For anyone who watched more than a few minutes of the recent political conventions, a sharp distinction between Democrats and Republicans was in fully display. Democrats, it was widely remarked, looked like they were having more fun. They were smiling, singing, and dancing, and every crowd shot showed hundreds of devoted faces. In contrast, the Republicans were as staid as, well, Mitt Romney. This difference was not lost on the punditocracy, either. The days following the Tampa and Charlotte confabs were filled with reports of the excitement gap between the parties. The accounts differed but the observation was the same: unlike Republicans, Democrats are jazzed up for this election.
While there is certainly room to question the accuracy of this observation, I think it points to a deeper and more consequential difference between conservatives and liberals. More important, it is a difference that bears directly on the quest for any kind of moral consensus. It is a difference that threatens to stymie any attempt to seek the common good.
As I watched the speeches at the DNC, I too was struck by the intensity of devotion and the depth of passion of those in attendance. And I began to ask myself a very simple question: Why? Was there a reason for the apparent discrepancy between Democrats and Republicans? Was it mere coincidence? As I turned the question over in my mind I began thinking of other episodes that illustrated the same phenomenon, the gap between liberal and conservative political passion. (Being from a state that recently underwent a gubernatorial recall election—which was itself preceded by months of political organization and before that months of political protest—examples were easy to come by.) There was a drive for political power amongst Democrats that Republicans couldn’t even get close to mustering.
After thinking through a few possible explanations, I arrived at a beguilingly simple answer: It’s because they want it. That sounds unhelpful—of course they want it, that’s why they’re trying to get it!—but it marks a profoundly consequential difference between the two dominant political factions in America. On one side, the political left, there is a group that in order to pursue and achieve its goals must control the levers of power. When you want to maintain or increase funding for Planned Parenthood or enact marriage-equality legislation, mere representation will not do. You need majorities. And to get there, you need to win elections. So a political campaign is the kind of thing that will elicit a pretty strong response.
On the other side, the political right, there is a group that goes to great lengths to talk about limiting the reach of government and rolling back many of the powers the state has assumed. When you want to stop the expansion of government and seek progress outside of government, you are much less concerned with winning elections. Indeed, your primary motivation to engage might be solely to prevent the other guys from doing what they want to do.
There are, of course, several qualifications to this argument. For one, there are most certainly Republicans who are as (and more) power-hungry than Democrats. There are also aspects of the Republican agenda that, to be enacted, would require political control. And on top of this there’s a feedback process by which the agenda of any one party draws the other into a contest for power. Nonetheless, a fair reading of the parties’ platforms (Democratic, GOP) makes the difference clear. By and large, Democrats see government as the proper arena for pursuing common goals while Republicans see non-governmental spheres as the proper location.
I don’t want to be hyperbolic or unnecessarily polemical, so I assert this a contestable observation and not an accusation: liberalism in its modern manifestation is primarily a vision for government and is only derivatively concerned about civil society. Conservatism, on the other hand, puts great value on an independent civil society that delimits the scope of government.
So how does this relate to attempts to seek, or even discuss, moral consensus? As Dan has helpfully pointed out, among the central issues of the debate are the preservation of family, voluntary associations, and community. Whatever agreement(s) we reach will be characterized by a limited role for government and a correspondingly expansive role for civic society.
When we consider the different conceptions of government and society in liberal and conservative thought, we are thus confronted with two major problems. The first is procedural: how do we begin to discuss our problems when one side sees government as a necessary actor and the other side sees it as an impediment? Our discourse is heavily shaped by our respective commitments to how to best go about answering questions of common concern. The second problem is substantive: if we are able to get the discussion off the ground, it is quite likely that one side will propose governmental solutions while the other will propose non-governmental solutions. What are we to do when the conversation reaches this point?
There are many answers to these questions. And there must be if we hope to meet with any measure of success in our quest for moral consensus. While I hope to explore some of those answers in future posts, I wanted first to describe some of the challenges I see ahead. Is our little endeavor doomed from the start?