Everybody's Liberal. Everybody's Conservative: A New Psychopolitical Theory to Muddle the Results

I'm writing before I know anything about who won what, but in light of some recent scholarship suggesting that inherent personality traits strongly influence our political perspective, I thought I'd throw this monkey wrench into the works.

Here's my theory, in a nutshell. You're liberal, I'm liberal. You're conservative, I'm conservative. We're probably conservative or liberal about different things. My theory, and I'm sticking to it, is that everybody is both conservative and liberal, maybe even in equal amounts.

And maybe, if one is more conservative in one regard, he squirts out more liberally in some other, perhaps non-political way.

It was hardest to ignore, a few years ago when circumstances found me visiting several very different churches. Maybe it's just the people I know, but the politically liberal churchgoers in my acquaintance all favor old-line churches, with liturgies, sacraments, centuries-old hymns, and old-fashioned instruments. They may love rock 'n' roll, but prefer it in other venues.

Meanwhile, on the same mornings, many of the larger politically conservative or fundamentalist churches are pretty different. No jackets or ties are expected. If you even tuck in your shirttail they may think you're putting on airs. The chancel's a stage, dramatically lit, and there's big-screen monitors, amplified music, actual drumsets, electric-guitar solos, and a sermoneer with a motivational-speaker-style remote microphone headset. It is, whatever else you might say about it, an extremely liberal interpretation of the traditional church setting. A Lady Gaga groupie might find it disorienting.

In spite of these radical changes, those who attend seemed perfectly composed about it. Maybe because the things said into the microphone are familiar and, of course, conservative. If you squeeze down on yourself in a conservative way, your innate liberalism squirts out in a different direction.

It's all over our culture. Conservatives and liberals both like patriotic anthems. Many liberals prefer one written in the 1880s, "America the Beautiful," to anything written since. Maybe because it seems to have a sort of environmentalist theme, but maybe—counterintuitively—because it's old and familiar.

When conservative groups pick a parade song, they often turn to one called "God Bless the USA." It's as liberal in its origin as in its syntax. A rarity among patriotic anthems, it began as a chart-topping pop song, a Hot Country Single from 1984, by Lee Greenwood (also author/performer of "God Bless Canada"). Though the newest anthem ever heard in a parade, it's also the one most exclusively associated with conservatism.

Other examples are handy. In residential choices, the most traditional American model is the old-fashioned house of modest size close to its neighbors, a sidewalk in front, on a square block on a grid of rectangular blocks. In Knoxville, those are the liberal neighborhoods.

The suburban cul-de-sac style, with its meandering roads far from all businesses and accessible mainly by automobile, is untraditional. Those are the conservative neighborhoods. In architecture, liberals like creaky old Victorians. Conservatives favor modernist air-conditioned buildings with adjacent parking.

Automobiles are critical to conservative orthodoxy, which emphasizes inexpensive gasoline and resists auto-industry regulation for emissions and efficiency controls. But the automobile is a liberal concept. It's not American in origin, didn't exist here in any practical way until the 20th century, wasn't a majority phenomenon in the South until after World War II.

Bicycling, pedestrian routes, and public transportation, all common here years before the first automobile, are old-fashioned; liberals like them.

All over liberalism there's this strong retro undercurrent. Maybe untried political ideologies demand a counterbalancing cultural love for the old: not necessarily the retro of one's personal past, but of a previous generation. Liberals have a soft spot for half-forgotten times.

The back-to-nature hippie movement was, on some levels, conservative. Hippies took unprecedented liberties with sex and drugs, as some discussed the sunnier aspects of communism, with earnest intent. But they did it in clothes and hairstyles their grandparents would have considered embarrassingly old-fashioned: peasant dresses, renaissance shirts, leather fringe, granny glasses, bowler hats. Even the harpsichord enjoyed a resurgence.

That was a while back, but try this experiment: host an Astaire-and-Rogers film festival at the Tennessee Theatre and poll everyone who attends. The people motivated to see black-and-white movies about rich people in formalwear 80 years ago will be mostly liberals. If not actual Bolsheviks, they'll be several degrees left of the Knox County median.

Conservatives prefer their movies in color. They have nothing against automatic transmissions, they take the elevator, and they bake cakes from mixes. They like the modern conveniences and are only puzzled at those who don't.

Like liberals. They may let their politics fly with the winds, but instinctively compensate for the risk by hanging onto old-fashioned things, for ballast.

And when you're conservative, maybe you feel a little claustrophobic, and before you know it, heck, you've just untucked your shirt in church. Or found yourself in a psychedelic-orange polyester jacket at a Vols game.

Speaking of, are conservatives more likely to observe a relatively new phenomenon called Casual Friday? That's my impression. Maybe the orderliness of that directive appeals to them. They like some rules, even when the rules instruct us to look less conservative at designated times.

Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that our political alliances are pretty arbitrary. The labels we use to cluster them are guaranteed to confuse future generations. The literal meaning of the terms are sometimes the opposite of what we mean.

"Conservatives" are liberal, literally, about gun control, land use, business regulations and pollution controls.

"Liberals" are conservative about war, and about the environment. Even while we're waiting for further proof, a literally conservative approach to potentially catastrophic climate change would seem to be careful.

Constrict someone here, and over there they'll bleed, expand, maybe explode.