Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Conservatives and Liberals
Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post had an interesting column last week. Her point was that the labels conservative and progressive (and its sister, liberal) have become meaningless terms in 2016. In many ways, I would have to agree, especially as we see how popular Donald Trump is among presumed conservatives even as his rhetoric flies in the face of what have been considered solid “conservative” positions on various issues. Says Rampell: “He picks and chooses positions that people like and want to vote for, or at least that sound good in the moment. (A lot of his views on trade, big pharma and ‘special interests’ sound similar to Sanders’s, after all.) To some extent this is what politicians have always done, though usually they’ve pretended to philosophical constancy more fervently than Trump has.”
This is a telling observation, both about politicians and about the degree of ideological consistency in at least one of the two major parties. But if we step back for a moment and look at what the words conservative and liberal mean at a more general level, maybe we can understand better what really divides these two very different outlooks on society and why it doesn’t make much sense to be consistently conservative or consistently liberal.
Two Different Worldviews
According to Webster’s, conservative means “tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions.” It also means “marked by moderation or caution.” Conservatism means “the tendency to prefer an existing or traditional situation to change.” Liberal, by contrast, means “broadminded . . . not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.” Progressive, as an adjective, means “making use of or interested in new ideas, findings, or opportunities.” As a noun, it describes “one believing in moderate political change and esp[ecially] social improvement by governmental action.”
In general, then, conservatism is a cautious and backward-looking philosophy or, at best, is resistant to change. It wants to preserve values, social conditions, and institutions as they are or have been in the past. Liberalism, or progressivism (if we lump them together), is more change-oriented and, therefore, looks to the future and is interested in progress and improvement.
Given the unique LDS doctrine of eternal progression, it is somewhat surprising that more Mormons do not espouse a liberal or progressive political view. In our early years, were anything but conservative. Joseph Smith was continually pushing for change, even to the point of breaking long-standing social mores. Especially in terms of marriage, economics, and doctrinal innovation, Mormons were far outside the “acceptable” societal norm. But as we were reined in by an offended American society, we morphed from a liberal, adventurous sect into a conservative, traditional, even static religion. Where Joseph’s revelations typically pushed the envelope, the revelations of the twenty-first century Church tend to be more in the institutional-preservation and boundary-maintenance mode.
Not only has Mormonism’s position on the liberal-conservative spectrum shifted over time, but political conservatism has also changed drastically, especially in the past couple of decades. All we have to do is look at the great conservative of the latter part of the twentieth century, Ronald Reagan. He would be very uncomfortable in today’s Republican Party. Indeed, he would be viewed as a RINO by the ideological purists of today’s conservative movement, even though they repeatedly invoke his name. So, why has conservatism changed so much in recent years?
The Agenda of Fox News
In a 2014 article for CNN’s website, David Frum, a neoconservative and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, takes a close look at the philosophy behind Fox News. He starts by quoting Chet Collier, one of the founders of the conservative news network: “Viewers don’t want to be informed. Viewers want to feel informed.” Frum then makes this observation: “Fox is the most-watched cable news network, and yet, some surveys suggest that people who rely on Fox as their primary information source know less about current events than people who watch no news at all.” Explaining this phenomenon is the purpose of Frum’s article.
Roger Ailes, the man who shaped Fox News into what it is, didn’t focus on the perennial question news programmers had always asked: “What is our product?” He focused instead on a new question: “Who is my product for?” The answer, says Frum, is an aging generation that is feeling increasingly estranged in a rapidly changing country and yearns for the good old days: “The largest generation in American history, the baby boomers, were reaching deep middle age by the mid-1990s. They were beginning to share an experience familiar to all who pass age 50: living in a country very different from the one they had been born into.
“Fox offered them a new virtual environment in which they could feel more at home than they did in the outside world. Fox was carefully designed to look like a TV show from the 1970s: no holograms, no urban hipster studios, lots of primary colors.”
Not only does Fox News offer this aging generation a refuge from a frighteningly unfamiliar new world, but it also feeds their mistrust of government, especially government by the party that favors change. I don’t watch Fox News much myself, but my dad does, and my mom did too before she passed away a couple of years ago. I still remember a conversation I had with her in which she tried to express her disapproval of the current president. “I just don’t like Obama and all his czars,” she exclaimed. In the variety of news sources I keep tabs on, I had never heard about Obama’s “czars.” “Mom,” I suggested, “you need to stop watching so much Fox News.” But I knew my suggestion would fall on deaf ears. Fox provided them with a comfort zone in which they could find hope for the return of a world they once knew.
“Here, on this station,” writes Frum, “the chosen market segment could enjoy security and validation. Out there was depicted a hostile world of threats, danger, crime, and decaying values.” As mentioned above, conservatives, by definition, are cautious, change-resistant, and backward-looking. Fox feeds that mind-set, often with misinformation and doctored statistics. But it is very effective. “Like talk radio before it, but even more intensely,” Frum concludes, “Fox offered information programmed not as a stream of randomly connected facts, but as a means of self-definition and a refuge from a hostile external reality. Fox is a news medium that functions as a social medium.” And we cannot underestimate the influence it has exerted on its regular viewers.
Perhaps Frum’s take on Fox News partially explains why the conservative movement has lost its intellectual bearings. It has been hijacked by a slanted news network and conservative talk radio, which have pushed the fear button, the paranoia button, and the reactionary button in an attempt to shape the conservative agenda.
