For the past dozen years, ever since Bush defeated Gore over a hanging-chad technicality, the United States has been colored red and blue, split fairly evenly over what are typically assumed to be “ideological” lines. The red states are predominantly right-wing Republican, home to the God-fearing, big-business-loving, and war-mongering conservatives (not to be confused with conservationists); and the blue states are where the lefty Democrats roam, espousing their wishy-washy liberal moral relativism and claiming to somehow support the troops but not what the troops do.
Of course, this being America, Republicans are free to enter the blue states, and Democrats are free to enter the red states, and occasionally you’ll encounter people who seem to be a strange purply fusion of red and blue, or even some other color entirely (green people are often sighted roaming about, untamed and unkempt, eating granola in the wild). But by and large, America remains pretty strongly divided between these two major warring factions. And it is generally assumed that the Republicans are mostly responsible for keeping the division so stark.
But in a piece in The New Republic titled “Why Republicans Aren’t the Only Ones to Blame For Polarization,” contributing editor William Galston argues that both parties are at fault for becoming increasingly identified with oppositional ideologies over the past few decades. Still, he says, the perception of Republicans as the ones keeping the battle in a perpetual stalemate is generally true—largely due to their unwillingness to compromise.
A previous post of mine offered a possible explanation of why right-leaning conservatives have a hard time respecting anyone who changes his or her mind on a charged political issue, ceding one’s previous position to achieve a greater good, and Galston zeroes in on the same basic point:
Unlike most other Americans, conservatives seem to believe that compromise represents defeat. It would take a subtle historian to explain why. Perhaps they think that because so many forces are pushing in the direction of bigger and more intrusive government, compromise will alter the pace of change but not the direction. If so, a politics of intransigence represents their only hope; never mind the risks.
There is nothing wrong with a frank and honest debate between two visions of our country’s future. But for the foreseeable future, neither party can definitively defeat the other. The only alternative to reasonable compromise—the sooner the better—is a level of gridlock that would paralyze our economy and eviscerate what is left of our reputation. All of those contributing to our current era of polarization would be wise to take heed.
To a true-blue—er, true-red—conservative, the idea of changing one’s mind, deviating from a firmly set course or conclusion, represents everything they find offensive about liberal relativism itself. Once you bend on one important issue, they believe, you’ve basically lost the war—your whole moral house of cards is bound to come crashing down. To a typical Republican, compromise can be an ethical anathema; whereas to a Democrat, compromise is just something you often need to do in order to get the job done.
Galston assumes this to be the crux of the “ideological” differences between the two political parties. Now, I’m no “subtle historian,” but I think it’s not so much a matter of ideology as it is one of cognitive and moral development. The ability to hold multiple perspectives in mind simultaneously, to gauge their relative merits and arrive at a higher, more inclusive synthesis of differing points of views—i.e., to compromise—is something that any psychologist recognizes as a natural step forward in the cognitive development of young children. If you take a wooden toy block colored red on one side and blue on the opposite side, show the average four-year-old child that the block has both colors, and then hold it with only the red side visible to the child, what color do you think they’ll tell you the block is when asked? “Red,” they’ll say, having forgotten, or being simply unable to process, that it still has an invisible blue side as well. The world, to that child, fits neatly into the simple categories of black or white, red or blue, either/or, true or false, right or wrong.
When it comes to apparently intelligent adults, however, it’s hard to believe that the same basic developmental distinction—especially as it relates to moral (and not just cognitive/perceptual) development—could be playing out on a massive scale, influencing our culture and our politics at every level.
But just because it’s hard to believe doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
How many Republicans do you know who tend to see any moral issue—like, say, whether or not gay marriage should be made legal—in absolutistic, right-or-wrong terms, not deviating from that position no matter the particular circumstances of any given case? And how many Democrats do you know who are inclined to take a more nuanced, relativistic, and context-dependent approach to the same moral question?
Granted, relativism can lead to far too many shades of grey, admitting so many positions into the picture that any moral conviction and clarity becomes utterly muddled. But despite its downsides, it’s hard to deny that relativism also offers a more sophisticated, subtle, and inclusive approach to charged political and ethical issues. The task now confronting America is to find a way to transcend its own grand absolutism—overcoming the simplistic, black-and-white polarity of Republicans vs. Democrats. I wonder what a higher, more relativistic, nuanced, and sophisticated synthesis of the best aspects of both parties would look like?
Is it even possible to have moral clarity and relativism too?