Thomas Sowell in his book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggle identifies two approaches to the world: constrained and unconstrained. The liberal, Sowell argues, tends towards the later while the conservative tends towards the former.
The unconstrained vision argues that reality is malleable and that “experts” can “fix” social, political, and economic problems through policy. Human nature is perfectible provided the environment he lives in his properly constructed. The constrained vision argues that reality is fixed and that man by nature is flawed. There are no permanent solutions only prudent trade-offs to mitigate conflict in the evolved system we live.
Which brings us to this election.
It’s gotten around my place of work that I was at the very least sympathetic to Trump and his supporters. I defended the reasons why people supported him on a number of occasions. Now, of course, I supported him, but for rhetorical purposes I removed myself as much as possible from the conversation and approached the Trump phenomenon clinically. Perhaps it was cowardly, but the Left was throwing around terms like “misogynist” and “racist” so it was best to keep them off with a nine-foot pole. Sometimes they got too close (“You’re not going to vote Trump ARE YOU?!) and I would just remind them that my vote doesn’t matter anyway (“New York is going for Hillary. Darned electoral college.”) and then they would grin and agree. A little obfuscation buys you an audience.
But here’s the thing: I was actually worried about getting painted as a Trumpster. Sure, liberals accused Romney and McCain of all kinds of things, but we laughed it off because we (left and right) all knew it was a bit ridiculous. Trump was on a whole other level. The Left was utterly humorless about the funniest candidate we’ve ever had. They took him literally and out of context at every turn and displayed parody level puritanism (Can you believe he said [fill in the blank]?!) and quickly they had him labeled up and down: misogynist, racist, xenophobe, Islamaphobe, bigot.
The strangeness of Trump explains in part the Left’s response but it obscures a more important distinction in temperament between Left and Right that stems from the constrained and unconstrained visions.
Simply put, the those with an unconstrained vision deal far more harshly with its foes than do the advocates of the constrained vision.
[T] is an enduring asymmetric relationship based on how they see each other as adversaries. Each must regard the other as mistaken, but the reasons for the ‘mistake’ are different. In the unconstrained vision, in which man can master social complexities sufficiently to apply directly the logic and morality of the common good, the presence of highly educated and intelligent people diametrically opposed to policies aimed at the common good is either an intellectual puzzle or a moral outrage, or both. Implications of bad faith, venality, or other moral or intellectual deficiencies have been much more common in the unconstrained vision’s criticism of the constrained vision than vice versa. (Sowell 257)
Here is the key. When the Left disagrees, it disagrees violently. Their experts have spoken! They have a solution for (fill in the blank)! You must be corrupt or stupid to disagree with them! Death to morons and thieves!
The conservative is left at a rhetorical disadvantage. Sure, they disagree with members of the Left, but come on, we don’t think they’re deplorable or want to put them in camps. We don’t even have a list of nasty names for the Left as they have for us.
Sowell gets at the reason for this:
In the constrained vision, where the individual’s capacity for direct social decision-making is quite limited, it is far less surprising that those who attempt it should fail–and therefore far less necessary to regard the ‘mistaken’ adversary as having less morality or intelligence than others. Those with the constrained vision tend to refer to their adversaries as well-meaning but mistaken, or unrealistic in their assumptions, with seldom a suggestion that they are deliberately opposed the common good or are too stupid to recognize it.
I think my liberal colleagues are generally good, smart people, who are fundamentally mistaken for a number of reasons on some key issues (guns, anyone?). When they’re wrong about something I sometimes engage them in argument, but in the end, I shrug my shoulders and agree to disagree. Likewise, I think most Democratic lawmakers are well-intentioned, even Obama.
Case in point, I once had a conversation with a fellow back in 2010. The topic was the pending Affordable Care Act. I told the guy that I was opposed to the legislation and he responded with a grave look on his face, “Wait, you don’t want to help uninsured people?” I responded that it wasn’t that I was opposed to helping the uninsured, but that the proposed solution wasn’t going to work economically.
I don’t for a second doubt Obama and the Democrats’ good intention with ACA. They did want to help. The problem was their solution wasn’t going to work for economic reasons.
But this also highlights one of the differences between the constrained and unconstrained vision: the liberal believes in solutions, the conservative believes in trade-offs. When people are swapping horses, the liberal feels that someone is getting more than his fair share while the conservative sees it as a fact of nature—scarcity, limits, in short, constraints.
Is it of little wonder, then, that temperaments diverge? Is it of little wonder why conservatives were willing to compromise and vote for Trump warts and all while liberals desperately tried to put lipstick on their pig?
In short, the conservative chuckles (at himself and his foe) and at times grows irate with liberal foolishness. The liberal, by contrast, calls down fire and brimstone on their foes’ with a crusader’s vengeance.
Funny how that works out.