The Tragic Emptiness of Our Political Discourse
Paying attention to this U.S. presidential campaign and commentators’ efforts to make sense of it can be a painful undertaking. Aside from the hateful rhetoric and incitement to violence that Donald Trump has unleashed on society, our tired conceptual short-hands that we try to impose on people and ideas are outdated. Among the most abused words are “left,” “right,” “liberal,” and “conservative.” These are powerful identity labels for a lot of people, but insofar as we use them to describe modes of thought, policy frameworks, and life philosophies, they no longer mean much by themselves.
When we slap one of a narrow collection of labels on a host of unrelated issues, we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to our country because it constrains our ability to see nuance and narrows our perceived set of options. The left-right political dichotomy was an invention of revolutionary France in the late 1700s. The labels may have made sense in that period and subsequent ones, but they are an inadequate means of understanding today’s world. This simplistic analytical framework from over 200 years ago cannot begin to capture the socio-technical complexity and knowledge base of the 21st century and its associated political debates. When we describe people and groups as “extreme right” or “extreme left” (or “populist,” for that matter), we distract ourselves from the more relevant reality that they are often angry, frustrated, worried about their place in society, and scared about their own future. This patronizing and incurious labelling merely alienates fellow citizens from each other and distracts from the need to dig deeper, ask more questions, and learn how our rapidly changing world is causing pain for many people. Democracy requires active listening, starting from the assumption that no one has a monopoly on wisdom.
The terms “liberal” and “conservative” have been used across the centuries in different contexts by economists, political theorists, ideologues, philosophers, and political parties to mean completely different and often contradictory things. We have tried to imbue these words with so much meaning that by themselves they confuse more than they elucidate. Today, the word “liberal” means something very different in Europe, the United States, and Latin America. In parts of Europe, it is more connected with an entire socio-political system based on tolerance and freedom of thought, whereas in the United States it tends to be associated with specific types of people and a vague ideology of “progressivism” linked to the Democratic Party. As such, “liberal” is often a dirty word in the United States when used by “conservatives,” which itself has become a proxy for the Republican Party and no longer has much connection to a conservative mindset based on caution, tradition, and a reliance on evidence. In Latin America and parts of Europe, “liberal” tends to be associated with laissez-faire, free market economics. As such, Americans who identify as economic “conservatives” in the U.S. political context suddenly find themselves on the side of “liberals” when they’re in other countries by way of supporting identical policy frameworks. Am I the only one experiencing cognitive dissonance here?