Conservative friends (I actually have a few) come in a variety of flavors ranging from life long Republicans who are conservative because that’s what they’ve always said they were, to hard core right wingers. A few weeks ago I asked several of the most conservative to tell me what they believe about America is most under threat, and what is threatening it. It was disappointing to get only one and a half replies. My guess is they were hesitant about falling into a rhetorical trap where they would be publicly humiliated. A perfectly reasonable fear.
The half a response came from an old friend who believes the ‘rule of law’ has been abandoned by liberals, and he wants it back. He’s one of the ‘if you’re a liberal you’re a left wing socialist' gang. Unwilling to add more, except that Hillary should be in jail, I’ve known him long enough to suspect his focus is on the standard menu of street crimes: burglary, robbery, drug dealing, bodily assaults, and that sort of thing. Society, he believes, is too easy on criminals, too quick to let suspects out on bail, too slow to try, convict and sentence. I think it unlikely he’s concerned about upper class white collar crimes. They’re just the price of a free market economy. I’ve never been able to find out why he wants Hillary in jail, yet can believe Trump is one of the finest presidents ever. Politically, he’s a confirmed tea partier, content to echo whatever right wing talk radio has to offer, but he’s also a generous contributor of time and energy to worthy projects in his church and community. Obviously there’s more there, and I may never know what it is. Suffice it to say, he remains a friend.
The more full response was from another old friend, conservative in a more traditional way, and immovable in what he believes to be right or wrong. He’s only one person, but he’s well educated, thoughtful, willing to talk, and expresses what many others believe but are unwilling to put into words. He believes, and many others with him, that America is threatened by loss of patriotic love of country. Millennials, everybody’s favorite target, don’t just hate the president, they hate the country too. They abuse their First Amendment rights by expressing views that intentionally offend innocent people.
In like manner he said there is growing disrespect for America’s Christian heritage. There should be respect for all religions, everyone should be free to worship as they please, but there’s no excuse for Christianity to be attacked on every front. Related to it, we should be able to rely on colleges to educate our youth, but they’re indoctrinating them with liberal biases that demean any other point of view. They won’t allow dissenting speakers, and openly ridicule Christians, the bible, and the religious history of the Western world. It’s a form of mind programming and is a threat to all that has made America great.
He treasures the traditional male role as primary breadwinner and patriarch who loves, cares for and protects his family. While he recognizes there are other roles, and other ways of being family, he resents the disrespect many have for more traditional ways. The idea that males are, ipso facto, toxic dismays and angers him. Why can’t liberals just let other people be? It’s what he tries to do.
Traditional ways also mean not everyone is a winner. Kids today don’t think blue collar trades are good enough for them, they don’t want to work their way up. They want high paying jobs without doing the hard work to deserve them. That kind of thinking leads to a welfare mentality of leeching off parents and the government as if it was a right. That response covers a lot of ground, but the intent is clear. It combines old time complaints about living easy on welfare with new complaints about well off youth unwilling to become self reliant. This morning I heard a young professional in a thriving practice say pretty much the same thing from a more liberal point of view.
His final thought, for the moment, was that America is threatened by environmental extremism. Yes, there are real problems, but liberal solutions are out of balance with reality. The extreme left is willing to sacrifice half the economy for environmental fixes of one kind or another, and liberal interests use government policy to make money for their favored industries: it’s all about money.
I mentioned a few of these thoughts to some liberal friends, and got a highly predictable response. My conservative friend is all wrong, the facts don’t support him, he’s part of the problem. People who think like him are the real threat to America, etc. It’s a response that leads to an attitude of self righteously high dudgeon. Well, he may be wrong, but blasting him with insult laced facts won’t change anything. Moreover, there is much in what he says that resonates with progressive values.
Liberals are patriotic. They love the best of all that America stands for. They may be more realistic about how far it has to go to achieve it. They recognize its founding documents and historical myths establish high expectations not only for us, but for much of the world. Patriotism, in that sense, should be honored, and that means honoring the patriotic authenticity of conservatives who want the same things even when they bridle at criticisms of failings they’d rather not have to face. Liberals fail when they allow right wingers to own patriotism. It gives more traditional conservatives nowhere to turn but to the far right. Liberals can stand courageously against nationalistic degradation of liberal democratic ideals, and still offer public respect for the patriotic desires of conservatives.
No one wants to live where street crime is rampant, where gangs rule territory, where one doesn’t feel safe in one’s own neighborhood. That’s universal. It’s something all can agree on. Progressives might make progress by agreeing more strongly with conservatives about their shared desire to live in peace and safety. It might increase the likelihood for progressive solutions to be heard. Police reform will be a part of it, and it will get a better hearing if it’s sold as part of a plan to strengthen police effectiveness for the good of the entire community.
