Fall 1998, Volume 16.1


photo of Manfred Weidhorn.

Manfred Weidhorn

Beyond Conservatism and Liberalism

Manfred Weidhorn was born in 1931, in Vienna, Austria. He came to the United States in 1941. He earned graduate degrees in English from the University of Wisconsin and from Columbia University. He has published over seventy essays in scholarly journals, two books on seventeenth-century literature, four books on Churchill, three biographies for Young Adults, and one self-help book. He currently lives in northern New Jersey with his wife and two sons.


Whenever a political crisis erupts in France, commentators drag out the chestnut that one half of the French people still celebrates the Revolution of 1789 while the other half still opposes it—as though a left-right division were one of those piquant French idiosyncrasies. It, of course, is no such thing; the French are hardly the only ones so afflicted. Recall W. S. Gilbert’s observation about Nature seeing to it that everyone is born "either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative." All societies, in fact, contain a conservative faction which is slow to change tradition and which favors those with property and power, and a liberal faction which seeks reform and sides with those less well endowed. The French stand out only because of their droll custom of taking to the streets every few years, whereas in other countries the struggle is carried on more discreetly.

To be sure, many people, pace Gilbert, are perhaps not clearcut conservative or liberal, but, because of simplification, sensationalism, and commercialization, the political culture of democracies is dominated by a "Crossfire" mentality, which monopolizes the dialogue, enhances frequent verbal clashes between the two sides, and vitiates all nuances. As a result, on issue after issue, people predictably seem to line up on one side or the other, while theoreticians build the creedal scaffolding, satirists impale the adversary, and politicians lead the troops and implement the philosophy. Yet it can be argued that the interesting thing about conservatives and liberals is not what separates them but what they have in common. And much of that reveals the foolish side of human nature.


Clothing the Naked

A little elementary psychology is helpful in providing a background.

We are born intellectually naked. The universe is at first to each of us chaotic. The numberless apparent facts do not coalesce automatically into a theory. To make our way, to mature, to become acculturated, we need to bind together the multifarious data of existence. The gathering of enough facts leads to a generalization; the gathering of enough generalizations results in a theory or a system of thought; and the gathering of enough theories from different areas of human endeavor issues in an ideology. Thus we evolve—or, more accurately, we have handed us by parents, teachers, and peers—a religion, a philosophy, a morality, and a politics.

Such ideologies are our intellectual clothes or shelter. However crude and ramshackle, they make existence bearable, predictable, even comfortable. As explanations of events, especially of adverse ones, they provide us with a grip on the world. They enable us to clamber out of the slough of despond into which experience often casts us. Making the universe intelligible and, by extension, malleable, they give us a sense of mastery and provide the fulcrum with which we think we can affect events.

The shelter created by such explanations is, then, certainly beneficial. But a price is paid for that advantage, even if payment for it is long postponed. By simplifying and inevitably distorting events, the sheltering theory cuts us off from the vast, complex reality. Though it saves us from chaos, ignorance, paralysis, and intellectual nakedness, it imprisons us in its own limited scope. It performs as a sieve or filter to screen out unfriendly facts. The resulting pseudoknowledge, becoming a sort of intellectual blinkers, bolsters mere partisanship. This is no minor dereliction. Looking at history, one can see some unduly weird or mischievous theories which have rampaged explosively around the world and projected millions of people—both followers and victims—to their premature death. Though usually unconscious of this Faustian bargain, we are willing accomplices in it. We would rather entertain a bad theory than have no theory at all. In Emerson’s words,

He in whom the love of repose predominates will accept the first creed, the first philosophy, the first political party he meets—most likely his father’s. He gets rest, commodity and reputation; but he shuts the door of truth.

Angrily and violently do many of us therefore react to those—Socrates, Jesus, Galileo, Lincoln, Gandhi, King, Sadat, Rabin—who would enlighten and liberate us by reopening that "door of truth," or who would at least enlarge the shelter, the scope of our theory. As a sage put it, we ostracize, exile, or execute those who have not reformed us or whom we have not reformed.


Consequences without Truth

Theories are not only blinkering but also unreliable even within their limited scope. For one thing, the most objectively constructed generalizations cannot reflect all relevant data. There are always many more facts than thought can reach, and much of reality remains undiscovered by the searchlight of a theory.

What are determined to be facts, moreover, are themselves at issue, themselves the product of theory. One side’s "freedom fighter," for instance, is the other side’s "terrorist"; what is the "fact" in such a case?

