Liberals are fish, and conservatives are dolphins

It's been said that fish are so enveloped in water they aren't even aware of it.

Maybe dolphins are different.  They have to possess some sense of what water is.  That's because while their main habitat is in and beneath the water, as mammals, they're linked to the surface by their need for air.  So, unlike fish, dolphins presumably have some realization of a difference between their underwater home and another place above the surface where they can see sky; birds; and, when they're close to shore, trees, other animals, and even people.

Like water to sea creatures, strong forces dominate the critical elements of our culture.  These elements include politics, news media, education, entertainment, and our large corporate employers.  So all-encompassing are these touch points that they have become, in effect, the water in which we all live.

Leftists — like fish — take it for granted.  It is, after all, their world, and they have little or no knowledge of the dazzling sights above the surface.

Conservatives know better.  Some of them grew up aware of the dual worlds; others learned through maturing, observing, or having some religious experience — or, by some other means, they came to realize there is more than what everyone sees below the waves.

Conservatives, like dolphins, must live in the water.  They must interact with the underwater education and media and are having to learn new ways of navigating their required relationships with the big corporations that are becoming increasingly left-wing and "woke."

Leftists, because they know only the water in which they dwell, are puzzled by those on the right.  Their strange opinions, leftists feel, must come from general stupidity or lack of education; boorishness; slavish devotion to something like Fox News; or evil motives rooted in racism, cruelty, or worse.  Those are viable explanations when one has only been underwater.

It's telling when one of the fish from time to time tentatively ventures above the surface. 

For instance, Ken Stern, who once ran NPR, got a dolphin's-eye view a while back when he ventured into red state America to hang out with individuals from NASCAR and the Tea Party, and with young attendees of evangelical churches, along with factory workers and hunters.  To a conservative, the only surprising thing about Stern's account was the surprise of Stern himself.  He was genuinely amazed that the rest of America could be smart and likeable and not fit his rigid East Coast model.  He voiced regret that he had not made his discoveries earlier, when he was heading up NPR.

Meanwhile, University of Georgia history and women's studies professor Bethany Moreton's 2009 book To Serve God and Walmart initially displays a certain snarkiness as she ventures into the wilds of the Ozarks to learn of the people and culture that spawned what was then the world's largest retailer.  But as one turns the pages, the snarkiness seems to evaporate as she encounters the flesh-and-blood people of a world psychologically distant from her own.  Perhaps despite herself, the tone of Professor Moreton's book reflects a sense of respect, perhaps even affection, for the individuals — the dolphins — whom she interviews and encounters in the heart of flyover country.

University of California–Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild spent five years researching what to her were the foreign peoples of Louisiana.  It was part of her 2016 book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

Listening to a radio interview with her, one is struck by the genuine affection in Hochschild's voice for the plumbers, pipefitters, accountants, and custodians she met, most part of the Tea Party.  She even uses the word "friends" as she talks of these exotic people. While she's critical of what she sees as intemperance on the part of the talk radio and Fox News commentators continually playing in the background during her visits, she is struck by the courtesy and gentleness of the people she meets, along with their grit and dignity.

The Hochschild interview ends with reflection on whether or not an academic from the South could venture to Berkeley and come to an understanding of the sentiments of people there.  But that's the point: they already do.  Not academics, necessarily, but the conservative dolphins must regularly dive to the Berkeleys, Hollywoods, Washingtons, and Fortune 500s of their daily lives.  They have a clear picture of what's going on.

And perhaps because they are able to regularly see that ordinary but wonderful life above the surface — with its sunshine, blue skies, and green trees — conservatives tend to reflect a special optimism and joy.

Maybe that's why they, like the dolphins, have smiles on their faces.

A retired marketing professor, Mike Landry is a freelance writer in Northwest Arkansas.  He can be reached at

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