With the Democratic and Republican conventions behind us, it’s hard not to be cynical about our politics. One party offers a vision of an America that once was, and wants to make that great again; the other offers an idealistic vision of an America that is evolving, a work in progress. Depending on where you stand politically, the former vision seems delusional, the latter unhinged from sensible governance tools.
Both may seem like distortions of conservatism and liberalism of the past. There is even a burgeoning consensus that the political parties are over: The Republicans seem nothing more than a disciplined chorus for the adulation of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll We must do more to protect American Jews 6 in 10 say they would back someone other than Biden in 2024: Fox News poll MORE, and the Democrats have articulated no compelling vision to hold their fragile coalition of liberal activists and minorities together to create “a more perfect Union,” the words President Obama quoted from the Constitution at the Democratic convention.
Look closer, however, and you find that some old cultural values of what it means to be conservative or liberal still resonate. They may seem like the dying gasps of once-coherent ideologies, but they offer competing notions of what America has been or could be.
The Great Seal of the United States offers a way to interpret conservative and liberal values. The seal shows an unfinished pyramid topped by an omniscient eye that helps to complete it. The motto at the top of the seal, “Annuit Cœptis,” means “the one who has an eye on us” or that providence “favors our undertakings.” The words at the bottom of the seal, “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” mean “a new order for the ages.”
Conservatives recognize the biblical “Tower of Babel” story in the seal’s pyramid. In their minds, the seal’s all-seeing eye is that of God, and people in society have a place in the pyramid below — otherwise, our Republic falls apart into a chattering Babel. The only way to rise through the pyramid is through hard work and diligence. The order must not be upset; the populace must wait its turn. The right to vote is an example: first given to the propertied classes, then to the working classes, then to minorities and to women, and so on. The hierarchies might not be just, but they preserve an ideal notion of polity.
Liberals, on the other hand, start with the seal’s idea of building a new order. From the bottom layer of the pyramid, with the date “1776” in Roman numerals, to the pyramid’s unfinished top, the craft of building something magnificent under a divine eye is more important than preserving any form of human oppression, be it denying people the right to vote or to love whomever they wish. The task of a nation is to build a better future, not to glorify dark pasts.
The political divisiveness of the year 2020 makes it hard to locate any type of ideal cultural values.
The Republican version sees the national pyramid as crumbling. The answer to that conundrum? Law and order, even if it means encouraging militias to roam our streets. Never mind that versions of this law and order are undemocratic and racist — or that, in the year 2020, one must recognize the injustices of the past. The 17-year-old accused of killing two people with an assault rifle in Kenosha, Wisconsin, seems like the tragic climax of a violent conservatism run amok.
Nevertheless, at the Republican convention, speakers such as former South Carolina governor and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyBiden sparks confusion, cleanup on Russia-Ukraine remarks The 10 Republicans most likely to run for president Will — or should — Kamala Harris become the Spiro Agnew of 2022? MORE and Kentucky’s Attorney General Daniel Cameron did offer some fleeting visions of conservative cultural values that could hold the pyramid together without a repressive structure of law and order. Instead of oppression, they emphasized opportunity and hard work.
The Democratic version offers liberal values as a fight for the soul of the nation. It also overlooks the dark past of its own leaders, who now espouse the fight for this soul. Wasn’t it Vice Presidential Nominee Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTo stabilize Central America, the US must craft better incentives for trade Majority in new poll say US headed in wrong direction Biden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' MORE (D-Calif.) who chose the more conservative “law and order” path above the more liberal “the soul” as California’s attorney general? Or former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenStudent debt: It's the interest stupid US maintains pressure on Russia amid concerns of potential Ukraine invasion To stabilize Central America, the US must craft better incentives for trade MORE who, as a U.S. senator from Delaware, supported legislation that produced the kinds of segregations that conservatives supposedly value in society? To conservatives, today’s liberals are overlooking or excusing the violence of the present and the sins of the past.
With values that offer dying glimpses of their pasts and distorted truths in the present, there may be few choices from the left or the right. However, here are two other cultural values from American history that might help.
From the conservative direction, one might think of pragmatism as the value most suited for choosing between the (distorted) claims. Here one might ask: Will law and order solve the problems we have in our midst? Would sending troops to “Democratic-run cities” or building walls on our borders allow the polity to move forward? Alternatively, what would a future “more perfect union” look like? Would it mean that property rights remain safe for everyone? Or everything in our history is not vilified and people are not relentlessly named-and-shamed in public?
From the liberal direction, the most relevant historical value might be trust. In 2020, trust seems like a thing of the past — but liberals know that dissimilar people will trust and tolerate each other if they live in close proximity. For conservatives, trust most likely exists among the like-minded; they might distrust the power of interaction.
How would pragmatism and trust allow us to shift between law and order versus a fight for the soul of the nation? To be realistic, the poll numbers are not budging, and most people already have decided, arguably, with values that may have nothing to do with pragmatism or trust. Sheer hatred may make one vote against Trump, or monumental fear to vote against Biden.
For what it’s worth, the values that promise a more perfect union offer a better alternative. The idea of tireless Faustian striving seems more redemptive than resignation toward an imaginative order of the past. Further, one party is willing to fight for its own future, the other capitulates to a narcissist.
There’s always that other motto on the Great Seal of the United States: “E Pluribus Unum” — “Out of many, one.” In the year 2020, its liberal implications stand out.
J.P. Singh is professor of international commerce and policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, and the Richard von Weizsacker Fellow with the Robert Bosch Academy. He is editor of the recent collection, “Cultural Values in Political Economy” (Stanford, 2020). Follow him on Twitter at @Prof JPSingh.