In the movie Excalibur, Arthur spoke of a hope he knew he'd never see fulfilled. "It is a dream that I have," he said, thereby suggesting that a forlorn hope is better than no hope at all. During the Los Angeles riots Rodney King said, "Can't we all just get along?" when he saw what was happening in Los Angeles and across the country because of what was at its root a symptom of the divisions between black and white. But what he asked could just as well apply to conservatives and liberals. Unfortunately, in the current political climate, King's plea seems to be as forlorn as the quote from Excalibur.
We liberals often wonder why it is, when the conservatives are presented with facts so obvious, so crystal clear in the health care reform and global warming debates, that they still continue to ignore those facts. But we don't often realize that the conservatives are wondering the same thing about us.
In today's polarized political world, conservatives tend to consider liberals as clueless children, as naive little Pollyannas adrift in a world beyond their comprehension… whereas we liberals tend to frame conservatives as mindless Ayn Rand clones, as Nietzschean fugitives from the wrong side of Pink Floyd's rock opera The Wall.
It's said that there is much truth in jest, and vicious hyperbole aside, it appears that the opinions that liberals and conservatives hold of each other are true at least in some measure. In a 2008 study by scientists at Northwestern University, the scientists found that conservatives tend to fear losing the status quo, the collapse of social institutions such as marriage, family, and government, while liberals tend to fear a life without deep feelings and experiences, a life without real meaning. One of the authors of the study said, "The study findings may shed light on why conservatives prefer more authoritarian leaders while liberals do not."
I suspect that the previous paragraph will only serve to reinforce the opinions that liberal and conservative readers of this article hold of each other.
A 2007 study showed that once a habitual response to a certain stimulus is formed, a conservative is significantly more likely to stick with that response even when the stimulus is changed to something different, whereas a liberal is significantly more likely to give something other than the habitual response when presented with the aforementioned infrequent stimulus. In other words, a liberal adapts more readily to a change in the situation.
The study notes that, "Previous studies have found that conservatives tend to be more persistent in their judgments and decision-making, while liberals are more likely to be open to new experiences." But what this study did was show that the decision-making process went beyond what many of us feel to be a conscious decision.
A more interesting study came in 2009, where the scientists compared how easily one was disgusted by, well, disgusting things. The scientists found a correlation between being more easily disgusted and political conservatism. Participants who rated higher in disgust sensitivity were more likely to oppose gay marriage and abortion, issues that are related to notions of morality or purity. The study references an earlier study that found a similar correlation between higher levels of disgust and disapproval of gays and lesbians. The study makes no mention of libertarians, but it does strongly imply that conservatives are significantly more uncomfortable with things or experiences outside their own personal comfort zones.
If the three studies above share a common thread, it is change, and one's level of comfort therewith. It would seem rather obvious that conservatives tend to resist, even to fear, change, whereas liberals are more likely to embrace, to eagerly anticipate change.
And that leads us to the most troubling of the four studies, one which is published in this month's issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Social Psychology Quarterly. In the study, the author postulates that humans are evolutionarily designed to be conservative, caring mostly about their family and friends, and that the concept of being liberal, caring about an indefinite number of genetically unrelated strangers they never meet or interact with, is evolutionarily novel when compared to the experience of hundreds of millennia of human evolution. The author found that young adults who subjectively identify themselves as "very liberal" have an average IQ of 106 during adolescence while those who identify themselves as "very conservative" have an average IQ of 95 during adolescence.
Don't get me wrong. I really don't like IQ tests. They may or may not be accurate indicators of a person's intelligence, but in my opinion IQ tests tend to make those who score high think that they don't have to work as hard as 'regular' people, tend to take hope for a better future away from those who score lower, and for those who score normally, the tests tell them that "you're normal, but you're nobody special." But IQ tests — and their close cousins, the SAT, ACT, and ASVAB — are a fact of modern life, and we too often tend to judge others and ourselves on the results. Again, for all their negative effects, these tests are a fact of life.
Furthermore, there are so many factors that go into determining how one might score on such tests. One might have a genius-level raw intellect… but if one is provided a less satisfactory education (as is often found in rural areas as opposed to suburban areas), this will be reflected on such tests.
Nor should we make any assumptions as to one's raw intelligence because of his or her political beliefs, as most who go head-to-head with the BC Politics editors can attest. Furthermore, the study (as previously expected) found that more intelligent people are no more or no less likely to value such evolutionarily familiar entities as marriage, family, children, and friends. Witness the experience of a certain Rhodes scholar named Bill thanks to his dalliances with a girl named Monica.
But the last study does seem to reinforce what the first three studies found: that conservatives tend to resist change more strongly than do their liberal counterparts. I believe I can safely say that, generally speaking, conservatives are predisposed to yearn for the "good old "days" and the change they most desire is to return to the world they once knew — and anyone who grew up down South can attest how the whites there tend to yearn for what they feel to be the glory days of the past. It's not by accident that "Dixieland," one of the most popular songs of the Old South begins, "O, I wish I was in the land of cotton, Old times there are not forgotten!"
