What Is Wrong With Conservatives?

I wonder sometimes how a modern conservative maintains.

Romney has won the New Hampshire primary.  All the buzz now is how he’s going to have a much tougher fight in South Carolina, primarily because of the religious and social conservatives who will see him as “not conservative enough.”  There is a consortium of social conservatives meeting this week in Texas to discuss ways to stop him, to elevate someone more to their liking to the nomination.  And right there I have to wonder at what it means anymore to be a conservative.

I grew up, probably as many people my age did, thinking of conservatism as essentially penurious and a bit militaristic.  Stodgy, stuffy, proper.  But mainly pennypinching.  A tendency to not do something rather than go forward with something that might not be a sure thing.

I suppose some of the social aspect was there, too, but in politics that didn’t seem important.  I came of age with an idea of fiscal conservatism as the primary trait.

That doesn’t square with the recent past.  The current GOP—say since Ronny Reagan came to power—has been anything but fiscally conservative, although what they have spent money on has lent them an aura of responsible, hardnosed governance.   Mainly the military, but also subsidies for businesses.  But something has distorted them since 1981 and has turned them into bigger government spenders than the Democrats ever were.  (This is not open to dispute, at least not when broken down by administrations.  Republican presidents have overseen massive increases in the deficit as opposed to Democratic administrations that have as often overseen sizable decreases in the deficit, even to the point of balancing the federal budget.  You may interpret or spin this any way you like, but voting trends seem to support that the choices Republican presidents have made in this regard have been supported by Republican congressmen even after said presidents have left office.)

What they seem adamantly opposed to is spending on people.  By that I mean, social spending.  Welfare, MedicAid, unemployment relief, housing subsidies, minimum wage supports, education, and so forth.  With a few exceptions, we have seen conservatism take on the mantle of Scrooge and move to cut people off.  This has been in the name of States Rights as often as not or welfare reform, but in the last ten years it has come out from its various nom de guerre’s and stood on its own as an attack on Entitlements.

When you look at all the things, say, Ron Paul wants to eliminate from government, you can’t help but thinking that he believes government should do nothing for anyone.  If the factory up the road dumps toxic waste that gets into the water table and poisons your farmland, government should have no brief to take that factory to task and see to it you’re made whole again.  I assume the thinking is, well, you can take the factory to court, just like anyone else.  By “anyone” I take it they mean anyone with the means to mount a protracted legal battle.  Why isn’t it better to enforce laws to prevent the pollution in the first place?  If your boss pays you less for the same or more work based on your gender, according to this thinking there would be no governmental recourse to making your boss either explain the situation or do anything to rectify it.  Likewise, I suppose, in matters of race.  The assumption, I suppose, is that if you feel unfairly treated in one job, you have the right to go get another one.  This ignores the possibility (indeed, the fact) that this situation is systemic.  That’s something no one in the GOP seems to want to address—systemic dysfunction—unless of course they’re talking about all the aspects of government of which they disapprove.

Of course, this is not just Ron Paul.  Most of them, with the notable exception of the two candidates who haven’t a chance in hell of the nomination, seem to have some variation of the “smaller government” mantra as part of their platform.  Taken with the chart linked above, you have to wonder what they mean by “smaller” when it seems they spend as much if not more than the Democrats.  Obviously, Republican administrations have never cost us less money—it’s just that the money gets spent in ways that make it appear they’re focusing their attention on what is “important.”

Debating what is or is not important is certainly legitimate and we’ve been doing that for over two centuries.  And certainly intractability has never been absent from our political discourse—such intransigence led, most famously, to the Civil War.  But we have also grown accustomed to such stances being in the distant past, not part of our present reality.  Meanness in politics has always been around, but it seems the GOP has, at least in some of its members, embraced it in particularly pernicious ways.  The gridlock of the last couple of decades is indicative of the quasi-religious fervor with which members of a major political party have adopted as a tactic.

