It’s increasingly difficult to understand what being a conservative means. I live in a rural congressional district that takes great pride in being conservative. Around here, claiming the conservative label is to claim status as a sober, morally upright, no nonsense, small government, low tax citizen. At least that’s the way it used to be, and for some mainline conservatives it still is. For them, liberals were tolerably picturesque, if slightly daft. It’s changed. There was always a smattering of far right wingers tagged onto the local Republican Party, but they didn’t have much influence. For a multitude of reasons, they’re no longer on the fringe. Intimidated by Obama, fueled by tea party rhetoric, and emboldened by Trump, they’ve forced the meaning of conservative to be more strident, less tolerant of others, more motivated by fear, and deeply suspicious of anything marked progressive. Formerly tolerated in good humor, liberals are now characterized by GOP activists as dissolute, morally corrupt socialists intent on imposing government control over every aspect of personal life: a dangerous threat to entitled rights and the American value of rugged self reliance.
Oddly, the rightward shift among local hard core conservatives has come as demographic changes in our region are slowly eroding their political strength. From what I can tell, it’s from in-migration from more urban areas, rising levels of education, greater racial diversity, and growing political awareness among formerly disinterested citizens. How that will work out in future elections remains to be seen.
So what about the national level?
Once upon a time not long ago there were mainstream conservatives who dominated the Republican party; a few even found a comfortable place amongst Democrats. When in the majority, they made progressive legislation difficult to pass, but didn’t block it altogether. When in the minority, they were a restraining force on liberal enthusiasms that could exceed the ability of society to absorb new ideas and new ways, forcing agents of change to prove their case. Yes, there were a few fringe characters fulminating against extending civil rights and programs to help the poor, but conservative leaders were always at the table willing to talk.
That changed with the election of Obama, and the rise of tea party type members of congress who had no intention of negotiating with anyone about anything. Under the umbrella of Trump’s teflon coated corruption, the picture has become even gloomier.
What happened? The other day I listened to a BBC interview with a life long Tory who was baffled at what had happened to his conservative party. Baffled, that’s the word I was looking for. I’m baffled by what’s become of congressional conservatives in the Republican party, indeed of the party itself.
Long before they endorsed a wall along the Mexican border, hard core conservatives built a congressional wall preventing any movement from one side to the other. McConnell set the tone with his public announcement that he would make Obama a one term president by shutting down any, every and all consideration of plans the administration put before congress. Boehner was moderately less recalcitrant, but Ryan went all the way with McConnell. Then they fell into lock step with a corrupt wannabe political Godfather who sets policy by Twitter, doesn’t know how to negotiate in good faith, is delusional about his diplomatic prowess, incessantly lies about everything, and has a life long track record of cheating.
Conservatives used to talk about fiscal restraint and individual responsibility, even if they didn’t practice them. With some reluctance, they supported social programs that helped people help themselves. They were strong supporters of education, the sciences, and free trade. They even acted to protect the environment. One way or the other, their intentions were for what they believed to be in the best interests of the people and nation.
Now what’s on the agenda?
- Doing away with the Indian Child Welfare Act
- Engaging in voter suppression and outrageous gerrymandering while complaining about non existent illegal voters
- Easing regulation of dangerous pesticides, and other environmental threats
- Winking at white supremacy movements
- Providing cover for executive branch corruption
- Undermining public education
- Blocking release of the Mueller report
- Stripping citizens of health care
- Confusing support for Israel with support for Netanyahu
- Tolerating Saudi crimes
- Engaging in politics by insult
- Ignoring environmental science
- Continuing disproven economic policies
- Ignoring the need for immigration law reform
- Engaging in xenophobic, isolationist rhetoric
- Pandering to a trumpian base of fascist leaning populists
That’s only a partial list drawn from a few days of front page news. We need conservatives. We don’t need these conservatives. We need thoughtful, cautious people offering their sober judgment based on intellectually sound study of the issues. I’m simply baffled by what’s become of the GOP, and the good name of conservative.