The Roots of Our Disagreement

Review: William D. Gairdner’s ‘The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree’

March 1, 2015

William Gairdner is an Olympic athlete with four degrees, multiple books to his name and careers in both business and teaching in universities. Now, he has written The Great Divide, a discussion of the toxicity now infecting discourse between liberals and conservatives.

Rich in detail but generally accessible in form, the book begins with Gairdner’s personal appraisal of hostility in political disagreements, then moves into the core of the argument: Gairdner’s examination of the diverging historical foundations of liberal and conservative philosophies.

Contrasting the political theory of classical antiquity with that of the present, the author’s breadth of knowledge is impressive. Though his conservative leanings are always apparent, Gairdner’s early chapters make successful effort to afford the reader with a balanced appraisal of both sides. For Gairdner, diverging views over ‘self’ and ‘society’ are at the heart of present day differences on the role of government. In the author’s view, where many liberals subscribe to a notion of morality that is tied to the action of the state, conservatives are driven by an innate suspicion of government. The author’s knowledge of philosophy allows him to make a convincing case that this is at the heart of the ideological divide. But his personal perspective is always clear—for Gairdner, functioning societies require a moral compass for which true north is the family, not the state.

Unusual for a book written on these themes, The Great Divide is full of charts outlining the differences between liberal and conservative viewpoints on a wide array of political and philosophical issues. Though useful in their way, they often obscure the complexity of the issues Gairdner is explicating. The best example of this occurs when Gairdner expounds on social issues. Here, the author presents conservative-liberal disagreements as a function of incompatible secularist-versus-religious viewpoints. Yet in doing so Gairdner misses a key concern: individuals reach their policy viewpoints from very different originating perspectives. There is such a thing as an atheist conservative who opposes gay marriage or abortion, but not for reasons of faith. These charts often seem to assume that conservatives and liberals are unitary both in their perspectives on a particular issue and in their path to reaching that perspective.

The strength of The Great Divide is Gairdner’s linkage of the first chapters of the book—which deal with issues of personal understandings and belief – to later chapters on specific concerns. Examining the range of topical issues from welfare to taxation and beyond, Gairdner explains, in a balanced way, how compromise between liberals and conservatives is complicated by the very different starting points that each applies.

Unfortunately however, Gairdner’s consideration of liberal and conservative positions on social issues has shortcomings. A fervent social conservative, Gairdner is desperate to isolate libertarian sentiments from conservative identity. Alongside his assessment of abortion and euthanasia, the author deploys uncharacteristic ferocity in his consideration of the politics of homosexuality. Clearly dismayed both by gay marriage and gay relationships per se, Gairdner ignores the growing consensus of younger conservatives more open to libertarian social policy.

The balance he reserves for liberals on, say, economic issues is nowhere to be found for potential conservative allies who might have a more libertarian approach to the politics of sex.

Detailed and diverse, and clearly the product of much contemplation, Gairdner’s book helps us understand why present partisan rancor isn’t just a problem of the moment. Instead, the author shows, political disagreements are a product of long-diverging views on the nature of individuality and society.

Published under: Book reviews