Middle ground between secular opposites?


As has happened ever since Barry Goldwater’s challenge for the White House in 1964, the campaign again splits us ideologically between liberal and conservative. We recognize this happening, but we habitually get fed up to the gills as each side goes farther from center — and sanity — to attract marginals and others. Each demonizes the other to such an extent that we don’t know whom to believe. With last year’s Citizens United case, which had the Supreme Court allow unlimited funds to be used for campaigning since super PACs were seen as persons whose free speech could not be abridged by donation maximums, you’d think that all that money would at least stimulate the economy the way the bailout loans did. But each side knows that as soon as the winner is inaugurated, he moves back to the center.

What are these two camps, seemingly separated by galaxies? Oddly enough, we need both because each has assets. If one obliterated the other, the country would suffer. One serves as the corrective of the other. It is the times that determine whose assets we need more. This is what voters have to decide.

Conservatives conserve. We rely on them to defend traditional values like family and fiscal wisdom and patriotism. They dislike frivolous change. Most of all they dislike big government because it costs a lot of money. Some government programs are more popular than others, so there is redeeming social value in them, says the right. Others encourage dependence and laziness, they charge, and should be let go. Whether you think Social Security is a fit example here helps you see how far to the right you are. Oddly named libertarians are the farthest to the right since they want to be free of nearly all laws and regulations from government.

Liberals liberate. The word comes from the Latin liber, free. Two centuries ago, Ebeneezer Scrooge would have been a liberal because then it meant free from government interferences like child labor laws. Today it means free from upper class oppression of the lower because government’s job is to rescue the powerless and protect them from the oligarchy’s extortion of work for poor pay. The little person would be powerless without collective bargaining backed up by government oversight of business. Protection from the bosses is what he or she gets when paying taxes. The farthest to the left are usually called Marxists since Marx wanted to wipe out the rich to form a classless society by leveling everything, violently if necessary.

What are the dangers of excessive conservatism? Greed. Immobilism. Heartlessness. Conservatives appeal to their own hard work as the thing less fortunate people should copy if they also want to live comfortably. The Protestant work ethic has energized this largely Protestant country for centuries. One problem could be that it is more than their hard work that accounts for their success. Those born white, monied, male and American have advantages that put them ahead as of the day of their birth. Those without boots cannot pull themselves up by their bootstraps, especially if unemployed since the dominant race largely decides who works and who does not. Notice how they welcome immigrants.

What are the dangers of excessive liberalism? Entitlementitis. Loopiness. Lawlessness. Liberals often claim that somehow the right to privacy outweighs the right to live if you are one of the 50 million inconvenient American embryos who got no choice. A woman claims an inflamed sense of entitlement to do with her body and her baby’s whatever she wants.

Catholic social justice for a century and a half has called for a middle ground between these secular opposites. (Of course there is no middle ground on abortion.) It calls for protection by the government of those less advantaged, demanding things like progressive taxation: more from the wealthy and less from the poor. The presupposition is that all people are made in God’s image and therefore enjoy minimal civil rights as equal brothers and sisters in the Kingdom of God. When Pope John XXIII spelled them out in a social encyclical, outraged critics accused him of leftism and collectivism. When Pope John Paul II in a pastoral of his own found fault with both ideologies, he too encountered conservative fault-finding. But liberals seem to pay less attention to encyclicals.