An Expose of American Conservatism – Part 1
This is the first of a three-part critique of the ultra-conservatism so pervasive in the United States since the administration of Ronald Reagan, a conservatism embraced by the Republican Party, a party much different today than it was in the days of Eisenhower.
I have found that the spirit of Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience is in step with my thoughts on the problems caused our country because of the ultra-conservative philosophy of today. The ultra-conservatism of Thoreau’s day (the 1840’s) — the “it” in the following quote — conjured within him a critique reminding me of my own posts on this website. (See “Sticks and Stones May Break Our Bones, But Words We Don’t Know Can Also Hurt Us, or, Jesus Was a Liberalist” (Mar 2012), “The United States of America — A Christian Nation?” (June, 2012), “Throwing a Fit Over Mitt — A Taste of Their Own Medicine” (July, 2012), “Mitt Romney — NOT the Man for President” (July 2012), and Citizens! (1), Citizens! (2) and Citizens! (3))
In my opinion, Thoreau spoke to this first part (Part 1) of my critique:
Why does it always… pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?
I maintain that American ultra-conservatism is un-American. The general conservative position, conservative philosophy, if you please, is usually expressed as some sort of defense and/or promotion of the status-quo. The rich and powerful are conservatives because the status-quo is clearly good to them; compared to the Republicans of Eisenhower’s day, the ultra-conservatives of today do not want to spread the wealth and power to fellow Americans, and they do not want to compromise for the good of the American people. In other words, there are fewer of the powerful and rich who are philanthropists and behave toward their fellow beings humanely, fewer than there were back in the 1950’s. Modern ultra-conservatives have given conservatism in general the black eye of greed, interested only in freedom (actually, only in their own freedom), disregarding equality and brotherhood. They seem to turn a blind eye toward or express disdain for the rights, opportunities, needs, and required justice of those in lower economic classes than they.
The conservatives in the days of the American Revolution were the British and colonists who were loyal to the British crown, often called Tories or Loyalists. Our founding fathers were rebels destined to hang for treason if they lost. The ultra-conservatives of Thoreau’s day and today loved and love to think of themselves as patriots just like the founding fathers, but the truth is, as Thoreau succinctly put it, their attitude toward the philosophy of our founding father rebels (progressive, liberal, forward-looking — I like to say “liberalist”) is the same as that of the British, the Loyalists, and the Tories. The ultra-conservatives are not patriots; they are 19th, 20th, and 21st century versions of Tories and Loyalists. The likes of Washington and Franklin, could they somehow see today’s latter-day versions, would probably not object to these non-patriots being “shipped off” to Canada or the UK like the Tories and Loyalists of their day who did not want to stay in the wake of the Revolution.
To be a patriot, a citizen, is to change the status quo, to not be a conservative, for there has been no status quo in our country wherein liberty, equality, and brotherhood are equally balanced for all citizens for any extended period of time. Look at it this way: The only time one would rationally want to “set the situation in concrete” is if the situation was perfect and complete — if we had finally reached Utopia. One glance at the gridlock in our Congress and the mal-distribution of wealth in our nation today immediately shows how much more is to be done socially in this country, despite the fact “we have come a long way, baby;” today we enjoy the closest we have ever been to universal suffrage for all those over a minimum voting age. Until we get it right for all citizens, our political philosophy should never center around defending and promoting some status quo.
Too many people today think that our Constitution established a new status quo in the place of the old status quo run by the British. Yes, they defined a new form of government, but that definition was not “set in stone;” that is, it was not defined in some kind of static state. Rather, the new government was conceived as kinetic, organic, flowing, ever-changing with the ever-changing conditions in which our nation finds itself. The new form of government not so much replaces the old, but, rather, assures that the old never returns with its old problems. Instead, the new form of government anticipates the need for new posturing to meet new situations and problems presented to it by the future, while, at the same time, not compromising the high ideals that were the guidelines for the framing of our Constitution. (Again, these ideals are summarized by life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or, liberty, equality, and brotherhood, or, in French, liberte, egalite, and fraternite.)
The political philosophy of our country, therefore, was and is committed to change; no situation is expected to not need some work and tweaking toward closer approaching liberty, equality, and brotherhood for all citizens. Conservatives traditionally drag their feet in the face of change, citing things like, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Is there anything in our society that isn’t “broken” in some form? Does not every aspect of our government fall short of coming up with the absolute best and perfect solution? We can always do better. To defend the status quo in the US, claiming there is no need for change is an extremely myopic ignoring of one’s setting. Little wonder ultra-conservatives are described as blind and deaf to facts, with their cranium placed beneath sandy substrates like a fabled ostrich or crammed up a particular orifice of their anatomy! (Or as those who have “drunk the Kool-Aid” — for those who remember the Jim Jones reference.)
