For a long time, I've suspected there must be some basic psychological difference between conservatives and liberals, some deep, hard-wired psychological trait that explains left and right. And in the last few weeks, I think I've found it.
The clue was a couple of church services I went to, one in a conservative church and the other in a liberal one. Neither church was overtly political, but it wouldn't take anyone long to figure out the political affiliations of the congregations. Both were preaching the Gospel, but in substantially different ways, and here's the crux of the difference:
In the conservative church, sin is something inflicted from the outside. Faith helps us each fight off Satan and his demons. In the liberal church, sin is a personal failing, a weakness however momentary or long-running, that faith can help us to shore-up.
It took a couple of weeks of mulling to sink in, but if you look at conservatives and liberals you'll see those same basic worldviews stretching across all aspects of life: church, politics, education, work and play. The correlation is imperfect, but it's pretty damned interesting.
I make fun of conservatives for being afraid of everything, for seeing threats in things that seem, to me, to be not all that threatening. The theme of exterior threat is dominant in conservatism. Mexicans, gays, the federal government, video games, the Internet or whatever, the conservative world is a world dominated by outside threats. At the center of everything is a basic belief that if the world would just leave us alone we could live in peace and prosperity.
History disagrees, of course, because history is disagreeable. Take the conservative belief in unfettered capitalism. An uncontrolled economy does, in fact, bring massive generation of wealth. But it also brings monopolies and sweat shops and terrible, inhuman exploitation. Conservatives see one side of the coin but not the other.
Liberals, on the other hand, are always looking inward. For years I've heard conservatives deride liberals for their self-absorption, and I've never really understood it. Isn't it liberals, after all, who are concerned for the poor and downtrodden? That seemed anything but self-absorbed to me, until I attended the liberal church service.
I go to a fairly conservative church, and what struck me about the liberal service is that it was almost therapeutic. It was all about personal change. The sins that liberals battle are personal sins: greed, scorn, hypocrisy, anger, disengagement, insensitivity. They're things that each of us must overcome to be better people, yeah, but there's also the matter of institutional power. Whether the institution involved is church or government, the liberal view is that it should be used to make us all better people.
So we have liberal government meddling in everything from charitable giving (taxes as alms) to what kind of cooking oil should be used in fast food restaurants. There is no end to how many things each of us should do to improve ourselves, and it is the job of institutions to help us. Hence, activist, infinite government conducting what amounts to massive personal improvement projects, micromanaging all of our lives and driving everyone completely mad.
For the last few weeks, I've been watching and listening to liberals and conservatives, testing my new theory, and I think I'm on to something. Not only do liberals and conservatives disagree, but we seem unable to even perceive the world the other group lives in. I'm short of a metaphor here, but it's like each group got half a set of nerve endings. Conservatives got the nerve endings in the skin, so they're sensitized to burns and scrapes and things that come from outside. Liberals got the nerve endings in the viscera, so they're worried about bellyaches and an irregular heartbeat. The result of this is that when one side perceives a threat and sounds the alarm, the other side is utterly mystified and suspects insanity.
This isn't a perfect theory, i understand. But try it out. I think you'll be surprised how broadly applicable it is.