Newt Gingrich oversaw a government shut-down by instigating an intransigent position.  It can only be seen in hindsight as a power play, since the fiscal policies of the Clinton Administration saw one of the last periods of general economic well-being that reached a majority of citizens.  We wonder now what that was all about.  Gingrich’s “contract with America” was billed as a way to return control and prosperity to the average American, but that happened to a large degree without the hyperbolic posturing he indulged, so it’s a question now what happened.

I’m not going to review the politics of the time here, only point out that what was on the GOP’s collective conscience then and continued to be was their goal to disassemble the apparatus of government that militated against vast accumulations of wealth.  Again, in hindsight it is obvious, and Clinton himself was seduced into the program by signing the repeal of Glass-Steagal, which has led directly to the current economic situation.

Now here lies the peculiarity of our modern times.  You can lay out the causal chain of Republican collusion with the economic catastrophes of the last three decades and find general agreement, even among Republicans.  But when asked if they will continue to vote Republican, well, of course.


Anyone with a smidgen of historical memory cannot but see Obama as a right center president.  He has done virtually nothing that Reagan would not have been proud of (with the single exception of the Affordable Health Care Act).  Yet you would think he is the devil incarnate if you listen to the Right.  Hatred of Obama has grown to phobic proportions, coupled with more and more strident positions among the suite of Republican contenders for some kind of new rapprochement with Americans to establish—

What?  I’m not altogether sure they understand the kind of country they’re advocating.

Now John Huntsman has bowed out of the race, throwing his support behind Mitt Romney, who is still being viewed with suspicion by the far right of the party—hence the conference in Texas mentioned above.  Not that Huntsman would have had a chance with the evangelicals.  Not only was he reasonable about many issues, he was two things the Right cannot abide: one, he is an advocate for science, supporting both climate change science and evolution, and two, he actually worked for Obama as ambassador to China.  He is, therefore, tainted.

From the few things he has said about them, Romney is fuzzy on climate change and evolution.  One suspects he tends to accept the science but he’s been careful not to come right out and say it, which is tiresome.  But the fact that he has felt it necessary to soft-pedal his positions on these is a telling clue as to what the Right wants.

What they want, briefly, is an America as they always thought it should be.  The strongest, the richest, the least controversial, the purist, and able to do what it has always done in order to stay that way.

If this sounds like a fantasy, well, it is.  It’s Camelot, the City on the Hill, the New York That Never Was.  It is greatness without cost, freedom without dissent, progress without change.

It is also elitism without earning it.

Just as one example, the continued harangue for deregulation.  The case is made—or, rather, asserted—that growth, including jobs, depend on less regulation, that regaining our standard of living and reinvigorating American enterprise requires less government oversight.  How this can be said with a straight face after three decades of deregulation have brought commensurate declines in all those factors, leading finally to near-Depression level unemployment, astounds.  This is surely a sign of psychosis.  From 1981 on there has been a constant move to deregulate and in its wake we have seen devastation.  The airlines were deregulated and within less than two decades most of them had been through bankruptcy, many of them no longer exist (TWA, PanAm?), and service has suffered.  Oil was deregulated with the promise of holding prices and increasing production, but we have had regular if staggered rises in price, chokes in supply, and an environmentally worse record of accidents.  The savings and loan industry was deregulated which resulted in a major default and rampant fraud, the loss of billions of depositors money and a housing crisis, and we then watched the same thing happen with the deregulation of banking.  How much more evidence is required before that mantra of “deregulation will lead to more jobs and better service” be seen for what it is—a lie.

The Far Right of the GOP is living in a fantasy.  The problem with that is they have a profound influence on the Party mainstream, which is exactly why reasonable candidates like Huntsman and Johnson have no chance of garnering Party support and people like Romney have to waffle on positions in order to woo the tail that is trying to wag the dog.

What I do not understand is how those who make up the mainstream of the Party can continue to support policies that make no sense.  Momentum is one thing, but this has gone on far too long to be attributed to that.

I do not here claim that the Democrats have legitimate and sensible alternatives.  They have their own set of problems.  But Democrats have generally been willing to abandon a policy that is shown not to be effective.  Right now that says a lot.  It’s not much of  a choice, but frankly it is more in line with the country I grew up understanding us to live in.





Published by Mark Tiedemann