Yet a third problem is that generalizations deal with events in the past but are useless as guides to the future. Take the maxim beloved of stock brokers, economists, and business school teachers: "Buy low, sell high!" As a description of what enabled someone to succeed, it is elegant and unexceptionable. As a prescription for you or me to do likewise, it is futile—and will remain so until someone discovers a broadly applicable magic formula for determining what is low and when is high.

The tenuous grip on reality of all ideologies actually forces us to confront the venerable philosophical question, "What do I know?" The answer is, Not much. That we are swathed with mystery on such old historical puzzles as who shot Kennedy or why Hitler gratuitously declared war on the U.S. is a matter of record. But even on those issues about which we feel sure, we are really no wiser. Take any of the items on the recent national agenda: abortion, Nafta and GATT, welfare, the health delivery system, the deficit, the Medicare cuts. About which ones do we as individuals have information which we know definitively to be true?

In the debate a few years ago on Nafta, for example, one school of thought said that Nafta would provide more jobs for Americans, while the other school said that it would take jobs away. Spokes-people for either viewpoint inflicted on us charts, exotic arguments, and the other accoutrements of expertise. They blithely dismissed their opponents as ignoramuses or liars.

But on what basis did the many citizens who lined up with one or the other school arrive at their conclusions? Could they understand all the esoteric graphs and arguments, or were they led by tendencies, velleities, rhetoric? Feelings are not facts. Surely the strange spectacle of Jesse Jackson on the far left, Pat Buchanan on the far right, and Ross Perot on the far center agreeing in opposing Nafta (and of Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and others all along the spectrum supporting it) should have sensitized people to the elusiveness of the truth.

Because the Nafta matter did not fit the pattern of most issues and because the consequences of the proposed agreement were more uncertain than is usual, the Jackson-Buchanan-Perot convergence was a rare deviation from the normal entrapment in conservative or liberal cloisters. With run-of-the-mill political issues, our partisanship and our ignorance flourish in equal measure. Yet, though we know so little, we feel none the worse for it so long as our pet theories give us substitute truths. As prisoners of ideology, we allow the emotional commitment, even the downright fanaticism, that attends the ideology to come before and to take the place of the facts.

A classic example of the triumph of ideology over truth is the showdown of a few years ago between Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas and Professor Anita Hill. Here was a common "he said, she said" standoff. The woman claimed sexual harassment; the man denied it. No eyewitness being present, there was no way to establish the truth beyond a reasonable doubt.

Yet an odd thing happened: All conservatives held that Thomas told the truth and that Hill therefore was either delusional or a willing tool of liberal interests. All feminists and all liberals concurrently held that Hill told the truth and Thomas was a liar. This knee-jerk reaction on both sides is terribly revealing. In the absence of an objective observer, how could anyone line up on one side or the other and then speak with fervent conviction? Obviously, because ideology and emotions rather than facts and reason were in play, as indeed they are in just about every issue.

Conservatives operated on the assumption that, since Thomas was one of their own, he could not be lying (which is a nonsensical yet often-held partisan position) or that putting a conservative on the Supreme Court took precedence over his cutting moral corners (which is a morally dubious position). Liberals did the same thing in reverse.

A nonpartisan examination of the accusations would have concluded that the case was insoluble. But in the world of action, people must be able to decide peremptorily and move on. How best resolve the matter, then? Along party lines, of course. That is the easy way out of the predicament. And then this ad hoc, gimcrack conclusion is passed off as gospel truth.

Most individuals, in other words, found commitment to ideology more pressing or persuasive than mere truthfulness. To this day, people in either political camp still talk as if the Thomas-Hill case has been resolved and the surmise as to which one lied is a fact. That incident shows how little we really know and how much we pretend to know; how the theories we are possessed by delude us even as they shelter us.


From "Either/Or" to "Both–And"

The partisanship associated with the liberal-conservative confrontation grows out of and, in turn, aggravates a childish human trait: the tendency to bifurcate, to turn everything into an either/or case, into questions of "us vs. them." This was so with the reputation of Columbus. Celebrated a century ago as a hero, a courageous explorer, he became to many on the left in 1992, on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of his discovery of America, a villain. Far from discovering anything, the story went, he was a thief who stole America from the natives. He was also an exploiter, a slave master, a liar, a tyrant. The conservatives continued, of course, to adhere to the traditional view of Columbus.

It never seems to have occurred to either side that Columbus was perhaps both hero and villain. In the real world, heroes often have feet of clay, and villains are not always quite as bad as their vilifiers make them out to be. Could not Columbus have been a courageous, heroic visionary explorer who unfortunately, was vain, duplicitous, mercenary, and ruthless?

