. Social Security's insolvency date is constantly being revised forward).
Later I realized that arguing against terminology was not a battle I would win in the short term. So I consented to call myself a conservative, some three years or so after I decided I was indeed a righty. But the term is not without some merit: for evidence of my conservatism according the traditional American definition, I would point to my preference for incrementalism -- when society decides to move in a new direction, I want it to have been long-discussed such that a consensus or something close to it will legitimate that change. (As to those who would say George Bush's tax-cutting or ambitious foreign policy goes against this, I would answer that it's been 23 years since Reagan was elected president and four decades since Barry Goldwater published "The Conscience of a Conservative."
In nearly all things but a handful of social issues like gay marriage, it is conservatives who are now closer to classical liberalism than the liberals who took that as "their" word.
So that's the old. Here's the new, or at least more recent:
Since Bush started moving the nation toward a war with Iraq conservatives have been idealistic and optimistic
with regard to the future of Iraq, whereas liberals have been cautious and cynical
. This was true in mid-2003 when the war looked more and more likely, and it is true today as we are preparing to give Iraq (not back
but for the first time in decades) to the Iraqis.
Some of the current state of affairs is surely attributable to sticking to old positions for the sake of consistency. Most conservatives are, as even Don Rumsfeld himself allowed, at least a little surprised how bloody it has been since the regime was toppled. And liberals are seeing (if not saying) that there does seem to be a moderate Iraqi majority who want to see a unified Iraq succeed.
But it doesn't change the fact that the left and right are behaving differently than one might expect. Even in a polarized political climate, one sees avowed liberals such as Christopher Hitchens morph into Bush-supporting hawks while longtime conservatives like Brent Scowcroft have gone on the record as deeply skeptical. Does this make Hitch a conservative or Brent a liberal? I don't think
In this unspoken switcheroo there is, I think, some shedding of old prejudices. The idea that one can invade an Arab Muslim country and install an open society is many things, but it is not conservative. Meanwhile, opposition to a war that in the long run could save millions is many things as well, but certainly not liberal. (Don't get me wrong: opposition to dealing with Nicaragua was not liberal in the mid-80s either, but support for engagement in the Balkans in the mid-90s was.) Is that a mistake for either side? Potentially it is a mistake for both. Obviously it is too soon to tell what will happen in the Middle East over the next few years, much less the next few generations. One side made a serious mistake, and I have placed my feet firmly in the pro-liberation camp, but from time to time even I have my doubts. Conservatives got into this with an inordinate amount of hope. But likewise the so-called liberals went in with too much doubt.
• • •
What, exactly, am I arguing for? For a long time I thought I would like to propose reversal of the common terminology. The right should be called "liberal," and the left should be called "conservative." But that doesn't hold, either: let's say in 20 years, after the aims of the modern right are achieved (knock on wood), the left will try to repeal them or propose new changes to the laws and policies of this country. It is entirely possible, perhaps even inevitable, that such a thing will happen. And at that point, would the right not once again be the conservatives, and the left liberal?
A favorite example of this discrepancy is how the ayatollahs of Iran are frequently described as "conservative," as are the old line Communists in Russia. Neither share much in common with conservatives as they are known in the Anglosphere (U.S., Britain, Canada and Australia) but conservatives, in the apolitical sense, they surely are.
A few weeks ago I noted how John Kerry told an audience of presumed liberals, to great applause, that Bush is not a true conservative
. As I've explained above, in some ways that is very true. Likewise, you will find conservatives frequently describe the type of government they want for Iraq as "liberal." But what accounts for that? In both instances the user of the term is harkening back to that apolitical definition.
Perhaps I am really arguing for the abolishment of the terms "liberal" and "conservative." Obviously, the terms are entirely relative and therefore inadequate to describe a constant political philosophy. In conversation I try to stick with "right" and "left" -- more or less neutral words that do not by themselves connote any particular philosophy. They are empty vessels ready to be filled with meaning. And so they have been. But at the same time they are confused with mostly useless terms.
Still, the primary objective of this post is to point out an ongoing discrepancy in the stated prejudices of both camps, which I cannot easily explain. The length of this post should make that clear. And I'm not the first to speculate about this, and this phenomenon is not restricted solely to the war on terrorism, or tax cuts.
It's a brave new world, folks. The liberals are the new conservatives, and the conservatives are the new liberals. And whether they realize it yet it or not, it means major cognitive dissonance for both.