ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
WHERE DID CONSERVATISM GO WRONG?
Jan. 15, 2007
What’s the problem with conservatism? Why does it’s rhetoric and its actions seem to be at odds with itself? If you listen to the words of a past conservative hero, like Barry Goldwater, for instance, known in his day as “Mr. Conservative,” they don’t sound a whole heck of a lot like the words of most conservatives today. Goldwater was against big government (like the Department of Homeland Security, as an example, now the 3rd largest government bureaucracy, and created in the last five years under the reigns of a “conservative” government), he was for an individual’s personal freedom (Goldwater was a proponent of gay rights), he was against government spending (of course, we now have the largest deficit ever, created by conservatives, although Ronald Reagan, another conservative hero, did manage to triple the deficit while he was in charge, too), and Barry Goldwater was absolutely against allowing any sort of religion into government, unlike what’s occurring now with George W. Bush and the government invasion of the Christian right, as so clearly seen in the Terry Schaivo case.
But as you look back at the recent history of conservatism, what you quickly find is that conservatives have consistently been on the wrong side of every important piece of legislation for at least the past forty years. It’s not that conservatism went wrong, it’s that conservatism is backward-looking, impractical, unrealistic, consistently incorrect, and really just another word for political, social and moral naiveté, combined with a false nostalgic fantasy of a perfect time that’s already gone by.
What brought this all into focus for me recently was reading an account of the case of Ernesto Miranda, a rapist and kidnapper, for whom the Miranda Rights were named. The Miranda Rights are, of course, the little litany of rights read to every person in America while they’re being arrested, which we get to hear at least six times a night on TV, due to the plethora of cop shows—“You have the right to remain silent; anything you say can, and will, be used against you in a court of law; you have the right to an attorney; should you not be able to afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you, free of charge . . .” (I didn’t even look that up, I just did it from memory).
The Miranda case, which went before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1963, ended as a five to four vote by the liberal Warren court, split exactly along party lines. And since there was a predominance of liberals on the court, the case passed, and we now have the Miranda Rights, which feel like they’ve always been around, but certainly haven’t been, and also seem like they’re a constitutional right, which they certainly aren’t. The Miranda Rights are an interpretation of the Constitution by the Supreme Court.
Not only were the four conservatives on the Supreme Court against Miranda, but so were all the other conservatives (Richard Nixon vehemently condemned Miranda), who felt that A. crime would now run rampant in the streets, and B. it would bankrupt all the state’s budgets by having to supply free legal aid to poor suspected lawbreakers. Well, time has proven both those arguments to be completely specious. Stating and following the Miranda Rights has not inhibited crime enforcement in any way, nor has providing lawyers to the poor broken any state budgets.
Previous to Miranda, there were no specific rules as to what were a prisoner’s rights once they’d been arrested, how far the police could go during an interrogation, and then what was actually admissible evidence afterward. It was standard practice for the police to bully a prisoner into a confession, which then became the primary evidence used in court against them. And most of those arrested previous to 1963 were not allowed to see a lawyer before interrogation. Many, many innocent people got railroaded this way. It was a bad system that didn’t work, and Miranda fixed it well enough to have not been tampered with in over forty years.
But all conservatives were against it, and probably still are.
Almost every piece of civil rights legislation from the 1960s was also passed on a five to four vote, split directly along party lines, that got enacted exclusively because it was a liberal court at the time. Previous to the civil rights legislation, the basic laws regarding civil rights, for at least half of our country anyway, were the Jim Crow laws, that we all now realize and naturally accept were utterly unfair and inhuman.
Yet, left to the conservatives, none of that legislation would have passed. What sort of country would we now be living in had both Miranda and the civil rights legislation not gone through? A better place? A freer place? A happier place? If you honestly believe that it would be a better country under those circumstances, you’re either clinically insane, or a staunch conservative. Quite frankly, I believe that there’s only a very fine line between them.
This relates directly to this present, conservative, government’s attitude and stance toward “terrorist suspects.” These people are not read the Miranda Rights, and are subsequently denied all of those rights, including legal council. Well, whether you’re “terror suspect” or a “crime suspect,” the bottom-line is that you are still just a “suspect,” and nobody has proven anything regarding your guilt or innocence. Theoretically, as I understand it, here in the United States of America you’re innocent until proven guilty. However, in the present, conservative, political climate, you’re innocent until someone says the word “terrorist,” then you’re guilty.
And conservatives like it that way. Why? Because conservatives are, by nature, paranoid people. “Conservative” in its basic form means, “One who is opposed to change.” Yet we all know and accept that everything’s changing all the time. So, being in opposition to change is exactly the same as being in opposition to time, like say, Peter Pan, who won’t grow up.
I read a definition of the difference between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. News and World Report (I was waiting to have my hair cut, and it was that or Field & Stream). It said, “Liberals believe in social programs; conservatives believe that everybody should help themselves.” Oh, really? And what about those unfortunate folks who cannot help themselves? The crazy, the drug addicts, the elderly, the homeless, the dregs at the bottom end of society? What about them?
