Polarization is the result of changing opinions–But who is changing?
The constantly changing opinions in America is a topic I tend to come back to again and again. With all of the dramatic and controversial policy proposals coming from our younger legislators, I have decided to pick up where I left off the last time.
A few years ago, I found a “bipartisan index” which attempted to measure and explain polarization and dysfunction in Washington. Accompanying that was a “pundit’s” comments proclaiming that no studies were necessary because it’s obvious conservatives have made a “hate-filled movement to the radical right.” And recently I came across a comment by Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin in which she stated, “If you want a party that’s moving closer to the center, or whose voters say they want to be closer to center, that would be the Democrats.”
That started me once again thinking about my personal perspective on changes in political thinking over time. Over the years I’ve constructed several comparisons of national issues from my youth with more recent policy debates. Here’s a partial list of issues conservatives and liberals have been arguing about for many years, sometimes decades: border security, immigration, gay marriage, abortion, gender identity, tax reform, voter ID, balanced budget, national debt, healthcare payment systems, energy, fossil fuels, firearms, equality, and so on.
I firmly believe conservative positions held in 2019, many of which give progressives severe “stomach acid,” would be very much the mainstream or moderate, even majority, opinions of a generation ago. You may not agree that applies to all of the listed issues, but for the most part, I believe conservatives aren’t the ones making significant opinion and policy shifts.
A friend and political “adversary” disagreed with my analysis. Here are some issues he introduced or wanted me to expand on, along with my brief comment:
• Minimum wage—Conservatives want to raise the poorest from poverty, but aren’t convinced minimum wage increases will adequately benefit those needing this help.
• Social Security—Conservatives and liberals both want a financially sound system, but conservatives are convinced the current structure isn’t sustainable.
• Gay marriage—While conservatives have evolved far less than liberals on this issue, there’s been substantial changes in conservative opinion, and like it or not, it’s no longer in the forefront of debate.
During the last presidential campaign, the New York Times described the Republican Presidential Platform as moving “far right.” Here are three major “planks”: Strong immigration policy; Strong national defense; an “America First” policy on trade. One may disagree with those Republican positions, but it’s difficult to argue this is a movement “far to the right” of where their positions were 20 or 30 years ago.
Here are some more examples of changing opinions. Democrats are aggressively challenging a basic tenant of our representative form of government—they want to eliminate the electoral college. That’s relatively new as a serious endeavor. Consider how the Democrats’ position on a border barrier has changed in recent years. And who could have imagined just a few years ago that we would be debating whether a healthy newborn should be allowed a chance at life?
Consider these progressive Democrat crusades included in the Green New Deal: eliminate autos, virtually eliminate air travel, government job and housing guarantees, guaranteed “economic security” (wages) for all who are “unable or unwilling” to work, eliminate private insurance, and free government-controlled education for life.
So . . . who actually has been changing the most—for good or for ill? Some sincere supporters of today’s transformative trends have fooled themselves into thinking they’ve always held their current opinions, but they’re wrong. We’ve had cultural changes which have led to different perspectives on old issues, and important new issues.
There are times that conservatives should set aside a traditional belief, but when they don’t, does anyone have the right to accuse them of “making a hate filled movement to the radical right”? No, because that’s blatantly untrue. These traditions don’t, and shouldn’t, change easily. Democrats and progressives should remember that sometimes lost in the emotion of these debates is the fact that conservatives holding on to long-held opinions is often founded in sincere and legitimate convictions. And we should all remember that change, just for the sake of change, is not inherently self-redeeming.
As progressives seek solutions for societal problems, they reach enthusiastically, often impetuously, for what Obama described as transformational change. While doing so they should heed the advice given by economist Thomas Sowell: “There are no solutions . . . only trade-offs.” Actually, that’s good advice for all of us.