Liberals need to be honest about admitting that higher education generally has a progressive bias. Not always, not with every teacher, not in every discipline, but higher education is neither higher nor education if it doesn’t challenge the status quo, guiding students to develop critical thinking skills. It can be done without demeaning or belittling students who challenge the status quo of progressive teaching. Conservatives are concerned that liberal educators are teaching students what to think, not how to think. Liberal educators can do more to demonstrate it’s the other way round. Schools that decided to abandon the Western canon to make room for others made a huge mistake. The story of Western civilization is crucial to understanding world history. We need a new, expanded canon, not one that exchanges ignorance about one thing for ignorance about another.
In the entire recorded history of the world, the youngest generation has always been pilloried as lazy, entitled, disrespectful, and the source of civilization’s decline. Once every few centuries there may be a “greatest generation,” but not often. The youngest generation, of course, thinks their seniors need to step aside because they’re out of date, out of step, and out of energy. Well, that’s the way it goes. There’s not much point in going to battle over entitled youth. They will too soon become old stuffed shirts. In the meantime, the underlying values of hard work and self reliance are values shared by conservatives and liberals alike. They should be celebrated, as encouragement, as the passing on of wisdom, as measures to be met, but not as dehumanizing insults.
As a progressive, orthodox Christian, I’ve never felt under attack in any serious way. To be sure, there are atheists who vehemently disparage my faith, adherents of other religions who think mine is wrong, and a handful of virulently anti Christian grumblers. None mount a serious attack. In recent decades conservative evangelicals have opened up with political broadsides at every target to their disliking, and received return fire in kind. They may not like it, but what did they expect? Christianity is not under attack in America. It is in other parts of the world, and in other parts of the world, other religions are also under attack, sometimes by their own. The U.S. remains a safe haven for most people of faith, with the exception of black Christian churches in the South, and Synagogues and Mosques anywhere. So what’s really going on when Christian conservatives complain about being under attack? It’s about feeling vulnerable in a country where it is no longer true that the nominal national religion is generic Christianity. The loss of religion hegemony goes hand in hand with loss of white male hegemony, and that means loss of status, place, indeed of identity itself. It’s not an easy transition to make. Rather than hammering them with facts and claims of moral superiority, they need a day at a time encouragement to move toward a new identity as Christians who don’t need to dominate or be domineering. It’s a very Christlike direction, but it’s not easy, so offer a helping hand.
There was a time when the patriarchal nuclear family was the standard by which all families were measured. It was celebrated in post war America on radio and television by dozens of shows like Fibber McGee and Molly, The Great Gildersleeve, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and Leave it to Beaver. Its idealization created the myth of traditional family values. It is no longer the ideal, nor is it a standard by which all families can be measured. In many ways it never was, but it’s also not a bad model. It isn’t, by its nature, oppressive, evil, wrong or toxic. Bracket patriarchy and one is left with values such as mutual love, trust, responsible parenthood, and all the other things every kind of family desires to have. They, and not patriarchy, are what have value. Progressives encourage acceptance of other forms of family with the same values. But many have gone too far in demonizing men as inherently oppressive, and any form of patriarchy as evil. There are families who prosper in patriarchal settings, and they should not be condemned for what nourishes them, but neither do they have a right to demand that theirs is the only acceptable form of family life.
The question of patriarchy is related to the broader issue of white male dominance in business and government that has prevented others from enjoying all the privileges and responsibilities of leadership. That’s changing, and progressives need to be more intelligent about recognizing that it’s normal for those accustomed to control to try to keep control. Brutal name calling battles may be emotionally satisfying, but they produce little progress. Don’t get sucked into them. Just keep pushing, but resist the temptation to dispossess them of their human dignity by giving it to others. That’s not progress. That’s revenge.
My friend’s last point, but certainly not in conclusion, was about environmental extremism as a threat to America’s future. The local paper features a decade long running battle between letter writers who deny that humans have anything to do with climate change, if there even is such a thing, and writers who recite loads of facts to prove them wrong. In between are letter writers arguing over dams, agricultural chemicals, forest management, water use, endangered species, and anything environmental. For what it’s worth, I’m convinced the only way to open productive conversation is to reframe the issues as matters of stewardship. Are we treating our environment to leave it better than we found it? What legacy of stewardship do we want to leave for generations yet to follow? We’ve never had to ask questions that way because only in the last hundred years have there been enough humans to seriously misuse and trash our island home. Now there are enough of us, and each generation has to choose whether to leave squalor and deterioration behind, or establish better housekeeping standards for those who follw. Conservatives and liberals can agree it’s time to clean up the mess, and change our ways. How? We’ll have to work that out. Some things will work. Some things won’t. Unyielding in favor of the absolute is one thing that won’t.
The point of this exercise was to share with a broader audience a taste of what it can be like for a progressive like me to engage in appreciative listening with a rock solid conservative, and probe a little deeper for areas where we might find a place to negotiate agreement. Whether I found any remains to be seen, but it’s better than tossing rhetorical hand grenades at each other.