Conservative is Good– Liberal is Bad: the operating assumption of middle and rural America

Conservative is good and liberal is bad, at least that appears to be the accepted rule throughout much of middle and rural America.  It seems to be something that grew out of the Reagan years from soil and seed fertilized by civil rights and anti-war movements.  In earlier years, what was conservative or liberal formed a sort of political succotash on both sides of the legislative aisle.  From Reagan on, a deep gully was dug by laissez-faire political operatives: conservative was labeled good and isolated on the right side, liberal was labeled bad and isolated on the left side; and rickety bridges between the two were rigged to collapse if too much was asked of them.  

There are some common assumptions underlying the rule of good and bad.  Conservative claims to mean lower taxes, smaller government, and limited regulation of (my) business.  That’s good.  Liberal means high taxes, wasteful public spending, big government, and out of control regulation.  That’s bad.  Candidates who claim conservative credentials run on platforms echoing the basic assumptions without offering evidence or workable plans.  Candidates on the other side promise to address issues of social and economic inequity, regulate abusive practices that burden citizens and the environment, which would obviously cost a lot of tax money.  One side could easily claim to be conservatively good, while the other side had a hard time explaining why they weren’t tax and spend socialists.  It goes without conservative notice that the economy generally does better on the liberal watch, with deficits and debt held in check.  Government tends to gets bigger under conservative stewardship, while deficits and debt soar.  Few believe it.

Reagan style conservatives had a simple, effective strategy for strangling social and economic programs they defined as liberal, and therefore bad.  Cut taxes, primarily for the rich, and increase defense spending, with no intention of paying for either.  It would drive up national deficit and debt so when liberals were in power  no funds would be available for their programs. Conservatives could pretend to be worried about deficits and debt, demanding draconian cuts in social programs, and accusing tax raising liberals of being soft on defense  It’s worked well for over 30 years, and Republicans in 2021 are confident it will continue to work. 

There’s a popular conservative platitude that a person can make better use of his/her own money than the government can, so lower taxes are always better.  As a friend once said, “He’s promising lower taxes; that’s a no brainer; who wouldn’t want lower taxes?”  It’s a platitude that deliberately overlooks the need for collective investment in the public good.  It doesn’t deny the need for public education, transportation infrastructure, public safety, etc., but it is unwilling to admit taxes, equitably imposed, are investments with handsome returns providing a better quality of life for all, and greater opportunity for individual success.  Oddly enough, higher marginal tax rates at the top end can spark economic growth that increases personal income at the low end while reducing budget deficits and national debt.  Tax cuts accruing to corporations and the very wealthy are just as likely to do the reverse.  The data are incontrovertible, but will never convince a dedicated conservative.

The second platitude: smaller government is better government.  It’s easy to make fun of bloated, plodding bureaucratic government because there’s some truth to it.  Reorientation toward customer service would go far in making government more efficient and easier to work with, but that’s for another time.  The small government gambit is disinterested in a more efficient, customer friendly bureaucracy.  It wants a government too small to do anything but provide for defense and assure that business is as free as possible to do as it likes.  Social and economic problems are matters to be worked out by individuals acting in their own self interest while voluntarily cooperating together as they see fit.  The greater good, if there is such a thing, is merely the sum total of self interests.  It ignores the complexity of interdependent systems that make up the physical, social and economic fabric through which the nation functions.  It’s a fabric that requires constant maintenance and improvement to keep pace with societal change.  Small governments and voluntary associations were never up to the challenge, not even on the frontier.  People needed the federal government to divvy up the land forcibly taken from American Indians, keep them safe, underwrite railroads and telegraph lines, and make rivers navigable.  Farmers and ranchers needed a big federal government to protect them from predatory big business.  The public needed a big federal government to guarantee that foods and drugs were safe.  Bigness in government has never been a problem.  Inefficiencies and poor customer service have been.

The third and most enduring platitude: less regulation is better.  Scare mongering raises the specter of a tyrannical federal government regulating every aspect of personal life.  Curiously, the expansion of civil liberties is often labeled as intruding on the rights of some people to deny the same rights to others.  More important to the less regulation crowd, is relief from federal oversight of the way they do business.  There is some merit to their case.  Repetitive paper work, filled in and sent off month after month gets tiring and seems pointless.  On the other hand, business practices have a long history of ignoring public health and safety, including the health and safety of workers, beyond the bare minimum required of it.  Required by who?  By federal laws and regulations.  When the nation, as a whole, decides that it wants to provide greater, less restricted opportunities for more people, to protect the environment from needless degradation, to assure public health and safety, and to see that business is conducted honestly and responsibly, it can do so only through the power of its government.

These trite platitudes of the conservative creed cannot bear up under close examination, but they’re deeply rooted in the minds of many citizens who will never examine them, and are believed as a tenet of faith that they represent the good of what it means to say conservative is good, and liberal is bad.  While most will readily admit that individual items on the liberal agenda are desirable, they’re convinced the undeserving who’ve not worked for them will benefit more than they will, so it’s better to get nothing.  They’ve been sold that common sense, every day proposals to improve education, provide universal health care, and fix the infrastructure, are radical left wing schemes.  In the name of democracy, they’re willing to obstruct the will of the people by authoritarian means.  

A dramatic change of minds is unlikely.  Maybe it’s best to elect enough liberal legislators and leadership to enact laws and regulations that will help create the economic and social benefits conservatives really want, and just let them complain about the better life they have.  Some won’t be happy that women and people of color will have more opportunity for greater success, but that’s life.  In the process, some hard nosed reform of the bureaucracy would go a long way toward reducing suspicion of government.

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