Conservatives, Liberals and Non-Use of Reason

2 + 2 = 5

The nation, nowadays, is highly divided between conservatives and liberals over the answers that are required to solve our most crucial domestic and foreign problems. We are divided over taxes, the role of government, healthcare, race, gay marriage, life issues, war, global warming, bailing out private industries, religion, Medicare, gun control, and others. An indication of this condition is the continued discord between Republicans and Democrats in the Congress, largely a reflection of the nation’s political woes. Another most worrisome indicator is the diminishing role of traditional, printed and broadcasting news-oriented journalism vis-à-vis the surge of partisanly opinionated views and unabashed rudeness found in radio and television programming and internet blogging of political issues.

That more voices are being aired might be regarded as socially and politically positive to the extent that more viewpoints are presented to a nationwide audience. There is, however, a downside to the increased democratization of the market of ideas. Witness a cacophony of views and irascible tones in the opinions we express due to the absence of ethical guidelines, the lack of adequate political filters to discern the factual correctness of the information, the openly partisan comments by pundits, and the simplistic, off-the-cuff remarks generated by audiences through mass media, the internet, and public opinion polls.

This situation is exacerbated by the role of partisan politics and its respective ideologies as preeminent arbiters of solutions to critical issues. Partisan politics has been a central part of the American political landscape since the inception of the republic. The evolving yet almost radical transformation lies in their virtual takeover of the American political system at the same time that critical thinking is rapidly fading out, while the political debate—itself partisan by nature–is becoming more strident. We seem to be exhibiting an increasing disdain for critical, deliberate thinking in favor of highly impulsive and fatuous expressions of discord on the part of the newly arisen democratized centers of mass media and the millions in tune with the political debate.

The role of partisan political ideologies
The question arises whether partisan political ideologies—in contrast with political philosophies—are beneficial to the political system or whether regardless of the answer are simply an unavoidable fact of human life or, perhaps, a curable or rectifiable intellectual ailment.

Partisan political ideologies trace their origins to values and principles that once were deemed to have universal validity. Since then, they have served as guidelines for policy formulation and for electing public officials. Nonetheless, once assimilated into the individual’s view of his political environment, partisan ideologies become substitutes for critical thinking.

This is to say that, in most instances, no rigorous intellectual exercise precedes a conscious incorporation of a partisan ideology. Instead, an emotional affinity developed between the voter and his political experiences and surroundings predisposes ideological assimilation. In this respect, partisan ideologies, the Conservative and the Liberal, have become reactionary blueprints for political action.

Their intellectual limitations notwithstanding, partisan political ideologies fulfill practical personal functions. One of the least talked about functions is their ability to provide the individual with a sense of emotional security and self-assurance.

Partisan ideology makes us feel “good” as it helps us to make sense of the social and political world that surrounds us; when it reassures us that there is “logic” in the way we choose our political friends and the manner in which we defend ourselves and attack those who wish us emotional, social, economic or political harm.

Assimilating a partisan political ideology allows us to become part of a viscerally stronger and more cohesive sub-national group within the body politic. Partisan political ideologies also exhibit groupthink tendencies and quite often perform the role of a religious faith, for example, by appropriating faith’s role in driving ethical decisions, and by defining and reinforcing one’s moral beliefs while politicizing religious values.

This role of partisan political ideologies as security blankets has a dubious quality in our lives. Unlike yesteryear, we all deal with two very distinctive types of stress. We undergo individual stress on account of the issues and problems that touch our lives in an intimate manner. Whether it is work related, or unemployment, recession, children’s security, marriage, traffic, health issues, etc., these are the “inevitables” in life.

In addition, modern political life and its hyperactive mass media continuously bombard us with vexing national problems that require our involvement (see the first paragraph), insisting, forcing us to take a stance.

While we have little choice but to cope with our personal problems, confronting national political issues become quite agonizing. We claim the absence of time to do so and the mental strain involved in educating ourselves about these issues. This is when we shift our moral conscience into autopilot and allow our partisan political ideologies to make decisions. Doing so relieves us of unwanted emotional anxiety, even though in the process we abdicate our moral responsibility and our intellectual sovereignty by allowing ideological groupthink to dictate our political behavior.

Partisan ideologies as political roadblocks
Partisan ideologies prevent critical deliberation of crucial political issues precisely at a time when their significance demands it. And, while a political/journalistic mass media have a commanding position from which to attempt to reverse this situation, along with most pundits and both political parties they cater to the emotional desires of their audiences. Under these conditions, there is very little chance for ideologically divided audiences to gain a more objective perspective of the issues as they tend to gravitate toward those partisan exponents with whom they identify. Far from engaging audiences in critical thinking, ideological affinity leads to ideological reinforcement.

With few exceptions, once socially well established and individually assimilated, partisan ideologies tend to be static and non-evolutionary; for the most part, they are political dead-ends. Since they project themselves as “universally valid,” partisan ideologies tend to generate dogmatic attitudes that deplore opposite views. The outcome of emotional intolerance is usually political estrangement.

The nature of political reality, however, contradicts the stagnant view of politics conveyed by partisan political ideologies.  Political reality, as a reflection of the physical world, is ever changing—it is not static. Moreover, there is no assurance that the multiplicity of situations and changes that takes place in politics necessarily lead toward objectively and qualitatively superior outcomes. Further, the information and knowledge that citizens and political leaders have in their hands is always imperfect and limited. Hence, it is intellectually and empirically difficult to accept the proposition that static, partisan political ideologies hold a factual, accurate, and unerring view of political reality or truth.

Yet, a major reason why individual citizens persist in adhering to—or remaining faithful, to their respective political views is because they tacitly accept the fallible notion that their particular ideologies enjoy universal validity.

Should we accept the above premise, questioning the major tenets of our partisan ideologies might be a politically rewarding exercise. Naturally, such critical examination should not be taken by their opponents—such politicized exercise goes on everyday– but by detached political observers, and better yet, if they dare to do so, by proponents of their own respective ideologies.

This exercise can be accomplished through a willful decision by pundits, the political media, and the political parties to become more self-critical; by setting aside previously-held political views while seeking common philosophical grounds with opposing views; and by allowing overarching political values such as those found in our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to serve as policy-defining criteria instead of incorrectly seeking the conversion of political means such as taxes, government, and freedom into political ends or goals.

The one objective we want to pursue while questioning the universal validity of our political ideologies is to educate citizens to think critically, and second, to make them aware that ours is not simply a nation of rights. In order to reduce political discord and raise the level of consensus in solving our national problems we need to remind ourselves that we have a civic obligation to comply with our duties as citizens while insisting that others comply with theirs as well.

Piercing the “universal validity” claim of our partisan political ideologies will allow us to examine their fallibility and their politically harmful consequences. It might enhance our ability to better understand the issues and reduce political gridlock and estrangement. And, it might help us to retool our minds to cope with the stress caused by dilemmas posed by the issues themselves. At the end of the process, we may have taken a large step in our attempt to regain intellectual sovereignty over our minds as well as the individual moral responsibility that we seem to have left by the wayside.

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