I want to make an argument for conservatism. This goes against my nature, because I am not in sympathy with it. Especially now, when conservatism has come to mean unpleasant things like bigotry and nativism. It’s hard to turn on a news channel and not hear some congressman spout such utter rubbish as to make you slap your forehead in disbelief at the ignorance and hatred displayed.
But I tuned in recently to my favorite TV channel — C-Span — and listened to Dwight Eisenhower in an old kinescope announce his candidacy for president in 1952. He made an argument for the two-party system. Not, “my party is right and the other guys are evil,” but that the parties need each other to prevent us from skidding too far off the road. They are checks and balances for each other. It was such a level-headed and fair speech that I was brought up short: No one today would speak like this.
Eisenhower’s argument was that Democrats had held the presidency for 20 years and it was time to let the pendulum swing back the other way. Not Karl Rove’s “permanent Republican majority,” but more like children taking turns. “It’s my turn now.”
Power corrupts and switching parties occasionally can sweep away some of the entrenched habits of power. Eisenhower’s plea was not that Republicans were better but that a periodic change is healthy.
But what I’m talking about isn’t a Republican vs. Democrat issue. In Eisenhower’s time, the parties were not so ideologically fractured.
Southern Democrats were hidebound conservatives, and there was a liberal wing of the Republicans. It is true that most Republicans were business friendly and — aside from race — the Democrats were more concerned with “the common man” and social justice. But these were tendencies, not definitions.
I’m concerned not so much with party affiliation but with the philosophies of conservatism and liberalism. Not as they are currently defined, which is a perversion of history; people who call themselves conservative now most often espouse ideas, like “small government” that are historically liberal.
No, what I mean is a kind of Burkean conservatism. This is a skeptical conservatism that worries that if we dislodge long-established traditions, we may be doing more harm than good, that what we inherited from our forefathers generally worked pretty well, and so we would be foolish to jump on some trendy bandwagon before carefully examining the wheels and axles of that wagon.
Certainly many reform movements have improved the lives of citizens, but reforms may cause as much damage as they repair. Unintended consequences. And what is deemed proper in one age may be later seen as not so. Consider the reforms of Prohibition. How did that work out?
Liberalism may be seen as a foot on the accelerator and conservatism as a foot on the brake.
The reason I cannot call myself a conservative is the rather tawdry historical record of conservatism. The foot on the brake meant a perpetuation of slavery in the U.S., of Jim Crow laws, and in England the subjugation of Ireland and the survival of aristocratic privilege. It has been the ugliness of Jesse Helms, George Wallace, Ian Paisley or Father Coughlin.
We are currently seeing a resurrection of such ugliness with Donald Trump. But it should be noted that Trump is not a conservative. He is not anything — unless he is a Trumpist. (Has he ever even finished a sentence?) What policy he has espoused is neither consistently liberal or conservative, but uniformly nativist and bigoted. Such attitudes are not inherently conservative. In fact, the real conservative attitude is not “the government is rotten, throw out government,” but rather “we have established government for the stability of society, and we don’t want to change it too fast.” In this, Trump and his followers — understandably angry at the failure of Washington to act like grown-ups — are not conservative, but radical.
That is why, although I despise the political positions of House Speaker Paul Ryan, I nevertheless feel sympathy for him as a genuine conservative. How can a conservative look at the proposed dismantling of our institutions and cheer on the wrecking ball?
There is an uglier aspect of conservatism that believes that keeping what you have means keeping the wealth you have accumulated, and when defined in purely economic terms, conservatism looks like selfishness on steroids. But there is a less monetary shade to keeping what you have, when what you have is a system of laws, a set of customs that have lasted some centuries, a religion that you inherited from your grandparents and a set of morals that creates stability. There is value in such things. They have worked in the past.
Politics, when seen correctly, is the contending of disparate interests. It is not the imposition of an ideology on a populace. Two parties jostling back and forth (or in a parliamentary system, many parties) make opposing cases that at any given time speak to one need or another. Neither conservative nor liberal can reach a final answer to our political problems, because those problems keep changing.
What we have now are two parallel but distinct developments. On one hand, there is an increasing self-righteousness both on right and left. One one hand you have the Grover Norquists who believe that all taxation is theft; on the other, you have those who think that all corporations and banks are thieves. These are two contending camps, and when things work properly, they give and take and work things out, leaving no one completely happy.
But the parallel development in politics is what Mitch McConnell calls in his new book, The Long Game. It is the political version of playing King of the Hill, where the goal is to be on top. Not to govern better or solve problems, but to beat the other guy in a sort of game. Hence McConnell can say his political goal was to make Obama a “one-term president.” It is hardly surprising, then, that voters are fed up with Washington as it now operates — each side trying their best to undo the other. It has meant a great deal of hypocrisy, of Republicans denouncing policies they have come up with if accepted by Democrats. Obamacare was a Republican program initially. If Republicans want smaller government and fewer regulations, that doesn’t seem to obtain to abortion or gay marriage.
This is, it needs to be noted, not a problem of liberal vs. conservative, but of Republican vs. Democrat and the game-playing is unseemly.
We want to scream to all of them: “It’s not a game!”
I said I had a difficult time making a case for conservatism, because I don’t feel simpatico with most conservative thought. But I do think we need a counterweight to the sometimes giddy do-goodism of the liberal side of the equation.
The bottom line is we can never solve our problems. We can sometimes ameliorate immediate difficulties, but such solutions are always temporary, to be obviated by some future historical or social development. If we are not aware of that and believe we can fix the machine so it will run smoothly in perpetuity, we will, like the poorly worded Second Amendment, hamstring our progeny.