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Sahil Kapur

Sahil Kapur

Posted March 18, 2009 | 12:21 PM (EST)

Key Difference Between Modern Liberalism and Conservatism: Nuance


We live in a complex era. Our problems are challenging and daunting. Finding the right solutions demands that we abandon dogma in favor of pragmatism. This underscores the current political debate between liberalism and conservatism. Crooks and Liars offers an interesting take on conservatism and 13-year-old CPAC speaker Jonathan Krohn:

After all, conservative thought (as it were) has always reflected the way a 13-year-old would view the world: like a highly dualistic, light-and-darkness morality fable, filled with heroic patriots and defenders of freedom contending against the slithering forces of puling liberal evil.

It's witty and hyperbolic but there's a grain of truth to this, namely that at the core of the conservative ideology lies a thirst for heroes and villains, a visceral resistance to change, rigid adherence to tradition, fear of the unknown, a tribal tendency to chastise those who are different, and the encapsulation of complex realities into simplistic principles.

Personal responsibility, individual liberty and less government are wonderful ideas, but like all successful concepts, they require nuance. To what extent does the poor son of a crackhead single mother who grew up without access to a good education have the personal responsibility to buy health care at exorbitant prices? Should he be expected to create a stable, happy life for himself while paying the same flat tax rate as Donald Trump?

At what point should Trump's individual liberty be so obstructed as to afford the government a slightly larger fraction of his multi-billion dollar pie so it can be spent on health care and education for the less fortunate? At what point should the Constitutional rights of oil companies to destroy the environment be called into question, so as to protect our planet and our children from our wastefulness and stubborn refusal to evolve?

In the modern conservative movement, 'less government' refers to the conviction that government is always and inherently bad. But there's nothing liberal or ideological about public services or building schools, bridges and roads. How about if big government were to slash that Social Security check to your ailing grandmother, forcing her to live in poverty? How about if big government were to cut Medicaid and your poor cousin could no longer afford treatment for a life-threatening disease?

The alleged tenets of modern conservatism are great; they just need to be tempered with reality. That's where liberalism steps in. It subscribes to these principles but on a more thoughtful, nuanced level. Conservatives often decry liberalism as without a core philosophy. What they don't realize is that liberals do have core values; liberals simply understand that reality is far too complex and multidimensional to reduce ideology to a few overly simplistic catchphrases.

Government has flaws, but so does the private sector (as amply proven by the current economic crisis). It's important to realize the shades of gray in both. Some issues are so important and encompassing they demand government activism -- like combating climate change and providing health care and a quality education to everyone. Modern conservatism's unyielding assumption that government is categorically bad underscores its lack of nuance and extreme nature.

Complex times like these require complex thinkers, and conservative purists like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and all the others who still believe government should play no role in helping us out of this crisis are plainly not complex thinkers. The self-fulfilling tragedy is that those who run for office on a platform that government is bad are very likely to prove it if elected, by sitting on the sidelines and refusing to act when necessary.

Principles are vital, but they need a healthy dose of reality to make sure they continue to yield the desired results. Our core values should be cherished on their merits and questioned on their limitations. Any idea pushed to an extreme can prove more destructive than worthwhile. There's a fine line between principle and dogma; and we all know the latter isn't a virtue.