It has been amusing and enlightening to see the reaction of political liberals to the announcement of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s VP running mate.
The knee-jerk vitriol, the instant sloganeering, and the character attacks have been a marvel to see. Not that conservatives don’t do that with liberal candidates…ahem. I guess it’s all about fair balance!
What strikes me, however, is that I truly believe that many who would self-identify as “liberals,” “Democrats,” or “independent-but-hate-Republicans” really don’t understand how a conservative thinks. Why don’t those stupid conservatives see the light and grasp onto the need for “change”? How can they be so naive as to think that a hayseed like Sarah Palin is worthy of a moment’s consideration? Why don’t these people from flyover country see what is so obvious to us smart folks – that people like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain, and Sarah Palin are out-of-touch fools without credentials to hold office?
In other words – what the heck is going on in the minds of these conservatives?
Well, as a public service, I’ll attempt to tell you. Warning: this post will actually be long, have a flow of logical thought, and demand intellectual rigor. So, if you’re after mere slogans and snark in order to reinforce your pre-conceived notions, feel free to hit the exit door now – there are plenty of sites out there for you. I’m going to assume that anyone who reads past this paragraph has at least a modicum of curiosity to see what the “other side” thinks, and has the capacity to engage in critical and even (egads!) philosophical thought.
First, I will give you the main thesis. The entire foundation in one sentence. Then, we’ll unwrap it so that you’ll (hopefully) better understand the thought process of a conservative mind.
By and large…
Conservatives believe in Truth.
That’s it in a nutshell. Please note that Truth is capitalized. Those with a relativistic worldview will use the language of truth, will say the words right and wrong, but when you peel away the layers, you always find that at the base, we’re talking opinion. And that, my friend, is the THE chief dividing line between those with a Truth-centered worldview (shorthand: conservatives), and those with a relativistic worldview (shorthand: liberals). (Here is a separate post with a deeper dive into the Question: What is Truth? – same warning applies!)
Let’s unpack this a bit on the philosophical level.
Every person has their set of First Principles. These are their core beliefs, chosen and developed through upbringing, culture, thought, and experience. Clearly articulated or not, admitted or denied, they are still there at the foundation, and they shape everything else.
The conservative mind tends toward first principles of objective Truth. That is, truth, reality, purpose, right and wrong, are defined outside of oneself, exist intact outside of one’s own acknowledgment of them, and that Truth/those Truths can be apprehended. And, Truth actually matters. Often, but not always, this is tied into a belief in an objective, real, and moral God who actually cares about people, the world, Truth, and Right and Wrong. In other words, there is order in the universe on every level. The deluded soul may leap off the roof of a building after deciding that the law of gravity does not apply to him, but the Truth-centered mind will not only refuse to take flight, but will try to persuade the budding flyer that a rough landing is not only possible, but inevitable.
Those of a relativistic mindset have a different set of First Principles. Those core beliefs often include such notions as human autonomy (no accountability to a knowable, self-disclosing God); a strictly naturalistic view of origins (we are here by accident, with no Creator-God personally involved); a code of right-wrong behavior through social consensus AND personal choice – all of which means an endlessly flexible and negotiable view of life, purpose, and ethics. In other words, we are self-defining, and anyone imposing a definition of Life, Truth, Purpose, and Right/Wrong is both deluded and dangerous (and generally inconvenient and even boorish!).
Start with these First Principles (acknowledged and articulated or not), and when you move up to the next level, you encounter the person’s worldview. Standing on the foundation stones of one’s view of Truth, inevitably, a certain set of lenses colors how any person now sees the world, its people, and events. That’s your worldview.
Let’s take an example – a hot one. Abortion. Those with a Truth-centered worldview may well say, “every life is created in the image of God. Every life is inherently valuable. Taking the life of an innocent child is Wrong. Compromising on this Moral issue means further compromise on other Moral issues.” In other words, the touchstone for a conservative mind is objective Truths that matter, and that don’t lose their weight due to circumstances or preferences.
Now, those with a relativistic view see it differently, because they have a different set of foundation stones of belief, and different lenses through which to view the world. “It’s a woman’s right to make her own choice. We have to look at the nuances of the circumstances. No-one can force a woman to have this child. There’s a cost-benefit analysis here, and maybe it’s best for this child not to enter the world because this life would be inconvenient or (in our opinion) sub-optimal.”
The thought-narrative is completely in opposition because the starting points are 180 degrees apart. These two sides will do endless battle because of this one word: Truth. The existence and acknowledgment (or not) of objective reality is the dividing line, and no amount of compromise, negotiation or reasoning can change it. These are two different worldviews and they cannot be reconciled.
