The terms conservative and liberal have a long currency in politics. Among other uses they mark ‘right’ and ‘left’ on the political spectrum. Republicans found it useful to invoke conservative principles in seeking to roll back Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation in the 1930s and 40s. They subsequently launched a ‘movement’ under the banner of conservatism to boost Barry Goldwater’s run for the Presidency in 1964. The Conscience of a Conservative was specially written for Goldwater’s candidacy. While his bid for office failed—in part because his conscience told him to exclaim: “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”—the movement did succeed in electing Ronald Reagan to two terms as President from 1981 and 1989. That was its political apex. Its intellectual apex came earlier with Russell Kirk’s publication of The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Santayana (1953), William F. Buckley’s magazine National Review (1955) and television show Firing Line (1966-1999), and the opening of the The Heritage Foundation in 1973. I personally think of Buckley’s Firing Line conversation with Norm Chomsky on the Vietnam War and Russell Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles lecture at the The Heritage Foundation as high marks of the conservative movement. It’s been all downhill from there.
I’ve never been a fan of conservatism myself. I think of myself as a conservative person liberal in politics. It took no less a pundit than Ann Coulter to determine that I was really a mealy-mouthed, bleeding heart, constitution defiling, liberal traitor. Conservatives like Coulter have turned ‘liberal’ into such a vile epithet that smarter, younger people have reinvented themselves as ‘progressive.’ It is hard to tell what of value conservatism conserves these days. The movement seems to have gone beyond roque to extreme, radical, and creepy. Goldwater would fall under the ‘moderate’ label today.
What went wrong with the conservatism movement after the Reagan presidency? Ann Coulter happened. Rush Limbaugh happened. Matt Drudge happened. Fox News happened. Bill O’Reilly happened. Sean Hannity happened. Glenn Beck happened. Andrew Breitbart happened. Carl Rove happened. The ‘Tea Party’ happened. Everyone knows all that. But decades before these luminaries took center stage, Buckley’s conservatism had failed to dissuade him from calling his TV celebrity opponent, Gore Vidal, a “fag,” an impropriety for which Buckley never forgave himself and Vidal was forever thankful. Buckley and the audience recognized in a flash that his beloved conservatism was in part a shield behind which to attack hated enemies. That use is so out of the closet now that scurrilous attacks under the banner of conservatism are heard daily. Then again, Mike Huckabee happened. Rick Santorum happened. The Koch brothers happened. Sheldon Adelson happened. Scott Walker happened. Ben Carson happened. Marco Rubio happened. Ted Cruz happened. Donald Trump happened. Conservatives have multiplied while becoming famously more angry, but it is hard for an outside observer to know what the inner turmoil and fuss is all about. The ‘movement’ has failed to bring conservatives much happiness, that’s for sure, and it has brought only contumely, denigration, and pain to most everyone else . It has harmed our union. It feels weirdly reminiscent of 1861. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to forget that conservatives were mostly loud and proud defenders of slavery until the beginning of the Civil War.
Here is my view of how the ‘movement’ came to fail conservatives, the Republican party, and the nation.
- Conservatives stop explaining to the public the particular beliefs and principles that make them conservative. All the public need know is that they are conservative.
- Conservatives convert the nation into a battlefield on which they must win out totally over their opponents. Conservatives decide they are always right and their opponents always wrong.
- Conservatives tell themselves that liberals have failed the nation and lost the war to them. Liberals, conservatives think, have been vanquished.
- Conversation, discussion, honest debate, examination of differences, search for understanding, and cross-party legislative efforts with liberals are forbidden, verboten! Compromise is defeat.
- Conservatives imagine an ideal of single party governance. Communists tried that idea and destroyed themselves. Conservatives are willing to try it again, and think they can succeed.
- A scent of religious purity wafts sweetly over conservatism, as if supernaturally ordained and bathed in divinity
- Conservatives, thus inspired, compete among themselves for recognition as ‘finest conservative of all.’ In the current contest for the Republican Party nomination for the presidency, the fifteen or so candidates have regularly trumpeted their “real conservative” bono fides and attacked the others as lesser or failed conservatives.
- Conservatism is eating up its host party, the Republican party, and eating up its own conservative membership with ‘holier than thou’ proclamations. Every new group of conservatives asserts that their brand of conservatism is purer and finer than that of their predecessors, who are ‘out-of-fashion,’ ‘too old,’ ‘compromised,’ ‘turncoats,’ or moderates in disguise. Party organization ossifies. The movement implodes.
