A Serious Question

One of the newest conservative talking points I've heard from various right-wing pundits is that, despite their landslide electoral losses, this is still a "center-right country". At the same time, a fellow named Wakefield Tolbert has been carrying on something of an argument with @bdul muHib on the comments section of the post about homeschooling. I say "something of an argument" because it's very difficult to track what exactly Wakefield is talking about. I challenge someone to summarize his arguments for him into some concise, coherent form. Anyway, when challenged about the impenetrability of his writing he dismissed @bdul and myself by associating us with the "liberal chimpanzees" over at Slate.com. I will freely admit to being a liberal, and this isn't the first time my opinions have been wholly discounted for it, but in the context of this new talking point about this being a center-right country, I want to know what "liberal" means to conservatives, what conservatism means in the wake of the Bush presidency, and where this notion of center-right comes from.

This is a genuine question. Bill Bishop, in his excellent blog during the election titled "The Big Sort", explained very convincingly that we choose our politics as a consequence of our lifestyles, and, more and more, we are moving to live near people like us; hence the political and geographical polarization in our country. Bishop referenced some study that showed that conservatives are better at understanding where liberals are coming from than vice-versa. At first I frowned at that. We're liberals. We're touchy-feely. We like to understand other points of view. So how is it we can't understand our conservative neighbors as well as they understand us? But the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that it's true, at least in my case. I just can't wrap my mind around the apparent contradictions I see coming from the conservative side, and I fail to see those same contradictions on my own side of the fence. So I'm asking for help.

To keep things relatively simple, let's see if we can even agree on definitions. Conservatives, going back to Buckley, figured out that they needed to distill their vision down to ten words. Those were:

Strong Defense
Free Markets
Lower Taxes
Smaller Government
Family Values

George Lakoff proposed these ten words as the progressive values:

Stronger America
Broad Prosperity
Better Future
Effective Government
Mutual Responsibility

I think those are both pretty decent summaries of the values upon which conservatives and liberals base their policy proposals, but I'm sure we could quibble about the wording, and I'd have no problem with that, because these small, nuance difference have huge consequences. Think this is just semantics? Think about the difference in opinion when you ask people what they think about estate taxes on the wealthy vs. death taxes on business owners. Or torture vs. enhanced interrogation techniques.

When I look at the list of values, I can see why liberals like me are so pissed off at Bush. He has not made America stronger in the world by any measure. Prosperity has grown only among the tiniest sliver at the top. Our future looks much bleaker than it did eight years ago. Our government has proven itself to be woefully incompetent on a number of fronts. And some Americans are paying very heavy tolls for all Bush's mistakes (too many have paid the ultimate price) while others have only been asked to do a bit more shopping. For a liberal, his record is dismal.

But how do conservatives see it? Bush, according to every military expert I've read, has stretched our military to the breaking point, all the while ratcheting up our need for military strength in the world, making us that much more vulnerable. His emphasis on free markets not only showed the dangers of deregulation, but then he abandoned those principles to bail out the banking industry. He lowered taxes on the wealthy, but did so while growing the federal deficit to such a degree that it's not really a tax cut but a differed tax increase on the next generation that will put every tax increase ever proposed by any other president to shame by comparison. He created the single largest bureaucracy in the history of the federal government in the form of Homeland Security, and oversaw that greatest expansion in the size of the federal government of any president. He appears to have stuck to his guns on issues of family values, but this has shown in stark relief that these family values are focused almost exclusively on limiting gay rights and protecting the unborn: Even Bush's greatest accomplishment in office, his increase in aid to Africa, is mitigated by the fact that he stipulated that none of the money could go to clinics which provided abortion or even contraception. For those of us who think decisions like these are best made between a woman, her doctor, and her God, Bush's insertion of his own agenda into women's health decisions in the third world means his definition of family values is very... focused. Add to this an elective war where as many as a million Americans and Iraqis have died, a million members of families lost in a war that didn't need to happen, and this definition of family values strikes us liberals as completely vacuous. But what do conservatives think?

And here's the thing; while the conservative talking heads keep saying this is a center-right country, on almost every issue I can think of, the polling data doesn't back them up. Most Americans believe a woman should have a right to make her own reproductive health choices. Most Americans think this war was wrong. Most Americans think the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina showed them to be inept. Most Americans think that the government should be doing more to help people suffering during this economic downturn (pro-Broad Prosperity) but are infuriated by the way it bailed out Wall Street (showing they're also pro-Free Markets, with limits). Most Americans want their government to provide more oversight of the financial sector.

Jon Stewart challenged a conservative guest on just this point (I think it was Mike Huckabee), arguing that the history of the United States has been one of slow but inexorable progress away from bigotry and aristocracy toward pluralism and inclusiveness. When conservatives say this is still a center-right country, are they just referencing our tendency to move toward social progress at a very slow pace? If so, then isn't conservatism just associating itself with every kind of prejudice and backward attitude we've had to struggle so hard to put behind us? What am I not seeing which will help me understand conservatism?

And what is it I don't see about liberalism which dictates that a conservative can apply that label to me and dismiss everything I have to say? What can a conservative see, that I can't, which would explain such antipathy toward liberalism?