Several times the last few weeks I have been accused in some form or fashion of false equivalency. Every time it has been when I have pointed out that things such as the left not caring more than the right (they just care for different groups of people) or the left being just as uncivil as the right. So as you can tell this accusation comes more from my readers on the left side of the political spectrum.
I understand why partisans are less able to see the problems from those on their own team. Theories of confirmation bias show that we tend to underestimate the problems with those who support us and overestimate the problems of our opponents. It would almost be unnatural if progressives felt that they were just as dysfunctional as their social and political opponents. On the other hand, being a political independent, I have no pressure to support either the left or right, and that might help me to see things without confirmation bias.
Nevertheless I can see how someone may conclude that I see no real differences from the left or the right. Perhaps I merely see them as different teams who act in similar fashions but with just contrasting political goals. I admit that I have some of that mentality. Indeed, many of the problems on one side of the political spectrum are found to about the same degree on the other side of that spectrum. But I do see differences in the left and the right, and it is not fair to merely see them as two sides of the same coin. I see how the logical conclusion of what each side advocates for leads to differing problems within their movements.
So because I do not have enough people mad at me, I am going to spend the next two weeks pointing out what I do not like about both sides of the political spectrum. I am not going to argue issues as much as I am going to look at a mindset that I find problematic. I think these mindsets arise due to certain approaches each group has towards the issues, but I do not want to take an issue by issue approach to what I see as wrong for each group. This week I will deal with the political right.
The major problem I have with the political right is their unwillingness to recognize the importance of social structure. For the political right, almost everything is attributed to individual effort. There is an unwillingness to acknowledge how forces outside the individual impact his or her life chances. This can let conservatives have an incomplete assessment of the events around us. And with that incomplete assessment comes inadequate solutions.
The latest political issue where this is the case concerns the immigration debate. For the typical conservative, the only question is whether residents from other countries choose to violate our laws and enter the country. For those who are most aggressive in their approach to this question, everyone who has entered the country illegally should be forced to return in one way or another. This type of approach does not account for larger social and economic forces that not only discourage individuals from living in their own country, but also encourage them to come to our country. This approach is so focused on the law that it will lead to injustices such as individuals brought over as kids and never having known their native country. The expulsion some conservatives want will then force them to live in a society that they do not know. For those immigrants the United States is home.
But this is not the only issue where this type of narrow focus on the individual plays itself out. The conservative love of capitalism has led to a mentality whereby poverty is created by the terrible work habits of the poor. Such an approach ignores the structural issues of how wealth is accumulated in our society and how our educational system recreates inequity. Yes there are lazy and irresponsible people, and sometimes those habits harm their ability to succeed. But attending a school that does not equip you for success and lacking the networking ties that support one’s economic efforts cannot be ignored as well. Too many conservatives do just that when they talk about how to alleviate poverty.
This is a flaw that I find in abundance on the right. Those on the left tend to understand how institutional forces and rules can have a disparate impact on certain groups. This is not a perfect correlation as sometimes people of the left who can talk eloquently about disparate impact as it pertains to voter ID laws somehow forget about it when it comes to all-comers policies. However, generally it is those on the right who tend to blame people for their own misfortune. They are the ones who tend to use blaming the victim approaches towards their understanding of social problems.
If you go issue by issue you will see the right minimizing or ignoring the way structural and institutional forces impact us. This allows them to ignore institutional racism and push for a colorblind solution. Thus they support more draconian criminal justice measures as they do not have to consider how our social institutions contribute to crime. For them it is all about the individual. I have already alluded to how this type of mentality leads to their ideas about immigration and poverty. With a little effort it is easy to see more examples of how conservatives tend to dismiss the power of social structures.
I cannot accept this type of reduction of social problems to individual action. It leads to the exacerbation of some of our problems and unfairly paints certain individuals as unworthy. I do not think that most on the right want to treat the poor and racial minorities in a disrespectful manner. But neither do I think that they are overly concerned about this treatment either. It is a blind spot in which they really think that individuals have this ability to easily overcome institutional social forces. That blind spot has led to a great deal of frustration on my part when I have tried to help my conservative friends explore a more holistic approach to solving our social problems.
This blind spot did not develop by accident. It is a natural consequence of the ideals that buttress the conservative political perspective in the United States. Part of this is tied to the slavish devotion to the idea of the free market. The theory behind the free market is that the market will fairly allocate our talent and abilities if we do not interfere with it. The cream will rise to the top unless there is a government that interrupts their journey. The focus of this type of capitalism is the individual and there is a lack of acknowledgement of how larger social forces can impact that individual.
Marx is famous for his argument that the economy determines the rest of society. He maintains that when societies adopt some version of communism that non-material elements of the society will improve as well. But ironically the supporters of capitalism often imply the same thing about capitalism. They sometimes maintain that allowing individuals to compete with each other in our economic system will produce better and more responsible individuals. This, in turn, will create a better society as we all rise to the level of our competence.
Part of me wishes this story was true. It would be great if we could allow the “invisible hand of competition” to fairly allocate resources to those who contribute the most to us and worked the hardest. But reality does not work out that way. I am a capitalist, but I recognize its limits as well and the theory of free market competition does not fit with reality. To take this type of faith in individual effort and place it into non-economic dimensions of our society, such as our individual development, is just short of madness. But I find that political conservatives have developed such a faith which leads me to think that their economic ideals drive much of the rest of their political philosophy. Hello material determinism.
There is a second source of this focus on the individual instead of the larger social structures. That source is in the heavy conservative Christian influence within today’s conservative movement. An important aspect of evangelical Christianity is the responsibility of the individual to accept Christ. We Christians are told again and again that our family, friends and country will not save us. Only we can gain salvation by accepting Christ ourselves. It is an individual choice that we all have to make. This is tied to the notion of freewill individualism that is a basic assumption within evangelicalism.
And as an evangelical, I agree with that idea. I agree that salvation comes to individuals and not families or communities. I can go into why I have that theological belief, but that is beyond the scope of my current topic. Needless to say I am quite comfortable with assigning personal responsibility as it concerns one’s spiritual faith. But what I will assert is that my priority on salvation for the individuals does not go into my understanding of political and social policy. For me the supernatural dimension is not a perfect replica of our current natural reality.
But I think that for many conservatives, there is a leap from this type of theological understanding to an application to our political circumstances. After all, if individuals are responsible for their own salvation, then are they not also responsible for their own economic security? Many Christians recognize this as a type of “name it and claim it” heresy, but I suspect that they adhere to at least a weak unspoken version of this idea. The focus becomes the individual and what he or she can gain through proactive actions.
When you combine the capitalist market philosophy with the type of theological individualism within much of conservative Christianity, then you have a recipe for an extreme focus on individual achievement as well as an impediment towards understanding the power of social institutions to impact our lives. This is why this is a special problem for political conservatives that is less likely to impact those from the left. The type of cognitive disconnect is imbedded within the DNA of modern conservatism. This does not mean that every single conservative ignores the effects of social structures, or that every single progressive appreciates them. But if you are a conservative, you have to overcome the central tenets of your political philosophy in order to avoid an overemphasis on individualism.
Okay there is my critique of the right. I have other concerns but that will do for now. Next week I take my shot at the left.