Conservatism is Great but it Doesn’t Scale

There’s a lot of talk in politics about right and wrong, but it’s more useful to talk about what works and what doesn’t work (or for *whom* it works).

Conservative values can work very well for an individual. He takes responsibility for his own failures. He is loyal to family and friends. He distrusts people he doesn’t know. He respects the private property of others. He’s a company man. He likes a strong leader.

These values can get a person far in life, and can make a person happy. And they can scale a little bit larger than the individual, like to a sports team, or a military unit. These are, after all, the values of the pack, or a tribe. They might even scale to a town. But on a national scale, they cause problems.

Loyalty, honor, faith, love: we value these qualities in a person. But they are irrational. They are not based on facts. Actually, you show even *more* loyalty when you refuse to see the facts. You show a stronger faith when evidence doesn’t sway you. You love unconditionally. This can make you a great friend, a terrific spouse, but it can also make you a lousy politician. Because in a democracy, a politician is supposed to represent everyone. Loyalty to everyone is meaningless. Love for everyone is, well, it’s just not the same love. Like when someone says, “of course I love you. I love everyone.” That feels terrible, but it’s good politics.

The best politics is concerned with the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And that’s why Conservatism falls short at this level. Conservatism will always say this group is more important than that group. These are the good guys and those are the bad guys. Conservatism picks a side and sticks with it regardless of what they do.

I see this with flag burning arguments. The Conservative forgets that the flag is just a symbol. The flag is the honor of our nation. Loyalty to the flag is required. So when you say that burning a flag is free speech, the Conservative says no, the flag represents free speech, and therefore you are burning free speech. The Conservative is locked into his position. He can’t understand that there is a different perspective. He can’t understand that a symbol, like a flag, can be questioned, analyzed, modified to make a new point. He’s not stupid. He deliberately doesn’t want to understand this. To him, this willful blindness is strength. Would you burn the quilt that your grandmother sewed? What kind of jackass would do that? See? Conservatism works when there is one family, a handful of ancestors who need to be respected and honored. But the world, the milieu of politics, isn’t like that. It’s full of different families, with different agendas and different purposes. It’s complicated. There is no easy answer, but picking one team and trying to get that one team to win at all costs is definitely not the answer.

This devotion to… well, devotion… explains why Conservatives are pitting themselves against science, against immigrants, and against treaties, ignoring the fact that the United States has used all three to prosper.

Next, there is responsibility. When you’re talking about your own responsibility, that’s great. But when you’re talking about someone else’s responsibility and saying they should transcend societal and cultural influences, well it’s because Conservatism doesn’t equip you to understand society and culture. When a Conservative can’t transcend societal and cultural influences, then it’s the government’s fault. They took the factory jobs away! But if an inner city minority can’t get a job, then it’s on her. She needs to pull herself up by her bootstraps. By the way, have you ever noticed that it’s impossible to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps? You can’t pull yourself up by pulling on yourself. You need something else, something stable, to pull on.

I could take this opportunity to explain how the Conservative ideology is manipulated by rich people to get votes, but that’s not my point. Any fixed ideology can be manipulated by rich people to get votes. A conservative could spin Chernobyl as a failure of state-run energy. A liberal could spin Fukushima as a failure of large corporations. But really both examples are some combination of government and industry. The point is to hold accountable those in power, and to make practical decisions. I used to think nuclear power was a valid option, but unless there’s a drastic change in how nuclear power companies (or governments) safeguard against risk, I no longer think that way. Is this really an ideological decision?

Maybe it is. The very fact that I question fixed ideology, that I can change my mind, makes me an enemy of Conservatism, at least in some eyes. But in reality I see Conservatism as a great set of values, as valid as any other system of belief. But politically, I’m a pragmatist. Not a pragmatist like the Clintons who decided to gut financial regulations to get votes, or a pragmatist like Obama who kept killing people with drones because killing is okay with voters if our troops aren’t doing it, but a pragmatist in the sense of wanting to do the most good and the least harm. That’s why I often find myself at odds with Conservatism, because it is not at all pragmatic. On the global scale, it is downright reckless.

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