By Justin Naylor
When I first joined Braver Angels and had to claim my political leaning, it wasn’t easy. I’ve been registered as an independent my whole life, and have voted for Republicans, Democrats, and even third-party candidates. With our Founding Fathers, I’m skeptical of factions, and political parties themselves—especially in our current primary system—seem to be one of the main forces driving our polarization.
Sometimes I resent even the distinction of red/blue. After all, don’t our political views fall not into neat and tidy boxes, but onto a messy and sometimes jumbled continuum? Sometimes I wonder whether instead of red and blue, we need to open up the whole box of crayons to describe our varied political leanings in a more nuanced way. Magenta, anyone? But of course, such a scheme would be impractical. As imperfect as the red/blue framework is, it works as a roughly accurate way to frame the conversation and get things started.
Nonetheless, as I pondered how to identify my own political leaning, I took a step back, and the answer became pretty clear: Putting aside political parties and color-coding, I realized I identified more strongly as a conservative than as a progressive.
Political leanings seem to me to be largely a function of personality. Just as we all have personality preferences – introvert vs. extrovert, or thinking vs. feeling – so too do we have political preferences. In an ideal world, perhaps we’d be pretty balanced in these preferences, and we’d make decisions using both the head and heart, both intuition and logic. But in reality, we all inevitably tend to emphasize one aspect of human experience over others, sometimes a little bit, others a lot. This is fine, as long as we understand that there are other ways of experiencing the world.
As in personality, so in politics. What we call “conservatism” and “progressivism” are really two ways of approaching the world, neither of which is “correct” in an objective sense, but both of which are valid and necessary. At the heart of the difference is a tension between law and freedom, or between letter and spirit. Conservatives tend to favor law, structure, duty, order, and predictability. Progressives by contrast tend to favor freedom, flexibility, compassion, creativity, and flexibility. Conservatives tend to err on the side of tradition, even if that tradition is oppressive. Progressives tend to discount tradition, even if that tradition is the glue holding society together. I see truth in both of these fundamental perspectives, but I have to claim a preference for conservatism.
I claim the label “conservative” because I’m inclined to be skeptical and cautious. I often crave change and progress, but my inclination is always to go slow. To paraphrase GK Chesterton, it’s important never to take a fence down until you know the reason why it was put up. This seems like great wisdom. In an effort to make things better, there’s a danger of making things worse. A witty college professor of mine once responded to a student who earnestly expressed a desire to change the world by asking her, “But are you going to change it for the worse or for the better?” The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
I claim the label “conservative” because I’m inclined to trust tradition. To quote Chesterton, “It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time.” In other words, we need to consider not only the opinions of those living in our own time and place but the opinions of those many who have come before. A former student of mine recently put it quite eloquently:
“Dismantling traditions and cultural mores is such a dangerous game and should be undertaken with the most solemn sense of responsibility, not the cavalier attitude of a rebel. It’s our duty to challenge traditions, but it’s also our duty to defend them.”
Earlier generations shouldn’t get a veto, perhaps, but they should get a vote. By contrast, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently asserted that “we are going to transition this country into the future and we are not going to be dragged behind by our past.” Although we shouldn’t be slaves to the past, we should recognize the collective wisdom of human thought expressed through time in a way that AOC discounts more than I would.
I claim the label “conservative” because I believe in decentralization. Human beings naturally crave autonomy, the ability to shape our own lives to the greatest extent possible. Of course, we also live in communities, and there is much essential to life that we could never do alone. Still, the more control we have over our own lives and our government, the more we feel empowered, and the more we can flourish. As a result, when important decisions that affect our lives come from so great a distance that we can’t feel ownership or even connection to them, we tend to feel disempowered and alienated.
The more locally a problem can be handled, the greater the stake we feel in the decision, and the more likely the problem will be solved in a way that makes sense for our local community. One of the beautiful things about our system of government is the division between our local city and state governments and the federal government. I think much of the current alienation we feel about politics comes from the fact that meaningful political decisions have largely moved from our local governments to the more distant and impersonal federal government.
Finally, I claim the label “conservative” because I’m inclined to see a person as an individual rather than as a representative of a group. I acknowledge that the ways we are divided by identity – gender, race, religion, etc. – are important, but I find them less important than the things that make someone an individual. I believe we can be more or less color-blind, gender-blind, etc., and that however much individuals might fail to live up to this ideal, it is ultimately a more respectful and honest way to interact with another human being than to make sweeping generalizations based on immutable factors like race and gender. To many progressives, the claim that I can be “color-blind” is itself a kind of racism, but I don’t see it that way. When I interact with another human being different from myself, I want to connect primarily with what unites us rather than what divides us.
Some might not identify with my personal view of conservatism. To them “conservatism” might mean something quite different. There really is a kaleidoscope of political understandings that we would do well to acknowledge more clearly. But if I must choose a side, if I must come down on the side of either tradition, decentralization, and individuality, or the side of innovation, centralization, and identity politics, I will choose the former. I am a conservative.