It used to be fairly easy to determine if someone was a liberal or a conservative by listening for whether their political statements focused more on rights or responsibilities. Liberals tended to believe in an ever expanding list of rights and conservatives focused on one’s personal responsibility for success or failure.
This litmus test is a bit more confusing today because liberals now believe that government has a responsibility to provide for all of the basic needs of the individual, typically on the taxpayer’s dime, and conservatives are seeking more individual rights—to carry a concealed firearm, to refuse a Covid vaccine, to control the content of their children’s educations—that now turn the old equation somewhat upside down.
Perhaps a more salient measure of one’s relative liberalism or conservatism might be to look at one’s overall faith in government or feelings of patriotism, but both ends of the political spectrum today seem to lack any faith in the wisdom of government and express nearly equal disgust with the current direction of our nation—although for very different reasons.
It instead could be the case that the easiest path to understanding the left-right divide in America today lies with an examination of the same three issues that have bedeviled America politics for the last fifty fractious years: Abortion, Crime, and Race Relations.
The players, the specific issues, and the jargon attached to each are different now, but opinions regarding these three controversies coalesce in a manner that reliably identifies where one stands on the continuum of American political beliefs. Unfortunately, it also seems to be the case that opinions around all three of these issues have hardened and polarized to a degree that is both remarkable and worrisome. The extremism surrounding this unholy trinity of divisive issues now undergirds much of the hatred, suspicion, and anger that now inflames America.
The political middle ground has been erased, and it’s very difficult to see a way forward from where we are today.
Compromise, conciliation, and courtesy are out of fashion. We today typically discuss the most delicate and personal matters with as much snark and sneer as we can muster because many seem strangely attracted to the caustic blather of the most crude and rude reprobates among us. The manners of the middle school lunchroom now define our national norms of debate and discussion. America is different today—and not in a good way.
For example, whatever the outcome might be regarding the abortion restrictions now being reviewed by the Supreme Court in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, no one is going to be happy because extremists are, by definition, impossible to satisfy and certain to go on a slashing attack when they don’t get their way. Both those in favor of and against legal abortions will rush to their respective ramparts when the Supreme Court’s decision is announced and launch their ugliest invective, endless fundraising appeals, and a plethora of lawsuits that will again attempt to force our country’s courts to micromanage morality in a manner they are ill-suited to do.
Even worse, our already toxic political discourse will be further poisoned by the demands that all candidates for elective office pledge their loyalties to extremists on either side of the abortion debate, which will preclude the sorts of reasonable compromises that were once both the goal and the lifeblood of our democracy.
And speaking of extremism, it is a crime in and of itself that we cannot have a sane discussion about the startling and scary rise of violent crime in many cities across our nation, one engendering its own epidemic—of fear.
We should be able to find common cause when it comes to ensuring the safety of our streets and citizens, but it seems inconceivable that those who demand that our nation’s police be disbanded and our prisons emptied will ever be able to speak respectfully with Americans whose lives are being destroyed by a rising tide of murders, assaults, rapes, and robberies.
If you are convinced that all crime is the result of entrenched deprivation and discrimination—artifacts of bigotries that are considered to absolve criminals of any responsibility for breaking the law—all efforts to encourage arrest and incarceration of the flash mobs emptying stores or the carjackers forcing people out of their vehicles at gunpoint are a non-starter. How dare you ask that your life and property be protected by the police and the courts, you cruel and unmitigated bigot?
It is little surprise that frightened and frustrated Americans are today buying guns and ammunition at a record pace. It is also not a surprise that episodes of self defense, or perhaps vigilante justice, are only further inflaming extremists on both sides.
The wildly disparate opinions concerning the trial and acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse are a perfect illustration of this problem. Some saw only evidence of institutionalized White Supremacy, but others cheered both his actions and the verdict, equally firmly believing that he was forced to defend his Constitutional rights to life, liberty and happiness because the police had failed their duty do so. It is difficult to see how we can ever have a calm discussion regarding this case or the others that will surely follow in the months and years ahead if we see each episode through purely ideological lenses that distort our vision and blind us to other viewpoints.
Unfortunately, our lack of dialogue about crime slides all too easily into our destructive dialogues (and non-dialogues) about race in our divided and disheartened nation today.
Racism is everywhere in America; racism has been largely eradicated in America. These two disparate viewpoints rub against one another in our nation every day, and the raw, festering wounds produced by this intense friction scar us all in the process.
Those on each side see an entirely different American reality: to see hatred everywhere is both unreasonable and unfair to some, but to deny the existence and prevalence of racism is so-called White Privilege to others. The unending suspicions and anger that these polarized viewpoints inevitably cause are encouraged by news organizations, educators, politicians, faith leaders, business executives, and social media gadflies who apparently believe that racial healing is made possible only by first ensuring that all trust in one another is gone.
Building bridges and seeking mutual racial understanding is simply out of the question in America today, so we hunker down with our hatreds and destroy our democracy with our own idiocy—just as we do when questions surrounding abortion and crime are discussed. Our societal self-destructiveness is both sad and appalling, and we forget at our own peril that all of us are responsible to—and for—one another, so we must find a way to live together instead of tearing one another apart.
As long as we look at these three major issues—and so many others besides—as ones where there are only winners and losers, we can be certain of only one outcome: Everybody loses.
We are all fallible, emotional, and largely ignorant of the experiences of our neighbors, and we would do well to listen more and attack less before we presume to believe that we know what we are talking about. This is not a solution, but it is a start. One can only hope we still have the good sense to do what must be done—before it is too late.