ELIZABETHTOWN, PA — In my medieval history class, a question
arose about how certain beliefs became grouped together. This question
came up while we were discussing factions that formed in sixth-century
Constantinople over hotly contested religious doctrines. These factions
had their screaming partisans seated across from each other in the
hippodrome during chariot races. Occasionally they would clash over
the outcome of a race, most explosively in the Nika Riot of 532 A.D.,
when warring race fans pummeled one another, accusing their enemies
One of my students wondered whether there was anything substantive
linking these theological and spectator activities. She observed that
certain belief clusters can be found in our society as well as in the
Byzantine Empire; and our related positions like theirs would make
no sense outside of a particular time and place. Why, for example,
would someone’s opinion about stem cell research tell you where
that person would stand on such seemingly unrelated issues as the war
in Iraq or global warming? Why would the fact that I oppose abortion
lead one to suspect that I do not believe in the danger of global warming
or that I oppose gun control laws? Or why would the discovery that
someone is a strong environmentalist lead the researcher to conclude
(often quite justifiably) that the interviewee is for gay marriage?
I am not making a case here for any of these positions or for any
combination of them. I am simply asking why certain views make a match,
although there is not much that apparently connects them. Now it is
understandable that someone who opposes abortion would also reject
stem cell research—and visa versa. And admittedly someone who
is a passionate environmentalist might be more concerned about global
warning than someone who cares less about the environment. Also those
who favor government control over the economy would be more eager to
embrace the global warming cause than someone who inclines toward the
free market. What seems to show less connection, however, is why being
for or against more government action to deal with global warning would
predict whether one is for or against abortion and gay marriage. How
and why these stands are correlated is a question that needs to be
My student was correct to stress historical circumstances. Americans
are trained to connect certain beliefs, even when those beliefs are,
to all appearances, unrelated. One critical reason for this otherwise
arbitrary grouping is that our two national parties and their respective
boosters socialize Americans. And while our parties have varying degrees
of ideological content, they are also collections of interests that
pay for favors and yield votes. Being a “conservative” or
a “liberal” means that one is a Republican or a Democrat.
Being a Republican or a Democrat means working to pull as many votes
and as much money into one’s party as one can. Therefore, becoming
associated with an ideological label translates into accepting a grab
bag of positions that one’s national party is taking for whatever
reason at a particular moment.
The standard “conservative” position on health care may
soon become the Republican one — which is strengthening Medicare —
in order to enlist older Americans as Republican voters. There is no
single “conservative” stand on immigration because the
GOP is divided on this issue, partly by its indecision about which
electoral group to court right now, Hispanic or Midwestern white voters.
Since the party is currently wooing the NRA, the Right to Life, and
the Jewish vote, one also finds gun rights, verbal opposition to abortion,
and support for Israeli settlements on the West Bank all riding in
the same “conservative” car.
Meanwhile the “liberals,” read Democrats, have a reawakened
interest in nation-building, after opposing this during the Bush presidency.
They also now passionately believe that it is the president’s
duty to address the nation’s public school students, after having
gone ballistic when the last two Republican presidents uttered similar
platitudes to America’s youth. In dealing with partisan Democrats,
I also notice the tendency to interpret my concern about farm land
being turned into housing developments as support for social causes
that I do not happen to favor. Why should it be necessary to embrace
gay marriage or late-term abortion in order to vote for someone who
does not want to turn Lancaster County into strip malls and starter
homes? And why are my ‘liberal” friends unwilling to restrict
the predatory raids by trial lawyers against physicians and pharmaceutical
companies? Why in this case is there no outcry against obscene profits?
I know that in raising such questions I may be going nowhere. But
I would like to underline the fact that collections of party interests
and lobbies do not constitute a worldview. Like the Byzantine Greens
and Blues, who were amateur theologians but mostly sports fans, our “liberals” and “conservatives” view
themselves as thinkers, but in truth they are mostly partisans.
[A version of this column appeared in the Lancaster (Pennsylvania)
The Ornery Observer archives
The Ornery Observer is copyright © 2009
by by Paul Gottfried and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All
rights reserved. A version of this column appeared in the Lancaster
(Pennsylvania) Newspapers in October 2008. All rights reserved.
Paul Gottfried, Ph.D., is the Raffensperger professor of Humanities
at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.
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