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Reconciling Conservatism and Compassion

Putting the pieces together again


VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – The political system of the United States is in utter disarray. At the moment, it is so dysfunctional that questions as to the fundamental viability of the US model of constitutional governance are being raised. The seemingly unbridgeable rift between the Democrats and the Republicans has led to legislative gridlock and has produced a Congress with lower approval ratings than syphilis, cockroaches, Donald Trump, or genital herpes.

But more than the left – right divide, there is division within the right itself; the Republican Party is so internally fragmented that it’s hard to see what all the Kings horses and all the King’s men can do to reconstruct the shattered egg. The Republicans at one time were a cohesive, strong, and patriotic force in US politics. At the moment they are a collection of ideologues representing a host of incompatible, even contradictory ideologies and special interests. That absence of cohesion is matched by their lack of strength as demonstrated in the last election, and their recent history of obstructionism and economic sabotage even suggests that patriotism is no longer one of their characteristics.

But there is hope for the Republican Party. And, like it or not, the United States needs the GOP, or something to replace it; a two party system needs that party of the right to keep the left honest and to represent the views of those who cling to conservative ideals. So, the

CPAC speakers in the green room

clownshow of disparate factions that makes up today’s conservative movement are meeting at their annual CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference). It remains to be seen whether the shrill and intransigent zealots can cut through their own anger and bitterness to see a fairly obvious way to come together and start to repair the infrastructure of their own movement, their designated political party, and incidentally, the political system of the United States of America.

CPAC has speakers like Donald Trump, the game show host who continues to insist that the president of the United States is an illegal alien; Wayne LaPierre, the NRA spokesperson who insists that the best way to protect children in schools is to arm virtually everyone in the country and to refuse to require background checks or registration of firearms; Sarah (I can see Russia from my house) Palin; Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal who referred to his party as “the stupid party” but at the same time eliminated income taxes on millionaires and paid for it by instituting a tax paid disproportionally by the poor and middle class; Mitt (47%) Romney; and some real nutjobs. What is interesting about this lineup is that apart from calling themselves conservative, these people have very little in common; if they didn’t know each other and were chatting about politics in a bar somewhere, they would come to blows…or more likely, they’d each draw their guns and start shooting.

And that is why the right is falling apart. They have no unifying principle, no common ground at all except for an expressed hatred of government. And that coalesced when a Harvard educated, black community organiser from Chicago drubbed them in two sequential general elections.

Hate government? Sure. Hate Obama’s presidency? AAARRRGGGHHHHH!

The party of the right, the Republican Party, has always stood for limited government, personal liberty, and individualism. But over the years, that tent has broadened to include the religious right who have a different agenda from the tradition limited government advocates; the religious right are, despite their rhetoric, proponents of increased government intrusion into the lives of citizens. They believe that limiting government would include having the government mandate medically unnecessary vaginal probes on women who choose to terminate an unwanted pregnancy (a constitutional right). From there, everyone with a restrictive agenda has gravitated to the GOP.

Where the right has fallen into a bog and foundered is in the bifurcation between eliminating government interference in civil liberties on the one hand and legislating moral values on the other. And this is symptomatic of the whole problem with today’s political right. They seem unable to draw boundaries between things in which they believe and things which are objectively, factually true; they can’t seem to separate one notion from another or draw distinctions between what they would like and what is best for the country.

The Republican Party would find some reconciliation if they were to learn to draw distinctions. The first one they should consider if they want to pull themselves out of the hole into they have dug themselves is between two primary functions of government: actually governing, for one; providing benefits and services for another.

The Republicans have made a crusade of demanding that the deficit be slashed as a method of reducing and ultimately eliminating the national debt. It’s bad economics in the current situation; in fact the notion of curtailing spending and paying down a debt when the economy is sluggish and interest rates are at an historic low is counter to every piece of economic wisdom available. On the contrary; now is the time to increase spending as a stimulus and to take on debt to finance it while rates are this low. When the economy has rebounded, the debt will be much more manageable and the rates for those who wish to borrow from the US will be higher than the rates paid on the national debt. They know this.

So what is the real agenda? They have said it among themselves…they just don’t say it out loud where their electorate can hear it. They want to reduce government by starving it to death. And they want to do this as a moral issue. Government bad. But this is largely a matter of failing to distinguish between the two functions of government enumerated above.

Perhaps the conservatives should look at it this way: most people would agree that excessive government, in the sense of being over-governed, is a bad thing. Rather than destroying the economy in an effort to undermine the ability of the administration and legislature to govern, perhaps they ought to consider introducing legislation to limit legislation and to diminish the size of the legislative machinery. In other words, employ the power of Congress to reduce the influence of Congress and the administrative branch in areas of our lives that should be private.

But a distinction could be drawn between that aspect of governance upon which most people agree, and the function of government to utilise the market strength of hundreds of millions of consumers to purchase things for everyone that everyone needs. Things like universal health care, employment insurance, food stamps, universal day care, public education, and the military are benefits that accrue to every member of society and they can all be far less expensive if the buying power of an enormous population is harnessed and directed. That isn’t government interference; that’s wise shopping.

I genuinely don’t believe that most conservatives are as hateful and self-serving as some of the wingnuts at CPAC would lead us to believe. If the rank and file were to step back from the rhetoric for a moment they would see that government has a function beyond interfering in our civil liberties, and that function is to corral the economic clout of the third most populous country on earth to accomplish, for a fraction of the cost of doing it individually, that which everyone would like to see done. Conservatives don’t really want to live in a country where the poor die of hunger and exposure at the steps of the mansions of the wealthy. Conservatives don’t really want child labour to be a reality in America. Nor do they really want education only to be available to the elite. They simply abhor government to such an extent that they don’t want even necessities provided by government.

A paradigm shift needs to be made so that the real conservatives can see that it wouldn’t be government imposing these things on people. It would be the people pooling their resources to buy these things for the country, and the government carrying out its function 

of administration. Of course that would require toning down the vitriol, thinking outside the reactionary bubble, and actually thinking about what’s best for their country.

But Judging by CPAC, that ain’t about to happen.




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