21 April 2010

Conservatism in Essence No. 1

This might start a series of small items that reprint statements that impress me as getting to the heart of how conservatives think and the core of their beliefs. No one statement will sum up the entirety of conservatism, but I hope to present some that any reader, conservative or not, will recognize as representative of the general mindset.

The first comes from a Cal Thomas column from earlier this week. This article was one of a wave of writings published in reaction to Bill Clinton's speech last week in which the former President warned that excessive rhetoric from the right might lead to violence on the level of the Oklahoma City bombing, the anniversary of which he was observing. They most hysterical reaction from the right came from Rush Limbaugh, who felt that he'd been personally accused of inspiring Tim McVeigh's terrorism. His response to Clinton was to charge in advance that any right-wing terrorism in the near future would be Clinton's fault, not his, that Clinton's predicting it would provoke the crazies to action more than Limbaugh's polemics. By comparison, Thomas's response was lucid. He simply resented what he took to be an insinuation that any criticism of the Obama administration from the right was an incitement to violence. Like other rightist writers, he took Clinton's remarks as further proof of liberal hypocrisy. Like others, he brandished Hillary Clinton's protest from 2003 against alleged conservative attempts to portray critics of the invasion of Iraq as traitors. Clinton's inferred charge against Republican radio, these writers implied, belied his wife's insistence on respect for dissent. None of this actually has to do with the excerpt I'm going to quote, but I thought you should understand the occasion for Thomas's remarks. Clinton's speech provoked him to make a general defense of conservative opinion against the general charge that it is insensitive, hateful, or inappropriately judgemental towards those who don't share conservative values. This required him to clarify what Republicans and related thinkers really mean, in their own minds, when they make their occasionally controversial comments. For my purposes, here's the key paragraph:

If you think the Founders wanted to restrict the power of the federal government and that your taxes on hard work and initiative are too high, you are a greedy uncaring person who disregards the poor and needy. If you think many of the poor and needy made wrong decisions about their lives which contributed to their poverty, and that by making right decisions they could better their circumstances, this proves you are insensitive, judgmental and a religious nut.

Thomas phrases this very carefully. Note the "many" instead of "most," for instance. Does he think that most of the poor are so because of "wrong decisions" rather than economic upheavals over which they had no control? You can't quite tell from this paragraph, but "many" can certainly be very many. However you read it, it's as plain a statement of the "personal responsibility" ethos as you could ask for. On top of that is the presumption that "you," the alleged "insensitive, judgmental ... religious nut," have indisputable knowledge of what those people have to do to better their circumstances. "You" know what the "right decisions" are, and the implicit corollary is that the only right decisions possible are the ones you recommend. After all, at least some of those right decisions must be based on supernatural revelation; otherwise why would anyone call you a religious nut? But whether they are or not, we see something essentially conservative here that transcends the partisan or sectarian particulars of today. However much paleoconservatives, neoconservatives and those in between may disagree amongst themselves on important issues, as conservatives all would agree with a general statement that the answers to society's essential questions are already known and have probably been known for quite a while. That's why they can tell the unfortunate the "right decisions" they need to make, no matter what actually caused those people's misfortune. No matter what's going on with the local, national or global economy, the conservative assumes that "character" can overcome all adversity, and that lack of "character" contributed to individual adversity more than macro-economic factors. I can see why a "bleeding-heart liberal" might call this attitude "insensitive," but "ignorant" may be the correct, if also insensitive term.

The absurdity of "taxes on hard work and initiative," meanwhile, should require no explanation from me, except the note that income is taxed whether it is based on hard work and initiative or not. That lack of discrimination is lost on those who feel every tax as a penalty or an unjustified bailout levy for the losers who made all the wrong decisions. But the resentment of taxes is not essentially a conservative trait, so we can let that matter rest.


Anonymous said...

I think the fact that they always talk of taxes as a "punishment" tells you quite a bit about their mindset to begin with.

Anonymous said...

Another thing that occurs to me about modern political "thinking". Too many people want to say "the founders wanted this", or "the founders didn't want that". But what they seem to completely forget is that the founders were in complete agreement on very many issues. There were men among their ranks who wanted a strong federal government and limited state governments. There were members who favored strong regulation. There were some few who favored an American monarchy. What they most certainly were not is modern American grassroots conservatives.

Anonymous said...

err...please read the above comment as "the founders were not in complete agreement on very many issues."