My usual rant against conservatives needs corrective balance. I do for them here what I wish they would do for us – understand. Why? Our country has grown dangerously divisive, though we are and must be a single society. In our society and in our liberal congregations, conservatives deserve support both as persons and for their useful perspectives. Finally, we are more whole by knowing both ways in our being.
Over two decades ago, when I read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Conservative,” his appreciation opened mine. Then, a decade ago, in a break from ministry, I started and ran my own small business. Finally, I dated a woman from a conservative background and family. All of these have granted me a glimmer of understanding from the inside out.
Conservatives are wary. They suspect a base nature, then expect it, and so, accept it. Because human wickedness is lurking or active, they favor a divine law that is firm, prohibitive, and punitive. The Old Testament God of wrath has not been superceded by Jesus’ forgiveness and inclusive kindness, but they use the faith formula of his expiatory death to forgive their own failings. This can be sincere, or it can be the wink of the successful con man. Our favored liberal traits – open-minded, progressive, generous, lenient, libertine – the conservative dislikes.
Drawing an inclusive circle, we go forth with trust and optimism to collectively enact win/win programs through common government. Conservatives see this as softheaded and naive. They suspect social programs are wasteful and counterproductive, mucking up the natural selection process of free markets, which favors the daring and dedicated and drops the timid and lazy. Government is seen as a necessary evil to be kept small and centered on inner liberty and outer defense. Citizens should develop their own strengths, not rely on society to help them.
I suspect both philosophies are really secondary extensions of and justifications for primary inner temperaments. Some people are just plain caring, cuddly, and hopeful, while others are simply cautious, aloof, and cynical. Some sense abundance and sharing; others see scarcity and strife. Some long for a better future, while others fear we’re loosing a stable past. Some perceive many options; others decide clearly and judge firmly. It could be genes create variations in our essential natures and psyches which are needed in the healthy balance and survival of a dynamic society. Each needs the other.
Emerson represented and valued both types. He wrote, “each is a good half, but an impossible whole. Each exposes the abuses of the other, but in a true society, in a true man, both must combine.” In his 1841 address at a Masonic Temple he praised the Conservative who dared, invested, and dedicated, who “[rose] early and sat late, and toiled honestly and painfully for many years.” He chided the Reformer who does not acknowledge the value of that being reformed. “You cannot jump from the ground without using the resistance of the ground,” he reminded. Our “counter culture” against “the system” forgot this. Though we didn’t get our wishes since then, neither did they.
We can see how conservatives see changes for the worse. The traditional reasons for monogamy assuring paternity for the father and thus protecting assets and care for the offspring seems forgotten and dismissed in a rush to let any two or more who claim love claim marriage. Broken marriages divided assets and resulted in both parents having to work to support two households. This also resulted in remarriages where new men live with girls who are not really their daughters. The pregnant consequences of free sex appear resolved by the casual killing of, if not “children,” at least something that would be a child. IV drug users and homosexual men (mostly) catch and spread a horrid disease natural in cause but punitive in interpretation.
Seen from the cautious and puritanical frame of mind, we can see why such social trends concern and offend many, even if we liberals have reasons for other conclusions. Reacting to these trends, conservatives adopt an ideology that ends up betraying their own good intensions. We need them to see this as much as we also need those good intensions. When conservatives try to regulate morality by law it violates a competing value within the conservative – keeping the government out of our lives. They allow our attorney general to peer into the pee of our school children, but what of his efforts to mandate how we each choose to live and die?
Conservatives lose their caution when it comes to conserving anything beyond puritan morality and free markets. They cleave to three square meals a day of what they think of as traditional food, not realizing today’s foods contain radically new and dangerous agents. Our ability to store fat for the long winter has been amply overfed. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer beset us, yet only the ecologically minded seem to take a conservative approach. The wasteful overabundance of food and products belies the conservative value of frugality. “Conservatism is affluent,” wrote Emerson, “but there is a cunning juggle in riches… I look bigger, but am less; I have more clothes, but am not so warm; more armor, but less courage; more books, but less wit.” Consumerism bedazzles us. “To the end of your power you will serve this lie which cheats you,” he prophesized in 1841.
Conservatives served also the lie their president [Bush] fed them for starting this war in Iraq. He tapped into the laudable sentiments of honor, valor, and sacrifice reminiscent of World War II to needlessly taunt World War III. Warning of weapons that only we had, he put our boys out as targets in a war on those who never attacked us. Our defense budget exceeds the rest of the world’s combined, yet we use it offensively because we feel defensive? Those who have actually fought in wars are wary of them, while our posturing president acts puffy from behind a plentitude of protection. “Bring it on,” he taunts. Then the coffins return under orders of secrecy. Where is the caution or compassion in such conservatism?
Lest our country launch imperial wars as crude as the Crusades, an empire as ultimately doomed as the Roman, we need conservatives to question the sanctimonious pretenses being fed to them, especially those on radio. Hate talk radio has foisted a fun but foolish agenda on our people. Catering to the basest emotions of exclusion and ridicule, it parades a self-righteous agenda of “us over them,” as if noble. Reagan restructured the Telecommunication Act of 1937 in 1987, delivering to rural America only the agenda of the richest of the rich and the meanest of the mean.
I have sympathy for the conservatives I disagree with when I realize they’re thinking with one-sided fictions George Orwell could easily expose. Chief among these is the mantra that government is bad for us, taxes to it are what drain us, and more jobs will save us. Nothing injures America more than these fictions! Government is, or ought to be: us taking care of ourselves and our resources efficiently, and participating responsibly in the world of nations. Conservatives want less government, but I doubt they’d want no government or only weak government. Would they trust meat packers to keep mad cow disease out of our food? Would they want a return to toll booths at every privatized corner of the road? Do they applaud the thousands of phony mailboxes in Bermuda so American companies can extract massive profits from our people, then return nothing to our commonwealth?