It is beyond question that one cannot learn, one cannot grow, one cannot adapt without change; and the more one resists change, the more one handicaps oneself to growing, to adaptation, to learning. For all the flaws of its premise, that is the implication of the last study cited — that (again, generally speaking) those of a conservative bent may be very, very learned, but they may be more resistant than liberals to receiving knowledge that is outside their comfort zone. Sometimes, such knowledge and understanding might be seen as 'disgusting.' All one need do is look at the opinions of conservatives towards minorities in the past, or towards LGBTs or certain religions (e.g. Islam) even today.
Do I think for a moment that the current polarization between the conservatives and the liberals will someday result in some radical approximation of the symbiotic relationship between the Morlocks and the Eloi of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine? Of course not; such an idea is ludicrous. In the novel, the Time Traveller guesses that the Eloi–Morlock relationship developed from a class distinction present in his own time: the Morlocks are the working class who had to work underground so that the rich upper class could live in luxury. I suppose that the conservative and liberal readers might each be tempted to think of themselves as the Eloi, and of their political opposites as Morlocks — and each reader would be right at least to some extent. But in any case, H.G. Wells eloquently delivered a stern warning to the captains of industry during England's Industrial Revolution of where their policies of exclusion might someday lead.
The propositions and references in this article will have been repugnant to the conservative reader, but I offer no apology. Like the Morlocks and the Eloi, the conservatives and the liberals of the modern world have a symbiotic relationship, as dysfunctional and distasteful and contentious as that relationship may be. We liberals thirst for change, for progress towards that better day that we can see just over the hill, just around the bend in the road. But too much progress too quickly can lead a society to utter disaster, as can be seen in Japan from the arrival of Perry's fleet in Tokyo harbor in 1852 to the Japanese surrender on board the battleship Missouri in an American fleet in the very same harbor 93 years later.
Likewise, conservatives strive to maintain the status quo, to keep the status quo, to live the good old days once more. But too little progress too slowly is also a surefire recipe for devastating consequences, as can be seen in China after the fall of Emperor Zhu Di in 1422. He had built the greatest fleets that ever sailed the seas before the 20th century, and initiated seaborne trading as far away as Africa and the Middle East. Frankly, he might be considered a progressive in today's world. He abdicated after a devastating fire, and his son took the throne and turned China inward. His son discouraged exploration, innovation, and technological progress; and when the Europeans began to explore the Far East, China – with the greatest population, best national health, and greatest resources of any nation on earth at the time – was powerless before them.
Of course in both of the above cases this is an overly-simplistic application of the necessity of mutual respect and teamwork between the liberals and conservatives in a given society, but I am confident I could successfully argue instances.
I'm sure that none of us would ever want our modern society to devolve to the kind of symbiosis shared by the Eloi and the Morlocks; but Wells' warning applies as strongly today as it did during the Industrial Revolution. It's best if we each learn to honestly value what the other has to offer. As with Arthur's quote in the movie Excalibur, it really is a dream that I have, that we can all "just get along." Unfortunately, given the apparent tendency of conservatives to view knowledge and understanding outside their comfort zone with disgust, this may not be a goal they would want to work towards. Witness the many, many times that the Obama administration has tried to work with the Republicans, how many times the Democrats have tried to negotiate, to compromise with the Republicans over health care reform, and how few times – almost none, really – that the Republicans have negotiated in good faith in return.
Is it that President Obama's proposals have been so terrible — since they are at heart very, very close to what the Republicans themselves proposed in the mid-'90s? Or are the Republicans just too disgusted at the prospect of actually having to work with the Democrats? I remember all too well how conservative America hated the Clintons — "Hillary's the anti-Christ!" — and most of us have seen the same kind of hatred foisted toward the Obama administration today. In his question time with the Republican legislators, President Obama pointed out that it's hard for them to negotiate legislation with the Democrats and with him when they (the Republicans) are allowing, even encouraging and initiating, such hateful invective towards him. After all, regardless of how sensible Obama's proposed legislation may be, would a Republican legislator really want to work even the least bit with the Obama administration when so much of the Republican electorate believes that Obama's a Kenyan, or that he's somehow racist, or that he's Muslim, or that he "pals around with terrorists?"
In summary, it's apparent to me that in the big picture, one of the main reasons that the Republicans don't want to work with the Democrats isn't simply because they believe our policies are so wrong. It's also because we're outside their comfort zone, and we disgust them. I don't expect many conservatives will agree with that statement; but any liberal reader can probably think back to how many times he or she has been viewed with utter pity, disgust, or even scorn the moment that his or her liberal views were found out by a conservative friend or co-worker. Of course there are many, many times that liberals and conservatives experience mutual respect and friendship — but these tend to be the exceptions to the rule.
"Can't we all just get along?" It really is a dream that I have, that many liberals have, that we shared with a different King, with Mandela, with Gandhi. However, in a different, darker part of the movie Excalibur, Merlin says, "A dream to some… a nightmare to others!"
"Getting along," indeed. When it comes to conservatives and liberals, for whom is the dream, and for whom is the nightmare?