For someone who grew up in the Bay Area and has spent their life being mostly liberal, becoming “a lot” more conservative can mean a lot of things. But let me try to unpack some of what I’m feeling right now.
First, the impetus here is a collision between multiple ideas and the reading of multiple books. BoBos in Paradise, by David Brooks. Coming Apart, by Charles Murray. The New Urban Crisis, by Richard Florida. And The Conquest of Happiness, by Bertrand Russell.
That last one seems out of place, but it’ll fit by the end.
So, some of these thoughts have been brewing for years and years. Especially those around the idea that struggle is essential to happiness. In that piece I literally try to figure out how we’re going to be happy as organisms once we remove our faults and our challenges. And the answer is that we won’t be—or at least not in a natural way. We either have fake happiness or we have fake obstacles. You have to pick one.
I’ve been reading Bertrand Russell since university, or maybe before, but I’ve always loved what he had to say about happiness. Here’s an example.
Someone who acquires easily things for which he feels only a very moderate desire concludes that the attainment of desire does not bring happiness. If they are of a philosophic dispositi on, they’ll conclude that human life is essentially wretched, since they have all they want and are still unhappy. People forget that to be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness. ~ Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness
Once again, he’s talking about the necessity of struggle. The need to strive. The need to chase something.
After having read a million (or so) books on evolution, I now see that’s part of evolution’s trick. And it’s a dirty one. We receive a temporary bit of happiness when we strive for something and achieve it, but before the glow can even fade our smile is already fading as we glance around to see what else is out there.
Evolution doesn’t want us happy. It wants us to want to be happy. Big difference. So it dangles things right in front of us, just out of our reach, to make us reach and sprint and climb and strive. This is how it picks winners, and winners get to feel—even if it’s fleeting—that sensation of overcoming.
Overcoming is key. The best kind of desire to have and overcome is not a superfluous one, but a fundamental one. Survival and reproduction are center mass here. If you win at those you just win. So many other types of happiness are proxies or facsimiles of these most basic of requirements.
So what does this have to do with politics and becoming more conservative? Good question.
The books I just finished from a bunch of conservative authors had a central theme, which was the rise of the new upper class and how it’s separating from the rest of the country. The first part of the books were interesting enough, talking about the new class and its various behaviors and such. But it was largely entertainment. It’s the last parts of each book that really hit me. Both Charles Murray and David Brooks spent the last chapters talking about how behaviors affected culture, and how culture affects the health of a society.
But they didn’t do it in the way I would have assumed they would have. They didn’t blame the poor and the weak. They didn’t place judgement on them. They didn’t give excuses for why it was ok to discard them. Instead their position was one of empathy. It was a description of how their way of life is different than the new rich way of life, which is in turn different than the recent conservative way of life.
Here are a few discreet ideas I extracted:
The new educated class (Brooks) merges the counter-culture tendencies of Bohemians with the disciplined and refined nature of the Bourgeois—hence his label of “BoBos”. This combination creates people who are conservative in some ways and liberal in others.
Brooks mentions how many BoBos are embracing religion, but doing so in ways that don’t directly cross their liberal beliefs. So they don’t believe the core dogma, and don’t support any beliefs that exclude or demean anyone. But they are being drawn to the concept of social belonging, to the idea of following rules that come from outside of them.
Murray talked about how everyone in the U.S. used to learn a core set of principles in school. They were moral principles. Social principles. And Nationalistic principles. And they were of course somewhat religious, but less so than most might think. He talked about the concept of industriousness being one of the primary attributes of an American, and how this is one of the main things that declined between 1960 and 2010. There are so many people in the country now who find it ok not to strive.
At the end of Coming Apart, Murray talks about the difference between Europe and America in the early days. He says America was known for the work ethic. And the purpose of life was to struggle to improve. To strive. To get better work. Do more work. To do better work. But for Europeans the idea was to maximize leisure. So the question was how much vacation could you take, and how little work could you do. I thought of France when I read that.