As hard as it is for conservatives to swallow (“Kool-Aid” is much easier for them.), history has summed up the United States of America as a social experiment guided by progressive, liberal (I prefer “liberalist”) principles. From its beginnings with The Constitution, the US is an organic, ever-changing flux of humanity promoting idealistic liberalist principles toward building a better future for all citizens (not for just a few), not a group of backward-looking traditionalists attempting to conjure the return of some mythical Golden Age that never existed.
In my correspondence with conservatives of my generation (“Baby Boomers”), there is often longing for the days of our childhoods, the days of the 1950’s, the days idealized by TV shows like “Father Knows Best,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “Happy Days,” or “The Andy Griffith Show.” I agree with them: I loved all those shows, but growing up through the decades has reminded me that those days were in reality not as great as we like to remember; I think all these conservatives commit the same oversight I do about my childhood days: I tend to remember mostly the good stuff. My conservative friends tend to forget things like polio, school segregation, the tyranny of the fear fostered by the Cold War, restrictions on what a citizen could own (like precious metals, a telephone, etc.), racial prejudice by whites against African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans, poll tax, lack of air conditioning, lack of modern kitchen appliances (like microwave ovens), and lack of modern medical care. Moving on in time, they tend to forget from the 1960’s and ’70’s the tyranny of the military-industrial complex, our I-A draft cards, the KKK, the Black Panthers, campus riots, burning of downtowns of major cities, assassinations, struggling for an Equal Rights Amendment, resistance to contraception and to the right to abortion, and a President who behaved as if he was above the Law (He was thereby a criminal.).
[I will insert parenthetically that one reason I think that “Happy Days” is my favorite from the TV list above is that it, of course, was filmed way after the 1950’s and eventually in its run dealt with some of the social issues of those days that conservatives tended and today tend to forget.]
This is not to say conservatives of my generation think everything of our past was good, nor is it to say that we liberalists think everything was bad. In fact, there was so much good in my childhood growing up in Cisco, Texas, I cannot describe it overall with anything other than the word “happy.” It is to say, however, that conservatives tend to overlook how all the “wrongs of the past righted” listed above have gone a long way to make today the best time to be an American ever. The “righting of these wrongs” are by definition the progressive, liberal changes resisted by conservatives over the decades. We saw how ultra-conservative resistance to change led to a retrograde policy of “going backwards” in fiscal and social issues in this country — a return to the “bad old days” for most citizens, as embodied in the planks of the Republican party platform in the last Presidential election. To be fair, not all retrograde returns in policy are bad (e.g. the repeal of Prohibition and the potential return to the Clinton tax rates), but the overwhelming majority seem to me to be very undesirable, else they would not have been changed in the first place.
There is no “status quo” worth preserving or hankering for — only a perpetual need for change.
The changes wrought by “righting” the list of things in my lifetime as well as the changes of things not listed above, all in my lifetime, divided by my age would give an average of about a change every three years or so, if considered linearly, but we are all familiar that the rate of change of change (a second derivative with respect to time, for those of you who “speak calculus”) is non-linear, possibly exponential; in other words, I have seen more changes in my life lately than I did when I was young. This is the world in which we live; I am communicating over a social internet unfamiliar to most about five years ago. Think of what the next five years are going to bring!
Like the Republican Party in the last general election of November 2012, conservatives are “out of touch” with the changing world in which we all live. A political philosophy “circling the wagons” around some sort of perceived “status quo” keeps them clueless, especially those who are ultra-conservative. And if we assume for the most part those who voted for Mitt Romney were and are conservatives, that means it is possible almost half of Americans are uncomfortable with their changing world; at least the ultra-conservatives of that half seem to be. This, in turn, means that the vision of our founding fathers has failed to reach almost half our electorate, even here at the beginning of the 21st century!
The birth of the United States of America was a revolutionary break away from the philosophy of conservatism; its political philosophy should be more in step with the prevailing views of its founders, the “rebels” Washington, Franklin, (and I would add) Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Monroe, and Paine, views rendering us ready to cope with the changes we face in the modern world; such an “in-step” philosophy is not today’s American conservatism.