“Liberals think conservatives are evil, while conservatives just think liberals are wrong”

Yesterday I saw a thread by the American comedian Jeremy McLellan (known to the Muslim community for opposing some Islamophobes a couple of years ago) which identified what he saw as the main difference between how liberals and conservatives in the US see each other:

This reminded me of a comment by a British conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton if I remember rightly, in which he said that conservatives like himself could get on better with left-wingers than they could with him because the left regard conservatives as evil, while they just think the left are wrong. And it’s a bit of a myth.

To be fair, it has some truth as far as British socialists, liberals and conservatives are concerned. Perhaps as far as “old-school” American Republicans and Democrats were concerned also. In my experience, people who are “on the left” can get on with people who vote Tory; we can have an engaging conversation about anything except politics, and sometimes about some things political. Most people who vote Tory do not want to see the things we take for granted torn away, such as the National Health Service and welfare system; they may, however, be content with some things being cut or removed because it’s deemed unnecessary (even though we may disagree) although they do not seek the abolition of either. It gets difficult when a family member, in particular, keeps expressing views that upset us: that, for example, a lot of disabled benefit claimants are not really disabled or scroungers, that Britain is full and shouldn’t accept more immigrants, that this minority or that are demanding or getting special rights and impinging on others’ freedom or imposing “no-go areas”, often because they have heard it on the grapevine or read it in the papers and are impervious to facts. It’s more distressing when they believe that for some reason we should not have rights.

A pro-life protest featuring a white woman in a grey and white striped T-shirt and a knee-length white skirt holding a placard saying "Choose life", with two children either side of her holding banners saying "I am pro life" and "Honk 4 Life" with a drawing of a baby wearing a sash saying "save me" on it. Others (adults and children) can be seen behind them.
Part of a pro-life protest in Lawndale, California.

It’s also a myth that conservatives regard liberals as just wrong or can easily empathise. British people of different persuasions can get on because there is no religious fervour on either side. In other contexts, conservatives or reactionaries regard liberals as godless atheists and see defeating them as the “work of God”. This can be seen in American campaigns against abortion which have been a mass movement in parts of the USA since the 1980s as depicted in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?. In the 1970s, reactionary military leaders (often in alliance with big landowners and American business interests) used it as justification to stage coups and lock up, torture and kill those they accused of being communists; they portrayed it as a defence of western civilisation and Christianity. Many conservatives use moralistic justifications for their opinions; they regard demands for a welfare state or redistribution of wealth as a product of envy by those who have achieved less because they are lazy or less intelligent. They see a threat to their freedom, or ‘uppity’ people (plebs or the N-word) challenging their rightful position from below.

It is also a fact that the Right, especially in the US, do not respect democracy and have a history of attempting to restrict access to the democratic process by those they believe are less likely to vote for them. This starts with voter ID laws which require identification which those who are disabled, poorer, or less well settled where they live (who are often less likely to vote for the Right, be they the Tories or the Republicans) are less likely to have (this has been going on for years in the US, but has been copied by the Tories in the UK) on the pretext of preventing fraud of which there is no evidence is a serious enough problem. It proceeds to the gerrymandering of voting districts to ensure that the opposition are corralled into one or two districts, at-large voting districts (so that minorities are never represented on a particular council or committee), to imposing restrictions on postal voting, to imposing daunting requirements on those registering others to vote, to deter them from doing so, to voting equipment being in shorter supply or mysteriously breaking down in areas less likely to vote for the Right, or registering a vote for the Right when the voter attempted to vote for the Left.

Quite simply, they do not believe that those who do not vote for them have a right to vote; they do not believe in equal citizenship. Their forebears used ‘literacy’ tests (based on unanswerable questions such as “how many bubbles are in a bar of soap?”) and outright violence to exclude Black people from the vote. They are not honourable opponents but oppressors and enemies. While not all American Republicans are evangelical Christian conservatives, it is worth remembering the words of Randall Terry, the founder of the anti-abortion extremist group Operation Rescue:

I want you to let a wave of hatred wash over you. Yes, hate is good…. Our goal is a Christian nation. We have a biblical duty, we are called by God, to conquer this county. We don’t want equal time. We don’t want pluralism.

Finally, many people hold a mixture of opinions from both camps. Very few people believe wholeheartedly the entire slate of liberal or conservative opinions. The definition of what constitutes liberal or conservative thought changes from generation to generation; in the 1990s, for example, a hallmark of liberal opinion was acceptance of homosexuality which nowadays is mainstream on both Left and Right here in the UK (not so in the US); the sticking point now is the status of transgender people, which is the subject of much disagreement on both sides. Equality and protection from discrimination for women, people of colour or immigrants and disabled people were controversial when they were introduced; today, the principle is mostly accepted by both sides; what would have identified someone as a feminist in 1965 would not now. Many people vote for a party with many policies they oppose simply because they see their natural party as being against them because of their race or religion; I know Muslims who are in line with evangelical Republicans on issues such as abortion and sexuality but who vote Democrat because the evangelicals who dominate the Republican party now are intolerant of Muslims and anti-immigrant. It has been said that the Jewish community is a liberal community with conservative needs (conservative in foreign policy, that is) while the Muslim community is a conservative community with liberal needs. So, this idea that “the Left” is full of hoity-toity urbanites stuck in their social media bubbles who have no understanding of most people’s values is a baseless stereotype (and the social media bubble, in any case, is easily matched by the niche media and talk radio bubble of the Right, particularly in the States and increasingly so here).

During the recent US election campaign, I heard many people on the centre-left here in the UK predict that the Biden campaign was doomed, that it was perceived as weak and too close to those who wanted to “defund the police” or were wedded to “critical theory” approaches to gender. I saw tweets purportedly demonstrating “this is how you lose an election” when the people being quoted were not in any election and were sometimes simply calling racism or ignorance for what it is. We should never be afraid to do that. When running for election one has to be diplomatic and appeal to the best in people, but the truth is that the Trump campaign and much of the Republican party are stuffed with fascists and racists, cruel, dishonourable and vicious people who do not respect democracy or the rule of law, and fanatics with tunnel vision who will believe nothing that does not come from a propagandistic ‘news’ source; everything else is “fake news”, even if it has been sympathetic to them in the past. What on earth is the point of running a political campaign based on principles of social justice, equality and the rule of law if we cannot call cruelty, ignorance, fanaticism and bigotry what they are?

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