No Ideas vs. No Guts

The Washington Post has two thought provoking pieces on the state of the conservative movement. Steven F. Hayward's "Is Conservatism Brain Dead?" asks if the movement has lost the equilibrium between populist rabble-rousers and intellectuals. Stephen Stromberg, in his PostPartisan Blog post "Palin 'Catastrophic' for GOP?", (besides making a compelling case that Palin is exactly that) references a Micheal Gerson piece which conceded that many Republicans are hostile "to the very idea of ideas". These are conservatives saying these things, mind you (well, I don't know about Stromberg, but he doesn't seem excited about a Republican self-immolation). One the other hand, I'm watching the Democrats cow-tow to this notion that this is a center-right nation. Um, didn't we elect a liberal to the White House? Isn't that a pretty reliable poll of political opinion? Obama certainly isn't as liberal as the far right would like to make him out to be (or as liberals like me would like him to be), but he's center-left. Why can't the Dems, when confronted by an opposition party that acknowledges its own intellectual bankruptcy, behave like they have a mandate to enact the changes the majority of Americans want? I have to think it's due to a lack of courage. So that's where we're at: No Ideas vs. No Guts.

Hayward recounts G.K. Chesterton's line about how "it is the business of progressives to go on making mistakes, while it is the business of conservatives to prevent the mistakes from being corrected." As a liberal, I'm perfectly willing to admit that the risk of progressivism is that a willingness to embrace change includes a willingness to make mistakes. The more dramatic the change, the more frightening the possibility that the change is a dangerous error. But we believe that the alternative, an aversion to change and a kind of conscious mythologizing of the past, leads to an even more dangerous regressivism. This is a genuine debate, with people of intelligence and goodwill on both sides, and liberals and conservatives have to continually weigh not only specific policies, but how much change they are willing to fight for, and how much they are willing to fight against.

But it seems both this country's political parties are actively avoiding this debate. It makes me wonder, how does fomenting outrage help the cause of conservatism, in the long run? In the short run, it gets ratings for your show on Fox News or AM radio, and it may even get you on the cover of Time Magazine, but people who've been whipped into a frothing rage about the state of the country generally won't appreciate the central drive of conservatism: To conserve the status quo. I think one of the reasons President Carter's latest remarks about the recism directed at President Obama struck such a cord was not because the prominent voices in conservatism are racists, but because those very leaders have good cause to be worried about their strategy: If you tell people the lie that we need to go backwards to the halcyon days of "family values", beyond the sound bite there's not a lot of substance. Go back to the days when a man could get away with beating his wife and children? Go back to the days when a woman couldn't vote? Go back to the days when taxes were higher (like they were under Reagan)? Go back to the days when politicians observed more civility than Joe Wilson? What past are they directing us to? I think those leaders, regardless of their own mixed feelings about the mechanisms we've put in place to achieve full civil rights for ethnic minorities, have reason to be concerned that too many conservatives might fill in the blanks by saying we should go back to the days when white men had first crack at jobs, more authority in their own households, more faces on TV, etc. Conservatives don't want to hold on to this present, when they are out of power and people are disenchanted. But how can they be conservatives without clearly articulating what to conserve?

On the flip side, liberals in the Democratic party are loathe to encourage real change because, let's face it, they're doing pretty well sitting right where they are. Why risk the presidency and two houses of Congress by enacting real change? What if you get it wrong? What if you create a situation where conservatives can say "let's go back to the moment before that blunder". The status quo, that of the majority desiring to change the status quo, serves the party identified with changing the status quo. As long as they don't actually do it. Of course, it's even easier to be a status-quo-maintaining faux-progressive when the conservatives are intellectually bankrupt.

Political pundits like to talk about the benefits of "gridlock". I think the term is misleading. There are benefits to "gridiron", as in the situation when conservatives and liberals put on their helmets, line up, and play some smash-mouth political football. Progressives move the ball while their ideas are good, but they are slowed down, made more calculating and deliberate. And if they err too greatly they turn the ball over and we move back down the field a bit. The political arc of this supposedly "center-right" nation has been liberal in the long-term. The progressives keep scoring (abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights). But "gridiron" politics has made the game exciting, and almost always kept the teams on the field. What we have now really is "gridlock", in the sense of traffic: Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party have clogged the freeway and slowed each other to a near standstill, but they are headed in the same direction. I fear this freeway does not head to the best of our past or the promise of our future, but to something worse. I don't want to be an alarmist or some prophet of doom, but whether the American experiment ends tomorrow or in a hundred years, and whether it ends in fire or ice, the current concoction of gridlock is a recipe for disaster.

Of course, as a liberal, first and foremost I want the Democrats to gird their loins, grit their teeth, and make some change. But I also want the Republicans to identify the values they want to preserve and pick coherent and productive strategies to defend the best of our past. I've never been so concerned with the health of the opposition before, but I'm realizing just how essential real conservatism is for the health of the country. And to progress.