Conservatism, rightly understood

A couple of recent conversations have caused me to think carefully about what it means to be a ‘conservative’ and to identify the reasons I don’t believe that the modern GOP is conservative in any meaningful sense.

For starters, I think that, rightly understood, conservatism is not an agenda but an attitude, a will to solve problems and prepare for the future while protecting — or, conserving — what is most valuable. Those who are conversant in philosophy might recognize what I’m driving at as the Deweyan pragmatism to which all engineers are trained; not Dewey’s socialism, but Dewey’s approach to problem-solving. A few of the rules:

  • Conservatives are reality junkies. As they used to say on Dragnet, “Just the facts” — and conservative respect that there are such things as facts.

  • Education is a good thing; the more of it possessed by individuals, and society writ large, the better.

  • The methods of science are the best means of determining facts about the world; mysticism, feelings, ‘just knowing’ things, is untrustworthy.

An example: We all know that, according to most GOPrs and the Evangelical Right, same-sex marriage is a very grave evil that pisses-off Our Invisible Friend and heralds the imminent collapse of Civilization.

No. A proper conservatism favors permitting same-sex marriage, because …

  • It is a settled, incontestable fact that sexual orientation is innate at birth.

  • The sex lives of the Gentlemen Bachelors down the street affects nobody but themselves.

  • It protects marriage by affirming its importance and enlarging its compass, drawing more people into one of society’s most important building-blocks.

The hostility of the GOP and the Evangelical Right to same-sex marriage is not grounded on any principled conservatism; it is merely reaction, hostility to change.

Some other examples of the distinction I’m making here between agenda and attitude.

  • Richard Nixon oversaw the founding of the EPA, and OSHA. Further, he masterminded the opening to China.

    The contemporary GOP was hostile to those acts then, and the Trump administration has worked fervidly to undermine the work of the EPA and OSHA. By my lights, Nixon was a conservative in the real meaning on the word, striving to protect the environment and safe workplaces, and Trump’s GOP is merely reactionary.

  • Dwight Eisenhower oversaw the inauguration of the Interstate Highway System, the founding of NASA under civilian control, funded America’s early research in computing, and presciently warned against the military-industrial complex. This distinguished military man relied on science and engineering to prepare for an onrushing future while protecting, preserving, conserving, civilian control of each of these major initiatives.

  • Teddy Roosevelt and Gerald Ford, each a Republican president, favored a system of public health care.

Granted, there is room for arguing about all these things as public policy initiatives, and I don’t want to disparage that. What I am concerned to point out is the attitude, the spirit with which problems are addressed. The contemporary — not modern — GOP responds to all change with hostility and sentimental, half-baked mysticism; they are not conservatives.

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