Thursday, May 22, 2008

Don't Just Do Something... Sit There! or What is Conservatism?

Sullivan posts an interesting dialogue about the nature of conservatism. Being unabashedly progressive, I don't pretend to be a know-it-all about conservative thought. (For God's sake, my first presidential vote was 1980 and I could not vote for Reagan. Actually, I voted for Anderson, who was supposedly more conservative than Reagan, but appealed to my maverick sensibilities because he ran a third-party campaign. Hell, I was 18, and stupid.)

Sullivan attempts to draw a distinction between conservatism, a school of thought about governance, and Republicanism, "an amorphous political entity" more interested in preserving their power than in being conservative. I see his point, but I don't think I agree. Republicans have been touting themselves as conservatives -- fiscally, socially, politically -- for so long that the conservative "school of thought" is to most Americans a permanent element of the Republican Party.

As a progressive, I'm nevertheless for lower taxes and smaller government, libertarian ideals that put me at odds with the base of the Democratic Party. I also believe that government creates more problems than it solves, which puts me somewhere right of center.

However, I'm a firm believer in the concept of government as "safety net" for citizens who are too downtrodden to take advantages of a market economy to pull themselves out of their desperate situations. I have little faith in the ability of Americans of diverse backgrounds, who pretty much hate and/or distrust each other, to coalesce around a concept as nebulous as the "greater good." As David Gilmour sings in "Money," "I'm allright, Jack/Keep your hands off of my stack." We want what's ours and screw our fellow man. Accordingly, I see welfare as the necessary leg up many need. Properly managed, with a "tough love" approach that keeps benefits limited in amount and time, but paid for with the tax dollars of those with more.

The trouble with conservatism is that it's no longer OK simply to be a school of thought; too often the actions taken in the name of conservatism are not enough to make a dent in the problem. To address the global warming problem, Sullivan suggests that a "clear, solid carbon tax that simply encourages individuals and companies to innovate and switch to renewable energy would be a conservative solution." But just where to draw the line on how much tax upsets the "keep your hands off of my stack" crowd, not to mention the "I'm a victim of institutionalized racism that continues to this day" crowd. To use a blackjack analogy, no matter where you slip the cut card in the deck, someone's going to be unhappy with the cut. Sullivan puts the onus on a courageous president who is willing to give his people the dose of yucky medicine while explaining why alternatives are worse. But when has there been a modern president who was that iconic a figure, who characterized the state of our union as anything other than impossibly rosy and strong? Not since FDR or perhaps Kennedy, both way before my time.

Sometimes, I'll concede, despite the fact that a bigger government is likely to mess it up and hurt more people than it helps, it is the only solution. True progressives understand this, and they reluctantly support a strong central government because the alternative -- what my older brother the doctor once described as AMF-YOYO (Adios, motherf*cker, you're on your own) -- violates the tenets of basic human decency.

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