Political divisions in America grow deeper and more distressing and are manifested in both public and private domains. Members of Congress spend much of their time attacking each other and not attacking our problems. Friends and families are estranged from each other over politics. “Social” media make it possible for us all to insult, publicly, people we have never met. It shouldn’t and needn’t be this way.

One interpretation of the history of American political thought is that American conservatism and American liberalism are both descended from the same liberal tradition, going back at least to John Locke of the 17th century, who believed that all of us, by nature, are free and equal. (This can be confusing, because the term “liberal” is used in two somewhat different ways.) In practical politics, we have usually oscillated between our versions of conservatism and liberalism and have found it difficult to settle on an optimal position in the middle. But we all share Locke’s fundamental belief.

Conservatism and liberalism are not opposites; they complement each other. (The opposite of “liberal” is “illiberal.”) “Liberalism” suggests freedom, generosity, tolerance.

“Conservatism” suggests stability, caution toward sudden change, preservation of what is good. We all share all of these values. We differ in how we prioritize them and in how we wish to use our government to express them, but our similarities are more fundamental than our differences.

With most controversial issues, there are good ideas and valid concerns on both sides. Liberals tend to bring idealism to the discussion, conservatives to bring realism. Both are needed to arrive at effective and lasting solutions. If we all understood this, we could get along and better enjoy our lives. And if our politicians understood it, they could accomplish more and better enjoy their work.

Michael P. Bacon


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