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Dwight D Eisenhower

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.

edmund burkeNo, 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.

Ian_PaisleyThe 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.Wrecking Ball

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.

the-long-gameBut 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.

Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber

Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber

I had always assumed that as I got older, I would eventually turn conservative. It seemed as inevitable as wrinkles, paunch and hair loss.

Radicalism, after all, is an affliction of the young: Too little life experience to know that existence cannot be better than it is; too full of oneself to recognize the limitations of our agency in making the world a different and better place; too full of books and pretty thoughts to realize that theory always falls short of the unpredictable and slippery ice of life.

And the harrumph of the jowly elder speaks of long life lived through disappointment and lowered expectations. The reality bulldozes the hope. A sense of realism settles in like joint pain.

It’s how all those New Deal liberals turned into Bush-era Neo-Cons.

So, I waited to become a curmudgeon, to become my own father. I knew it was coming; I expected it. But over six decades, it hasn’t happened.

I blame conservatives for this.

What was once an intellectual movement, even cosmopolitan in its outlook, with its elders educated at Yale, and able to pun in Latin, has decayed into a kind of anti-intellectual populism built on a foundation of bumper stickers. You elect someone you’d like to have a beer with; you get your political endorsement from an unlicensed plumber.

I do not suspect that Sarah Palin or Todd Akin has ever read Edmund Burke, Leo Strauss or even heard of them. So, I roll my eyes heavenward, twiddle my thumbs, whistle unobtrusively and back slowly away. I cannot sign on.

What has replaced the ideas is a low, rumbling fear of the rest of the world. One thinks of a badger hunkering in its burrow baring its teeth at any by-passers.

badger

The issues that engage conservatism may change over time and circumstance. But at bottom, what is unchanging is its fear of change. Doesn’t matter if it’s our fear of losing our capitalism to a supposed creeping socialism, or Russia’s fear of losing its Communism to creeping oligarchic anarchy. Hardline conservatives everywhere want to keep what they have.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., that means holding down the 15th place in the United Nation’s Human Development Index (a sort of standard-of-living measurement). If we were not so stubborn, we might learn from others, even those that conservatives fear despite their higher standards of living: Scandinavia, France, Canada.

That fear of others is diametrically opposed to the lessons I have learned in my six decades of life: Instead, I’ve discovered that intelligence and ignorance – and virtue – are pretty well equally salted across the globe. America has no monopoly on any of it.

“We’re Number One!” It’s one of the silliest things I’ve heard.

The U.S. is only 16th in its poverty rate, 17th in literacy, 30th in life expectancy, 33rd in infant mortality, and does not even make the list of top-20 nations in student performance in math, science or reading. Yeah, let’s keep on doing more of that.

Worse, you cannot forget that in the past, conservatives defended some pretty indefensible things, like segregation and the Vietnam War. The current fear of gays, or women in the military, or immigrants is just more of the same. Anti-science, anti-education, anti-evolution. “Whatever it is,” sang Rufus T. Firefly, “I’m against it.”

Outside this sad history of bigotry, I had once come to believe the possibility that conservatives had a firmer grasp on fiscal matters than their opposites. I knew I didn’t understand money – other than earning it and spending it – but I assumed someone did.

Perhaps I was wrong. It has been conservatives Reagan and Bush who blasted the roof off the federal deficit. It was the supposedly liberal Clinton who balanced the budget.

Now, conservatives seem to think the answer to anything is tax cuts. Economy good: reason to cut taxes; economy bad: reason to cut taxes. I scratch my head. I’m looking for complex answers to complex problems, not simple-minded and self-interested cure-alls.

Taxes may be a necessary evil, but conservatives have forgotten the “necessary” part of it. After all, when you live in a country club, you have to pay the dues. Fear of taxes is our national neurosis.

Then, too, I once believed that the conservative view of national defense was more realistic than the “ban-the-bomb” attitude of the anti-war demonstrators (of which I was one in the ’60s).

I know that there are people out there, across oceans, who would like to harm us, either from zealotry or rising national interest. The world is certainly nasty, brutal and doing its best to make our life short.

But, the conservative suspicion of other peoples’ motives and other nations’ motives was once based on a belief that human nature was self-interested, and that others’ interests may be inimical to our own. It was a question of survival. If we were smart, we could use their self interest to further our own. But that would require learning something about them, and what their interests are.

Nowadays, too often the conservative sees the world through Manichean lenses: Our American motives are good, even altruistic; “they” are all evil. White hats, black hats. “Axis of evil.” Such miserable lack of self-awareness is never a good way to build policy. And worse, it is patently sentimental. Sentimentality used to be a vice of the liberals.

Teddy Roosevelt – America’s arch-colonialist and hardly a darling of the Left – said “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” Conservatives seem to have forgotten the “speak softly” part, and prefer a great deal of unproductive saber rattling. We really don’t have to do that: The world knows we have the bombs and airplanes. It is our trump card, and shouldn’t be our opening gambit.

And the conservative’s insistence on self-reliance also used to ring true, although the actions of their avatars – Republicans in government – give lie to their convictions as they seem to believe in self-reliance for the poor and government hand-outs for cronies.

I should make it clear, though, that I am not making my point against Republicans, per se. Party politics has almost nothing to do with political philosophy; it is a dog-eat-dog struggle for raw, bloody-clawed power. Either party will toss its convictions into the fire in a wink if it thinks it can gain an advantage over its opponent. One thinks of a scrum of sled dogs snarling in the snow over a chunk of meat.

This partisan game of “king of the hill” is so discouraging that Americans of all stripes now throw up their hands in disgust.

So, it isn’t just Republicans. It is conservatism. There is its undercurrent of tribalism that is ugly and intolerant. People who don’t look like us, or share our beliefs, or worship our god, are proscribed.

The world is full of different kinds of people, and most have something to offer. It would be better to learn from them. As China and India gain on us, we can see they learned a lot by watching us.

And finally, the anti-environmentalism of lumpen conservatives makes me wonder. They seem to think it is a fight between endangered snails and The American Way of Life. Somehow they forget that the first conservationists were conservatives.

One hears the argument that global warming isn’t real, and forgets that it hardly matters: Civilized people don’t shit in their own nests. It shouldn’t take environmental Armageddon to make you realize it isn’t good to pump your waste into the water and air. It should be common sense.

Oh, there is something small and parochial about contemporary conservatism; it should be large and worldly. As I age, I hope I’ve grown; modern conservatism seems to have regressed into a kind of infantilism.

Please, conservatives, show me where I’m wrong, so I can sign up. Harrumph.