Commentary

Where, oh where have the old-school conservatives gone?

August 10, 2021 12:20 am

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 06: Rioters enter the Senate Chamber on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over Donald Trump. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In an exceedingly weird dream the other night, I became a conservative. Small “c” old-school conservative, the guy who distrusts rapid change, reveres custom and tradition, and fears anything that threatens to erode the foundations of government and society.

As that newly minted conservative, I beheld with alarm and chagrin what had become of politics and governance in these United States of America. Particularly concerning was the transformation of this country’s long-established conservative party into power-crazed, disruptive populists praying at the altar of a huckster clown.

Apparently, a lot had changed for the worse in our political culture since I hit the pillow the night before. For one political party, the distinguishing trait of 21st century American politics – bitter partisan combat held in check by legal, social and media guardrails – had devolved into a Mad Max-like race for power. No rules, no limits, no deference to truth, morality, ethics or democratic principles. With apologies to the late Vince Lombardi, victory for your side — your team — had become not just everything; it was the only thing.

In sports, that makes sense. Winning is the whole point of the game. It’s defined by a simple tallying of points.

In a healthy political culture, winning involves much more than accumulating a greater number of votes than your opponent. It means accomplishing good things for the people and the world we live in. It means doing so without crippling the political system that makes that possible or immolating our own character, ethics and morality in pursuit of victory. This is something both parties once at least made a pretense of believing.

In this continuing dream, yours truly, the dreamscape conservative, considered all the things that I missed about the old Republican Party. They included:

  • Respecting science and medicine not just when their conclusions support your political positions but even when they don’t. In the old conservative days, linking arms in countering an existential threat like the pandemic would have been the right thing to do. Obstructing that effort at every turn, in defiance of public health recommendations (such as with Ohio’s S.B. 22), not so much. (OK, you got me; the GOP has been anti-science on climate change for decades.)
  • Modeling behavior that will save lives. If you feel strongly enough about protecting yourself from a deadly virus to get vaccinated, why wouldn’t you use your leadership platform to persuade others to seek the same protection? The answer seems obvious; you care more about preserving your image as a disruptor than saving people’s lives and ending a pandemic that still has the capacity to cripple our economy.
  • Honoring the physical trappings of our 240-year-old democracy, including the U.S. Capitol building.
  • Believing the evidence of our own eyes. What happened Jan. 6 at the Capitol – and unceasingly in various arenas before and after – was on full view, an assault on the foundations of our cherished democracy, a bald-faced play to negate a legal election, to invalidate the people’s votes.
  • Upholding the hard work of local and state election officials of both parties, and abiding by the results that they tally and confirm. If you attack election results that don’t conform with your preferences, you’re hacking away at the pillars of our democracy. There’s a word for that; it starts with “T.” It definitely bears no relation to classic conservatism.
  • Recognizing the independence of the Justice Department, and not defending a president who abuses Justice to protect his own political interests and save his hide after a lost election. The same goes with foreign policy.
  • Not deciding issues or choosing candidates based on one metric – how the leader of your party feels about it. That’s how authoritarian leaders operate — demanding total fealty. Old-school conservatives wouldn’t be suckered that easily (though Nixon gave it the old college try).
  • Assuming that everybody is working off the same set of basic facts. In my continuing dream, this blew me away more than anything. In the real world, both conservatives, moderates and liberals always had assumed that baseline facts were something to be depended upon. That was no longer the case in my dream world. More than any other threat this seemed like a potential game-changer in the trajectory of our democracy. If verified facts couldn’t prevail over opinion and propaganda, we’d be left at the mercy of those who are most adept (and well-funded) at manipulating and spreading misinformation.
  • Despite serious political differences among Americans, recognizing that we all share the same past and hopefully the same future. And it should go without saying, Americans of all political stripes share membership in the same mammalian species group. In this unsettling dream world, one of Ohio’s highest-profile Republicans, U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandell, suggested in a tweet that liberal Americans lack even the most basic positive human qualities. Accompanying photos of himself and his family catching fish, Mandell tweeted, “Family. Fishing. Freedom. Why do liberals hate this so much?” Mandell’s humanity-canceling message was reminiscent of ideas one would have seen on anti-Semitic handbills circulating in mid-1930s Germany. It wasn’t funny then; it wasn’t funny now.
  • Believing that one sign of a healthy and dynamic political party is welcoming a range of perspectives under a wide ideological tent. That in the case of current Republicans, accepting only the most rigid and extreme tenets of conservatism/populism, and then only those positions endorsed by the party leader, will shrink the party rather than grow it.

AROUND THIS TIME, OUR DOG started barking to go outside for his coarser morning ablutions. My brief and depressing tenure as an old-school conservative came to a merciful end.

OK, I’ll admit it. My imagined dream was a literary device to advance a serious argument. But you probably knew that.

I do want to make this clear. America’s political culture was not all sweetness and light before Donald Trump began rolling bowling balls through the china shop. Not by a long shot. But something extremely troubling has happened – and I won’t be coy and pretend ignorance of who’s at fault – to transform a bitterly polarized but functional political system into something much worse – a country divided into two mutually exclusive worlds that barely speak the same language.

Unfortunately, one of those worlds is more than eager to abandon the core principles of American democracy, good government and civil society cherished and upheld by their conservative forbearers. They do it in soulless pursuit of political victory at any cost. This isn’t something I thought I’d ever say, but I miss those old-school Republicans. They were wrong a lot but at least most of them meant well.

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Terry Smith
Terry Smith

Terry Smith in May 2020 left The Athens NEWS in Athens, Ohio, after editing that award-winning publication for 34 years. His columns and editorials have placed first in the Ohio News Media Association’s annual weekly newspaper awards in recent years. Before returning to Athens and his alma mater, Ohio University, in 1986, Smith reported for newspapers in Ohio, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado and West Virginia. He is currently freelance editing and writing from his home in Athens.

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