Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What Is Modern Conservatism REALLY All About?

Last week, in talking about Donald Trump (which his Presidency obliges me to do, whether any of us like it or not), I included a link to a Washington Post column by George Will, in which Will verbally dismembers Trump as only Will can do.  It's worth a second opportunity for you to look at it, so I will provide one here.

What is at the heart of this dismemberment, in this case, is by no means purely an ad hominem attack. After all, Will has long been a defender of the principles of small-government conservatism, as expressed in our Constitution and experienced in our subsequent history.  Trump is a Republican President and, in the post-Reagan tradition of Republican Presidents, supposed to be committed to those principles. But Trump, as was the case in his pre-Presidential life, is committed to only one principle: maximizing his personal popularity.  It is, to illustrate via one example, why he lurches from endorsing universal health care to celebrating the passage of a health care bill that is only universal in the pain it would spread throughout the country.

So, then, Will's lamentations about The Donald can and should be read as lamenting the institutional failure of the Republican Party and, for that matter, the larger conservative movement, to produce a presidential candidate with the intelligence and persuasive skills to advocate small-government conservatism in a consistent, issues-focused manner.  Putting it another way, Will's laments the loss of a conservative politics of ideas.

Even someone as liberal as me can respect this.  I was brought up to understand that conservatism was, at its best, about a respect for the lessons of history, and the need to proceed with caution in considering changes in the status quo.  In and of themselves, those are not bad ideas, nor are they incompatible with policies implemented by a liberal government.  History as a discipline, in part, to discourage us from going in directions that have been tried and failed--or worse, from directions that have been tried solely for the purpose of advancing the interests of a few at the expense of everyone else.  And caution need not be a complete inhibitor of new ideas. Rather, it can be a way of guarding against the effects of the law of unintended consequences.

Will therefore rightly castigates Trump for not being knowledgeable about history or cautious in his actions.  What Will fails to accept, however, is that Trump is the modern conservative movement in its last degenerate phase, one where caution and knowledge have given way to almost religious adherence to fiscal and social policies that have repeatedly failed, and, finally, a lust for power that cannot even conceive of admitting mistakes, let alone tolerate an actual admission.

We should all be willing to admit by now that balancing a budget, like losing weight, demands some level of sacrifice, with the democratic commitment to sharing it as much as possible.  We should be willing to admit that we have only one planet, and that science demands that we take steps to take care of it.  We should be willing to face the fact that you can't have an economy without an environment, and that businesses won't take care of the environment without government coercion. Above all, we should be willing to admit that there is no point in calling ourselves a nation if we are not willing to take care of each other.  These are the lessons of history.  Caution is required in any attempt to depart from those lessons.

But 40 years of worshiping Ronald Reagan and the sunny effect he had on people's emotions has seemingly dragged us in a direction away from all of those lessons--and, worse yet, from the ability to heed them.  We seem to be no longer able to think about anything with any kind of clarity or consistency.  This, perhaps, is why we have conservative Christians who want to defund Planned Parenthood even as they cheerfully endorse aid to Israel, where abortion is practically a civil right. Never mind that the services provided by organizations by Planned Parenthood make abortions less likely.  Never mind that abortion bans make abortions more lethal, not less likely.  It is impossible to argue with these people, as it is with their secular counterparts about other issues, because thinking is no longer part of the conservative tradition.  It is, quite literally, all about belief in failed policies--and woe to anyone who dares say otherwise.

A nation that substitutes belief for thought is a nation that can no longer effectively govern itself, because each of its citizens lack the most fundamental of tools for self-governance:  an open, working mind.  Such citizens can only be herded by those strong-willed enough to take charge, regardless of what kind of charge they want to take.  And that is why modern conservatism is about one thing, and one thing only.  Power.  The need to possess it.  The need to keep it.  The need to use it.  And the need to attack, in every conceivable way, those who might take it away.

And that is the reason why, for the foreseeable future, we are stuck with talking about Donald Trump. Conservatives need to learn how to think again.  They need to learn to embrace conservatism in the very best sense, and learn from history's lessons.  History contains many examples of Trump-like characters.  It also has lessons about how to deal with them.

Perhaps, however, what they need to do first is to stop demonizing those who disagree with them, and to understand that someone like Trump is a threat to all of us.  A lust for power unwed to any redeeming desire or impulse is no respecter of persons.  Perhaps organizing around that thought is where the thinking can begin.

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