- To try to better understand why people identify themselves as "socially liberal but fiscally conservative," and
- To clear up a partially valid but embarrassingly delivered point I made in the context of a mortgage-crisis discussion I was having at a bar the other night with two (possibly three, my recollection is regrettably imperfect) new friends that I consider both highly intelligent and deserving of an explanation.
I am 27 years old and have, at this point, met a fair amount of people in my life. It is my contention that the vast majority of them (something like 75%), when asked a very general question about their political leanings, respond with the phrase, "I am socially liberal, but fiscally conservative." Now, this is not to say that I arrive at this conclusion about their views through a political discussion with them or that they communicate this fact about themselves without explicitly saying it. What I am saying is that, when asked where they stand on the political spectrum, they respond with this exact phrase.
There's been plenty written on the Internet for and against this phrase. The basic argument against it is that one cannot simultaneously support government social programs while railing against the taxes used to pay for them. This argument is
- logically seductive
- basically true, and
- functionally irrelevant.
To wit, I have met people who have claimed to be "socially liberal and fiscally conservative" who are vehemently against welfare. I have met people who use the phrase but are in favor of increased government spending on education, defense, healthcare, student loans, funding for the arts, or any number of other things our government might spend taxpayers' money on. I have met people who use the phrase and are for the legalization of marijuana, abortions, or neither marijuana nor abortions. I have met people who use the phrase who think that Everybody Loves Raymond was a funny television show, but are otherwise completely rational people. I have met people who use the phrase but then go on to say that what they meant by the phrase is that they are "libertarian" which is itself an almost completely meaningless signifier, at least absent of further elaboration. And so on, and so on.
I will say that almost everyone I have met who uses the phrase seems to be in favor of gay people's right to get married, so it at least has that going for it.
But outside of that, it is completely impossible to predict the person in question's views on an issue-by-issue basis. In other words, if someone says to me, "I am socially liberal, but fiscally conservative," then I have learned almost nothing about this person or his viewpoints. That's why I earlier stated that the logical argument against this phrase is functionally irrelevant, because it presumes that when somebody utters this phrase, they intend for that phrase to carry information about their political views. I am now of the opinion that this simply isn't the case.
So if people do not intend for this phrase to carry any significant meaning about their political views, then what do they intend for it to mean? Communication, by definition, carries meaning. It may not be the explicit meaning of the words spoken, but for this phrase to qualify as communication (and I think it does), it must convey something about the speaker. Obviously, the only person who knows that meaning for sure is the speaker himself (and even he may be an unreliable source), but I am certainly willing to speculate on the general meaning of this phrase as it is currently used in this country.
It is my contention that "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" has evolved into a cultural shorthand for
- I am a reasonable person,
- I hold political views, and
- I am not interested in discussing those views with you.
I think most people will agree with meanings 1 and 2. The first meaning seems likely, especially in a post-Fox News / post-MSNBC / post-Rally to Restore Sanity World in which the majority of people seem to want to be perceived as reasonable. By claiming that you have views on either side of the political spectrum, you want me to infer that you are reasonable. Fair enough. The second meaning is plainly self-evident. If you state that you are socially liberal and politically conservative then you are obviously claiming to have some sort of political views.
The third meaning may provoke some disagreement. I can only say that in my experience, the socially liberal / fiscally conservative meme has generally been a political conversation ender rather than an entree into further political discourse. Additionally, the statement simply does not seem to be designed to hold up to additional, issue-by-issue scrutiny. It is clearly vague (!) and clearly an attempt to summarize an un-summarizable jumble of thoughts and opinions. Neither seems to be an invitation to the further clarification that would inevitably arise from an in-depth political discourse.
So, what conclusions can we draw? If someone gives you the socially liberal / fiscally conservative code, then I would recommend, based on my reading of that code, two responses:
- Do not make any assumptions about this person or his views at all, except that he is most likely in favor of gay marriage, which is an assumption you will make at your own peril.
- Shift the conversation away from politics and into something that we can all agree on. YouTube videos featuring cats, for example.
As I said before, the second purpose of this post was to clear up an (I hope) uncharacteristically ridiculous statement I made in a bar two Fridays ago. The reader may be amused to know that, of the five people I was with that night, only one of them is (as of this writing) aware of the existence of this blog. Further, that particular person (the one aware of this blog) was so focused on one of the female members of the group that night, that he was completely unaware that a political conversation between the other four members was even taking place at all, so part two of this post is functionally irrelevant (note: stop saying "functionally irrelevant").
Without further dithering, I would like to say to the two people I disagreed with that
- I do not actually consider you guys to be racist in any way, and
- I more or less stand by everything else I said.
That's it. If you would like to hear my views on the mortgage crisis and potentially hear me accuse you or someone you know of racism (as is I am wont to do), then we will have to discuss that elsewhere. YYII is either above or below that sort of thing, depending on your viewpoint. Thank you for reading.