One of the authors also talked about how the rich have these more conservative approaches to life (self-discipline, self-sacrifice, planning, industriousness, etc.) that old-school Americans had, and how these were what lead to having good educations, good jobs, and basically the Good Life. And that lead to living in the best neighborhoods, next to other people who were the same. They also mentioned (I thin it was Brooks) that the rich don’t want to share this information with anyone because they are afraid of preaching and of appearing condescending.
So then it detonated for me. All of it. The fact that we need to struggle to be happy. The fact that the rich have secrets that they’re not sharing. And the fact that they’re not sharing those secrets because it wouldn’t be polite more than anything.
I recently wrote a post called The Bifurcation of America: The Forced Class Separation into Alphas and Betas, where I talked about how you’re either striving to become an Alpha or you’re about to become a Beta by default. This is exactly what they were writing about as well.
Another converging idea I was about to write about is homelessness. I live in San Francisco, which has one of the largest homeless populations in the country (the world?). Only recently have I started challenging my liberal upbringing on how to view them.
My recent thoughts have been that you’re either:
mentally ill, in which case society needs to get you help
on drugs, in which case society needs to help you get off them
willing and struggling to be a productive member of society, in which case society should help you get work
or you’re actually not interested in being helped because you like your life just fine
I didn’t think there were many people—if any—in the fourth category until recently. But I know many people who would be happy to never work another day in their lives. They’d be happy to unsubscribe from society completely. Welfare. Disability. Whatever. They have no interest in bettering themselves, striving, improving, whatever. They just want to live, day to day, to have whatever fun is available.
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That’s a lifestyle choice, and it’s a choice that more and more Americans are making all the time. Especially young males. They just decided to stay at home and play video games.
So when a “conservative” tells them they’re losers, and that they should get a fucking job, I used to hear something else. I used to hear that they were saying this to the poor, to the working class, who were striving and failing because society is stacked against them.
That’s the key. There’s a major difference between someone who’s struggling and being pushed under the water by an unfair system, vs. someone who wants to build a house on the bottom of the ocean. Conservatives (whatever that means) need to learn about this distinction, but liberals need the lesson even more than they do.
Pulling it together
So what I’ve learned in all this is that there is a cocktail of success for life. It involves being industrious, having a strong work ethic, being self-disciplined, having a sense of community, of empathy, and some sort of concept of working towards something greater than yourself.
This combination is magical in its ability to produce success. But right now it’s a luxury for the rich. It’s a free luxury. That’s the most messed up part. As free as the wind, and just as elusive.
So, more than ever, I now see the wisdom of a conservative lifestyle. Not NeoCons, or any of these clowns in Republican office today, but an old-style conservatism.
But I also haven’t lost where I’m liberal, which is finding new and interesting ways to pursue the things that matter. As David Brooks talked about, though, a trap that liberals can fall into is endless choice and endless pursuit, meaning you never really arrive at happiness.
I think what I’ve stumbled upon is a powerful hybrid. A composite of these core principles of industriousness, self-discipline, altruism, public service, etc., that are associated with traditional conservatism—combined with the secular and humanist centerpieces of rejecting dogma, promoting equality, and embracing evidence and continuous improvement.
Perhaps my biggest takeaway is that this information needs to be shared. It’s wrong for only the rich to know that this is how to thrive in this increasingly hostile world. We must find a way to offer this way of life without dogma or condescension. It should simply be taught to everyone, shared in parenting classes, put in high school and university courses, etc.
And even earlier, really. In grade school, like we used to. We have to find a way to pass these concepts on in a way that doesn’t trigger 47 different groups, of course, but hopefully that tendency would diminish as we started to synchronize on certain first principles.
We simply have to find a way to make it so that the privileged aren’t the only ones raising their kids with these superpower values. If we don’t, the top 5% will continue to pull away from the masses at an accelerating rate, and the longterm outcome for the country, and indeed the world, will not be pleasant.