In tumultuous sociopolitical struggles, a frequent pattern is visible: Conservatives often fight to preserve their own wealth or privileges, but liberals battle for causes that don’t enrich or benefit themselves personally.
Famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, “The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy: that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”
Consider other obvious differences between conservatives and liberals:
First, economics: Inherited wealth is a factor in right-wing politics. While most people hope to accumulate affluence and leave it for their children, this goal is especially strong among conservatives. They lobby to eliminate the estate tax on big holdings.
Conservatives feel less empathy for left-out families, those not born into privilege, those less endowed with abilities for success. Conservatives constantly seek to pay less in taxes that fund the government safety net for unlucky folks. A frequent right-wing accusation is that progressives want to “redistribute wealth.”
Second, morality: Conservatives generally adhere to supernatural religion and its sexual taboos. They usually support censorship to ban sex from movies, television, books, magazines, and the like. Vestiges of narrow-minded colonial Puritanism linger. An Australian, whose nation originated as a penal colony, reportedly told an American: “We’re the lucky ones. We got the criminals, and you got the Puritans.”
Conservative morality includes a belief that highly religious employers should be allowed to deny birth control to their female employees — and that such corporate owners will lose their “religious freedom” if health insurance plans of their firms cover contraception. And it includes a belief that every human egg acquires a soul the moment it is fertilized, therefore it is murder to destroy a microscopic zygote. As a result, many conservatives oppose medical research that extracts stem cells from frozen fertilized eggs.
Third, militarism: Conservatives tend to be “hawks” suspicious of unfamiliar people, and quicker to use armed force to kill presumed enemies. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual doom.” Even moderate Republican President Dwight Eisenhower famously said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
Fourth, equality: Conservatives don’t seem to care if inferior status is imposed on people with darker skin or foreign accents, or on women, or on gay people, or other minorities. Right-wingers traditionally endorse hierarchies that favor privileged whites like themselves, and cast everyone else into the cellar. Racial segregation and gated sanctuaries are a manifestation of conservatism.
Fifth, justice: Conservatives usually support the death penalty and other harsh punishments. The fact that execution is inflicted chiefly on Black and poor defendants doesn’t seem to trouble them.
Sixth, pollution: Conservatives tend to ignore industrial pollution, while liberals clamor for clean-ups. This conflict is especially intense in debates over global warming, caused by carbon fumes that form a “greenhouse” layer in the sky, trapping heat on Earth’s surface. Many right-wing folks claim that the warm-up is a myth.
Seventh, guns: The right to bear arms is a crucial plank in the Republican platform. America’s horrendous gun murder rate and recurring massacres spur liberals to seek safety laws such as universal background checks for all pistol-buyers. But conservatives and the powerful gun lobby often block such precautions.
Eighth, abortion: Terminating pregnancies remains a “hot-button” issue. The 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that let American women and girls choose abortion still infuriates many “pro-life” conservatives, who consider it homicide.
Ninth, gay rights: Ostracizing gay people is a long-running conservative theme, dating back to the bible, which commands: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Gay people have been persecuted, imprisoned, even killed, for centuries because many “straights” are repulsed by them. Finally, in the 21st century, western liberals at last are securing safety and public acceptance of them.
In recent decades, various psychologists and brain researchers have analyzed innate differences between liberals and conservatives. The brain functions of the two groups have been found to vary significantly.
University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt has written a book titled The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion in which he cites research implying that progressives focus strongly on three issues: social fairness, personal liberty, and caring for the weak. Conservatives partly share those urges, he says, but they also focus on three others: sanctity, respect for authority, and loyalty — qualities that breed political and religious conformity. Haidt says conservatives react more strongly to perceived threats, and are more revolted by disgusting images. He says liberalism can be traced back to kindergarten age, when tots destined to be left-wingers display more curiosity and verbal abilities, but are less neat and obedient.
Stand-up comedian Mort Sahl once remarked: “Liberals feel unworthy of their possessions. Conservatives feel they deserve everything they’ve stolen.”
Bottom line: Conservatives want to make life better for themselves and their children. Liberals, of course, want the same, but they also strive to improve life for everyone.
This column is adapted from a piece that originally appeared on Aug. 9, 2021, at Daylight Atheism.