What's Tony Thinking

The Liberal/ Conservative Binary Is Useless


For a long time many of us have located ourselves, and others, in terms of a liberal/ conservative binary. Are you a liberal or are you a conservative? Leaning left or right, or somewhere near the center of the spectrum?

What’s happened in the last twenty years has rendered this way of construing reality pretty useless. Extremes on both sides of the spectrum have pushed so far beyond those terms as to be no longer identifiable with either one.

Liberalism has, for many, morphed into an illiberal ideology which is being termed “woke,” for want of a better shorthand designation. It is more accurate to term it, “identity politics,” or a framework that divides the world neatly into “oppressors” and “oppressed.”

Meanwhile, conservatism has morphed into something that is no longer recognizable as a coherent conservative world view, but has hardened into the MAGA’s aggrieved populism and its pseudo-religious expression, “Christian nationalism.”

Andrew Sullivan made the point about the illiberalism of the left in writing about the CEO of National Public Radio, Katherine Maher. As her tweet and social media post trail have come to light, Maher has been routinely described as possibly “too liberal.” The implication is that all “good liberals” should jump to her defense in the face of now “former NPR” journalist Uri Berliner’s critique of NPR bias. Here’s Sullivan on Maher and what’s at stake:

“The point I have been trying to make for years now is that wokeness is not some racier version of liberalism, merely seeking to be kinder and more inclusive. It is, in fact, directly hostile to liberal values; it subordinates truth to ideology; it judges people not by their ability but by their identity; and it regards ideological diversity as a mere dog-whistle for bigotry. Maher has publicly and repeatedly avowed support for this very illiberalism. If people with these views run liberal institutions, the institutions will not — cannot — remain liberal for very long. And they haven’t. Elite universities are turning into madrassas, and media is turning into propaganda.”

As a case in point on the last bit here’s Columbia professor and NYT columnist, John McWhorter, on the current “protests” on that campus:

“McWhorter encountered a problem while teaching a music humanities course: His students were unable to sit in silence as the class required because of ‘infuriated chanting from protestors outside the building.’

“In the New York Times, McWhorter wrote that ‘lately that noise has been almost continuous during the day and into the evening, including lusty chanting of ‘From the river to the sea.’ Two students in my class are Israeli; three others to my knowledge are American Jews. I couldn’t see making them sit and listen to this as if it were background music.

“I thought about what would have happened if protesters were instead chanting anti-Black slogans, or even something like ‘D.E.I. has got to die’… Chants like that would have been condemned as a grave rupture of civilized exchange, heralded as threatening resegregation and branded as a form of violence. I’d wager that most of the student protesters against the Gaza War would view them that way, in fact. Why do so many people think that weekslong campus protests against not just the war in Gaza but Israel’s very existence are nevertheless permissible?” (italics added to this excerpt from “The Dispatch” newsletter)

Meanwhile, William Buckley or George Will would have a hard time recognizing Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert or Matt Gaetz (all Republican congress members) and their “Freedom Caucus” colleagues as “conservative” in any reasonable sense of the term. They are populist demagogues, committed to destroying the institutions in which they serve. The same can of course be said for their leader, Donald Trump. If “conservative” is marked by respect for tradition and for the institutions that serve as guard rails for the excesses of individualism, the current right isn’t by any stretch of the imagination “conservative.”

These illiberal and anti-conservative extremes are in the media drivers seat, garnering way more clout and air time than the actual numbers merit. Most U.S. citizens are neither the wokish/ identitarian left nor MAGA/ Christian Nationalist right. Most are “normies,” people who don’t see politics as a Manichaean struggle between absolute good and absolute evil, but see it as a realm for compromise and proximate solutions to complex problems.

MAGA and Christian Nationalism are cults of celebrity, willing to sacrifice the rule of law and the wisdom of tradition to a strongman/ authoritarian who will break the rules to restore America to an imagined golden age.

Meanwhile, wokism’s ideology no longer views people as individuals, to be judged by “content of their character, not the color of their skin,” but sees everyone through the prism of group identity. Add in the idea that some groups are wholly virtuous, e.g. Palestinians, and others wholly evil, e.g. Jews, and you get a program that is, in its own way, totalitarian.

Bottom line: to continue to frame reality in a liberal/ conservative binary is to be disastrously out of touch with reality and the threats to U.S. society and democracy we actually face. The reality is a world of the performative extremists exploiting the public and political arena versus moderates of both liberal and conservative bent who want a non-absolutist, problem-solving politics pursued by people who exhibit some humility and awareness of their limits as well as the limits of politics.


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