My Q & A with Ottawa’s Hill Times newspaper

Published: Monday, 04/27/2015 12:00 am EDT
Last Updated: Monday, 04/27/2015 12:18 pm EDT
Populations in the democratic world are becoming “increasingly divided” and there’s a growing ideological incompatibility between modern liberalism and conservatism, argues author William Gairdner in his book, The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree. And if the civil conversation is failing, democracy is also failing.

What is the great divide and why will liberals and conservatives never, ever agree?

“The Great Divide is not about party politics. It’s about a range of fundamental philosophical and moral misunderstandings and disagreements that have divided liberal and conservative-minded people for a very long time. Over the ages, political parties with these labels (or with other labels such as Republican and Democrat) have handled these underlying divisions through policy and legislative compromises, and such, but hardly ever by direct confrontation with them as deeply incompatible ideological positions.”

Why have the populations of the democratic world become so “irreconcilably divided,” as you put it?

“Canadians and Americans came to North America as Christian settlers who spoke a common moral language and therefore a shared conception of the common good. But over time, the spread of materialism and secularism has eroded our common ground. We have been depleting the moral surplus of that age, so to speak, so our last resort is ideological difference.”

Can you elaborate more on why this ideological divide between modern liberalism and conservatism is happening and where it’s happening?

“In the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama wrote a book claiming that liberal democracy was ‘the end of history.’ It was a catchy title. But, of course, history cannot end as long as humans exist. I make a somewhat different case. Namely, that all the so-called liberal democracies of the West have abandoned true liberalism by slowly shifted from their original foundation in liberty for all, to the present foundation of legislated equality for all (which I distinguish clearly from the concept of equity). Because of this shift, all the democracies have found themselves stuck with a fundamental moral and political contradiction: How can a sincere polity be rooted in liberty and forced equality at the same time, when true liberty encourages natural differences, but true equality (as sameness) demands the widespread regulatory force of government? How could a democracy be more or less libertarian, and more or less statist, or socialist-like, at the same time?”

Can you give examples of what you’re talking about?

“I argue that this contradiction has been resolved in all the Western democracies by splitting the body politic in two. Everywhere, we see a highly-regulated, highly-taxed egalitarian public body politic for which countless of our traditional political, economic, and legal liberties have been vastly diminished and brought under regulation.

“But this co-exists with a libertarian private body politic that enjoys more sexual and corporeal freedom than at any previous time in recorded history. We have almost complete freedom of access to abortion on demand (tax-funded in Canada), homosexual and gay marriage rights, trans-gendering, pervasive pornography streamed at will into every computer and cell-phone in the land, and many other such once-forbidden freedoms.

“That is why I say we are all ‘libertarian-socialists’ now. It looks very much like a Faustian deal: sex (and other bodily rights) rather than religion, is the new opiate of the people. This new reality may not be the end of history, but it is not going to change anytime soon.

“The big picture is that all Western democracies have already, or will soon become ‘Tripartite States’—polities in which one-third of working-age people are creating the jobs and wealth; another one-third work for government at some level (municipal, provincial, or federal—or have full-time government contracts, which is the same thing); and another one-third are receiving significant government benefits in cash or kind. Anyone can see that in the voting booth the last two segments will eventually gang up on the first, like two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”

And how is this divide affecting discussions on democracy, reason, abortion, human nature, homosexuality and gay marriage, freedom, and the role of courts?

“As mentioned, we used to share a common world-view and a moral language that has been eroded. This is exposing us as solitary individuals to the rawness of underlying and opposing ideological forces in every issue examined in The Great Divide. For example, the typical liberal understanding of democracy is that it is intended to express the present will of the people.

“But the conservative says, hold on, democracy, as Burke put it, is about the will and wisdom of those dead (many of whom died to give us what we have), and of course our duties to each other (those living), but also about those yet to be born. The liberal emphasis is on present will, the conservative emphasis is on felt duties and obligations, past, present, and future.

