Conservatism’s harvest

It is not that, of course; if NATIONAL REVIEW is superfluous, it is so for very different reasons: It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.

William F. Buckley
November 19, 1955

Granted, the late William F. Buckley’s idea of conservatism as it should be practiced differs substantially from those of our current president, whose approval ratings are now at 28%. Based on ever-rising gas prices, a tanking stock market and increased unemployment his anemic approval ratings are likely to collapse even further before his term expires in January. Still, both Bush and Buckley, like many conservatives, based their conservative philosophy on the assumption that what worked before has value, so change should be resisted.

The problems with conservatism have been borne out in the last eight years and should be plain for all to see. Just because you want societal progress to stop, does not mean that it will. Human behavior is that way. We act like a stream. Sometimes it crests. Sometimes it ebbs. Sometimes the stream overflows its banks. Its currents will transform the land around it. The stream, like society, is ever dynamic and changing. It is only when its image is frozen in our mind that it appears static.

Based on many millenniums of observing our species, we can safely assume that we humans will continue to be irascible folk. We will continue to defy neat categorization. We will continue to do dumb and stupid stuff. We will increase our population beyond the planet’s ability to sustain us. We will fight bloody wars for ethnic, racial and economic reasons. We will also do amazing stuff, like putting our species on the moon, making scientific breakthroughs and generating visionary and inspiring leaders that transform nations and the world.

Law, morals, ethics and governments exist to try to bring order and predictability to human affairs. These artifacts though work only to the extent that they fit within man’s current condition. When they do not they are easily overcome by our natural human behaviors, which on a mass scale can rarely be controlled for long. Moreover, when you try to counteract these natural human forces, the effect is invariably counterproductive. The damage of trying to fit the square peg of the past into the round hole of the present over these last eight years is all around us.

We are witnessing the train wreck of a principled but unworkable ideology called conservatism. Giving tax cuts to millionaires did not raise the boats of the middle classes, any more than it did in the robber baron age. Funding abstinence-only sex education has not reduced teen pregnancy. Voluntary cuts in carbon emissions have not reduced pollution. Freeing the free market further means fewer people are watching for foxes in a much larger and more complex financial henhouse. Proactive wars fought with 20th century tactics make us more insecure and prove financially ruinous. Less government, while potentially emboldening freedom, also means less oversight and exploitation. Its result is a nation that today more resembles a patch of weeds than a garden. What we are witnessing today is simply the natural consequence of conservative government refusing to give any ground to modern realities. We are witnessing that the tactics that worked for us fifty years ago are now foolish and counterproductive.

Why? Because we are not the same people that we were fifty years ago! For one thing, we have roughly doubled the number of us on this planet. This has affected how we think and behave. Increased travel and trade have mixed us up more, allowing us to live less insular and more connected lives. At least in the first world, we are much better educated than previous generations. We are less industrialized and more technology based. We have moved on from the past because the past no longer fits us.

Consequently, when conservatives govern we get huge disconnects. The Supreme Court tells us we have the constitutional right to own a gun even though we have no need for militias and the Indians are unlikely to attack. Today, most of us have a neighbor within shouting distance, not miles away. Not surprisingly when you put more of us closer together and you allow us to have guns, more of us are going to be victims of gun violence.

Effective government must adapt to fit the context of its times or it proves counterproductive. It must address today’s issues with tactics likely to work within the current environment, not with solutions that worked for a different age. Some like to call progressivism a philosophy. It is not. Liberalism is a philosophy. Progressivism is not the least bit ideological. Progressivism is pragmatic. It comes down to this: deal with the reality of what is before you by working with its dynamics rather than against it. As you might expect, I am a progressive.

William F. Buckley spent a career eloquently articulating the case for conservatism. Yet conservatism works only to the extent that its constituents do not change. Feudalism kept society stable and worked for centuries. Modern day feudalism, such as practiced by the Taliban or the Bush Administration, no longer works. One size no longer fits all.

In my fifty years, things have changed enormously. There are times when I too pine for the way things were. The order I perceived in the past provides a feeling of comfort. This is probably because I had few cares. I had my parents to worry about the real world for me and for them it was likely as messy as mine is today. I also know that time has passed forever. I would not now give up my computer, or my cell phone, or my unleaded gas, or my hundreds of entertainment choices to feel this way again. As I age, my world will continue to morph just as it always has.

Conservatism at its roots amounts to the desire to revert everyone to a myopic and unrealistic view of the past that was always more image than reality. Life was simpler for me in 1957 when I was born. However, to get that feeling of simplicity I would not want to return to the era of the Cold War. I would not want the pervasive racism that our country had back then. Nor would I want its pervasive conformity. I would not want my spouse to be a Stepford wife who had few career opportunities beyond that of mother and housewife. I would not want homosexuals to live in shame and in the shadows. I would not want just three television stations (all in black and white) and a few commercial radio stations. I would want the feeling of neighborhood and family connectedness that I had back then. I think we are recreating these for the times that we live in. In today’s world, these feelings are extended toward a larger community in cyberspace. My wife is one of many people whose social circle dramatically expanded with the Internet. Now they are very much her real friends. Fifty years ago, she would never have met any of these people.

We need to realize that while huge changes have occurred in our lifetimes, there have also been huge amounts of progress, much of it for the better. Fewer of us live in poverty. Our health care is better and we live longer and more meaningful lives. Most of us will not spend our final years in poverty. There is less discrimination in the workplace and in society in general. It is easier for us to be, as Martin Luther King prophesized, judged by the content of our character, not by the color of our skin. Barack Obama is a modern manifestation of King’s progressive vision.

We should want the best of both the past and the present, not just the past, and be mindful that what is new can be good as well as bad. I hope that by creating a better present, the future will unfold to be a happier and more enriching experience for all of us. I do know, as you should know also from the past eight years that trying to go back to the way things were done, is very damaging. Like communism, conservatism is one of these great ideas that stimulate the imagination but just do not work in execution. My hope is that after these last eight years, we will, like its great proselytizer William F. Buckley, give it a civil burial and move on.

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