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The Difference

September 8, 2008

In this universal election season discussions seem to devolve into some of form of the question “What is wrong with them?”  Each side tries to understand the other, usually with not much success.  For better or worse the two ‘sides’ we usually talk about are left/right, Liberal/Conservative, Democrat/Republican.  This is an oversimplified scheme, whether it is useful or accurate doesn’t really matter as much as people think it is. Its the main metaphor of politics in North America.

Here’s a more general way to think about it.  Lets consider all these as really coming from something about the nature of people.  I think there is a spectrum that people fall into politically that goes like this

progressive — moderate– conservative

The main distinction is this:

  • Progressives are people who wants a better world, believe it is possible to make it better and generally don’t assume that whatever idea they have for fixing it is definetly the right one.  These are people who accept that they have their own flaws. They may not understand the whole problem, they may even be part of the problem but that this doesn’t diminish their ability to help be part of the solution.
  • A conservative is someone who doesn’t like change. Well, really it means they don’t like change of cherised notions in their head.  Neither do progressives, but a conservative usually has a much stronger belief that they are actually not part of the problem and that they know exactly what the problem is.  Conservatives seem to believe that they are good by definition and that if everyone just behaved as they did then the world would be fine.

Now depending on your country and other factors you may naturally be in one of these groups but the political party you align with might be somewhere else.  Or perhaps two parties that seem similar Canadian Liberals and US Democrats are actually at very different places on this spectrum.  And I readily admit I haven’t defined what a moderate is. There are many people who are somewhere between these extremes.

They are the people who used to be Progressive Conservatives in Canada, who never argued against healthcare but wanted to lower taxes.  They are the Republicans in the US who support a woman’s right to choose and don’t want unneccessary wars but don’t think the Democrats are the solution.  They are the people who vote for the Liberals in Canada because they don’t want the Conservatives to win, but they’d really rather something more progressive like the NDP or Greens.

In Canada its harder to see this dichotomy because we have more choices.  But the recent conventions in the US made this constrast very clear.  Attacks on Palin and McCain are personal because they are right and good people.  Very similar attacks on Obama are pertinant questioning.  For conservatives, anyone who is other is flawed by the fact they aren’t like you and they will be attacked for not being like you.  But progressives accept that everyone is different and that no one has a monopoly on the truth or on good judgement.

In Canada I believe we have the same phenomenon but its harder to see, the Conservative party is the only one that clearly optimizes it.  Their attacks are personal pretending to be about leadership.  While criticisms about them are about policy and values and they pretend they are personal.  The other is always wrong.  We are rigth because we are the good people.

Beware of this reasoning. Its tempting to think you are the right, you are good, that its all someone else’s fault.  But wouldn’t it be better to have people in charge who admit they don’t have all the answers, who look at ideas are their merits, not on who profers them?  Wouldn’t it be better to vote for someone who hopes for a better future and wants to work towards it rather than someone who thinks the country would be better is everyone just acted like them?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 4, 2011 4:46 pm

    I think you are giving short shrift to conservatives in your definition of them. In the nicest and most respectful terms, conservatives are people who think that we should in general do things the way they have been done before, because most of the time this is safer than trying something new.

    Progressives are more iconoclastic and would be more likely to try something new if the old way wasn’t quite good enough.

    This is why you will see older people being more conservative because they have seen more and believe that they think they already know the best way of doing things (so why change?).

    This is also why conservatives place a higher reliance on authority and a higher value on anti-crime measures than progressives do.

    • April 4, 2011 5:07 pm

      Hey Andrew! I agree with your analysis completely. When I am in a generous mood that is how I would like to see things and most people who are conservative and progressive are as you described. When I wrote that I wasn’t in a very generous mood I think. But this reasonable distinction is rarely discussed in Canada because it doesn’t help you predict elections or support. The small ‘p’ progressives could support Greens, NDP or Liberals while the small ‘c’ conservatives usually would choose between the Conservative and Liberal parties. The problem is that the media and politicians want to know who you are going to vote for and force subtle, non-extreme beliefs into political-party-sized boxes. Its pretty frustrating.

      And if you must put me in a box
      Make sure it’s a big box
      With lots of windows
      And a door to walk through
      And a nice high chimney
      So we can burn burn burn
      Everything that we don’t like
      And watch the ashes fly up to heaven


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