What don't most conservatives realize?

"People are too complicated to have simple labels." -Phillip Pullman, His Dark Materials.


I strongly dispute any interpretation of my answer that imitates the following: "Conservatives claim that liberals live in a bubble, but conservatives are really the ones who live in a bubble."

That's crap. Simplistic, patronizing horse manure.

With that said, there's a seed of truth buried in that rich, warm dung.

Here's what I think that seed of truth is: conservatives' sources of information do not generalize well to non-conservatives.

Let me illustrate what I mean with some examples. Most American conservatives I know fall into at least one of four camps:

  • Intellectuals
  • Older folks
  • The wealthy
  • People who live more than 50 miles from an ocean
  1. The first camp, intellectuals, includes a big group of my college friends. Many of them studied philosophy; quite a few were business or finance majors. Some are relatively well off; others are not. They tend to be smart, well read, friendly and articulate.

The issue this group runs into is that most people aren't philosophers and don't enjoy debates. Whenever my friends in this group discuss politics, it's intensely ideological. Those are really fun conversations, genuinely devoid of intellectual snobbery; but I don't think my friends realize how little they resonate with most Americans.

This group applies universal principles to specific situations. In that way, it's very like many liberals I know (intellectual or otherwise). But the principles it applies are often abstruse or academic. In practical terms, it doesn't matter how good the arguments (or the data) are in XYZ if your audience hasn't read XYZ.

2. Older folks

Like the first group, this one runs the gamut in terms of wealth and life experience. In my life, many of them have military experience. It's true that a lot of them get their news from Fox, but not always. At a rough guess, I'd call this group 60+; the younger conservatives I know tend to sound very different.

This group relies heavily on personal experience to support conservative ideologies. But most people don't have the same breadth of experience as older folks, because they haven't lived as long.

I thought the issue of Benghazi was political theater and nothing more. But my dad, an Army Ranger in Vietnam, thought it was a huge deal. In his mind, Secretary Clinton was the top of the "food chain", and the death of Ambassador Stevens in Libya was her responsibility. This was clear and obvious to him.

3. The wealthy

I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this one. The wealthy people I know trend conservative and also tend to underestimate how different their lives are from the lives of most Americans.

It's not that they're necessarily strangers to poverty. Quite a few of them grew up poor, like my dad, my uncle, and many of my dad's friends. But they don't realize just how different their status quo is from the lives of most Americans, let alone the lives of most humans.

4. People who live far from the oceans

This doesn't just apply to Midwesterners or Southerners. Many of my family who live in northwest Pennsylvania consider themselves conservatives. I have conservative family in Oregon as well. The "50 miles" number I chose is somewhat arbitrary; I didn't want to say "people who live in small towns", because my small hometown in NJ is Republican but not really "conservative".

This group is a little different from the three above for one important reason: geography. By land area, most of the country does share their experiences, their music, their vocabulary, their core beliefs. My conservative cousins who grew up in Wisconsin have lots in common with my conservative cousins who grew up in Arizona. In that sense, their experience does generalize well to "most of America."

With that said, it doesn't generalize well to "most Americans." And it doesn't generalize well to most of the ~25 countries I've been to.


Most conservatives are willing to say of a particular system, "It works for me", and expect that to be sufficient justification for letting the system function. This applies well beyond traditional libertarians; it's part of broader conservative thought, which is deeply suspicious of collective action and the inefficiencies and temptations that lie therein.

This has nothing to do with selfishness. Saying: "I'd rather help my neighbor than pay the government to do it" is not a selfish proposition. But it's an orientation that's highly sensitive to personal experience - or in the case of intellectuals, sensitive to a particular philosophy.

Most conservatives don't realize the extent to which "It works for me" works really well for some issues and not for others. Some problems are truly global and require an organization on the scale of the U.S. government to intervene. National defense is a good example. So is climate change.

Here's a pretty bubble that has an image of lots of trees.


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