Having been a small business owner and employer, I can see why conservatives resent taxes and government. Employees see taxes extracted from their pay check but don’t understand how those taxes benefit them and how much trouble and expense they are for their employers. If health insurance provided, they don’t know that most civilized countries provide it and don’t expect employers to pay that enormously expensive perk. Finally, and most importantly, they don’t even know of the many insurances, bonds, and fees the employer must buy.
This last one goes to the heart of the ruse conservatives promote and are victimized by. There are some two hundred thousand contractors big and small in Oregon. In Oregon a few years ago the Construction Contractor’s Board suddenly doubled the bonds contractors must carry. Why? Nineteen contractors had unresolved disputes. True to conservative mistrust and hyper caution, nineteen disputes or bad guys led to two hundred thousand paying all that much more for mandated bonds they mostly won’t use yet must purchase yearly. I’m sure the bond industry was pleased. A weak and secretive government sells out to the multiple lobbyists who ultimately run government to their advantage, and conservatives end up paying all the more in bonds, insurance, and fees. Taxes at least go to our commonwealth and provide for living-wage jobs. Mandatory payments for insurance, coupled to high-priced health and energy needs, fund only the private wealth of the few who run it to their advantage. Lowering taxes weakens the only hope we have of protection from these predatory corporations.
A single action would go a long way to heal the divide in our country: Mandating a clear and simple explanation of the various taxes, insurances, and fees on the pay stub the employer pays to be given out at hire and then yearly, would inform us all as to our mutual responsibilities and benefits in the employee/employer/government relationship. Included in such an informative notice would be an explanation of how much money and accounting the employer provides. Employees could easily miss the employer’s attention to the multiple reporting forms, the payment of a variety of small taxes, and the employer’s paying the big one: half of the Social Security that ends up being the employee’s retirement income. Instead of just resentment that the employer and government are “taking my money,” employees might better appreciate both for looking after their larger needs. A bi-partisan bill to do this, sponsored by a conservative and a liberal, would serve us all.
We also need to deconstruct this clamor for jobs, any jobs. Every employee has one job: Employees make more money for their employer than they cost. When I had employees I made so much money easily I gave bonuses to my crew. This clamor for “tax cuts to promote jobs” is a sneaky way of driving the wage rate down and the profit margin up. Conservative employees will be among those exploited, but when they turn to their unions or government for help or protection, they won’t be there. We’ve more millionaires, but millions more who resent it. “Class warfare” is just a name game being used to forestall the anger of those who are losing in that systemic war.
Do we need revolution to get the point? A twentyfirst Century guillotine? Published answers to the question asked in “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Who do I shoot?” Or the return fire that such an approach would elicit? America needn’t go to such troubled extremes. We walk forward together – left, right, left, right. We need to walk unhobbled. The eagle that muscularizes one wing while bashing the other will fly only in circles, if at all. We need an eagle that soars on two strong sleek wings.
We need a society of people who aren’t so divisive and divided. We need us in the U.S., all of us. We need all aspects and abilities of ourselves. As Emerson said, “each is a good half, but an impossible whole.”
I admit appreciation for conservative contributions to society. Conservatives have passions that make liberals dreary and whiney by comparison. Emerson would appreciate their “must do/can do” spirit. Along with our revolutionary founders, I agree with conservatives that it is wise to be able to defend our liberties and rights if government were to grow too corrupt and repressive. Conservatives are right to encourage individual initiative and savings. I, like conservatives and Emerson, am wary of the welfare state. We don’t need to breed lazy, dependent people. Emerson wrote, “I … become idle and dissolute … because I feel no title in myself to my advantages.” To buy off the idle instills no virtue. “The law acts then as a screen of his unworthiness, and makes him worse the longer it protects him.”
Finally, I appreciate conservatives on a personal level. Dating a woman of conservative background grants me access to the habits and assumptions of her family’s culture. Conservatives aren’t often political. They resent political intrusions into a life where they basically want to be left alone. They want to do what’s right, which is confusing, because their ideology in politics and religion is pre-labeled “right.” It’s hard to question group loyalty when all your friends and all the media reinforce that loyalty. Janet Jackson was denounced, Bush was promoted, and MoveOn.org’s ad was ignored.
Conservatives are being protected in their sanctimony from the reality of their society and the dire consequences they themselves would otherwise care about. Conservatives are more caring than they admit or that liberals notice. I see within a supposed hard heart a nurturing one. Conservatives don’t realize their laudable values are leading to ignoble directions. They are not evil people wishing to trash all the balance built into society for two hundred years. You’d think they’d be wary of our laws serving international corporations and the largest deficit ever – five hundred thousand million dollars a year and growing. On the air waves, in the churches, and in all three branches of government, conservatives have had a heyday. What is needed now are conservatives who admit the imbalance and how its direction is leading to inept government, crippling debt, real class warfare, and endless wars. Where are the Wayne Morse’s and Eisenhower’s of our time? Will John McCain stand and fall alone?
“Religion among the low becomes low,” warned Emerson. Yet, when some say so, “good citizens cry, Hush; do not weaken the State,” and tend to think they “must keep up the hoax the best he [or she] can; must patronize providence and piety.” But Emerson had faith in the honesty in us. It, when obeyed, is the religious. Though he noted “a certain meanness in the argument of Conservatism,” he also dove to the noble heart of the conservative when he wrote, “I cannot thank your law for my protection. I protect it.”
May it be so. May conservatives help preserve and promote the past and the promise of America, and may we liberals honor both the conservatives who are with us and that which is conservative within us.
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon, 2005