Form vs. Content In Political Thinking: One Reason Why So Many Of Us Can't Find A Home In Conservatism Or Liberalism
I have a friend who works with an organization that hosts conversations between conservatives and liberals. When he checks people into the meetings, he asks them to identify as a member of one group or the other, a “red” or a “blue.” He says a lot of folks will object to the binary choice and launch into a description of their special, unicorn-made-from-snowflakes political beliefs. When they do, he politely informs them that this is what everyone says and asks them to pick a team.
When he told me about this, I found myself wondering how I would answer the question. I’m definitely one of those people who have never felt particularly at home as “red” or a “blue,” but I know I’m not some special, outlying freethinker. I think my path to an answer can help illustrate a common feature of political disagreements, one which I hope people find helpful. In particular, I think it shows how “liberalism” and “conservatism” can refer both to forms of political reasoning and to the content of the convictions that result (among other things). That is, “conservative” and “liberal” can refer to modes of thinking, attitudes, and assumptions, on the one hand (the “form”), and to specific positions on different issues (the “content”). Seeing the difference between the two helped me understand why I find myself disagreeing so often with both the right and the left, but not really feeling like I’m in the middle, either. I think it also might shed light on why so many of us don’t find a neat fit with liberalism, conservatism, or centrism.
My conclusion was that the form of my political thinking is quite conservative, but the content of my convictions often aligns with the left.
What do I mean when I say the form of my thinking is conservative? Well, I’m risk averse. I’m skeptical of utopian, revolutionary political movements. I worry about the unintended consequences of well-meaning reform efforts. I think a wide range of societal problems have their roots in human nature, which I think puts perennial limits on political possibilities. I think this fact should restrain our hopes for radical change. I think problems like racism, patriarchy, and environmental degradation have roots that reach deep into what sort of creatures we are; they aren’t merely the product of “structures” or “systems,” linguistic, political, economic, or otherwise. They cannot be dismantled or undone in any final way. Such profound challenges to life together must be continually restrained and countered; they are not problems we will solve. I don’t think the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. I don’t think reason, science, or moral suasion will save us. I think capitalism and the free market are generally good things (when brought under democratic control with the aim of protecting the interests of workers and the poor, particularly in areas like education and healthcare). I have no dogmatic faith in markets; I just haven’t seen clear evidence of anything clearly better.
If I were to describe this approach to political thinking with one umbrella term, “conservative” seems as good as any. This approach has, with variations, characterized political conservatism from Edmund Burke through Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley and beyond. This conservative thinking is at the root of many of my disagreements with liberals (for example, on whether Black Lives Matter protestors are wise to include an end to capitalism among their aims or whether a revolution in values will save the environment).
However, if I were to identify as a conservative in the U.S. in 2020, people would get the wrong idea about my political positions. While I think my political reasoning is pretty conservative in form, what I hear expressed as conservative ideas today often strike me as quite the opposite: not risk-averse, pragmatic, practical, time-tested, and prudent, but risky, ideological, impractical, novel, and rash. It seems like most “conservatives” are anything but conservative. My thinking, which has a conservative form, does not lead me to conclusions shared by most “conservatives.”
In short, while I find myself disagreeing with the left about the form, I nevertheless often agree with the content of their positions (though certainly not always). My disagreements with the right tend to be over the content.
Here are some examples:
The “conservative” worry about gun control is that restricting gun ownership would be a dangerous innovation, one that could pave the way for government tyranny and unchecked criminality. This has the form of a conservative argument to the extent it purports to be a fear of novel policies. However, in reality, the rest of the developed world has already tried this supposedly untried, radical experiment. Case after case around the world has proven that strict gun-control laws reduce murders without leading to the loss of civil liberties and tyranny. The real untried, radical novelty that conservative people should be worried about is what we’re experimenting with now: a society in which people have virtually unrestricted access to modern weapons. Now THAT is reckless and risky. It seems to me that a conservative should support what has been shown to work, rather than the imprudent, ideologically-motivated gamble currently supported by the NRA and GOP: unrestricted commerce in deadly modern weaponry.
Climate change is another good example. The “conservative” worry is that efforts to restrict fossil fuel use and regulate the energy sector represent dangerous, ideologically driven innovations, ones that will likely bring economic ruin. However, in reality, much of the developed world has already instituted carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs to reduce carbon emissions, without serious economic consequences. The real untried, radical novelty is the “conservative” plan: to continue pump massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere with unknown and potentially catastrophic results. Even fifty years ago, before the science was as conclusive as it is now, any risk-averse (conservative) person should have been wary of rapidly transforming the atmosphere with no idea what would happen. Fifty years later, it is abundantly clear that the only actually conservative option is to support what has worked all over the world to avoid the risky and dangerous experiment that is runaway carbon use.
So, what does all this mean? Political disagreements are often interpreted in terms of the collision of principles and priorities at odds with one another. What I think this interpretation misses—and what these examples illustrate—is that people with the same basic form of political thinking can reach very different conclusions when it comes to the content of their positions. Some disagreements (like many of mine with liberals) are, it’s true, due to differences in our basic framework for approaching politics. But others (like many of mine with conservatives) come from taking different evidence into account or drawing different conclusions from it, even when the form of thinking is similar and basic framing is shared.
In conclusion, I think a distinction between the form and content of conservative and liberal political thinking can help us isolate the causes of different disagreements. It can help us spot the difference between disagreements based in form – “we are just coming at this from very different starting points” – and those that start from similar places but go different directions by taking different evidence into account. A conversation will be much more productive when we can isolate the source of the disagreement. This distinction can help us see why two allies in a cause may disagree about methods and justifications (they share content, but not form). It can also help us to recognize when someone has abandoned the form of thinking they espouse, for example, when a self-identified “conservative” is actually engaged in moralism and idealistic utopianism.
After all this, I don’t know if I’m any closer to deciding if I’m a red or a blue, but I’ve at least come up with more precise language to describe why I’m a unicorn made from snowflakes.
 at least in the U.S. in 2020.
 Most of the countries in the world with the highest rates of wellbeing are capitalist countries with strong protections for workers and social safety nets, like we see in many places in northern Europe. I think it is confusing to label these economies “socialist,” even given state involvement in some sectors, like healthcare. The vast majority of the economies in these nations is privately owned. If you wanted to follow the example of northern Europe, you would not get rid of capitalism; you would make it efficient, transparent, democratic, and humane.