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Why E. J. Dionne Doesn’t Get Conservatism

Peter Berkowitz recently described  WHAT E.J. Dionne Doesn’t Get About Conservatism
 (emphasis added).

The reason WHY Dionne and other progressives don’t understand conservatism is explained in the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.

Berkowitz observes:

In Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism From Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond, progressive Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. argues that not only has conservatism lost its way by jettisoning moderation, but in the process it has inflicted great harm on the country. “The breakdown in American government and the dysfunction in our politics are the result of the steady radicalization of American conservatism,” he writes. In Dionne’s telling, President Obama’s only notable contribution to the crisis has been his “failure to anticipate” conservative extremism, “and his tardiness in dealing with it.”

There are several problems here. One is contemporary progressivism’s own repudiation of moderation. Another is Dionne’s view, commonplace on the left, that the proof of the right’s immoderation is somehow found in conservatives’ refusal to embrace progressive goals.

In Dionne’s view, conservatism remains in the throes of a racism that was crucial in the 1960s and 1970s to attracting Southern and white working-class voters. Furthermore, he argues, conservatism’s continuing opposition to progressive ambitions to increase redistribution of wealth, expand government regulation of the economy and society, and use state power to liberalize sexual norms and dictate correct moral and political opinions stems from intolerance and fear of change.

This crude rendering of conservative convictions reflects the polarizing penchant of the progressive mind to view dissent from its beliefs as ignorance, delusion, or wickedness.

Haidt finds that ideologies vary in the degree to which they employ six psychological mechanisms of social perception, intuitive understanding, and conscious reasoning that evolved in the human brain as we became The Social Animal.  These six “moral foundations” operate like little subconscious radars, constantly scanning the social environment for patterns of thought and behavior that presented opportunities and threats to our genetic ancestors.

The moral foundations are care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. The first three are called “individualizing” foundations because their focus is primarily on the autonomy and well being of the individual. The latter three are called “binding” foundations because their focus is on the social connects among people that make cooperative society possible.

The conservative mind tends to use all the foundations in relatively equal balance. Conservative thought tends to be holistic; seeing relationships among different things within the context of the whole.  It tends to seek balance between the competing and sometimes conflicting needs of the individual bees and those of the “hive” of society as whole.  This notion of balance is reflected in Berkowitz’ description of the moderation that is inherent in conservatism: 

Its highest expression consists in balancing competing principles and claims. It is a trait indispensable to conservatives, since their political hopes depend on harmonizing the principle of limited government and the claims of traditional morality.

The progressive mind is weighted heavily toward employing only the first three moral foundations, and of those mostly just “care.” Progressive thought tends to be reductive; reducing things to component parts out of context from the whole, and then projecting observations about the parts to the whole.  Not only do the latter three foundations general fail to resonate with liberals, but liberals also tend to reject them as immoral. The focus of progressivism is always and only on the individual; the bees in the hive of society.

In short, there’s no progressive moral foundation that is not ALSO a conservative foundations, but half of the conservative foundations are unavailable to the progressive mind. 

This explains why E. J. Dionne and progressives in general tend to think conservatives are “in the throes of racism,” and why progressives tend to see conservative beliefs as “ignorance, delusion, or wickedness:”  When half of the evolved psychological mechanisms of social perception and awareness are unavailable to one’s subconscious intuition and conscious reasoning one is left with no cognitive alternative but to conclude that people who see things differently must be, can only be, afflicted with some sort of social or cognitive disorder like racism, sexism, homophobia, greed, lack of empathy, etc. etc., etc., (you know the drill.)

The Great Debate about social issues that has been going on between progressives and conservatives since the French Revolution is like a Conflict of Visions between a colorblind person and a fully sighted one in which the morally colorblind progressive thinks the fully sighted conservative is a crazy extremist nut case for seeing moral colors that “everybody knows” are simply not there, and the morally fully sighted conservative thinks the colorblind progressive is naive and short sighted for NOT seeing moral colors that actually ARE there.

Haidt’s findings bear this out, showing that conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives, and conservatives understand human nature better than do liberals

R. R. Reno summed up the situation succinctly when he referred to progressives like E. J. Dionne as Our One Eyed Friends in his review of Haidt’s book in the magazine First Things

Thus the profound problem we face. Liberalism is blind in one eye yet it insists on the superiority of its vision and its supreme right to rule. It cannot see half the things a governing philosophy must see, and claims that those who see both halves are thereby unqualified to govern.

The real reason for most of the problems associated with partisanship today is the short-sighted, small-minded thinking of one-eyed friends like E.J. Dionne.  


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