SUMMARY: I make a sharp distinction between true conservatism and today’s most popular conservatism. I then draw the conclusion that, while true conservatism is both necessary and good, today’s most popular conservatism is a radical and dangerous departure from it.
(About a 6 minute read)
A curious thing about human politics is that it seems everywhere on earth to be roughly divided between “liberals and conservatives”. That is, between people who are more or less inclined to experiment with new things, and people who are more or less disinclined to do so.
In recent years, there have been a number of scientific studies to see if there is some kind of biological or psychological basis for the division of human politics into those two camps. A number of hypotheses have been proposed — such that conservatives lack empathy compared to liberals, or that conservatives are more likely to see the world as a hostile place compared to liberals — but so far as I know, none of those hypotheses has been backed up by a solid weight of studies except for one of them.
That hypothesis is the discovery that liberals tend to be more open to new experiences than conservatives. Thus — as of now — that seems to be the key psychological difference between the two camps. Other, seemingly deeply ingrained, differences appear to either be largely cultural, or the conclusions of limited and perhaps flawed studies.
When you think about it, both liberals and conservatives — much as they can sometimes annoy each other — seem absolutely necessary to a decent society. It is arguable that without liberals, there would be little social progress. It is just as arguable that without conservatives, the pace of social progress would both tend to be destabilizing and tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
At least that’s the ideal. In practice, it only sometimes happens that liberals and conservatives are able to work out compromises that both admit needed progress and preserve the best traditions of a country.
In America, this has been especially true in recent years. But that was not always the case.
A friend of mine, a few years older than me, once told me a story of growing up in the Eisenhower era. He was a boy, it was an election year and he was visiting his next door neighbor, a judge and a Democrat. Curious about why the Judge would be a Democrat (he himself came from a Republican family), my friend asked him why he was voting for Stevenson.
The Judge replied, “Both Stevenson and Eisenhower are good men, and each is just as capable as the other of running the country. I favor Stevenson because he represents my views on some issues better than Eisenhower does. However, if Eisenhower is elected, I will not lose even an hour’s sleep worrying that the country is in the wrong hands.
“You see that’s the strength of America, Johnny. We have good people on both sides of the aisle.”
I think those words are pretty much as true today as they were back then. We do have good people on both sides of the aisle, especially at the local level. But today, those words must be taken with this caveat: Today, the loudest voices are — with few exceptions — not anywhere near as sensible nor as competent as Eisenhower and Stevenson were.
Instead, our media is drenched with what is perhaps best described as “buffoonery”. Both the politicians and the pundits suck. It cannot possibly come as news to most of us that we have — especially on the national level (and increasingly on the state) — elevated our village idiots to positions of power and influence. And that, I believe, is quite capable of someday destroying us.
Most people know that Lincoln said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” However, fewer people know that several of our founders, including Franklin, predicted much the same thing. It was obvious even from the start that was the case.
Now, I believe I most likely impress most people as being a liberal. If so, they might be surprised to find that I harbor stronger criticisms of today’s liberals than I do true conservatives. As I see it, I didn’t vote for Clinton, I voted against Trump. And I do not believe I harbor any illusions when I say that Clinton would have done no more had she won the election that Obama did. That is, temporarily slow down the American decline. Certainly she would not have turned us around.
Having said that, if I will save the details of my criticisms of today’s liberals for another post. In this post, I wish to mainly discuss today’s conservatives. And the first thing I would like to point out is that I do not consider most of the more vocal ones to be true conservatives.
To me, they have so little respect for the political and social traditions of this country that I see them as largely radicals masked as conservatives. Furthermore, I believe they are dangerous, the “enemy within” that Lincoln and the founders warned us of.
But if they are faux conservatives, then what is a real conservative?
Edmund Burke, who lived in the 1700s, is widely regarded as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism — not today’s most popular conservatism, but true conservatism. He provided perhaps the strongest philosophical justification for conservatism that has ever been offered.
Essentially, Burke argued that human foresight was insufficient to foresee all the consequences of our actions. Hence, we change things at risk of there being unintended, but negative consequences. This principle is often called today, “The Law of Unintended Consequences”.
A strong implication of the Law is that time-honored institutions and customs that work should be conserved, rather than changed for light or transient reasons. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, is the principle operating here.
I personally find Burke’s views on these matters compelling. I think there is much about America today that needs fixing, but there is also much that has withstood the tests of time and that should at most only be tweaked.
Burke’s views and principles seem to me to have dominated American conservative thinking up until the early 1980s.
Then came Reagan.
Reagan in my opinion was a radical in conservative clothing. He does not seem to me to have harbored any great respect for America’s government, nor its political and social traditions. Instead, he set about tearing down some of the best traditions and customs in American society and politics.
The Founders believed that government was a “necessary evil”, but Reagan popularized the notion that “government is the enemy”. That was not a genuine conservative notion — the notion of the Founders was the true conservative position. It was instead a radical departure from core American traditions and values. And, after Reagan, “conservatives” only became even more radical.
In sum, I believe today’s “mainstream” conservatives — especially on the national level — are more interested in destroying time-honored American institutions and subverting our best traditional values than they are in preserving those things. I have even come to see them as quite possibly the “enemy within” that both Lincoln and the Founders spoke of for I think their vision for America would result in tyranny.
To me, America is very much in need of true conservatives to assert themselves. At this point, that cannot happen soon. It will take a generation or more to happen, if it happens at all. But I do not believe America can long survive without them.