- Conservatism, engorged on failure and frustration, blows up regularly in public rage, like a bloated supernova, gushing forth a stream of complaints, fears, invectives, and threats. This week’s blow up concerns the President’s right to exercise his constitutional obligation to nominate a justice to the Supreme Court. Don’t try it, conservatives warn. As one wag noted, they must think President Obama, the nation’s first African American President, is in office for “3/5th” of a term!
- Untethered to core beliefs, the flood of ‘issues’ that spew forth from conservatives loses intellectual and moral justification, as well as effectiveness, and sounds like whining and sour grapes.
Most claims conservatives make about their movement are false. Conservative ideology is not set in stone, a shiny jewel. It is not divine truth revealed on a holy tablet. It is not a set of inter-connected rational propositions. It is not a closed system of necessary thoughts. It’s not a religion unless believers want to make it one. Conservative and liberal ideas are not mutually exclusive and incomparable; both, for example, emphasize the values of freedom, individualism, and constitutional government. There are more Conservative ideologies than one. They can be thoughtful or callous, well reasoned or poorly reasoned, consistent or contradictory, well written or terribly written. Most important, they are human thought, and nothing but human thought.
When I began this essay, I thought that failure to explain conservative beliefs and principles to the public was the big reason conservatism had gone so badly astray. Simply asserting one’s conservative credentials isn’t nearly enough. All ideas are in play in a democracy and need to be available for inspection. Issues have become untethered from moral and rational justification because the public didn’t know what these pithy conservative values, beliefs, and principles were. Yet, their advocates would say: we’re principled conservatives. Trust us on that!
Based on this assumption of mine, I was prepared to suggest a simple idea to my conservative compatriots—forty-seven to fifty-three percent of all Americans, I’m told—let’s start over again. We liberal, progressive, and independent citizens know that your conservative sensibilities are important and that your belief is sincere. So please explain it all to us, one belief, value, and principle at a time. Let’s see exactly where we agree and disagree, and let’s discover what we can do together to serve our beloved nation and make it great. We’ll do the same with our beliefs and principles. We’ll reinvigorate our democracy together that way.
This still seems like a good idea, and I’m all in if anyone else will join me, but to tell the truth, I’m squeamish about the lists of beliefs and principles that conservatives have put forth in the past, whether it’s Russell Kirk’s ’10′, Ronald Reagan’s ‘11,’ or someone else’s 4, 8, 12, or 15. I know this much: there is a deep, thoughtful, sagacious, and important storehouse of conservative thought to read, digest, discuss, and apply, and that we as citizens can benefit from it. Nevertheless, I’m inclined in the short run to take another tack. Let me tell you first what I suspect and fear. I’m afraid that the existing bulleted lists of conservative beliefs didn’t precede issue identification, but quite the opposite, that a concern for specific issues led the concerned group.to invent a belief and principles list to justify their otherwise indefensible prejudice. Google, Bing, or Yahoo “list of conservative beliefs and principles” and you can test this hypothesis for yourself. Whenever a politician refers to his “principles,” you hope such principles lead the person to do the right thing when inclined to do wrong, but the opposite is more plausible: the ‘principled’ politician is claiming good reason to do the wrong thing. How otherwise can it be that good people are willing to take poor people’s food stamps away and deny them health coverage in hard economic times when their own bellies and wallets are full?
To take another tack, let’s posit that conservative ideas are those one conjures for protection when fearful of change, and liberal ideas those one adopts when feeling safe and welcoming of change. As Abraham Maslow taught, we all have safety needs, and also needs to develop and achieve our potential. When threatened and fearful, we defend ourselves, we protect all we have from loss. When we are safe and the surrounding world is encouraging, we feel free and we welcome change. This formulation solves one large problem: it shows clearly why the conservative-liberal dialogue is universal. The basic issue is fear. Emotional needs, not reason, motivate the search for conservative ideas. Conservative and liberal ideology is universal. What changes are the ideas conjured to constitute current beliefs and principles lists.
There is another, more impersonal way—call it the sociological, anthropological, and philosophical way—to make the same point. Social entities of all sorts—societies, nations, organizations, civilizations—require both structure and dynamic action, order and transformation, stability and novelty, tradition and progress, continuity and change. Thoughtful systems of ideas are needed for guidance on when to stay the course and when to change. This is the problem that the best of conservative and liberal thought accomplishes for its people. Citizens in a democracy require wise guidance to insure continuity of all that is good and of essential value while addressing all that must and should change.
Conservative compatriots of America. Please stop shouting. You fail your country, yourself, and your cause. Please rejoin your fellow citizens in trying to build a better nation and world for all, one good idea at a time.
Will Callender, Jr. ©
February 22, 2016
Author of Abdication: God Steps Down for Good