Much has been written in recent years about the increasing polarization in American politics. Republicans have moved further to the right, while Democrats have moved further to the left. And seldom do they even attempt to meet anywhere in the middle.
The phenomenon is undeniable. It’s observable on a daily basis and confirmed by polling data. According to the Pew Research Center, Republicans and Democrats today are further apart ideologically than at any point in recent history. Increasing numbers on both sides of the divide see members of the other party less as honorable opponents than as threats to the nation’s future well-being.
All of this would seem to suggest that conservatives are consistently conservative across the board, while liberals are reliably liberal, no matter the issue. According to Pew, this has not always been the case. Their research suggests that, while consistency has long been the hallmark of conservatives, liberals have only lately been heading in the direction of overall liberal orthodoxy.
But some liberals seem to be slow to get with the new program. At least that has been my experience. Granted, I’ve been a historian, not a social scientist, so perhaps my attempt to amend Pew should be taken with some skepticism. But here goes.
Amid the larger left-right divide, there seems to be a mini-political phenomenon afoot: namely, those on the left stubbornly hold on to one area of agreement with the right, and generally on one issue only. I have not come up with a term to describe this particular phenomenon, but I do know that it exists.
It’s also my sense that Pew is right—at least when it comes to those pesky single issues: Those on the right are more consistent that those on the left. Maybe it all comes down to thoughtful open-mindedness on the part of liberals. Then again, maybe not.
In any case, let’s stipulate this much: I don’t know about you, but I know more than a few liberals who are liberals pretty much across the board—with the exception of one significant issue. Why is this so? Is it really open-mindedness or is it something else?
In my non-social scientist’s experience, the key factor is one’s occupation and/or compelling interest. Writing in social “sciences,” the individual on the left departs from the conventional wisdom of the left on not just a single issue, but on an issue of singular importance to the individual in question.
Back to singular experience. I have a long time teacher friend who over the years has been a very consistent liberal—except when it comes to the classroom specifically and educational issues generally. A grade inflation hawk, he upheld standards as they collapsed around him. Demanding of himself, he made demands of his students, demands that were to be met rather than compromised. Is college for everyone? He would say no. Free tuition? No again.
Then there is the former student turned lawyer, who now has extensive prosecutorial experience. A Bernie Sanders liberal on economic and social issues, he is hell on wheels when it comes to law and order. Criminals, no matter their background, are to be caught and prosecuted, not coddled and excused.
Come to think of it, Senator Sanders himself is an example of the phenomenon I have in mind. His mindset exudes government controls, save for gun control, which factors into his calculations for re-election in Vermont.
Lest I leave out a few doctors I know, there are those who are persistent liberals, except for Obamacare, which has been a bridge too far. It is a law with which they have become all too familiar—and which they are all too worried about, whether as over-taxed providers or as over-taxed entrepreneurs.
One final category involves business folks who might be defined less as liberals than as SLIBECONs, meaning social liberals and economic conservatives. I know a few and know of more than a few. They are prepared to give way to government on any number of fronts, but they want taxes reduced and regulations relaxed. In sum, when it comes to business decisions, they want the market, meaning themselves, not the government, to prevail. So, SLIBECONS they are.
I can think of no comparable acronym that might capture the general phenomenon of “I’m a liberal, except for the issue that a) affects me most deeply; or b) I know the most about; or c) my constituents insist that I endorse.” But such liberals do exist.
Are they hypocrites? Not really. Stubborn? Perhaps. Open-minded? Not necessarily. Actually, the problem might be a lack of open-mindedness. As that inimitable English essayist G.K. Chesterton once put it, “I like to open my mind as I open my mouth—so that I can shut it again quickly on something solid.” Whether quickly or gradually, if the aforementioned liberals heeded that advice, they might one day arrive at the solid—or at least sobering—conclusion that something is amiss with liberalism in general.
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