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  • Victor C. Bolles


I recently responded to a survey sent to me by the Pew Research Center. I usually don’t respond to survey requests. I get several every day. Most are just disguised requests for a donation of my money and not for my opinion. Most of the questions in these surveys are not structured to provide actual information about public opinion but rather are structured to guide the respondents to an answer that matches the survey sponsor’s next press release.


But Pew is a legit outfit and I often refer to their surveys in my commentaries, so I agreed to respond to this survey. One of the first questions they asked me was if I was a Republican or Democrat. I don’t know what the Republican Party is these days. RINOs are very different from MAGA Republicans so I responded independent. As I have mentioned before, I am a member of Braver Angels, a group created to bridge the growing partisan animosity that is gripping our country. In our meetings we usually identify as either reds (conservatives) or blues (liberals). But reds, conservatives and Republicans are not the same thing. Neither are blues, liberals or Democrats. At these meetings I usually identify as purple or decline to be categorized. Besides, why color conservatives red? Reds are commies. Everybody knows that.


The problem is that all these labels are misleading (sometimes intentionally). I sometimes identify as a classical liberal because in America liberals are considered to lean left, while in other democratic countries liberals are usually considered center-right (like the Economist magazine). Liberalism arose as a political and moral philosophy based on belief in the rights of the individual, personal liberty, government by the consent of the governed, political equality, the right to private property and equality before the law. This is the type of government the Founders created in 1781. But both the Republican and Democratic parties appear to be drifting away from this classical concept of applying Enlightenment philosophy to create a successful, prosperous society.


Bret Weinstein, a former professor of evolutionary biology at Evergreen State College (before he got cancelled), noted in an interview on the Rubin Report that there is a tension between conservatism and progressivism, a natural tension. And he is correct. There is a natural tension between these concepts because these concepts are related. But conservatism and progressivism are not ideologies, they are the pace of change. They are about speed.  Conservatives want a slow, well-considered pace of change, and progressives want accelerated change. Ideologies are about how you change not how fast you change. Ideologies are about direction not speed. The political divide in America is more about the direction of change than the pace of change so calling the political opponents conservatives and progressives is misunderstanding the nature of the argument.


The most basic difference between the right and the left is the relationship between the individual and the society in which they live. The focus of Enlightenment philosophy is on the individual, the rights that the individual has and how that relates to the society in which they live. Societies based on Enlightenment philosophy such as the United States are considered individualistic societies where the individual acts in their own self-interest. Counter-Enlightenment philosophers focused on the nature of society and said that individuals must act in accordance with the public good. A person’s self-interest is subordinated to the good of others. Societies based on counter-Enlightenment philosophies such as the Soviet Union are collectivist societies. The crux of the disagreement between the right and the left is whether the United States should be an individualistic society or a collectivist society.


Left-wing Democrats under President Biden and right-wing MAGA Republicans under former President Trump would both vehemently deny that they are collectivists or that they support collectivist ideas. But the facts prove otherwise. The entire focus of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) movement is based on group identity. It is not about liberating individuals but reaching group quotas. That is why black scholars like Glenn Loury and John McWhorter who support classical Western beliefs are considered race traitors. In a collectivist society an individual’s beliefs must be subordinated to the goals defined by the collective.


Former President Trump’s campaign promise to decimate the civil service isn’t designed to reduce the size of government and increase the liberty of individual Americans, it is intended to increase the power of the president. Loyalists replacing technocrats will adhere to the Trump line (just like Chinese apparatchiks adhere to the policies of Xi Jinping) but at the cost of good governance. Hugo Chavez did almost the same thing when he replaced experienced oil workers with loyalists at the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA. Oil production fell from around 3.5 million barrels a day in 1997 when Chavez was elected to about 750,000 now. Mr. Trump does not want individual Americans to have greater agency or independent ideas. Under the next Trump administration (which at this time appears to be increasingly likely) an individual’s ideas and opinions must be subordinated to their loyalty to the great leader. That is not an American-style individualistic society, that is a collectivist society. 


 No society can be completely individualistic or completely collectivist (although the Chinese Communist Party is trying to prove me wrong).


Not everyone is individualistic. In fact, even very individualistic people sometimes like to shrug off responsibility and take comfort in the collective. A highly individualistic society without constraints probably wouldn’t work because competitive forces would devolve into a “war of every man against every man” as envisioned by Hobbes in his epic book, Leviathan. Life for the bulk of the population would be unbearable. Hobbes felt that such a society would require a sovereign, a leviathan, to impose order so that society could function. Of course, the leviathan is the sovereign of the collective.


But life in an unconstrained collectivist society wouldn’t be any better. Initiative and competition would be squashed by the directives of central authority. Human nature would be subservient to the public good as determined by that central authority. Dreams and aspirations of the individual would evaporate. Progress would grind to a halt as the primary goal of the central authority is to maintain the authority of the central authority lest things spin out of its control. The economy would grind to a halt. History and culture would be redefined by the central authority. Collective societies are not really progressive.


An individualist society is naturally democratic and progressive. The bases for democracy are the rights of the individual. And democracies are naturally progressive. The individualistic society that the Framers of the Constitution created in 1781 accelerates change. America’s Founders were not conservatives, they were radical progressives. Individuals vote in elections and change the administration and policies of the government – in essence changing the direction in which the country is heading.


Collectivist societies are not democratic because the individual is subordinated to the public good. Voting against the public good (or what the central authority determines to be the public good) cannot be allowed so the vote of the individual counts for nothing. Collectivist societies are inherently resistant to change and are, therefore, not progressive. History provides no example of a collectivist society accepting the decision of voters and changing course. No collectivist society has given up power willingly.


The goal of conservatism is thought to be the blocking or slowing of the pace of change in a society while progressivism’s goal is assumed to be accelerating change. The goal of conservatism should be preserving what is good and functions well while the goal of progress should be to change what is bad or doesn’t function well. For a society to work well it needs to develop a balance between the forces of conservatism and progressivism. I think of conservatism, not as an anchor, but as the keel of a sailboat sailing into the winds of change, of progressivism (sorry for always falling into sailing analogies). Both forces need to complement each other for a sailboat to reach its mark or for a society to be successful in meeting the needs of its citizens.


But how do we incorporate conservatism into an inherently progressive democratic society? Change is disruptive and its impacts fall disparately on different sectors of society. Change can undermine our shared interests and common goals. As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs noted in his book, Morality, “A society is not simply a collection of individuals doing what they like so long as they do not harm others. It has, essentially and inescapably, a foundation of shared beliefs about the right and the good.” He quoted Lord Devlin, “Without shared ideas on politics, morals, and ethics no society can exist.” Rabbi Sacks makes the point that when change happens too quickly we lose the ability to understand one another. We lack a common ground. This is what is happening in America right now and mislabeling makes it worse.


We are constantly confronted by deception and mislabeling. “From the river to the sea” is merely a euphemism for eliminate Israel and kill all the Jews. Anti-racism sounds like a good thing but when you analyze what the DEI activists really mean you understand that anti-racism is actually racism. And calling collectivists liberals and progressives is confusing what collectivists stand for.  The same for calling individualists conservatives. I don’t think my commentary will have much impact on all this deceptive mislabeling of peoples’ intent, but if it motivates you to look behind the label or euphemism at the real substance of the issue then I will be happy.

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