Conservatives and Conservation
Over the past couple of decades, conservative positions have often diverged not just from previous conservative positions, but from common sense and rationality as well. Perhaps the poster child of all irrational conservative transformations has been the Republican Party’s opposition to the certainty of human-caused global warming. This should not be a partisan issue, but for various reasons, none of them valid, the GOP has thrown its weight behind the same sort of misinformation campaign that the tobacco companies used for fifty years to confuse people about the dangers of cigarette smoke. How much of this baffling move is the result of the GOP’s devotion to Big Oil and how much is a consequence of the compulsion to simply oppose everything the Democrats favor can be debated. But what cannot be debated is the validity of the science and the overwhelming consensus among climate scientist about the danger human-caused global warming presents to the human race and almost all other species. While some of today’s Republican presidential candidates will, if pressured, admit that they believe in the reality of global warming, they are reluctant to say it is caused by human action and even more reluctant to take any steps to combat it. The Republican Congress is probably even more reluctant, if not in complete denial. As the facts mount, though, fewer Republicans will be able to maintain this particular form of science skepticism, but don’t look for them to become rabid proponents for renewable energy anytime soon.
The words conservative and conservation come from the same root. One would think that a party that claims to be conservative would also have conservation of resources and preservation of the earth as a high priority. But “conservative” arguments against both global warming and pollution rely heavily on the false claim that moving toward cleaner, more sustainable energy would damage the economy. As if destroying the environment wouldn’t in the long run yield far greater damage to the economy.
A Fractured Party
Among other issues that should be nonpartisan but aren’t are reasonable gun control, immigration reform, investing in infrastructure, regulating Wall Street, ensuring the well-being of the elderly and disadvantaged, providing health care for all Americans, and bringing in enough tax revenue to pay for government services that almost all Americans agree are necessary or desirable. Part of the reason for this brand of partisanship is that in recent decades an extreme and often confusing ideology has hijacked the Republican Party. At its core are:
• a mistrust or even hatred of government combined with an almost religious devotion to big business;
• a belief (that has been thoroughly disproved) that decreasing taxes will somehow result in increased tax revenue;
• a refusal to compromise (even if it means shutting down the government);
• a determination to build up a military that already spends as much as the next ten countries combined; and
• a single-minded devotion to the free market (including the incredible notion that businesses can be trusted to regulate their own behavior).
But into this supposedly undeviating ideology steps Donald Trump, whose seemingly random devotion to conservative positions has shown that, as Catherine Rampell suggests, Republican voters aren’t in actuality anywhere close to being converted to the “conservative” agenda. Mostly there is a lot of anger, but it is largely undirected. And any focus it has is fickle and not based on any sort of consistent philosophical foundation.
So, what does it mean to be a conservative in today’s America? Good question. In some ways, it still means being resistant to change and looking for answers in the past. But the philosophical subtlety that undergirded conservative politics in the past century has been swept away, and what is left is a fractured, rudderless movement that seems to be coming apart at the seams. Trump has shown where the fracture is. It runs jaggedly between the Fox News/conservative talk radio crowd (who are determined simply to oppose President Obama) and those who are merely angry about lots of things and want change, although the list of changes they favor don’t follow any sort of logic. What Trump rants about makes sense on a certain level. He is, if anything, a shrewd judge of public sentiment (or perhaps a shrewd shaper of it), at least among the less educated.
It will be interesting to see what comes of this fracture in the conservative base. Perhaps it will heal. Personally, I doubt it. A party built on either anger or obstruction is not a stable edifice. And the latest threatened obstruction over Atonin Scalia’s replacement merely highlights how partisan, irrational, and even unconstitutional the Republican Party has become. They are an airplane without a pilot. Self-destruction seems likely, but time will tell.
What about the Liberals?
On the other side of the political coin, the liberals are still pushing for change in ways they believe will improve the lives of Americans. Although Bernie Sanders is trying to drum up a revolution of sorts and has gained popularity because he has shined a bright light on the uneven playing field designed by our corporate overlords, most liberals, if asked, would probably agree to the following list. They support:
• government restraint on the excesses of big business;
• greater equality (in a variety of ways, including economic equality);
• various efforts to reverse global warming;
• reasonable laws to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, criminals, and other troubled individuals;
• investment in infrastructure;
• access to health care for all citizens;
• a practical solution to illegal immigration; and
• a willingness to tax those who have benefited disproportionately from wealth-friendly policies, in order to help create a more equitable and just society.
Some suggest that the liberals have moved to the left just as far as the conservatives have moved to the right. But the evidence doesn’t bear this out. Indeed, to put this in some sort of international perspective, Bernie Sanders, who claims to be a “democratic socialist,” is considered a moderate by the British. In terms of health care, gun control, global warming, taxation, business regulation, and a variety of social issues, our liberals are really not so liberal when compared with our neighbors in the industrialized world. Bernie isn’t proposing anything that hasn’t already been tried and found successful in Europe, where even the conservatives would never trust their health care to “the market.”
Creating a Better Future
Well, no matter who wins the nominations of the two major parties, it is likely to be a marvelously fascinating and instructive election. We’ll just have to wait and see which way the nation votes. The Republicans seem to believe that in a country that is moving further left (because younger voters and minorities tend to be more liberal) they can somehow win the presidency by nominating an ideologically pure conservative. This is, of course, pure horse hockey. Maybe it will take another landslide defeat to bring them to their senses.
Regardless, one idea I wish everyone could agree on is that it makes little sense to be 100 percent conservative or 100 percent liberal. There are values and ideas and institutions that we should keep. There are also values and ideas and institutions that we should replace or simply reject. There is room for disagreement on the details, but there should also be room for intelligent, informed discussion. Still, nobody in their right mind should claim to be a total conservative or a total liberal. Nobody should be looking solely to the past for answers or only to the future. We need to take the best of the past and improve upon it with appropriate changes that will give us a better future.