The terms “conservative” and “liberal”, while grounded in well-established philosophical traditions, have been turned almost upside down today. In fact, what we now call conservative was considered classical liberalism in the Europe of old.
The rise of extremist Christianity in the GOP is as contrary to true conservative principles as trade protectionism in the Democratic Party is to true liberal principles. For every Republican who touts the benefits of spreading democracy by force around the globe, a true conservative is rolling in the grave; similarly, true liberals stand aghast that Democrats never meet a problem that can’t be solved by throwing more money at it. The insane war on drugs, and the cowardice with which both Republicans and Democrats approach the issue of gun control, display profound disrespect for both conservatism and liberalism.
The Republican noise machine has been particularly successful at tarnishing the word “liberal”. On the other hand, the actions of the Bush Administration these past seven plus years have gone a long way toward blunting the advantage that the term “conservative” once held with respect to political identification.
The truth is that most of the issues we currently face do not break down easily along ideological lines; at root they are issues that require pragmatism, competence, and common sense. For example, in the richest nation in the world, the overwhelming majority of Americans realize that allowing millions of children to go without healthcare is morally wrong; end of story. The debate is how best to provide the coverage, not whether it should be provided.
With respect to globalization, no one really believes that we should or could turn back the clock. The vast majority realizes that U.S. companies need to remain competitive; they also realize that America needs to maintain some form of safety net, and help displaced workers better transition from one type of employment to the other. Workers should be able to take risks, and not live in constant fear of being one paycheck from bankruptcy. Again, the only debate is how best to get there.
On the topic of terrorism, no one doubts that there are bad actors out there who mean to do us serious harm; the question is how best to find them and deal with them, and not sacrifice our core ideals and liberties in the process.
None of these issues can be resolved by adopting an ideological mindset that refuses to seek alternative points of view or consider other tactics. What is needed is a reasoned approach, combined with flexibility, attention to detail, and follow-through by top-notch government authorities who are accountable to the people.
I chose the title for this piece because I think Barack Obama is the candidate with the most potential to usher in such an era of common sense approaches to policy without the ideological baggage that weighs so heavily on the American body politic. As the conservative columnist Stephen Hayes has noted, Obama’s rhetorical skill lies in his ability to show that he understands and respects opposing viewpoints, even as he points out why a certain course of action is preferable. He rarely uses terms like liberal or conservative; he has a way of elevating the dialogue above the labels that so often get in the way of clear thinking.
While McCain is trying to prove his “conservative” credentials (which seems to mean embracing Christian extremists like John Hagee, and flip-flopping on the Bush tax cuts), Hillary Clinton is staking out a fairly conventional partisan stance. None of this is to say that Obama is the only one who could help move us beyond the ideological divide, but that he seems to have the best chance this election cycle.
Regardless of who wins in November, I think we will begin to see a movement away from the conservative-liberal divide as a new political generation comes of age: a generation less interested in notions of ideological purity, and more interested in finding solutions to the problems that all of us face.