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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2008-12-08 06:04
Subject: [politics] What has conservatism gotten right?
Security: Public
Tags:politics
This has cropped up in conversation several times in the past few weeks, so I am finally getting around to laying it down on the blog here. A fairly simple question, one I'm very curious about answers to all across the political spectrum.

What has conservatism gotten right?

Even the most casual accounting will show that conservatives have been wrong, usually destructively so, on a whole range of now-settled issues throughout American history. For example, slavery, Jim Crow, interracial marriage and Civil Rights. Female suffrage, no-fault divorce, and women's rights. Child labor, wage-and-hour rules, the forty-hour work week, workplace safety and every minimum wage increase ever passed. Environmental quality, pollution control, energy conservation, automobile safety and efficiency. Conservatives opposed our entry into WWII, conservative economic and de-regulation policies brought about the Great Depression, gave us the laughable fraud of supply-side economics and may have brought about the Bush Depression. Conservatives brought us Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. The list is nigh endless.

Things that conservatives are patently wrong about today which will almost certainly be judged harshly by history include global warming, stem cell research, reproductive freedom, Creationism/ID in education, the Iraq War, gay marriage, and Bush-era science policy, Civil Liberties practices and terrorism policy.

I've long averred that conservatism is fundamentally a philosophy of fear — fear of change, fear of inequity, fear that someone somewhere might be benefiting unjustly, fear that Bad People will come to your door and take away what you love most. Looking at the above list, you can see where I get that idea from. So what has the conservative movement gotten right? And why is it trusted by millions of Americans today?

Originally published at jlake.com.

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Matt Ruff
User: matt_ruff
Date: 2008-12-08 14:41 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You seem to be defining conservatives as "anyone who backed the losing side of a historically significant political debate." By that definition, "conservatism" never gets anything right. The problem is, by that definition, conservatism isn't a coherent movement or philosophy, either, just a collection of history's losers.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-12-08 14:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, those are issues which were (and are) specifically opposed by self-identified conservatives, at least as I understand the issues ie, the "losing side" definition is essentially circular.

I can construct my own counterargument here readily enough, which is that an essential characteristic of conservatism is resistance to change because of the unproven nature of that change. Ie, issues on which conservatives have been right are often going to be transparent, at least to me, because that rectitude involves things which didn't happen.
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Rafe
User: etcet
Date: 2008-12-08 14:41 (UTC)
Subject: In lieu of cogent commentary, Monty Python
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User: dirkcjelli
Date: 2008-12-08 14:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Liberals have -also- been wrong on those issues though... before they became right on them, after which conservatives became right on them.

If liberals are just a few baby steps to the left of conservatives, they'll be just as wicked, just phase shifted a decade or so.

Furthermore, it wasn't -liberals- who made progress on those issues.

It was fucking radicals.
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User: dirkcjelli
Date: 2008-12-08 14:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
my milkshake-- you can't drink it.
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Mindy Klasky
User: mindyklasky
Date: 2008-12-08 14:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
In an interview I heard this weekend, Niall Ferguson, a Harvard professor who is the author of THE ASCENT OF MONEY, argued that the welfare state was the creation of a Otto von Bismarck's conservative government - the government wanted to guarantee the welfare of the lower classes to squelch uprisings. This might meet your criteria...
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-12-08 15:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Interesting. FWIW, I'm not convinced the welfare state was an inherent good. Note the argument of my post above isn't that "liberals are consistently right." See dirkcjelli's comment above.
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Brian Dolton
User: tchernabyelo
Date: 2008-12-08 16:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Speaking as someone who is in many respects well to the left of any mainstream American political position (somehting to do with a European background), even I find this to be built on a fallacy.

You are assuming that everyone recognises that all your list of things that "conservatism got wrong" is inherently and manifesly "right".

Clearly, for many Conservatives, it is not. They don't see that they are wrong; they see that "the world" is wrong, and THEY are right. Just as those who struggle for (say) gay marriage see that "the world" is wrong, an that THEY are right.

History is written by the winners, and therefore everything that moves history towads the current status quo tends to be seen as inherently "right". Had Germany won WW2, had their ideology been perpetrated worldwide, the Holocaust would have been "right".

I respect your passion about politics, Jay, and I agree with a greatdeal of what you say, but on tis one, I think you have rather missed the point.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-12-08 16:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, yes. You're answering the question I didn't quite ask correctly, I think.

That being said, I have a real hard time seeing how a thinking, compassionate human being can hold what I see as the wrong side of most of these stances.
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bram452
User: bram452
Date: 2008-12-08 16:42 (UTC)
Subject: What They Got Right
1) The power of free markets

The free market is an incredibly powerful tool. Things become possible through trade that are essentially impossible otherwise. (As a liberal, I also have to say that powerful tools aren't -- almost by definition -- safe.)

2) The importance of loyalty

Movement conservatism has been deeply successful in part because it values loyalty. People who are in that mindset genuinely do look out for each other, and (as they say) circles rise together. Loyalty to one another and to a cause is a profound unifying tool, and makes things possible that would not otherwise be.

3) The danger of change

Now here's the thing. I'm a liberal. I like change. But I recognize that all change is destabilizing, and stability (especially in something like a nation-state) is precious, hard to create, and important to maintain. A knee-jerk skepticism of new ideas is healthy, even when some new ideas turn out well in the long term.

Consider this:

http://tinyurl.com/5mwc73
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-12-08 16:45 (UTC)
Subject: Re: What They Got Right
Thank you, sir.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
User: jdack
Date: 2008-12-08 19:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Couldn't have said it better. Except in addition to fear, they are also quite a bit about hate.

The only thing connies have ever gotten right in my humble opinion is defense of the 2nd amendment. But even in that, their zealotry is over-done.
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Bob
User: yourbob
Date: 2008-12-08 19:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'd suggest the hate is a result and expression of fear. FWIW.
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Mister Eclectic: Hummer
User: howeird
Date: 2008-12-08 23:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Hummer
The definition of a fiscal conservative is someone who believes money should only be loaned to people who can prove they can pay it back. The current financial crisis is mostly due to people whose greed overcame their conservative beliefs, making them, technically, no longer conservatives. The people who applied for and were approved for the bad loans are, for the most part, liberals. So I guess I'm saying true Conservatives gave us a solid financial system.

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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2008-12-09 01:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This sounds a lot like the same argument I've heard from the REAL to-the-left-of-lefties when talking about the failure of communism in the 20th century.

According to them, communism DIDN'T fail. The Soviet Union? Communist in name only - really just another dictatorship. North Korea? Same deal. And so on. See, "real" communism is something else entirely, so far never actually put into practice, and just because someone called themselves communist and then ran their country into the ground wasn't a failure of communism - it was a failure to FULLY EMBRACE communism. THAT would have succeeded.

So, the conservatives that ran our country into the ground weren't REALLY conservatives - they just called themselves conservatives. Thus, conservatism didn't fail - the failure was in not FULLY EMBRACING conservatism. Because THAT would have succeeded.

Uh huh.

Different variables. Same formula.
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User: creed_of_hubris
Date: 2008-12-09 05:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Offhand:

Stalin was a scumbag.

Alger Hiss was a communist spy. So were the Rosenbergs.

Giant public housing projects suck.

Ethanol is a boondoggle.


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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2008-12-09 12:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
1) Agreed

2) Actually, recent scolarship suggests the Rosenbergs were railroaded, more or less Gitmo style.

3) Agreed.

4) Agreed, and I've never understood the ethanol program.
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