by Roland Lindsey
I read The Death of Conservatism a few days ago, right after reading through "Right Reason" by William F. Buckley, Jr. for the first time. Something occurred to me that I initially observed as a teenager growing up in George H.W. Bush's America.
Conservatives, it seemed to me, had an optimistic view of individual behavior. Liberals on the other hand seemed to have a distressingly pessimistic opinion of human behavior. I saw Conservatives desirous of creating an environment where people would choose to do the right thing, while Liberals had given up on the idea long ago and would nullify such behavior with the actions of a state. Now I know that Conservative essayists go on and on about how much they believe in the fallibility of man, but it didn't seem that way to me. On issue after issue, my observation seemed to hold true.
An example of this dichotomy is present when we consider the welfare state. Conservatives argue that the government safety net discourages the church and communities from taking care of their own needy members, and that if government were out of the way, individuals and citizen organizations would take care of the needy on a local level. Liberals seem to be unwilling to trust in the good nature of individuals and citizen organizations, and engage the state in an act of faceless paternalism in order to avoid the unpleasantness of the starving and destitute. It's not exactly a Hallmark moment, but at least people are being fed.
A more recent example is that the Liberal establishment believes that corporations and individuals will not do the right thing in regards to health care, and therefore have to create another faceless parent to take care of us all. Conservatives argue instead for more market deregulation, less government involvement, more capitalism and competition, holding the belief that the individuals and the corporations will do the right thing.
When Conservatives seek to prevent a personal behavior, it is argued that behavior is immoral. Immorality (as defined largely by Judeo-Christian values) is anathema to policy that depends on each person doing the right thing. If Conservative policy, by and large, expects individuals to act virtuously, than a virtuous people is required for said policy to be successful. Enter the Culture War.
You can hardly listen to a Republican elected official without hearing about "the erosion of values" or "the moral decay" of our country. They wring their hands about the immorality of abortion while simultaneously doing nothing to stop it. They complained about Marilyn Manson, and "Gansta Rap" and Murphy Brown. To what end? They gnashed their teeth when Janet Jackson pulled a stunt at the Superbowl that really didn't matter to most Americans.
It has become clear to me that Republicans believe "traditional family values" and proper tax legislation are inextricably linked. If the moral decay is not staunched, then perhaps these individuals who we believe should be virtuous will cheat on their taxes. Or perhaps instead of investing their tax rebate into the stock market, they will instead blow it on the Sex and the City Boxed set, cocaine, and hookers. It sounds far-fetched, but I believe it is consistent with the ideology.
Conservatives have been woefully unsuccessful in engaging individuals on their ideas for health care reform, but they can certainly get a lot of press once they cry loudly about 16 year-olds being educated on safe sex. And since in their view, governance depends on the virtue of the governed, it is rational to go for the morality play. In order for their policy to work properly, people must behave "morally". What they haven't realized yet is what is killing them: Most college-educated people do not share their philosophy.
I'm 37 and work in the software industry. The typical profile of my peers is "Social Liberal, Fiscal Conservative." You all know them, and you know what they mean by that. They believe that sometimes people are virtuous, and sometimes people are not. They believe that sometimes you must bring equality through government mandate, yet there is a price to be paid. We hear from Republicans about how immoral we all are, and we turn them off. Who wants to hear about what a cesspool it is that we all live in? We hear from Democrats about injustice, and we at least give them a listen. Above all, we believe in reality, not whether or not a spiritual leader would agree with how we are spending our Saturday evenings.
For Republicans to make headway with our demographic, they must table the desire to manage our virtue, and move forward with the desire to govern the country. When we hear a Republican, we shouldn't be hearing about how traditional marriage is under assault, rather we should be hearing about how school vouchers give us a better education for our children. When we listen to a Republican, we shouldn't be hearing about how Marijuana is a terrible vice, rather how a strong defense will ensure peace.
I'm not asking Republicans to forsake their values; I'm asking Republicans to push for ideas and reforms that make sense to us divorced from a moral framework. Whether or not we will ever have, or indeed ever had the virtue to live according to perfect Conservative principles, I don't know. What I do know is that morality is a lot less important to us today than it seems to be to the Republican party. And while this disconnect exists, the Republicans will stay out in the wilderness.