Bruce Flemming is Professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. While calling himself a liberal he teaches becoming marines who are often representing strictly conservative views. In his view both ideologies, liberalism and conservativism are dominating current American landscape but due to an ongoing polarisation are unable to find common compromises. In this book he tries to identify both self-sufficient worldviews, describe examples why and how they clash in ongoing debates and tries to give a solution to end this in his view useless confrontation and how both sides are able to approach one another.
The author argues that it is not possible to give a satisfying definition of one ideology without mentioning the other. They are two sides of the same medal or Yin and Yang, complementary but opposing viewpoints. While he doesn’t deny the existence of moderate views, they are in a minority position and extremist positions dominate the debate in current America. So to understand the observed clash Fleming argues that it is first important to understand the deep structure of both worldviews without judging them.
Devotees of Conservativism see the world in manners of black and white. Either you are part of the group and loyal or you’re outside the group and seen as an enemy. There is the existence of an absolute entity which guides your actions and tells you what is right and what is wrong. An example would be god (or his will manifested in the bible) for religious people. Another crucial point is action. Because you know what is right and what is wrong you just do what you see as right. For liberals it looks like the consequence of it would be that everyone is doing the same. But for conservatives the individual plays an important role and it just happens to be that everyone is doing the same (and it is not wrong, because they are doing the right thing).
Supporters of Liberalism deflect from this in their views authoritarian view. The questioning of existing structures and established authorities which leads to the contest of the status quo is important. You need to be critical and you need to be thinking before you are acting. Conservatives often criticise this as falling into lethargy and doing no actions at all but liberals disagree that they aren’t able to act it just happens after a reasonable reflection. Liberals view everyone as inside their group and everyone as good, until proven otherwise. It is important for them to give everyone the opportunity to participate even if they don’t live the same lifestyle than yourself.
Both different and self-sufficient worldviews will inevitable lead to a clash. This can be seen for example in the debate over abortion. For conservatives the purpose of an intercourse is procreation. An abortion, which prevents this purpose is seen as against nature. Because conservatives think in absolute terms and a universal rule is that you shall not kill means that an abortion is breaking this important rule. Therefore, they weigh the rights of the unborn child higher than the mother ones. Liberals see the intercourse as a way of self-realization without necessary ending in procreation. They argue that one might look at the individual situation of a mother to decide, if abortion is legit. Because they see the unborn child not as complete human being with all important functions, they value the rights of the mother higher than the unborn ones.
This example describes not only why both worldviews clash but also why there won’t be any change in the current situation. The author argues that instead of accepting the structural differences the arguments are based on what follows from these divergent structures. Because of this situation it is impossible that both views approach one another. To guarantee a peaceful coexistence, Fleming suggests each side to immediately withdraw from useless debates and start acknowledging the strengths and weakness of both (also their own) sides. Liberals are better at some things while Conservatives are better at others. Accepting this and trying to work on compromises is the backbone of a democracy and of peaceful coexistence.
Bruce Fleming delivers a good contribution to the current debate. Especially during election seasons the clash between both worldviews is visible. Observers might agree, that this clash has intensified over the past years. To overcome this for both sides destructive situation Fleming rightly suggest to take a step back and don’t engage in useless debates. Still in my point of view the book lacks to describe how both sides should approach one another. Maybe some examples under the discussed topics (like for example in the case of abortion) are necessary. Also one might argue against Fleming’s view that people on the extremist spectrum of politics are the majority. Taking Anthony Downs media voter theorem into account, the most voters consider themselves in the middle of the political spectrum while on the extremist positions there are only a few people left. People expressing extremist positions might be the most vocal ones in a debate but they are oftentimes not in the majority.
Fleming, Bruce (2006): Why liberals and conservatives clash, Routledge, New York.