“There is another divide over the meaning of reason. The liberal says all policy must meet the test of reason, without necessarily respecting religion, custom, tradition, or past experience. The conservative says—be careful! Whatever reason can create, reason can destroy. All the totalitarian systems of history have been justified by reason.

“This links to the topic of human nature. The typical liberal says human nature is malleable, and so can be changed by policy and law, and, therefore, is perfectible (by a perfected government).

“The conservative will argue that human nature is not very malleable at all, in fact is rather fixed and universal in its main features, and is more fallible than perfectible. Therefore, the conservative warns, there can be no such thing as a perfect society or government. So beware slippery politicians telling you otherwise (with their hands deep in your pockets).

“The Great Divide really heats up at the end, with the three key social and moral ‘issues’—abortion, gay marriage, and euthanasia. I cannot discuss them all here, but basically what we see in all three is a clash between the liberal insistence on compliance with the will of individuals (expressed as ‘choice’) ranked as the most important good, and the conservative insistence on compliance with what is biologically natural, and what naturally conduces to the common good of all ranked as the highest good. It’s the irruption, in new verbal garb, of the moral conflicts argued so passionately between such as Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke.

“On homosexuality and gay marriage, the liberal and the conservative both tend to use rely on a nature argument. The liberal will say homosexuality is natural, and therefore a right; the conservative that it is against nature, and so for the good of all ought to be resisted. On the abortion issue, the liberal will again assert free choice as a right. The conservative will argue that freedom of choice is not necessarily connected to the common good, which is a higher objective than the individual good.”

How is this divide affecting Canadian federal politics?

“The civil conversation is increasingly shallow and vitriolic, such that the deepest ideological divides are simply not discussed at all. Both sides seem ill-equipped intellectually and morally to deal with these matters. My hope for The Great Divide is that it will help to elevate the national conversation on many fronts. In this sense, the book is about self-discovery.”

You say civil conversation at the surface is failing and that could mean democracy is failing. Why?

“Not only is the conversation failing, but, at the most deepest level, there is no conversation at all. I argue that, morally speaking, we have returned to our prior colonial status. When we were a colony, all the key moral decisions essential for Canada were made by judges in England. Eventually, we got responsible government and began discussing and legislating such matters for ourselves. But ever since the onset of the Charter era in 1982 there has been an increased reluctance on the part of legislatures to address divisive moral issues. These, they leave increasingly to judges to debate and decide. That was precisely the case in colonial times, except now the judges are seated here, instead of in England. This reality has infantilized us as a people.”

What is a modern liberal?

“A classical liberal society was rooted in what David Hume called ‘liberty under law.’ In the first part of The Great Divide, I describe the four-stage process whereby in America and Canada, the original ‘virtue liberalism’ slowly mutated into ‘classical liberalism,’ then into ‘equality liberalism,’ and finally (in an unexpectedly successful attempt to resolve the contradiction described above) into our present ‘libertarian-socialism.’ There may be no further stages. We are stuck here, because we seem to like it.”

You’ve added tables in your book so readers can find out if they’re a modern liberal or a conservative. You say a number of people find out that they think one way and live another. Why is this important to know?

“Widespread and deplorable public ignorance is probably the one reality on which all political scientists, of whatever stripe, happen to agree. It was made strikingly evident by the American political scientist Philip Converse in a now-iconic 1964 article entitled ‘The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.’

“The purpose of including the 14 Tables in The Great Divide is to help people see, understand, and articulate their own belief system, and so to rise above public ignorance.”

Why is this book important and who should read it?

“Everyone should read it. It is a call to readers take up intellectual and moral arms in defence of their well-considered ideas and ideals (once they discover what those are with the help of this book), thus to elevate and participate in the civil conversation, unafraid.”

The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree, by William Gairdner, Encounter Books, 264 pp., $32.50.

The Hill Times

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