Is Political Conservatism Rooted in Reality?

I do not generally write about partisan political issues or personal candidates. I do not believe, as I noted in a book review just last week, that politics is of primary importance in the public square. In fact, I think we have been lulled into thinking this is the case since 1976. Far too much of the church, on the political left and the political right, believes elections really determine our future. I profoundly disagree. In fact, as a historian I do not believe the best and most insightful history of a people, a nation, or a civilization, is told by recounting the lives and deeds of kings/queens or presidents/prime ministers.

Catholic writer George Weigel expresses my view well when he says: “History is driven, over the long haul, by culture — by what men and women honor, cherish, and worship; by what societies deem to be true and good, and by the expressions they give to those convictions in language, literature, and the arts; by what individuals and societies are willing to stake their lives on” (cited by Philip W. Eaton in Engaging the Culture, Changing the World, InterVarsity Press, 2011, 80). It is easy to seek solutions by elections. It is hard to build a culture. It takes many of us, using our many gifts and skills in various and creative ways, to build a solid and lasting culture.

In the June 17 issue of TIME columnist Fareed Zakaria writes about the abstract professors of the modern Republican Party, professors who he suggests are not faithful to the true meaning of political conservatism. Could he be right?

Zakaria notes that from “Aristotle to Edmund Burke, the greatest conservative thinkers have said that to change societies, one must understand them, accept them as they are and help them evolve.” He believes something happened to this tradition. I believe he is right on several counts.

Consider the debates over the economy. The Republican prescription is to cut taxes and slash government spending — then things will bounce back. Now, I would like to see lower rates in the context of tax simplification and reform, but what is the evidence that tax cuts are the best path to revive the U.S. economy? Taxes — federal and state combined — as a percentage of GDP are at their lowest level since 1950. The U.S. is among the lowest taxed of the big industrial economies. So the case that America is grinding to a halt because of high taxation is not based on facts but is simply a theoretical assertion. The rich countries that are in the best shape right now, with strong growth and low unemployment, are ones like Germany and Denmark, neither one characterized by low taxes.

Many Republican businessmen and politicians believe the Obama Administration is the most hostile presidency to business in 50 years. Zakaria wonders about this claim. He asks of those who hold this view: “More than that of Richard Nixon, who presided over tax rates that reached 70%, regulations that spanned whole industries, and who actually instituted price and wage controls?”

And he notes, and this is worthy of critical reflection I am quite sure, “From Singapore to South Korea to Germany to Canada, evidence abounds that some strategic actions by the government can act as catalysts for free-market growth.” (This statement really does leave the devil in the details!)

So Zakaria concludes: “Conservatives used to be the ones with heads firmly based in reality. Their reforms were powerful because they used the market, streamlined government and empowered individuals. Their effects were large-scale and important: think of the reform of the tax code in the 1980s, for example, which was spearheaded by conservatives.”

But today’s Tea Party conservative Republicans “hate [the] sensible ideas of the Bowles-Simpson commission on deficit reduction because those ideas are too deeply rooted in, well, reality.” He then asks two questions that resonate deeply with my thinking about political reality.

1. Does anyone think we are really going to get federal spending to the level it was at under Calvin Coolidge, as Paul Ryan's plan assumes?

2. Does anyone think we will deport 11 million people?

The first might be a long term goal but the second is a social and spiritual disaster waiting to happen.

Zakaria is thus right when he concludes: “We need conservative ideas to modernize the U.S. economy and reform American government. But what we have instead are policies that don't reform but just cut and starve government — a strategy that pays little attention to history or best practices from around the world and is based instead on a theory. It turns out that [some] conservatives are the woolly-headed professors after all.”

Real conservatism is a political belief and strategy rooted in conserving while change happens and moves rather slowly in a defined direction. It does not embrace radical steps and means that harm multitudes all at once. It is, and this is so important, incremental. Liberalism, in the modern sense, is more radical. It is more willing to progressively make major changes believing that a bigger and newer way is generally superior. America has always had both views contesting for the center and the future. So long as conservatives act in unreasonable and pretentious ways their agenda will fail. The result will be government by default, at least ideologically. The modern heirs to Ronald Reagan seem to have lost their way. The worst speak of Reagan in messianic tones without an ounce of truly conservative reality about the past or the present. The big loser is the country! We need great conservative ideas now more than ever. What we are getting is an “anti-Obama” stance rather than new conservative ideas that will work to incrementally bring about real change that will improve the lot of most Americans in the end. So long as this is what is offered one has to wonder if the present occupant of the White House can be beaten by any candidate regardless of his many political problems.

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