Friday, November 27, 2009

An Epiphany about Modern Conservatives

Maybe plenty of others have figured this out already, but I think I've finally put my finger on the thing about modern conservatism that most bothers me: that sense of self-righteousness and proprietorship over the concepts of freedom and liberty. I started to think about what mantras conservatives embrace and really gave careful consideration to them one by one.

First, there's the idea of limited government. The notion that the smaller the government and the more it keeps its nose out of the affairs of individuals and their relations with others, the better. My reaction to this conservative mantra is that while I probably differ considerably over the degree to which government has a legitimate and important role to play in the public sphere, conceptually I don't think I disagre that much at all with the idea of limited government. And I can see how this idea of limited government is connected to the ideas of freedom and liberty, but the way some conservatives talk about our current government as some kind of threat to freedom and liberty I think is way overblown. Regardless, the upshot is that I can deal with conservatives who identify this mantra as their driving motivation for being conservative.

Second, there's the idea of low taxes, balanced budgets, and fiscal sanity. Frankly, I don't know of anyone who has a great love of taxes, nearly all Americans understand the value and need of living within a budget (even if some of us have difficulty doing so), and everyone I know in this country doesn't want to see us go bankrupt. So the fiscal side of conservatism I can definitely understand; and, in fact, I even find myself generally closer to conservative orthodoxy on the fiscal side of things.

Third, there's blind patriotism and military hawkishness. I guess I consider myself to be as patriotic as the next person, but I do think there can be an exaggerated and dangerous nationalism that patriotism brought to the extreme can mean. And there are those among the conservative population who I think express a kind of distorted patriotism that will rally behind just about anything done in the name of the national interest. I have to admit, these conservatives make me uncomfortable. Not because I am uncomfortable with patriotism, but rather because I am uncomfortable with a hard edged nationalism cloaked as patriotism which has room for only a narrow idea of what it means to be American and a citizen of this country. On the military hawkishness side of things, I can understand those who rally behind a strong display of military force, especially when the nation appears to be threatened by an external enemy. And even though I would personally prefer to test diplomacy and peaceful resolution of disputes and dialogue and treating even our enemies with a measure of human dignity, I generally don't find fault with those who prefer a more robust military and are more eager than I to use this military.

And there are some other issues that define conservatism these days that I won't get into now, but which don't really bother me all that much. I may find some of it annoying, and some of it misguided. Or I may recognize that some vocal elements of conservatism (such as the theocratic Christian fundamentalists who would love nothing more than a fusion of church and state) to be a fringe (albeit a loud one) within the conservative family. These I can just dismiss as irrelevant to the more defining elements of conservatism.

But what really rubs me the wrong way about conservatism is the tendency among conservatives to talk about freedom and liberty as if only conservatives really represent these values. It irks me because we liberals are, I'd say, perhaps even more committed to freedom and liberty than conservatives. But the difference is that we liberals tend not to speak of these things as if they were the exclusive privilege of our ideology. Modern conservatives, who speak of freedom and liberty as if they are constantly under assault by liberals, just because we express our own different priorities and values about life and government, would like nothing more than to see our freedom and liberties, that is the freedom and liberties of us liberals to pursue our own agendas, to be constrained and limited. I find this attitude to be insulting and even antithetical to the very notions of freedom and liberty themselves. Whenever I ask a conservative to demonstrate to me exactly where his or her freedom and liberty is constrained, I mean really constrained, the only semi-palatable answer I can get has to do with taxes. Outside of that, there is nothing we can't do within the bounds of generally acceptable law. I get up in the morning, and I really can do whatever I want (within the law) as long as I am willing to accept the consequences. I can go to church. I can go to work. I can NOT go to work. I can eat a ham sandwich. I can drink a beer. I can go ride bikes in the park with my daughters. I can go have breakfast at a local diner with my dad. And I can write this blog posting. In short, the freedom and liberty we have in this country is astounding. And it is preserved, protected, and promoted by conservative AND liberal governments and citizens alike. So, when conservatives project a notion that freedom and liberty belong to them, that they are the ones who exclusively protect and promote freedom and liberty, they couldn't be farther from the truth. When conservatives hurl out the charge that liberals and the Democrats are assaulting liberty and freedom, they couldn't be more wrong. And when it comes to freedom and liberty, I can assure you that I could never be a party to a movement that seeks to take such values, values that define all Americans, and use them to bludgeon another simply because we may have a political disagreement about some policy. It just dawned on me that when I hear conservatives complain about the loss of freedom and liberty because of us liberals, that is what disgusts me about modern conservatism. And I could never be (and I wouldn't ever want to be) a part of a movement that sees any American as somehow illegitimate and a threat to freedom and liberty simply because of their ideology or their party affiliation.

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