Among the many feelings I have about American politics recently, a recurring one is disappointment.
I’m disappointed that so many who call themselves conservatives have thrown their principles away for a tribal loyalty. Disappointed because when the people on the other side of the issue abandon their own logic, there’s no debate you can have with them anymore.
You can’t find common ground, if the other side doesn’t have any ground to stand on.
So I’ve been thinking about what a principled conservative would have to say about the issues of our day: health care, abortion, etc. What arguments would they make, if they chose ideals over loyalty?
The Roots of Conservatism
Modern European conservatism arose as a reaction to the French Revolution. Edmund Burke led the charge in England, writing multiple essays against the both the goals and the methods of the Revolutionaries.
Arguing against the intellectual inheritors of the French Revolution – everything from the Independence movements of the Americas (North, South, and Central) to the Bolsheviks in Russia – is how the conservative movement defined itself over the next two hundred years.
At the center of their stance was a belief that people cannot be improved through government action. It was deliberately set against the utopias of socialism and communism, which held (among many other things) that you could get an inherently peaceful and conflict-free society if you but organized it differently.
You can see echoes of this in the Western science fiction writing of the mid–20th Century, which often portrayed dystopias as societies that regulated the thoughts and beliefs of their members “for the greater good”, whether through government fiat (1984, Farenheit 451) or chemistry (Brave New World).
Coupled with this was a conviction that the People did not have a right to revolution. Government had a responsibility to use its power in the pursuit of justice, but if a government was unjust, its citizens had no right to take up arms and overthrow it. They did not have to suffer in silence, but they did have to suffer.
American Conservatives found this second principle more problematic, since their own government was formed via revolution. The compromise they came up with was two-fold:
- People do not have the right to overthrow a democratically elected government
- Workers do not have the right to overthrow their employers
Thus American conservatives had no problem putting down rebellions in the former colonies (Shay’s Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, etc). As corporations and business leaders grew more powerful, conservatives naturally sided with them against unions.
20th-Century American Conservatism
From those two principles, everything about 20th Century American conservatism flowed.
Anti-communist, because communists wanted to build better people via overthrowing business power and regulating personal beliefs.
Pro-nuclear-family, because socialists, anarchists, and others wanted to break the nuclear family as a social experiment (again in the pursuit of better people).
Anti-regulation, because government has no more business trying to make better corporations than it does better people.
Unfortunately, the emphasis on the preservation of the “traditional” family (itself a product of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and elsewhere) and the prerogatives of business put conservatives arguing on the side of injustice for many decades: against the liberation of women, against the emancipation of African-Americans from Jim Crow laws, against the call for corporations to become responsible citizens.
And they stand against similar liberation movements today. They pass laws regulating who can use which bathroom, or restricting a woman’s access to a safe abortion, or surpressing votes that might go to their opponents.
And they keep losing these fights. Fights they should lose. Fights they need to lose.
But instead of re-examining the choices that led them to take on these losing fights, American convervatives have instead double-down on them. Anyone on their side on these fights is an ally, and anyone not on their side is an enemy.
This tribal – not conservative – way of thinking it’s what’s led the Republican Party to choose a twice-divorced sexual predator as its standard bearer for a “moral” society.
They’ve forgotten their roots. You can’t make better people, remember?
A New Conservatism
If American conservatives did let go of their tribal ways and thought through these issues from their own principles, where would we be?
Gay marriage would be legal. Homosexual families means more nuclear families, which conservatives believe are the best way to raise children. Adoption by same-sex couples would be not only legal, it’d be encouraged.
Laws restricting abortion would be lifted. First, because banning it is wielding government power in an attempt to make people “better”, which is anathema to a conservative. Second, because women without access to safe abortions get unsafe ones, which can damage their chances of having children later, which means fewer families, which is bad for a conservative.
Gun ownership by private citizens would be highly regulated. The private ownership of anything more than a hunting rifle can only be meant for either a) murder, or b) overthrowing the lawfully elected government. Neither of those are things a conservative could endorse. For sporting enthusiasts, gun ranges might be legal, but licensed and monitored like any dangerous public service.
Maternity and paternity leave would be paid for by the government, and mandatory. Parents should be encouraged to have children, and to bond with them. That leads to stronger families, which conservatives want.
Health care would be universal and free. Making businesses pick up the tab is an unfair burden on them, and suppresses the ability of all businesses – large and small – to hire. Providing free pre- and post-natal care for mothers encourages having children, as does paying for a child’s health care. And covering health care for working men and women means a) they’re healthier, and so can work more, and b) reduces the financial strain on families in case of accidents, which will help them stay together.
Even in a world where American conservatives embraced these positions, there’d still be a lot for us to argue about.
We’d argue over the proper way to regulate business, if at all.
We’d argue over military spending.
We’d argue over foreign policy (which I haven’t touched on here).
In short, we’d have a lot to talk about. Without tribal loyalities, we could actually debate these things, secure in the knowledge that we disagreed on principle, not on facts.