A Failure Of Imagination

A Failure Of Imagination

The inherent limitation of Conservatism in America comes down to a lack of imagination. You can’t dream about a brave, new world if you lack the ability to empathize with the plight of another.

By David Todd McCarty | Friday, July 24, 2020

“By the grace of reality and the nature of life, man—every man—is an end in himself and exists for his own sake, and the achievement of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose.”

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand believed that rational selfishness was the ultimate expression of human nature, a philosophy perfectly captured in the 1987 movie Wall Street when Gordon Gecko tells room full of investors, “Greed is good.”

The fact that so many Republicans consider Rand to be a prophet and spiritual leader is maybe less surprising than it should be, given their adherence to laissez-faire capitalism, but you might expect them to be a little less self-congratulatory about their own avarice, out of sheer good taste. 

There was a time when Republicans truly believed that free market capitalism was the best method for maintaining healthy, balanced economies, but after decades of abject failure, from Reagan’s trickle-down economics to Paul Ryan’s path to prosperity, their only viable strategy seems to be to simply embrace greed as a moral value worthy of religious rapture and run with it.

Liberals often denigrate conservatives as dull-witted, facile, religious fanatics, which given their rhetorical proclamations, is at times hard to refute, but the reality is far more complex than daft ignorance. While there is a certain amount of gamesmanship, strategy and willful ignorance involved, the key feature of conservatism is an almost total lack of imagination that results in an equal dearth of empathy.

Imagination is defined by Merriam-Webster as the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality. The creative ability to confront and deal with a problem without having a clear path to doing so.

Empathy, on the other hand, is the imaginative projection of a subjective state; the ability to be able to vicariously grasp the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another without actually having the feelings, thoughts, and experiences fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

Put another way, imagination takes an act of faith, whereas empathy, an act of submission. To imagine something requires the ability to conceptualize something we’ve never experienced, while empathy demands that we experience something we may not be able to conceptualize. 

Empathy is a spiritual exercise, obliging you to open yourself up to the pain of another, and requiring you to lose a bit of yourself in the process. It’s an act of sacrifice; a selfless exploration into the world of another. 

Beyond the metaphysical, there are practical reasons to incorporate imagination and empathy into public policy, and they generating new ideas involves risk-taking that requires courage and the ability to suppress fear. In a nutshell, you cannot leap off into the wild blue yonder if you are consumed by the fear of failure. 

In order to innovate beyond what you already know, you need the ability to envision a variety of outcomes, and if you have the ability to experience the world through the eyes and emotions of others, not only might you be open to untold possibilities, but you will also be more likely to account for a wider range of outcomes.

Photo: Juan Pablo

For nearly a decade during the Obama administration, Republicans were not in a position to govern, so they adopted a posture of obstruction as their overarching ideology. When they finally found themselves in power, they were completely unprepared to govern. They’d spent eight years complaining about Obamacare but when given the chance, they failed to come up with an alternative and continue almost four years later to try to dismantle it without ever having attempted to replace it.

Republicans are not creators, rather they operate most comfortably as critics. They are no longer for things as much as they are against things. But bigger than any other single issue or policy is the fundamental nature of the Republican Party, and that is they they do not believe in government.

Donald Trump’s greatest measure of success within the Republican Party has been his willingness to install Cabinet Secretaries that do not believe in the departments they run. Donald Trump and his enablers have built nothing, but have rather spent the past 40 months dismantling, defunding and discrediting every regulation and consumer protection they could.

According to the framers of the United States of America, the very idea of government itself is instituted by men, deriving their powers by consent, in order to secure the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. The purpose of government therefore is to protect the rights of citizens, not the corporate welfare of the ruling class.

America is a considerably larger and more complex country than the framers could have ever imagined. We have likely grown beyond the capacity of our current limitations and it will take people of substance to guide us into a sustainable future. We are going to need smart people capable of imagining a future that does not yet exist, and they will need the empathy to understand the importance of succeeding, as well as the consequences for failing to do so.

Government will always be about power to some degree, and there will always be winners and losers, but we should at least strive to hold it to the promise of protecting the rights of all Americans. That much, at the very least, it should strive to do.

If any society can be judged by how well its treats its most vulnerable, the very least we can do is have the empathy to imagine a country that is inherently greater than rational selfishness.

Follow David Todd McCarty on Twitter @davidtmccarty and The Standard @capemaystandard

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