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What the Right Gets Right, and What it Doesn’t

January 17, 2012

For an excellent example of the kind of introspective thinking that interests me, take a look at this recent blog post on the New York Times blog campaignstops.  Blogger Thomas Edsall asked some liberal thinkers, “what does the right get right?”  The answers are insightful and provocative.

By contrast, when Edsall asked the reverse question of some conservative think tanks, “the answers evaded the question posed and, in my view, amounted to ideological pap.”

I posted a comment on the blog, suggesting that liberals are fundamentally more inclined to give serious consideration to differing points of view, and conservatives less so, and that the reason for this is that liberals are more relativistic than conservatives.  Liberals are more averse to blanket rules and more open to exceptions to rules.  Liberals are more likely to moderate moral judgments based on the circumstances of the situation.  Liberals are more receptive to the possibility that their own opinions might be wrong.

I also suggested that liberals are more concerned than conservatives with the fate of the social outsider – the underdog.  Liberal concern for the underdog gave us emancipation, women’s suffrage, civil rights, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and gay rights.  Time doesn’t stand still, and today conservatives would agree that emancipation and women’s suffrage were good.  (There would be maybe a little more equivocation on civil rights and the ADA, and conservatism as a whole just hasn’t gotten to gay rights yet.)

Which makes for an interesting point:  conservatives don’t seem to apply those lessons of history to the questions of today.  A conservative who recognizes that prohibition of interracial marriage was a terrible thing might still support prohibition of same sex marriage.  A conservative who acknowledges that segregation of the American military was wrong might still support Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Years ago, I once heard Newt Gingrich credit the left for civil rights.  Seriously.  But having been on the wrong side of civil rights doesn’t give Gingrich the humility to wonder if his opposition to gay rights, for example, might be equally misguided.

*                    *                    *

Readers might be interested in Edsall’s follow-up post, What the Left Gets Right.  This time, he asked conservatives what’s good about liberalism.  He found their responses to be “strategic in their replies, conceding compassion to the left but not political legitimacy.”  By contrast, liberals “were less calculating and perhaps more intellectually honest, ceding substantial ground to their adversaries.”

Still and all, liberals will enjoy reading conservatives’ comments about liberalism.  My favorites were Emory University Professor Patrick Allitt, who praised liberals for health care, gun control and the welfare state; and author Craig Shirley, who complimented liberals for noticing that “much of the intellectualism inside the G.O.P has been drained out over the past ten years.”


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