If I had a calculator with programming that said that 2+2=4, and you had one that said 2+2=6, they’d never agree. The end result is based on the programming.
Abortion is only one of many such divisive issues. But let’s get to the core of why they are divisive. Conservatives and liberals come from very different starting points, and have radically different worldviews. If you believe that people are inherently good and evolving upward, you’ll tend to view wars in one way. If you believe that people are noble but deeply impacted by evil tendencies, you’ll see war in a very different light. Extend that to justice (including the death penalty), homosexuality, government confiscation and redistribution via taxes – all of these hot issues boil down to a worldview of objective truth vs. subjective pragmatism. You answer this question: Is there an involved God to whom we are accountable, and/or a fixed reality and set of right/wrong principles? – and all the rest will naturally follow.
So, when liberals hop up and down and denigrate a McCain/Palin ticket (and, let’s be fair – when conservatives display their revulsion at an Obama/Biden ticket), it’s really all due to the programming of our worldviews. A relativistic person sees someone like Sarah Palin, who clearly leans in the direction of a Truth-centered worldview, and she immediately becomes the enemy. On the other hand, a Truth-centered person encounters a radical-liberal-extremist-relativist like Obama, and there’s simply no way he or she will be convinced to vote for him.
When Barack Obama cops out on the abortion question by talking about how deciding on issues of when life begins is “above his pay grade” – yet then has the most extremist track record on votes encouraging abortion and even infanticide – the “relativist detector” goes off long and loud in the conservative mind. When he associates over the long haul with radicals, then repudiates them once it is costly politically, that fails the smell test. This is someone with a worldview that isn’t in accord with a Truth-centric reality. He may be a fine fellow, a powerful speaker, a family man, a credit to his people, and all that…but in the conservative mind, he’s not fit to lead. He’s heading toward, not away from, the cliff.
But a conservative looks at a Sarah Palin, or a Bobby Jindal, and sees that, despite their relative youth, these are people who are actually leading in a direction that accords with (to our minds) objective standards of right and wrong, good government, and citizen empowerment. Sure, they might not have the years of experience brokering legislative muck like a Ted Kennedy or a Joe Biden – but that’s a good thing. We want visionaries who lead, not visionaries who merely talk, or professional politicians who are bought and paid for by special interest groups.
I should, at this point, make a distinction between highly principled conservatives, as described above, and what I will call “instinctive” conservatives. Instinctive conservatives will align with much of the worldview and many of the perspectives of highly principled conservatives, but may not self-identify as seekers of capital T Truth. Nonetheless, for reasons both pragmatic and contextual, they believe that certain things are right, true, and work better, and they find their practical/philosophical comfort zone in a “conservative” grouping.
Whatever they were, the Founding Fathers were not relativists. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” When politicians give lip service to the foundational documents of the United States but do not share in the First Principles upon which it was established, the conservative mind does not view that as a healthy evolution. In and of itself, a relativistic approach to governing is to be rejected no matter what the political stripe of the candidate (including professed Republicans!). That also includes activist judges who create laws out of thin air, but that’s a separate topic (same foundational issue, however).
Here’s what you need to understand about the conservative mind: we’re looking for Truth and truth. We want proven, consistent character. We want documented performance. We want adherence to first principles and worldviews that are in accord with reality. We are not impressed with oratory, theater, and emotional pleas if the question remains unanswered: “Where’s the beef?” We don’t want mere talk about change, we want to see a track record of change in the direction of human responsibility, clear standards of right and wrong, and a lifestyle and governing approach that is consistent with the words proclaimed. Of course, many who claim to be conservative do not behave consistently. Flip-floppers whose stances change for political gain are not applauded for their savvy – they are seen as hypocrites without adherence to truth. No matter what their party affiliation.
When a conservative smells a relativistic agenda under the surface, there is no basis for trust – that is why Democratic attempts to woo the evangelical vote by using faith-talk are doomed to fail to a large extent. It’s fake. It’s not true. Some gullible souls will bite, but the rest see the hook. No thanks, says the conservative – keep the change.
So that is my attempt to outline how a conservative mind thinks. Obviously, there are many shades and gradations, but I think I’ve touched on the core issues. Maybe you think otherwise. Feel free to add comments, or write your own blog post on the mind of a conservative (or a liberal, or a libertarian)! Because, you see, we really won’t be able to change each other’s minds on the particulars. The real action is at the foundation level – having a robust discussion of first principles. By honestly looking there and at the worldview that grows from them, then we’ll really understand each others’ minds!
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