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The rich tradition of conservatism is in danger

By Mary Barker

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, May 23 2014 7:21 a.m. MDT

Is the Republican Party conservative? When “Republican” and “conservative” are taken as synonyms, the question doesn’t make much sense. When we flesh out the rich tradition of conservatism, however, a different picture emerges.

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Is the Republican Party conservative? When “Republican” and “conservative” are taken as synonyms, the question doesn’t make much sense. When we flesh out the rich tradition of conservatism, however, a different picture emerges.

Conservatism may be defined as an orientation to public life that emphasizes the limitations of human nature; that cautions prudence in public policy; that promotes responsible behavior; and that values intelligence, education and high culture.

It is one that fears the abuse of power and thus worries about its concentration. It also fears the unforeseen consequences of overly ambitious and untried blueprints for a new society. It defends individual rights and liberties, but also recognizes that individuals live in a society and thus the moral tenor of that society matters. In its moments of glory, it has stood up to its polar opposite — the radical communist attempt to fashion a new society through the concentration of power and the trampling of human rights, including the use of torture.

Today, however, conservatism finds itself in disarray. It appears to the electorate as a dogged defense of the rich and the “free” market (which is anything but free except when it comes to homeowners’ investments or the wages and benefits of the 99 percent, both of which are allowed to sink); as an anti-intellectual movement that denies the findings of science (evolution, global warming), labels intellectuals as “snobs” (Rick Santorum). It promotes politicians whose comments constantly offend the educated observer — the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly” to end slavery (Michele Bachmann); in the case of “legitimate rape,” a woman’s body shuts reproduction down (Todd Akin); we can solve poverty by making poor kids janitors in the schools (Newt Gingrich); and Rick Perry’s famous “oops” moment, etc. It has also become associated with a hyper-militarism and the defense of torture.

Moreover, it appears as if creativity has been sapped from conservatism, as its only response to the ills that plague us — from gun violence to global warming — is the status quo.

Today’s conservatism, however, may have much in common with the ideologies that it has traditionally attacked, making it a distinctively un-conservative “conservatism.”

The defense of the wealthy and the free market, for example, were not conservative ends in themselves, but rather were tied to notions of responsible behavior (in the case of the rich) or the means to promote it (in the case of the market), neither of which may hold today. Moreover, conservatism’s defense of the family and traditional life conflicts with economic policies that would undermine them by leading to chronic unemployment or allowing poverty wages to become the norm.

The disconnect, however, goes deeper. From David Hume to Edmund Burke to Michael Oakeshott, conservatives have argued against rationalism and its attending dogmatism. “Rationalism” in this sense is different from “being rational,” of course. It means analyzing the world according to an abstract construct rather than empirically. Conservatives have traditionally favored concrete reality; what is happening right in front of our eyes. Rationalism used to be the sin of the far-left and far-right.

Today’s “conservatives,” however, promote libertarian policies, with a heavy emphasis on supply-side economics, from the pristine heights of theory rather than from their actual, historical record in promoting jobs and general prosperity (where they have failed). In fact, heads in the clouds, today’s “conservatives” act as if we actually have free markets, despite all of the subsidies, tax breaks, bailouts and other governmental favors that constitute our present crony capitalism.

Rather than representing conservatism, then, many of these Republican positions are decidedly not. In fact, it could be argued that the party has suffered its own version of the cultural revolution in which the simple-minded have risen up against the established elites, (and the difference isn’t between Mitch McConnell and the tea party), tearing down their hard-won cultural achievements and erasing all subtlety and sophistication from their thought and policy positions, replacing them with a simplified, Manichean, “take no prisoners” view of the world.

But the wise conservative statesmen of days gone by (the Eisenhowers, for example) must be out there somewhere. And while many Republicans might call them RINOs (Republican in name only), it's fair to say that these Republicans may be CINOS, or conservatives in name only, something they might recognize if they only had a better grounding in their own supposed roots.

Mary Barker teaches political science in Salt Lake City and Madrid, Spain.

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