A similar polarization can be seen on crime. Conservatives believe that some people are born evil and that society should lock them up and throw away the key. Liberals, by contrast, believe that most criminals are the product of their environment; poverty, absence of a father, poor education, and unemployment turn people into malefactors. The victimizers, we are further told, are themselves victims just as surely as child molesters were molested as children. While such enlightened considerations are not meant to exculpate criminals, society, bearing responsibility for having made them what they are, should favor compassion and rehabilitation over punishment.

In the face of this liberal litany, conservatives ridicule all talk about the past, about psychology, or about hard times. They point to poor people who did not opt for crime as proof that the criminal is a free agent responsible for his or her moral choice and unworthy of special consideration. The prescription of conservatives is therefore to build bigger and more spartan jails. The prescription of liberals, as a result of their concern for the "roots" of crime, is massive social welfare programs, expenditures on health, education, job training, reduction of unemployment.

Holding mutually exclusive theories about crime and, in Winston Churchill’s words, "wedded to their texts," neither side wants to hear about the other’s position. Notice the sneering conservative dismissal of such liberal programs as midnight basketball—actually one of President Bush’s "thousand points of light"—as mere "pork."

A detached observer, however, might ask, What if both sides are half right—and half wrong? What if, that is, instead of oversimplifying the problem, as most people do, we spoke of a long run and a short run. In the long run, the liberals are right, for a poor social environment is, in spite of conservative pieties, a breeding ground for crime. Not all crime is caused by poverty—that sweeping generalization is belied by the existence of rich criminals—but surely a lot of street crime is. Society—i.e., government cooperating with the private sector—should therefore undertake a massive spending program to do away with illiteracy, unemployment, and grinding poverty.

In the short run, though, the conservatives are correct. New programs in education and job training are not going to reach the present generation of hardened criminals. Painful and unfair as it might be, these predators must be written off as irremediably lost and treated harshly, without the distraction of liberal cant about roots, rehabilitation, and parole.

Could such a bipartisan program, such a blending of opposite points of view, succeed? Perhaps not. The very question brings us to yet a fourth position on the problem of crime: It may be, frankly, insoluble. Like the tensions between the races or between the haves and have nots, criminality may well be built into human nature, and a certain percentage of people will always act it out.

The advocacy of this idea of intractability is not going to make anyone popular and is a nonstarter for any politician foolish enough to run for office on that platform. But just because an idea is unpopular does not make it incorrect. It could well be that some, or many, problems in life are, despite traditional American optimism, irremediable. That is why poets wrote tragedies, and that is what is meant by the "tragic view of life."

So here we are with four plausible answers to the problem of crime. One—that it is insoluble—is sometimes entertained by academics but, having no life outside the ivory tower, is never heard of from politicians. Another—the blending of the short run and long run approaches—is rarely heard and never gets any boosting from public opinion, partly because of the huge expenses involved and partly because of its challenge to received partisan wisdom. Only the first two answers, the liberal and the conservative bogus panaceas and cozy oversimplifications, are drummed into us night and day. Yet these two positions, to which we are driven by polarization and by the dogmas of ideology, provide at best half-baked answers.


The Chicken and the Egg

At the heart of the Liberal-Conservative polarization, then, is the entrapment in the either/or mentality. Political agendas are consequently in black and white; he who is not with us is against us; everything less than a complete validation of my view is a sell out. Compromise is not a virtue of civil discourse but a pejorative term, as in "compromise of principle" and "compromising" defect.

The result is, once more, a distortion of the truth and a flirting with solipsism. This binary logic, furthermore, involves taking a mechanical view of situations that are, as it were, organic and complex, for major issues are really entangled in the proverbial conundrum as to which came first, the chicken or the egg. Or in Churchill’s words, "In all great controversies much depends on where the tale begins." The reason each side misses the mark is that, as in the crime problem just discussed, each acts as if it had a clear sense of which came first, the criminality or the roots.

The stir caused by the Mark Fuhrman tapes during the O. J. Simpson trial is a good indicator of the problem. People were shocked by the revelations that members of the Los Angeles Police Department routinely beat individuals, whether criminal or innocent; planted evidence; and indulged in invective filled with racist and even genocidal thoughts. The universal condemnation of Fuhrman was an easy way of slithering out of the embarrassment society faced. Better flog a scapegoat than glance in the mirror. For, at the very time of these revelations, policemen in New York, Atlanta, New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia were being charged with actions just like the ones Fuhrman described. So, then, this was dereliction not only on the part of one racist cop or of the LAPD but of urban police departments all across the nation.

