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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: October 28, 1998
Latest update: January 18, 2002
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The Conservative, Liberal, Radical Dilemma

Journal entry by jeanne

Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individaul Authors, January 2002.
"Fair use" encouraged.

The reading for this exercise is Cornel West's Chapter 32, on "The Role of Law in Progressive Politics, pp. 708-717.

  1. Why does the issue of political attitudes even come up? Isn't there a neutral, objective view that we should be studying? Consider each of the following answers. Do you agree or disagree, and what facts would you consider in deciding?

    1. There is an objective view, but if we merely focus on that view, there is no forum in which to discuss the liberal and radical views.

      Facts : There is a wicked little unstated assumption that the conservative view is the objective one, since the answer goes on to juxtapose liberal and radical views. Problem with objectivity is that each of these views has unstated assumptions and perspectives, so objectivity depends on who has the power to decide. On p. 709 Cornel West reminds us that we are "a profoundly conservative culture." Since the culture will have accepted many wicked little unstated assumptions as a simple matter of acculturation, the conservative appears to be objective because if fits with the situation we are in.

    2. The issue of range of the political spectrum comes up because we all do have political positions. Sometimes they are obscured by codes of silence or by the lack of empowerment, but they are there. Cornel West deplores the wicked little unstated assumptions that radicals make about liberal civil rights actions. Why? Because if we state all the arguments: conservative, liberal, radical, with their supporting facts then we can discover that at different points in time and in different space we may have to move slightly on the spectrum to accomplish our goals. Unless we consider the underlying arguments we can be dangerous to one another. (At p. 711 - End of next to last paragraph.)

      Facts : As Hirschman, in Rhetoric of Reaction, reminds us, rhetorical formulae exist and are resorted to by the whole political spectrum. When Hirschman studied how to most effectively communicate with conservatives, he discovered that the liberals were using the same patterns of rhetoric and, thus, shouting rather than arguing towards effective public discourse. Again, it is at this shouting stage, which tends to incorporate so many wicked little unstated assumptions, and which fails to take situatedness into account, that we become dangerous.

    3. Standpoint theories have led us to assume that each different group, including conservative, liberal, radical, has a specific set of identifying characteristics and values. Problem with that is that it assumes that identity is static. Assumes also that values are fundamental and unchanging. Fact is it's sometimes hard to tell a liberal from a conservative these days. A Conservative Republican based her position on voting conservative in a TV ad the other night on wanting children to have good schools, with no violence, and an emphasis on learning, and to have teachers retested periodically to assure, I guess, that they hadn't been "dumbed down" by our schools. Think we could get lawyers and legislators retested periodically for the "dumbing down" effect? Now what radical or liberal wouldn't want good schools with protection for our students and the removal of incompetent teachers? So unless the ad says Republican or Democrat, how can you tell which side you're talking to? Identities and values in postmodern complexity aren't so obvious, and they're often overlapping. We often agree on wanting the same thing, but aren't agreed on the ways to get there. For all these reasons, we need to clearly state the argument, not just pick a label for our political preference.

      Facts : Recognizes the complex nature of identity and value issues. Recognizes that a person's commitment on a given issue may not reflect her commitment on other issues.

    4. Political party affiliation is generally pretty much indicative of position on major issues.

      Facts : The complexity of today's communities means that political party affiliation is no longer such a good predictor of position on major issues. That old assumption fails to take into account the many conflicts that arise from intersectionality. We are not a homogeneous group; few groups really are. By recognizing complexity, we can achieve better public discourse, and to that end it helps to identify the various arguments on the political spectrum. Sometimes such identification makes clear for the first time why someone supports a position that seems inconsistent with their values or identity. Sometimes the support is for the larger underlying issues, even though the person dislikes the present outcome of the position.

      Example: Jeanne does not like using grades as a motivator. But Jeanne is a teacher and does believe that students should take learning seriously. Non-punitive use of grades can accomplish some gate-keeping - like weeding out students who are simply not at this time willing to undergo the discipline of learning. So Jeanne supports some technological practices that guarantee us that the work turned in has been done by the student in whose name it was turned in. That means that to tell whether Jeanne supports grades in a given case, you'll have to link the case to more complex underlying identities and values.

