The headline, “The yin and yang of American politics,” is taken from classical Oriental philosophy that describes how opposite and seemingly contrary forces actually are interconnected and interdependent, giving life and substance to each other.
This, I believe, is as true in politics as in nature itself. It is my strongly held belief that American politics need both a viable conservative party and a viable liberal party. However, in this era of extreme partisanship, this may be wishful thinking and, perhaps, a lonely premise on which to build one’s political ideas.
While politics is not really a game, a sports analogy may be useful in explaining this premise: In most sports, an opponent (never an enemy) is essential to the game itself. And the stronger and more competitive that opponent is, the better the quality of the game itself. One’s skills, whether athletic or intellectual, are not advanced by inferior players.
Strong competition brings out the best in combatants. A vigorous opposition often illuminates errors and weaknesses in one’s “game” and can challenge one to greater clarity and effectiveness.
The unstated and often unacknowledged reality is that liberals and conservatives need each other. By its very name, conservatism wants to conserve and preserve what is the best. Of course, even conservatives will offer modifications in the prevailing system to satisfy new conditions, so that stagnation is not the necessary or accepted result. But it can safely be said that drastic innovation and new approaches to new situations are not the hallmark of conservative rhetoric or practice. Smaller government, lower taxes, a strong military and fiscal integrity have been the conservative solution to almost every problem. Reliance on the “magic hand” of the free market, and its concomitant relaxation of government regulation, would thus release human energy and resources to combat economic imbalances.
Even from this liberal’s perspective, such conservative solutions might work if given public support and patience. In pre-Great Depression eras, severe business downturns came and went without much assistance from government.
But such support and patience are likely not to be too evident in the face of a modern economic catastrophe. People no longer live on farms or can rely on families for extended help. Jobs are needed and rather quickly. So for a society clamoring for more immediate actions and more political involvement, a period of liberal ascendancy may be required to introduce new ideas and new programs to meet the new reality.
The liberal, intensified government involvement will undoubtedly usher in a wave of innovation. Indeed, traditional solutions to problems may give way to untried but promising programs. The free market, while still fully functioning, would be restrained by greater government regulations.
And, while liberals are not dedicated to spending taxpayers money — after all, they are taxpayers, too — they favorably weigh the cost in terms of the social benefits expected.
Such liberal programs will involve new agencies (“bureaucracies” to opponents), more regulation and some curtailment of traditional personal freedoms. This is where conservative inputs may be essential: to rein in the excesses of the liberal agenda and to make those innovations that are adopted more efficient and accountable.
The framers of the Constitution purposely crafted a system of interlocking and separate powers, making accommodation and compromise essential. They were hoping to establish “a more perfect union,” not perfection itself. One that would both empower and limit government.
It should, perhaps, be remembered that conservatives and liberals were never as pure as their ideologies. Thus, conservatives never envisioned a society without considerable government involvement (such as highways or courts to enforce contracts and property rights) and liberals, when in power, never really denied the function of the largely free market in the allocation of resources.
So, in sum, it may be a political truism that liberals and conservatives act as counterweights to each other, and as alternates when one side or the other is in power too long or neglects the continued purpose of government: to serve the public and to govern at the pleasure of that public.