It’s becoming increasingly more difficult not to come to the conclusion that our nation is made of two sides with irreconcilable differences. We’re innundated with that vantage point from both the left and the right. Rarely is someone willing to risk suggesting anything to the contrary.
We have two political platforms easily caricatured by the excesses of both ends of the political spectrum. When Democrats and Republicans are only contending with the loudest and most abrasive mascots of the other side, it’s quite easy to think the gap is far to large to bridge. For AOC and MTG will never see eye-to-eye and we therefore assume we will never be able to understand or getting along with our peers who vote differently than we do. Many on each side are completely befuddled by the other side’s vantage point and therefore resort to assigning ill motive, as a way to explain what, to them, is unexplainable.
As I’ve explored in some recent posts, these political differences are worth exploring more deeply. How is it that someone else like my neighbors, friends, family members and coworkers comes to drastically different opinions than myself? Is it all attributable to this ill motive? Lack of intelligence or compassion?
In that previous post I was exploring how one way is to view these differences purely as a difference in geography: divisions between rural and urban areas seem to correlate very well with political persuasion better than most variables. Just look at any election results map and it’s quite evident.
But I’d like to posit one more here, courtesy of the thoughtful writing of Patrick Moynihan, a former Democratic Senator of New York. One that I’m sure overlaps significantly with one’s locale, but speaks to our differing political sensibilities.
“Liberty and Equality are the twin ideals of American democracy. But they are not the same thing. Nor, most importantly, are they equally attractive to all groups at any given time nor yet are they always compatible, one with the other.
Many persons who would gladly die for liberty are appalled by equality. Many who are devoted to equality are puzzled and even troubled by liberty. Much of the political history of the American nation can be seen as a competition between these two ideals, as for example, the unending troubles between capital and labor.“
This liberty and equality framing for the two sides of the political aisle I have personally found quite helpful.
The aforementioned excesses of each political authorities are quite possibly best represented by the dysfunctional ideologies that inevitably arise when either of these ideals becomes the whole show. Watch Fox News and you’ll get a portrayal of the right’s greatest fears and MSNBC could give you a glimpse of the left’s.
Yet, as Moynihan charitably states, much of our political history can be seen through the lens of this tension. This isn’t anything new, which means it probably isn’t going away anytime soon (if ever). Liberty necessitates an allowance of differences, even when it comes to outcome. Equality likewise requires some encroachment and curbing of liberties. And here we are trying to make them both work in tandem.
By casting both of these as ideals, Moynihan demonstrates that both are good and essential to the function of our society. For many fear the horrors of an authoritarian regime with no allowance for autonomy. And likewise, there are many who fear a society so stratified, that it devolves into chaos. Those fears are legitimate. Society can be destabilized by a dearth of either ideal.
A well functioning society requires a proper balance of liberty and equality. Unfortunately there are few politicans that are trying to speak to the concerns of both sides. Yet, as I’ve had more and more conversations around political topics with friends, I’ve found the exact contours of others’ beliefs are often far more nuanced than those heard from political pundits.
For while most may look for a candidate to enter the ring championing the ideal that most appeals to their sensibilities, most have some idea of where the limits should be.
Maybe by viewing our political opponents through this lens we can actually have more constructive dialogue that may challenge our preconceived notions of how these two ideals can function together. I’ve found at least that these themes of equality vs. liberty pervade most of our political discourse even though we never state it explicitly. At least for me, this framework has helped me grapple with with the tradeoffs I often justify in my own political persuasions as a result of this tension.
I’ll end with this fun quote from G.K. Chesterton.
“The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered…, it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.”
Whether we call them virtues or ideals, we have to find a way to bring liberty and equality back out of isolation. To realize both are ill-equipped to serve as the ultimate ideal and require something far larger that can account for both equality and liberty. For these two ideals may seem a world apart and the chasm to wide for us to engage with the other side. But it doesn’t have to be that way, nor should it be.