On the Cultural Left & Economic Right


On our sister publication under The American Moderate family, a piece was issued which argued it is impossible to be simultaneously socially liberal and fiscally conservative. A chart was recently released by the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group which appears to lend some credibility to the claim. The long arc of voters is concentrated into quadrants ranging from culturally progressive and economically progressive, to culturally conservative and economically progressive, and to culturally conservative and economically conservative.


Few voters are located within the quadrant which includes people who are both culturally progressive and economically conservative. Even so, Rokowski is not wrong only if one is to accept she spoke in hyperbole. The fact remains it is eminently possible for people to register as being within that category should they be questioned regarding their beliefs. It is certainly true misguided college students without coherent ideologies or an understanding of the spectrum of political thought may be susceptible to the fashionable label of “socially-liberal-fiscally-conservative,” but to say to hold such positions is an impossibility is patently incorrect.

Innate inclinations which inform organizing principles and undergird the basis of individuals’ political thought are grounded in moral psychology. Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind provides a good explanation of where moral foundations come from and how they shape the psychology of politics. In sum there are five major moral foundations: harm reduction, fairness (as equal outcomes or equal opportunity), loyalty, authority, and purity. People who register highly on harm reduction and fairness but lower on other measures are more likely to be progressive. Those who measure roughly even on all five have a conservative predisposition.

There is another sixth very important foundation: liberty. Haidt argues people who have a disproportionately high regard for liberty are likely to identify as libertarians; people who are innately predisposed to rejecting authority and coercion more than most. Such people will therefore find tradition and social expectations to be stifling and thus have a progressive orientation on culture. Libertarians are also less likely to be disgusted by differences or behaviors in which there is no direct harm, which predisposes them to have progressive attitudes on social issues. They will also find centralized authority and coercion by government to be distasteful and find themselves conservative in the economic sphere.

A fundamentally important point regarding the conservative mindset the author misunderstands is to assume conservative insistence on reductions in welfare spending is necessarily malevolent. Economically conservative reasons for opposing a large welfare state are twofold. First, on the fairness moral foundation conservatives emphasize the importance of equal opportunities over equal outcomes. Conservatives believe fruits are earned, not given. They believe there is a dignity to hard work. Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute – in a fashion reflective of conservatives’ attitudes on morality –  spends an inordinate amount of time extolling hard work throughout The Conservative Heart.  Conservatives are inclined to genuinely believe free markets are the path out of poverty and welfare payments diminish the dignity of the common person. They also believe anti-poverty programs have a poor record and have possibly made problems worse.

The second reason is identical to the reason progressives, correctly, fear climate disruption: sustainability. Conservatives believe high spending is unsustainable and a large debt-to-GDP ratio is dangerous. There is merit to this argument as increasing debt will mean an ever larger segment of the federal budget will need to be devoted to interest payment at the expense of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and defense. Conservatives genuinely believe confiscatory taxation levels are immoral. If this is the case, why support policies which deny the dignity of the common American, make necessary assistance programs unaffordable in the long run, finance expensive programs which are ineffectual and potentially harmful, and lead to increasing taxation which will destroy American prosperity? Such is the conservative mindset.

Indeed, conservatives genuinely believe everyone will be worse off under fiscally progressive policies, which includes minority groups of various stripes. Given this worldview the most merciful, prudent, and responsible course of action is to embrace economic conservatism.

The author of this piece has several disagreements with the mainline conservative worldview and has written scathingly about free market fundamentalism that is characteristic in movement conservatism. It is nevertheless the responsibility of a centrist capable of understanding both the progressive and conservative conceptions of what is moral, what is good, and what is necessary for the creation of a sustainably prosperous nation to dispel myths the demonize our fellow countrymen and women of well-intentioned but differing, and innate, political persuasions. Rokowski means well, but her piece is reductive and suffers from cable news punditry’s tendency for demonization and oversimplifying through distortion of the opposition; a measured analysis with an honest attempt to understand the other will arrive closer to the truth.

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