The reactions hewed to the party line. Conservatives, as proponents of Law and Order, tend to react defensively on behalf of the police. They believe that the racist behavior is aberrant. Caused by a few rotten apples rather than anything systemic, it is a minor glitch in the war against crime. While not overtly condoning such actions, they accept it as a price to be paid for security. Crime is part of a domestic war, and the criminal underworld, they assert, forces policemen to mimic the proactive style of frontline soldiers.

Rejecting the war analogy, liberals see the police rather as succumbing to the temptations of power because they carry the weapons and the badges of authority. Liberals therefore sympathize with the victims of police brutality, emphasize restraints on the law enforcers, and become exercised over civil rights.

Both sides miss the mutual entrapment of the police and the community. What appears to be unforgivable law enforcement behavior is something else when looked at from the point of view of the policemen. The outrages occur mainly in the ghettoes of the black underclass. Because of the legacy of 200 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation, these neighborhoods are awash in poverty, illiteracy, and crime. Policemen on tours of duty develop a cynical attitude when confronted by street gangs, a multitude of solitary criminals, the ineffectiveness of a revolving-door legal system, and the brutalization of everyday life for the residents. The temptation is to administer a rough kind of justice to individuals who, though not directly implicated in crime, seem either to have covered their tracks or likely to succumb to criminal behavior sooner or later. Morally and legally indefensible, this attitude is psychologically understandable. As Nietzsche pointed out, he who looks into the abyss long enough will have the abyss look back at him, and someone fighting a monster must beware lest he turn into the monster.

The black community, on the other hand, finds that, as if a life of poverty is not harsh enough, it must put up with additional victimization at the hands of the uncontrolled police. Traditional cynicism which blacks understandably have long harbored about white authority figures is reinforced by the illegal and contemptuous behavior of the blue-suited representatives of the system. No wonder that African Americans see the Rodney King beating and the O. J. Simpson case in very different terms than do white Americans. No wonder that blacks, after repeated exposure to police harassment, even of well dressed, middle class individuals, quickly suspect the police of planting evidence and covering up.

This black hostility naturally prompts policemen to take the law into their own hands, sometimes for mere survival in such an environment. The police’s behavior, of course, reinforces the black community’s hatred of the police, and this hatred in turn pushes the police into more brutal behavior, and so it escalates.

This delicate symbiosis, in which each side is guilty of self fulfilling prophecy, is beyond the grasp of ideological zealots with their crude instruments of analysis and remediation and with their simplistic partisanship. The conservatives say in effect that the police are right, for the community has no moral claim to our compassion; the issue is crime, not the slavery and segregation which are ancient history and not the fault of most whites now active. The liberals, by contrast, say that the community is right and the police are fascistic. A deadlock is thus aggravated by strident emotional and politicized charges that can only make the confrontation worse.

The truth, not surprisingly, is with both sides, and the solution is not in some vague moderation or compromise but in a "both-and" rather than an "either/or" approach. Such a policy would give equal and simultaneous attention to police and community grievances. It would, that is, balance jobs and education programs for the disadvantaged with sensitivity training and combat pay for police tours of duty in the ghetto. It would be equally draconian with the violent criminals and with the corrupt cops. But liberals and conservatives are, as usual, too busy defending their turf and hurling cartoon-like accusations at each other. Their one-dimensional analyses dominating the airwaves, the society is incapacitated for seeing the larger picture and undertaking the necessary healing.

The schism in the society is replicated in the black community. Conservatives like Shelby Steele, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Robert Woodson, and Glenn Loury urge black self discipline and self improvement, while liberals like Jesse Jackson, Kweisi Mfume, Maxine Waters, and Al Sharpton talk about affirmative action, reparations, and other federal programs devoting money and resources to help blacks out of their predicament.

The chicken and egg paradox is once more ignored. Federal spending and remediation will not work if individual disadvantaged blacks do not adopt such middle class values as the work ethic and monogamy. Concurrently, the bourgeoisification of ghetto blacks cannot take place without the sort of massive help and training that only the public sector can offer, for how can one lift oneself by one’s own bootstraps if one does not have boots, and how can one expect profit-making corporations to undertake massive works of philanthropy?


Dubious Knowledge

So it is that the intellectual nakedness we are born with is covered, thanks to our ideological obsessions, with what turns out to be only see-through clothing. In the absence of facts, we invent facts. And, instead of the facts giving rise to a theory, as is the scientific procedure, the theory spawns alleged or false facts which play a large role in degrading the political dialogue.

A host of social and political issues turn on factual questions of what works. Conservatives firmly believe that cutting off welfare payments to mothers who have additional children will lessen illegitimacy. Liberals claim it will not. Conservatives assert that minimum wage laws create unemployment, while liberals claim that, by providing workers with more spending power, they create more employment. Conservatives say that antiabortion candidates fare well in elections; liberals, parading a different set of statistics, claim that such candidates do poorly. The curious thing is that the evidence in these and in many other cases is contradictory, inconclusive, or nonexistent. Yet each side acts as if ignorance and uncertainty are no deterrents.