As I perceive it, the conservative position on this is—let them die, for they are unworthy of life. This view, too, is of course entirely untenable, unrealistic, and let’s not mince words, just plain old mean.
It has been said that you can judge a society by how it treats the poorest and most unfortunate of its citizens, and I think that’s true. So clearly, the philosophy that “everybody should just help themselves,” is a silly, unrealistic point of view. In other words, it’s crap.
Regarding the weak, the poor, and the disabled, the oldest law we have in western civilization is the Code of Hammurabi, dating from about 1750 BC. Hammurabi’s first law is—the strong shall not take advantage of the weak. This is the basis and foundation of our civilization. What makes a civilization a civilization—as opposed to a land of barbarians—is that we believe we can inherently trust our fellow countrymen to the extent that we can turn our backs on strangers without the fear of having a knife plunged between our shoulder blades. We believe, for the most part, that we will not be taken advantage of when we interact with our society. Yes, there are crimes, and that’s why King Hammurabi had to come up with a code in the first place.
But conservatives don’t want to handle crime, they want crime to go away completely, and if that means totally eliminating the lower classes, so be it. In the conservative utopian fantasy there is no crime, everybody makes a good living, everybody’s a Christian and goes to church every Sunday, adults are treated with respect (and are always called “sir” and “ma’am”), kids are all well-behaved, and all the homosexuals have died of AIDS. To me, the conservative utopian fantasy sounds like an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
Another definition of conservative is, “the low point,” as in “a conservative estimate.” Whereas, a “liberal estimate” would give you the high end. Isn’t this simply a variation of the half-empty, half-full view of the world? Conservatives are on the half-empty side, and honestly, who wants to be there? The half-empty philosophy is the pessimistic, downbeat view, and ultimately anyone with that perspective is a drag to be around.
Not only that, but “the conservative estimate” regarding just about anything, from contracting work, plumbing, carpentry, car repairs, movie budgets, or anything else, is nearly always wrong. Estimates rarely if ever come out at the low-end. If I take my car in to have a squeak fixed, they’ll certainly find something else wrong, and the initial, conservative, estimate of $200, invariably becomes a reality of more like $1,000.
What’s difficult for a liberal like myself to understand, is that conservatives are against change, even when they know it’s the right thing to do, as with the civil rights legislation. Mr. Conservative, Barry Goldwater, was against the civil rights bills—which he openly admitted were the morally the right thing to do—but he added, as many conservatives have over the course of time about many things, that it wasn’t really about morality, it was actually a “state’s rights issue.” That was also the southern states’ response to Abraham Lincoln introducing the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves—“That’s not a federal issue, it’s a state issue.” Well, if morality is involved, as it most definitely was with both slavery and civil rights, then it’s absolutely not a state’s rights issue, it’s a federal issue. One state hasn’t got the right to hold out and still have slavery, or continue to have separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks, when every other state has concluded that it’s wrong. And, once again, the conservative’s position was wrong. Taking this ridiculous stance on civil rights was one of, if not the, major reason Goldwater lost his bid for the presidency in 1964. Yet on a personality level, America seemed to like the upbeat, rootin’-tootin’, Barry Goldwater a lot more than they did the long-faced, slow-talking, stick-in-the-mud, Texan, Lyndon Johnson. Nevertheless, by 1964 the civil rights issues couldn’t wait one second longer to be dealt with, and all Goldwater wanted to do was wait.
Waiting is a conservative thing to do. Frequently, however, waiting is the wrong course of action. As has been said many times over the millennia, “He who hesitates is lost.”
Why did the liberal Democrat, Bill Clinton, preside over a time with an increasing surplus of money in our treasury, and no wars for eight years, when conservatives would have us believe that liberals are spend-a-holics on social programs, and appear so weak that everybody will naturally want to attack us? And why, since we’ve had a conservative Republican government, we’ve been attacked, we now have the biggest deficit ever, we’re embroiled in a quagmire of a war that’s already cost over 3,000 American lives, several hundred thousand Iraqi’s lives, and nearly $400 billion?
George Bush, and the ever-decreasing group of loyalists surrounding him, have frequently brought up the idea that history will prove Bush correct on his decisions regarding Iraq. However, as we can easily see with only a tiny bit of historical perspective, history has consistently proved the conservative point of view to be wrong about everything.
That’s why I personally am to the left of the Democrats, and very proud and pleased to call myself a liberal. A liberal looks to the future, recognizes that everything is changing all the time, and embraces those changes, because whether you embrace them or oppose them, they’re still going to occur.
So, to listen to the elderly Barry Goldwater complain that conservatism had gone wrong under Ronald Reagan, then to listen to today’s conservatives bitch that conservatism has gone wrong under George W. Bush, to me is the height of absurdity.
Conservatism didn’t go wrong under Reagan or Bush, because conservatism is wrong at it’s core. It’s illogical to oppose change. Change is constant and immutable. Change is the one thing of which you can absolutely be certain. As the Hindus say, “You can never put your foot into the same stream twice.” The stream is going through a constant state of transformation, as are all humans, as is the planet, as is the universe. Therefore, to oppose change—to be conservative—very simply put, is to be a fool.