And why shouldn’t I be an admirer of a liberal world-view? My father was a beneficiary of the G.I. Bill, which allowed him both to go to school and to get an affordable mortgage for our house. As a member of the UFA (United Fireman’s Association) he was also able, through collective bargaining, to provide more than adequately for my family, to allow my mother to stay at home while I was growing up, and pay for four years of tuition at Fordham University for me. As a graduate student in Belgium, I received an education through the doctoral level, health insurance, and even assistance with tuition—all courtesy of the wonderful Belgian taxpayer. A similar education in the United States would have been quite out of my league economically, so, if I didn’t have the advantage of living in a country that could be considered a bastion of liberalism, I probably would still be a Catholic high school teacher (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
I guess you could say, then, that I’m as pinko as they come, and proud of it.
That’s why it may come as something of a surprise to many of my liberal friends that I’ve taken up a secret pastime late at night when no one is watching: I’ve been engaging in serious dialogue with conservatives. And I must confess that I’ve been having a great time doing so.
How did this all come about, you may be wondering? Well, after Zuccotti Park was “cleansed” of the young radicals who had been occupying it, I found myself going to the Occupy Wall Street site to find out what was going on. Noticing how interesting the debates were on the site’s forum, I decided to contribute a post or two of my own. Although I had some nice chats with fellow liberals and leftists, what surprised me was how many self-proclaimed conservatives were regularly on this site. Some of them were clearly just nasty trolls—vicious right-wingers who were there only to disrupt the conversations that supporters of Occupy Wall Street were having amongst themselves. But some of them were sincere, thoughtful people who didn’t really seem at all like the kind of people who hated liberals like me.
So I decided to ask a very simple question of the numerous conservatives who kept coming back evening after evening to the site: why were they there? And I made it my vow to engage any conservative who was seriously interested in having a debate:
A Question for All the Right-Wingers on this Site
What I discovered was that there were basically four groups of conservatives who couldn’t stay away from the Occupy Wall Street site:
1) Rabid Rush Limbaugh-loving, liberal-hating right-wingers, whose brains had been fried from watching Fox News too much. It was no use discussing anything with these people because all they were capable of was name-calling.
2) Dopey evangelicals who seriously believed that Jesus was coming back at any moment and that all liberals were “New York Jews, queers, and filth” who would be left behind when the “Son of Man gathered up the righteous.” These people are even wackier than the Limbaugh crowd and equally incapable of rational thought.
3) Libertarians who believe, as Ronald Regan did, that “government is the problem, not the solution” and who were opposed to Occupy Wall Street because it seemed to them to be little more than another “big government” movement.
4) Self-labeled conservatives who actually are independents. They have problems with the direction our government is taking, but are uneasy with the methods of Occupy Wall Street, the kinds of people attracted to the movement, and the many seemingly radical ideas being proposed by some of these people.
I spent time every night going back and forth with all these folks. I found that, if I could keep my temper and really try to have an honest dialogue, those in the latter two groups were very often quite reasonable people who were on the Occupy Wall Street site because they really cared about the issues facing our country and were interested in debating them.
In fact, I found that, more often than not, if you could get beyond the hostility and platitudes that dominate political debate in our country, common ground could be achieved between those of us on the left and libertarians and conservative-leaning independents. For example, I found myself often agreeing with the libertarians that American government, as it currently exists, is really not all that responsive to the needs of its citizens and that many of our current government programs probably should be reexamined to see if they really are working (we would differ fundamentally though in our analysis of the cause of this problem and in our prescriptions). I also could understand why conservative-leaning independents might be wary of some of the extremist elements that have attached themselves to OWS (although I would maintain that extremist supporters of OWS are a fringe minority).
The point is that I think that it is a mistake to write off conservatives, when many of these individuals could become part of this movement if we just tried to take their concerns a bit more seriously and tried to see what we had in common with them, rather than what drives us apart.
I’m convinced that libertarians in particular have much more in common with Occupy Wall Street supporters than they do with the kind of social conservatives who have taken control of the Republican Party. Libertarians hate big government; we hate big corporations….but aren’t they really the same thing in the end? If we live in a corporatocracy, and our two major political parties are beholden completely to corporate interests, rather than to the interests of the American people, isn’t this possible grounds for some kind of meeting of the minds between libertarians and progressives? After all, do we really want to fight for the expansion of a government that consistently works against the welfare of its own citizens? One that continually fights expansionist wars all around the globe solely to promote the interests of its economic elites?
If liberals really need to have a fight, there will still be plenty of Limbaugh-loving reactionaries and fanatical evangelicals out there to do battle with. But why do battle at all with those whom we might be able to win over as allies if we just made an effort?
As Sun Tzu once profoundly wrote, “For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”