In re that last quote (“family values” = “the prerogative of the patriarch to control his family as he wishes”): this is the uncomfortable problem with thinking about politics — how to respond to your philosophical opposites. (Note that I’m talking about thinking about politics; if you’re doing politics you either crush them or negotiate with them.) By which I mean: how do you reconcile the perfectly sound conviction that one’s opponents are reasonable and rational individuals whose views are sincerely held and decently derived with the sensible impulse to speak truth, call self-justification and self-interest for what it is, and to see through political fiction? Should we be political naifs or political cynics? Is the best way to comprehend a politician by listening to what she says — after all, how better to understand someone else than by having them explain themselves in their own words — or by observing what she does — why should we believe the words of someone who acts so consistently in a manner at odds with what she has to say?
There’s an easy and uncompelling answer, which revolves along the lines of not treating people who disagree with you as enemies or dupes. That is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really help much when you actually set about grappling with a set of specific ideas. I tire, for instance, of the urge to point out how conservatives don’t actually support individual freedom when they oppose abortion or gay marriage. Mocking the famed Tea Party exhortation to get the government’s hands off my Medicare is satisfying but it doesn’t explain anything about their thought process. Far better to conclude that these folks don’t actually believe what they say and set about explaining their actions rather than wondering why they don’t use words the way you think they should. But you can’t get too far into ignoring what people involved about politics say about themselves lest you start seeing demons as the cause for every demonic act. The problem with explaining what your opponents “really mean” becomes clear when they try to do the same to you.
So does it make sense to complain that conservatives who espouse “family values” are being hypocritical when they don’t support a liberal policy that would benefit families like a living wage or whatever? Or complain that “pro-family” conservatives should support gay marriage, as if you can argue an opponent into agreeing with you? So is it better to understand that the conservative “really means” x, even though, for all the insight that might be gained through imagining devious, there’s also the potential that we just do it for the fun of it?
I hope it’s possible to resolve these contradictory impulses or at least hold them in productive tension. On conservatism, I once wrote:
I’ll throw a not at all well thought-out definition out there: Conservatism is an ideology interested in preserving prevailing social structures — that is, prevailing power structures … And sure, I understand why folks might find such an ideology appealing: After all, it’s got us this far, and we’re doing OK. (It’s an even better argument if you are doing OK.)
Which I hope works as an example of how to interpret another belief system without succumbing either to naïveté or cynicism. Is my description one a conservative would use for himself? Not likely. But it doesn’t dismiss the inherent reasonableness or integrity of his belief system either.