The Long and Short of It: Conservative Versus Progressive

At some point during my college years—back in the early 1970s—I developed a theory about what makes some people move to the political left while others feel more comfortable heading toward the right. It went like this:

Conservatives (I thought), seemed more strategic in their approach to life. By that I meant that they thought Americans should be willing to suffer through short-term problems in order to reap better long-term harvests. So, for example, when the stock market crashed in 1929 and again in 2007, Republicans like Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush were likely to tell their supporters to “stay the course” because “prosperity is just around the corner.” If we would just hang in there and trust the American free enterprise system, things would self-correct. If the federal government tried to do too much in the way of government intervention, things might be better in the short run, but the increasing bureaucracy and regulations would eventually muck things up.

Progressives, on the other hand, seemed more tactical, and less willing to allow short-term suffering. So, when those two stock market crashes occurred, Democrats like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Barack Obama were likely to tell their supporters that it was inhumane to watch innocent people suffer, starve, or even die while the nation waited for free markets to correct themselves. So, in the case of FDR, government programs like the WPA, CCC, and Social Security were developed to keep people from starving, even though conservatives argued strenuously that such programs were socialist in nature. And, in the case of Barack Obama, the Affordable Health Act (aka “Obamacare”) was put forward to avoid the suffering that occurred when uninsured patients were faced with daunting healthcare bills.

The best Presidents, in my opinion, have been those who were willing to accept the best features of their opponents’ point of view. John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, fought for free market competition and against corruption in labor unions, despite the knowledge that Democrats had been helped during the 1960 election by some of the most corrupt labor leaders. Ronald Reagan vigorously supported a “safety net” of welfare programs, despite opposition to such programs from conservatives in his own party.

When America veers too far to the right, too many innocent people suffer, especially those too poor and/or weak to fight back. When America veers too far to the left, too much money is wasted on government bureaucracy and on healthy people who could make do for themselves.

Spirited reasoners know that it is always hard to find the optimal balance between short-term and long-term thinking, i. e., tactics versus strategy. Both are necessary, and as times and circumstances change, America must sometimes move a bit to the right, sometimes a bit to the left, in order to minimize short-term suffering while maximizing long-term gain.