Conservative or Liberal? Choose one. There are no other choices. It comes up that way in coffee conversations, at dinner parties, over drinks, and even in ecumenical clergy study groups. Conservatives are all right wingers. Liberals are all closet socialists. Conservatives work hard, take responsibility for themselves, and care for their families. Liberals want everything handed to them on a platter and expect someone else to pay for it. Conservatives want tax goodies for the rich, never met a tax cut they didn’t like, and have no regard for the poor. Liberals want to soak the rich to pay for public services that make life easy for the undeserving few. Conservatives would be happiest with no government regulation of anything: survival of the fittest. Liberals want a nanny state providing cradle to grave care, controlling every aspect of life. I think that covers a good part of it.
This exaggerated political bifurcation was in evidence during this morning’s coffee conversation. The subject was affordable housing. It took only seconds for someone to blame unwillingness to get a job and keep it as the reason some people can’t find affordable housing. Any effort to involve the government in solving the problem was just pandering to their laziness: another sign of creeping socialism. That’s what it looks like when someone on the far right corrals a small example and declares it to be a universal truth. Not to be outdone, in another gathering a few weeks ago a left wing acquaintance announced that all the nation’s problems stem from rich people controlling the market place with malicious intent to create and maintain a permanent underclass (of servants?). Different corrals, same fallacy.
Examples of extreme views such as these would be mildly entertaining if they were not replicated daily ad nauseam on talk radio, cable news, and through pronouncements from legislative leaders. In coffee conversations they’re usually allowed to go unchallenged for fear of starting a heated argument. Although both ends participate, it’s not a case of right and left equivalency. It’s the far right that has been the aggressive instigator, and the least willing to negotiate in good faith toward any solution that deviates from their original position. “Aha,” my right wing friends might say, ”It’s just as we suspected. You are a leftie, a socialist, you don’t believe in personal responsibility, you are among the enemy that wants to take away my freedom.”
Like a ping pong ball, it seems that one is going to be swatted from one end to the other, and getting stuck in the middle is point losing fault. What a surprise to discover that I am not a ping pong ball, nor, I suspect, are most others. I consider myself to be center-left, which, ipso facto, throws me into the far left category, at least according to right wing friends. It wasn’t always so. Not so many years ago I was center-right, which made me an arch conservative, at least according to left wing friends. My politics have not changed that much, but it seems the scale has been recalibrated, so there you are, and here I am.
However, changes are afoot, to quote Holmes. I’m becoming more determined to assert a voice that does not tolerate being ping ponged into one corral or the other. It’s a voice that doesn’t like corals and hates being swatted like a ping pong ball. It’s a voice that demands open, rational conversation about issues involving public policy and possible workable solutions. You can’t, as a case in point, offer an unverifiable opinion about the laziness of unemployed people to explain away the affordable housing question, assuming that your immoral moral judgment will not be challenged. It’s not simply one opinion among others. It’s wrong. We did get the conversation back on track. We went on to talk about working people striving to make it who cannot afford a decent place to live. Did we have any solutions? No. But we pondered what they might look like.
It got us away from the knee-jerk reaction that government is the enemy, and toward the recognition that government has to be a part of the solution. It only has a part to play. What that part should be will not be known until we have workable plans, and that remains the subject of good faith negotiation. Obviously our morning coffee conversation is little more than a few men (in this case) sitting around talking about the future of the community, but coffee conversations among various groups of interested citizens can add up to an informed electorate through whom important decisions are made. They can, but only if they stop playing ping pong politics, and hold each other accountable for well reasoned, rational conversation.