  2. What are the informal definitions jeanne gave to conservative, liberal, and radical in recent classes?

    • Conservative. Things aren't perfect, but it's good, and the best we can do.

      The conservative viewpoint is often referred to as "apologetic." Its purpose is to justify ethically and morally and practically the social system as it exists, and to protect that system from change that could destroy its equilibrium. Conservative arguments usually acknowledge that the system does not work perfectly, but take the position that it is functioning better than most such systems, has a long history of functioning better than most, and that this is the best that we can do. It also takes the position that society punishes real perpetrators of injustice so that the minor injustices which do occur are simply random and unavoidable results, with no perpetrators. The conservative position also weighs the cost of preventing what it considers minor injustice by altering the infrastructure too radically and quickly, against the fear that the system could not withstand such radical change..

    • Liberal. There is injustice still. But look at how much we've accomplished in the last 50 years. We just have to keep working at it.

      Both the liberal and the radical positions seek to make the infrastructure more effective in the equality of access to resources and rights. For jeanne, the liberal sees many of the problems with the system and the injustice it produces. She wants to change the system to make it more just, more equal. She does not want to examine deeply those aspects of our culture that have not changed: such as "economic growth achieved by corporate politics." But she also fears that radical change brings chaos, and has a vested interest in the system that exists. Thus, she is less critical than a revolutionary, and more pleased with results that make the system just a little better.

      The liberal is more likely to see improvements in race, class, and gender issues, while still recognizing that much more needs to be done.

    • The radical. The system is not OK. It hurts people. The progress we have made is good, but that does not change that racism, classism, and sexism, and all other -isms, are not acceptable and remain unabated. The infrastructure must change.

      The radical position, as jeanne described it, assumes the full critical theory stance. It says: This society is racist, classist, and sexist. That is not acceptable. Yes, there are some improvements. But there are still far too many people without power, without control of their own existences, and the basic inequities in social acceptance and distribution of wealth have hardly been touched.

  3. What does Cornel West see as the role of one who sees and hears the validity claims of the real injustices that still exist?

    Cornel West says that such "progressives" must link their work to social movements, for the law as a system is not able to take on such inequity without the kind of support that social movements supply in less conservative times.

  4. Cornel West that says that the myopia that leads to radicals trashing liberals for not doing enough becomes "downright dangerous and irresponsible when aimed at civil rights lawyers for whom the very effort to extend American liberalism may lead to injury or death in conservative America." Explain.

    Revolutions most often substitute new oppressors in place of the old. The problems of equal access and fair distribution of wealth are complex problems that will not be solved by the simple means of replacing a few central leaders. They are problems for all of us to solve, at every level of every society. How we go about doing that must be both personal and community-affiliated. Since both personal identity and group identity are ever changing, so also will the paths we take towards working on these issues be ever changing.

    Within a conservative situatedness, liberals who push forward the frontiers of justice are changing the situatedness in which someday their radical counterparts may find the foothold to begin the changes that can really alter the infrastructure. Cornel West is concerned that we must recognize the need to forgive ourselves and each other for not being able to impose a sudden and perfect world. To whatever extent we each do what we can not to oppress others, to stand against that oppression when we see it, these are positive movements. To trash each other removes us from the scene of real work, consumes energies needed for the real work, and takes away the only kind of support that many of us are going to know.

    Critical theory has taught us to look deeply at the structure and not be afraid to change what isn't working. It should also have taught us to look at the cost of the changes we seek and know that when others are frightened of them, rhetoric won't remove that fear. We need public discourse, trust, faith in one another. This is one of the main reasons I caution you to be alert when an effective academic resource trashes its opponents. Like Cornell West, I find that counterproductive. I agree with Susan Faludi, but I dislike it when she trashes people who do not agree. I hate it when Dinesh d'Souza trashes women's studies teachers. Both sides do it. Remember Hirschman.