It's apparent that conservative American politicians are moving even farther rightward down the political continuum, often in ways that make no sense when examined alongside actual conservative values. Tea-Partiers and the like have been out-conservative-ing each other so hard, they basically ridicule themselves. Of course, this makes them target practice for liberal commentary. If you don't believe me, take a look at the 322 Wikipedia references for its article on the Tea Party, the vast majority of which highlight this cartoonishly overdone right-wingery. And the liberal reaction thereto. Oh man.
I'm not too worried that the Tea Party (and other hardcore "new conservatives" who are farther right than Pluto) is going to get any lasting traction in serious political discourse. I'm more concerned that the Tea Party - with its hysterically untempered, unbalanced, occasionally racist, uninformed robblegaffing - is going to drown out not the liberal voice, but the conservative one.
This is an awkward worry to bring up (me being liberal and all). Am I implying that someone needs to defend the conservative stance as it's vandalized by other clueless conservatives? Thankfully, I have no standing reputation to sully with my wildly unsubstantiated claims. That said, let me at least try to substantiate this one -
There is a place in our country for conservative viewpoints. If by "conservative" you think I mean "Rush Limbaugh and Friends", you're exemplifying the phenomenon that has resulted from the hijacking of responsible conservatism. Who can blame you? Much of my generation has only known conservatism by the sensational hyper-rightwingers who make liberal news with their outrageous displays of bigotry and ignorance. No, I don't mean that conservatism. When I say "responsible" conservatism, I'm talking about conservative theses that I believe still hold water - my point being they exist. I'm not going to try to defend every single one of conservatism's traditional ideals (I'm a liberal, after all) but I wish to illustrate why conservative voices still deserve - need - to be heard.
I was motivated to jot down the following points about conservatism after reading Barry Goldwater's The Conscience of a Conservative. Worth a read for half the price of a Starbucks, even if you (like me) aren't keen on most conservative beliefs. Unlike my ranting blog posts, Conscience is actually clearly written and reasonably concise, with good structure and all those other things I'm supposed to think about when I clomp away on my mechanical keyboard. Hey, speaking of structure, I'm gonna try numbering stuff. Here are a few conservative positions that I think deserve some attention.
1. Government creep may be a good thing. Or it may not. America was born out of the shadow of an oppressive state so it's unsurprising that the forefathers were skeptical about unlimited government power. Absolute power, absolutely and all that. Government creep happens all around and it's not always clear if its net benefits are positive. As an example, take free breakfast for students in public schools. There is a lot of scientific literature that documents the positive effects of free in-school breakfast. Many of these students come from food-challenged families (or even families who just don't believe in the value of breakfast) and the free-breakfast initiative is helping them reach their potential. However, by serving breakfast at school, one can argue that we are teaching the parents to be more reliant on the government forever; that the performance and health of their children is the government's concern, not theirs. Me, I support free breakfast in school because of the proven benefits (just checked; yep, I'm still liberal). However, I'm not sure I like the trend of offloading parental responsibilities onto the government, even under the banner of improving our children. To wildly generalize, the government can do a great deal of good by stepping into our lives (take a look at how social welfare can reduce poverty). But, as conservatives point out, it's worth being mindful of the role that government plays in our society. At some point, it's going to be more than you care for.
2. Give everyone their wide open spaces and we won't have any problems. Gail Collins makes a novel observation about conservative ideology in her book As Texas Goes.... The conservative base has always been rooted in the American south/midwest/"Bible Belt" regions - sparsely populated areas where the only people you really needed to get along with were your horse and haybarrel. It's not surprising that these people value their privacy and individual freedom over government interventionism. If you live in a city (i.e. the liberal northeast), you depend on the government for a lot - keeping neighbors in check, protecting you from crime and compensating you for horrid externalities imposed by nearby industry. But way out in the middle of nowhere, the nearest police station is hours away by car. You better have .22 of your own if you plan on holdin' off them bandits. You keep to yourself, your neighbors keep to themselves and everything should be honkey dory. This point in particular is where I feel modern conservatives have diverged from their spiritual ancestors. Modern conservatives feel the need to impose their morality on others (presumably as an embodiment of their steadfast traditionalism). You can't marry him, I decide who gets what, my ideology is better than yours and I'm out to show you so. I yearn to hear a conservative say "...well, I think you're kinda nuts but I guess you have your land and I have mine, so do what makes you happy on yours." A real "conservative", dogged stubbornness aside, should be out there today advocating gay rights and separation of church from state. The basic idea: In the absence of real externalities, no one really has a claim over someone else's behavior. It's a useful principle for justifying things like freedom of religion and speech.
3. States' Rights. The Tenth Amendment in our Bill of Rights was put in place to preserve the decentralized government of the United States. The reasoning: It's harder for a federal government to become totalitarian if it has 50 little mini-governments spreading the power around. In addition, state lawmakers know their own states better than the bureaucrats in D.C., so you'd think the former would write legislature that more accurately reflects the interests of their home states' inhabitants. As a slightly absurd example, people in New York might want to subsidize the green auto industry to improve their air quality while people in Texas might want to subsidize Ford F150 pickup trucks because...well, they like them (it's a big deal down there - just take my word for it). Of course, the text of States' Rights has been horrifically misused and abused in the past (an infamous example is the Jim Crow laws, which couldn't be legally justified using States' Rights anyway) but it's worth reminding ourselves why that Amendment was written - if nothing else, so we can consciously call it obsolete and move on. Maybe the modern age has purged from government the corruption that used to characterize unlimited centralized power. Or maybe the federal government itself is large enough (spread widely enough) to keep itself in check. But if you hear Mitt Romney saying "States' Rights" over and over again, at least now you'll know what he's getting at. In short: States have a claim over matters that are not nationwide concerns but specific to each state's individual attributes, values, etc. Obviously things like racial and gender equality are national concerns, but what about culturally justified pickup-truck subsidies? Breakfast in schools? Okay, dead horse is dead, I get it.
Yes, we're liberals, hurray! But we should still recognize the need for an opposition in politics, like the need for competition in a marketplace, hurray! I count on the true conservatives of the nation to present coherent, substantiated arguments for their policy...hurray? That's the only way we're going to find out if the liberal ones are any good by comparison. Hurray.