One dubious way of extracting certitude from confusion is to confine oneself to the trees and ignore the forest. Liberals cite statistics that something like 70 percent of Americans are against laws banning abortion, while conservatives cite statistics that the same amount of Americans favor at least some sort of restriction on abortion. Neither side seems capable of espousing the conclusion which both sets of statistics jointly direct us to—namely a compromise whereby abortion remains legal but is qualified by restrictions. Each side limits itself only to the facts it wants to hear or is willing to reveal.

Being a liberal or conservative partisan means taking other short cuts in the thinking process and falling back onto prior strong emotional commitments. Once one has signed up with one camp or the other, it would be psychologically destructive to discover that the "facts" one was relying on were invalid and that one had been deceived by one’s allies. To see one’s political leaders as less than truthful or accurate is to undergo a form of intellectual violation. It means having to go back to the drawing board and reexamining one’s assumptions. It might even mean changing one’s outlook and switching ideological camps.

A more compelling reason for misguided thinking is limited attention spans. Most people are too preoccupied with making ends meet. Little time is left for doing the research necessary to get at the truth on any issue, especially as most people do not have the temperament or the intellectual resources to even consider doing so. Yet they need to believe something about the issue. So they give carte blanche to spokespersons—politicians, columnists, and, now especially, radio talk show hosts. These spokespersons in fact exist precisely to relieve us of the burden of thinking for ourselves.

But were one afflicted with the compulsion to find out the facts on one’s own, the sheer multiplicity of issues would deter. What are the merits of the arguments over Nafta, the minimum wage, welfare reform, Medicare, the deficit, and abortion? The topics are complex, and the evidence is vast and contradictory. Someone who took the time and trouble to delve deeply into merely one of these questions and was able to come up at long last with the facts that elude most people—assuming that that is even possible—would be too exhausted to study the rest of the political agenda.

On these other topics he or she would have to operate on faith. That is where partisanship comes in handy. How easy to take a stand when the arguments and facts are handed you by your party and when they satisfy the ideologically driven emotions which have already displaced your reason. Note that legislators, knowledgeable about only one or two issues at best, rely upon the expertise of colleagues (i.e., a committee or subcommittee) on a host of other issues. Even if therefore, some people were, as a result of their own painstaking research, in possession of the truth about any one issue, they remain on much else dependent on second hand information and on the trust they have in the intelligence and veracity of their sources. And most people are without expertise on any issue at all and entirely beholden to the often slippery characters they choose to make their political gurus.

The conservative citizen therefore thinks that, since Senator Standfast, a giant in his staunch espousal of conservative themes, says that minimum wage laws cause unemployment, it must be a fact. And the liberal does likewise in reverse. Too busy to think for ourselves, we go with the crowd, our crowd.

Thus it is an article of faith for liberals to believe that Roosevelt’s New Deal brought us out of the Great Depression, when the truth is much more complicated than that. It is an article of faith among conservatives that President Reagan is mainly to be credited with the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though many people, and not necessarily liberals, have quite different interpretations.

The credulity of conservatives and liberals in these cases is all the more remarkable when one considers that validation of ideas is virtually nonexistent in the social sciences. For the one thing that distinguishes the natural or hard sciences (including mathematics) from the social or soft sciences is conclusive proof. In the hard sciences, the legitimacy of an idea is established by an experiment which includes a control and which can be replicated. In the soft sciences, which are not really sciences at all—economics, sociology, political science, history, philosophy, most of psychology—no such definitive evidence is possible. How does one prove scientifically the verity of Plato’s theories, or those of Machiavelli, Freud, Veblen, Toynbee, Keynes, or Milton Friedman?

That is why the Roosevelt presidency is believed by many experts to be one of the finest in American history by virtue of having saved capitalism and democracy in America (liberal view) and by many others to have been one of the worst by virtue of putting America on the "road to serfdom" (conservative view). The more recent Reagan presidency is given high marks by those who deride the Roosevelt years and contemned by those worshipful of Roosevelt. How can such starkly different views be held by experts equally knowledgeable about history? Yet the paucity of proof does not prevent people, whether erudite or illiterate, from aligning themselves with either camp. What is worse, they fanatically commit themselves to the partisan outlook, as if the facts, as well as the theories simultaneously incorporating and manufacturing them were self evident.

Conservatives and liberals may be on opposite ends of the spectrum but are running in the same direction—away from reality.

Back to Top