Schiavo case blurs the lines

The public debate surrounding Terri Schiavo has made clear that traditional liberal and conservative ideologies often no longer provide an adequate framework for understanding contemporary public opinion. And it’s not just the Schiavo case that reminds us of the failure of modern ideologies. Voters’ opinions about such issues as stem-cell research, homosexuality, abortion and school prayer are also likely to stray from political orthodoxy.

The public debate surrounding Terri Schiavo has made clear that traditional liberal and conservative ideologies often no longer provide an adequate framework for understanding contemporary public opinion.

And it’s not just the Schiavo case that reminds us of the failure of modern ideologies. Voters’ opinions about such issues as stem-cell research, homosexuality, abortion and school prayer are also likely to stray from political orthodoxy.

The modern liberal-conservative continuum is an artifact of post-New Deal politics, a way to describe waning class struggle. In the ’70s there was an effort to graft lifestyle opinions onto traditional liberalism, but that surgery hasn’t been entirely successful.

Take African-Americans, for example: Blacks are virtually all “liberal” on the New Deal continuum, but most don’t adopt the liberal label. Because such issues as abortion and homosexuality offend many blacks, they identify themselves to pollsters as “conservative” even while voting as liberals.

Scholars have often acknowledged the shortcomings of modern ideological analysis. As early as the 1960s, the University of Michigan’s Philip Converse complained that belief systems in mass publics lack consistency and constraint.

In 1984, the Cato Institute published Beyond Liberal and Conservative. The authors, professors William Maddox and Stuart Lilie, constructed four ideologies based on voters’ opinions about government intervention in the economy and the expansion of personal freedom. Their research concluded that only 41 percent of American voters are traditional liberals and conservatives, while 44 percent could be classified as populists or libertarians. This book, which explained 1980 independent presidential candidate John Anderson’s following, would inform contemporary readers about Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) appeal.

In the 1990s, Amitai Etzioni proposed a communitarian alternative to traditional ideological categories. In Etzioni’s mind, the moralistic communitarian movement fell between what he sneeringly described as “authoritarian leadership” of a new Puritanism and “radical individualism” that fostered corporate greed and sexual promiscuity. The problem with Etzioni’s analysis is that it was more prescriptive than actually descriptive.

But Etzioni’s ideas are prescient in their focus on moral and ethical values as a key to understanding public opinion today. As I listened to talk-radio shows and read the blogs, chat-room discussions and letters to the editor, it became clear to me that ideas and opinions about Schiavo stray from traditional liberal and conservative political notions. Over and over I heard people begin their comments by saying, “I’m a liberal” or “I’m pro-choice” but then proceed to take the side of most “conservatives” and Schiavo’s parents in the legal wrangling.

The more I read and listened, I concluded that pro-Terri sentiment expressed a broad and robust Christian worldview while opponents expressed a narrow ideology without much intellectual horsepower. Mainly, opponents seemed content to say the Christians are wrong and should lose.

Years ago, Christian scholar C.S. Lewis noted this dichotomy in the 1940s. In an essay titled “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis describes conflict between advocates of natural law or universal moral codes and relativists such as Friedrich Nietzsche.

Because the relativists don’t believe in any sort of objective truth, Lewis reasoned, they foster tyranny. In his view, relativists changed the question from “Which policy is more just?” to “Which group has the most power to impose its will on society?”

The Christian worldview is a robust platform for opinion formation for former liberals and conservatives. It informs Christians about their purpose in life and responsibilities to neighbors and communities. It even suggests which policies are most just. It organizes and constrains sloppy thinking.

The shallow and tyrannical ideologies of those who argued for allowing Schiavo to die so they could win had none of that. At least I couldn’t hear it last week.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.