Partisan Tribalism

You’ll occasionally hear someone or other point out how unreasonable it is for a person to believe something just because it’s what conservatives believe or just because it’s what progressives believe.

They note that it’s astonishing how often a person’s views on questions about guns and climate and conscience and equality and life issues and taxes will all seem to coincide with one side of the culture war division, even though the different agendas are not obviously connected to each other apart from their happening to coexist in parties that represents the “right” or the “left” for a political community at a particular moment.

Those people are quite right. If our policy conclusions seem largely to overlap with whatever our favourite political orientation happens to be hyping up at this moment, we should probably question whether we’re really as clever and clear-thinking as we’d like to believe. More likely, in that case, we’re just easily manipulated, and we’re being influenced to support some larger agenda which we don’t understand and which we wouldn’t appreciate if we did.

This definitely happens on the left end of the political spectrum, but the right is more where I live, and so it’s a bit easier for me to talk about the biggest warning signs of not thinking for oneself on the right.

First though, the most obvious warning sign, for anyone really, is a double standard. If something is fine for our side and not for the other, then we are not thinking for ourselves, but are thinking what we’re told to think. Both sides do it. It’s always easier to see it when the other side is guilty, but still, it’s really not that difficult to notice it in ourselves. Just try.

And then some special warning signs for my friends who lean to the right.

Anti-science and anti-experts. This is an easy one. If we have to go against a scientific consensus to hold a political opinion, or if we have to say “Well it’s not really a consensus because I found someone on the internet who’s really smart who doesn’t agree with everyone else,” then we need to stop and think twice, especially if many of our friends happen to question the same bit of science.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that it’s actually good to have an intellectual distance of sorts from science, to recognize that it’s conclusions are always impermanent and changeable, and to remember that science is not the final arbiter of meaning and truth over all other ways of knowing. This theoretical distance enables us to see the structures of knowing and the structure of reality more clearly, and it’s a rare and valuable perspective today.

However, that’s different from the people who say that they know better than the scientists about scientific matters, that they’ve found some dissenting opinion online which shows that their conclusion is better than the scientists’ consensus.

In that case, you’re probably just falling prey to a propaganda effort orchestrated by some large, profit-driven industry like oil and gas, or big agriculture.

I believe it’s possible to be conservative and also to be intelligent and informed.

Anti-morality. The only good reason to be a conservative is because of morality. I do know the progressive movement has some wonderfully moral causes, and many other intuitions which, though perhaps ultimately wrong, are also motivated by a desire for justice and flourishing. Still, plenty of people today find themselves drawn to the conservative movement as a place that is more protective of traditional morality and less prone to the moral chaos of the passing fads of progressivism. I am sympathetic.

However. When conservative leaders and thinkers claim not only that the world is cruel, but that we must be cruel, must form the world for cruelty by our decisions and plans, that stance represents a worthless conservatism in my view. I have in mind, for instance, the sort of hardline “fiscal conservatives” who would say that poverty, and staggering household debt, and subsistence wages, are a necessary evil, or even a good thing, and that excessive and unnecessary concentration of wealth in a few hands is protected by basic human right and is beneficial to all of society. If we are not setting up society to help those most in need of help, then shame on us.

A conservatism that exists for good is a wonderful thing, but a conservatism that tolerates and promotes evil deserves all the condemnation that the left can conjure. If we’ve been convinced that in order to be conservative we must be able to celebrate suffering and injustice, then that’s a huge flashing warning sign. Don’t go that direction.

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