Where is the real common ground between liberalism and conservatism?

photoThe feedback one gets when commenting as a liberal on social media covers a contradictory spectrum. Either people blame liberal worldviews on an accident of thought (or afterthought) or else accuse such thinkers as having some kind of marginalized, crazily zealous outlook that does not comprehend how the world really works.

The word “liberal” is also used as an insult in such cases. Which is very strange if you actually slow down to think about it. The definition of liberalism almost seems like a foundational value for the American form of democracy laid out in the United States Constitution:

Liberalism: 

  1. progressive views: a belief in tolerance and gradual reform in moral, religious, or political matters
  2. political theory stressing individualism: a political ideology with its beginnings in western Europe that rejects authoritarian government and defends freedom of speech, association, and religion, and the right to own property
  3. free-market economics: an economic theory in favor of free competition and minimal government regulation

That’s like a checklist of American history and American values. So why do so many so-called conservative thinkers claim to hate liberals and liberalism?

There are quite simply explanations actually. The first-rate measure of any hard-line conservative is to have convictions from which you do not back down. But the ironically common ground here is that liberals have quite strong convictions as well. It is understanding the common roots of those convictions that holds the most potential for collaboration on important issues.

For example, despite accusations that most liberals are socialist or communist, liberalism (check the definition above…) most genuinely aligns with free enterprise than any social or economic theory that says change is not good.

Consider the definitions of conservatism as a value system if you do not agree:

  • con·ser·va·tism
  1. reluctance to accept change: unwillingness or slowness to accept change or new ideas
  2. right-wing political viewpoint: a right-of-center political philosophy based on a tendency to support gradual rather than abrupt change and to preserve the status quo
  3. desire to preserve current societal structure: an ideology that views the existing form of society as worthy of preservation.

None of these values really align with a free market philosophy that says change is good at whatever rate it occurs. That’s a bit of cognitive dissonance on the part of conservatives. Yet we also find cognitive dissonance among liberals. Consider the following examples of parallels in cognitive dissonance between liberals and conservatives:

1. If the reluctance to accept change is a hallmark of conservatism, so is the reluctance to deny change a hallmark among liberals who think social justice is being compromised by the status quo.

Common ground? It is the appeal of individual rights and freedoms that forms common ground between conservatives and liberals.

2. Liberals frequently advocate change for the sake of change, no matter how rapid or gradual, as a sign of a progressive society. Conservatives find this to be a meddling worldview, especially when government is involved. And yet the American government was formed to foment and manage change. So which is it?

Common ground: If anything in this world holds true, it is that change occurs whether we want it to or not. It is the imposition of change on social standards that most offends conservatives. So we need to find shared examples of healthy moral change that conservatives and liberals can share as a tradition. These might include the changes wrought when Jesus confronted religious leaders in his day with a new message of faith founded on grace and salvation over law. That same message needed to be reiterated with the advent of Protestantism through Martin Luther and others. Each of these examples demonstrate that both liberals and conservatives have trouble conceiving the real meaning of change and from where it emanates. Even traditional institutions have need of real change.

3. Conservatives love to claim ownership of the free market economy, but it is often true that the free market destroys as much as it creates. That includes many traditional institutions. Common ground: Liberals and conservatives can engage on which elements of society are “worthy of preservation” as outlined in both conservative and liberal ideology. This holds true across a number of fronts; economic, social, environmental and political.

And thus we have it: the real common ground between liberals and conservatives is in this single word: preservation. Of that which is good, including individual freedom and social tolerance. Of that which is prosperous, which includes stewardship as well as progress. Of that which is traditional, because all worldviews have traditions and many originate from the same stories of creation and good books.

The real challenge in all this is to identify and call out cognitive dissonance wherever it occurs. That is, the accusations made by one party against another are often simple ploys to hide the own worst flaws within each of us.

No lack of discipline on either side

The claims against liberals that they are undisciplined in their thinking and lack convictions ignores the fact that genuine liberalism requires real and honest work in terms of thought and belief. Jesus, for example, required much from his disciples while learning the meaning of his ministry.

As a rule, Jesus taught using parables that were metaphors for the true kingdom of God. He grew frustrated when his closest friends and supporters failed to grasp this methodology and missed the point of his teachings as a result. His liberalism actually served as an important tool and access point for the conservative goal of salvation.

No leadership without questioning

Jesus also castigated the conservative religious leaders of his day for accusing him of being too liberal with his behavior and his associations. But those same accusations came from Jesus’ own family and the liberal camp of admirers who loved his welcoming message but also wanted him to become an earthly king. They were disappointed when it did not look like that was going to happen.

So it’s a pretty incredible thing to realize how closely conservatives and liberals lie in this process of cognitive dissonance, and how its revelations illustrate how closely we all operate in the real world.

Failing to try to understand and accept the good things in another is the very thing God calls us to avoid. The real kingdom of God, including all faiths and all belief systems, is about finding and supporting common ground here in this world so that good will can be done “here on earth, as it is in heaven.”

Yet his ultimate method was patience. That is the common ground of Christ, and always that

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