In a column in The Daily Northwestern, regular columnist Joseph Misulonas accidentally revealed the cornerstone of the differences between conservatives and liberals.
Misulonas was discussing “GOP TV” when he wrote of the show Breaking Bad that “The show portrays drug dealers as narcissists and sociopaths who deal drugs as a way to garner power, ignoring the socioeconomic conditions that force many people to deal drugs.”
That one sentence reveals more about the differences between liberals and conservatives than do the dozens of academic articles you’ve undoubtedly “read” for political science classes at Northwestern.
To conservatives, society is best characterized by freedom. People are born free, live free, and die free. People are agents, not molds of ideas and culture; they make decisions with the best available information to help them reach their dreams.
Here’s the core truth: conservatives are optimists. Conservatives are the ones at the Northwestern football games who are still wildly cheering when we’re up by only two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Conservatives are the ones who believe people are brilliant, are innovative, are inspired. They see the world as a place where people make themselves what they will be. Everyone has a dream; whether it is to be a farmer or an investment banker, we are the ultimate arbiters of whether or not those goals are achieved.
Liberals, on the other hand, often see life quite differently. While they also believe that everyone has dreams, they tend to believe that many people don’t have the ability to achieve them unaided. To liberals, people are playthings of culture, small puppets buffeted around by powers much larger than them. Dreams are often unachievable for reasons outside of our control. And to this end, government is justified to bring a person’s dreams to reality.
Let me be clear. I’m not taking away from this view of how the world works. There are people who try and fail, and there are people who run up against social problems—racism is an obvious example—that artificially prevent them from achieving what they want to achieve.
Nonetheless, conservatives do not see such problems to be endemic. For conservatives–believing in religiosity, inherent good, and perseverance–the idea that a person is powerless because they exist in our culture doesn’t carry much water. Even when there are problems that prevent a person from making the most of their lives—my grandfather, for example, couldn’t attend college because he had to tend the farm during World War II—conservatives believe people will still make the most of their situations. Their idealism will help their children and grandchildren achieve the dreams they were unable to.
For those who are artificially held up, conservatives see civil society—civic groups, fraternal clubs, religious organizations, etc.—as the route to providing a boost. This begs the question of what is truly more compassionate: an ambiguous, gigantic bureaucracy sending a person a check, or their neighbor and community pitching in to help them out? When we collectivize our actions, we lose the individual responsibility that attaches us to our communities and neighbors.
At the end of the day, it’s hard to imagine a society that can function when driven by a fundamental belief in pessimism. I know that I, for one, would much rather buy into a political philosophy that, though it demands more of me, also reaffirms the idea that people, win or lose, have control over their actions.
Call me an optimist.