Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A (Kind of) Conservative Rant For a Change

I'm taking a brief break from my occasional series on why I'm not politically conservative to write a piece that may undermine that entire project. I listen sporadically to a podcast called The Story (kind of a conceited title, I think, but it generally makes me think, which is good). Some of the episodes are poignant and touching, while others feel a bit flat, so I don't listen religiously, but I try to catch a few episodes a week.

Yesterday I listened to an episode from last week with two very different stories. The first was about an American couple who retired and moved to Mexico to enjoy better and less expensive health care. I wanted to get behind their story, as it highlights much of what is wrong with the health care industry in America today. But in the end I found the husband, who is at the center of the story, a completely unsympathetic figure.

In part this is a result of the phrase the host kept using to describe why Steve Minnick and his wife moved to Mexico: "to take advantage of that country's health care system." I know what he means, but "taking advantage" of something is a messy phrase that implies something that was, I believe unintended but telling. The idea of exploiting a system to which you have no real connection is troubling.

I also find it hard to be sympathetic for someone who's complaint is that he has to return to work because the recession harmed his retirement savings. When the poor are losing jobs and homes, it's hard to feel for someone who lost (which means he had) $300,000 in retirement and had to sell his home in Mexico, move back to America, and return to work so he could save enough in his retirement account to live quite comfortably seven years from now.

And I contrast this with the other story in the episode, in which Robert Johnson recalls his father's sacrifice to support his family during the Great Depression. This man fought six rounds at a county fair against a professional boxer, nearly dying in front of his son, to earn $25 to pay rent. It makes unretiring look pretty pedestrian a sacrifice, I think.

This gets at something that has bothered me throughout this recession. People complain about decreased or lost income, but still get cable TV and drive SUVs. We talk about scrimping and saving, but still rack up credit card debt. And the federal response has been to spend more and bail out failing companies while cutting services for the poor.

I contrast this with the New Deal approach. Instead of bailing out banks, the federal government put people to work. Instead of encouraging us to spend more, it provided a safety net for individuals and families. A welfare system that focuses on people, not corporation, is far superior. The New Deal was no a panacea, but it seems better than the way this recession has been addressed.

And I think this says something ugly about who we are, that our response to tragedy is to amass material things, to spend, to stimulate our way out of a crisis rather than to make real sacrifices. I makes me a bit sad and ashamed.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How Big a Tent?

When over-the-air television broadcasts went all-digital this summer we lost our signal, at first with some misgivings. Living in modern America without TV seemed unthinkable. But now, just a few months later, I am amazed, not just at how well we've adapted, but at how much more we get done. We read to the kids more, we play outside more, we cook and talk and simply live more.

I kind of wish we had ditched TV earlier, say a year ago, during the height of election season. Not just for the election ads that bombarded our humble swing state, but for the other, less obvious aspects of the presidential campaign. I speak specifically of the conventions, an archaic holdover from the era of cigar-smoking obese men who made backroom deals and decisions, a holdover which is poorly adapted to the world of mass media and instantaneous communication. They drive me crazy, with the pomp and self-importance of political parties (there's a reason I register independent), the pontificating speeches and fake drama of it all.

But the most jarring part of last year's convention season was not the size of the crowd in Denver or the small-time acts by Guliani and the other nominee also-rans, but the shots of the crowd at the RNC in Minneapolis. This homogeneous group of middle-aged white people was a perfect symbol of what I believe is the ultimate undoing of conservatism in America: its failure to understand, appreciate, and foster a diverse, pluralistic society. This profound failure marks conservative thought as antiquated and obsolete, much like the conventions themselves.

I approach this topic with a great sense of hesitation, based primarily on my own identity as a middle-aged white heterosexual Christian male. (It has always been odd in job interviews to answer the obligatory diversity question: “I think we need a diverse faculty to represent the multiplicity of cultures and viewpoints in our community. We should hire fewer white men. Let's start that as soon as you hire/promote/reward me.”) I am simply too racist, sexist, and homophobic to get on a soap box here when traditional discussions of diversity come up.

But I can speak of what I find to be the most indicative but underappreciated instance of bigotry and prejudice in the contemporary conservative movement: the debacle that was Mitt Romney's primary race last year. Now, I don't like the former governor of the commonwealth of Massachusetts. I find him vapid and uninspiring, and, obviously, I disagree with many of his stands on the issues. (In other settings I have referred to him as my least favorite Mormon, but it seems Glenn Beck is intent on holding that title indefinitely.) But the fact is that a qualified and electable candidate with policy views in line with the mainstream of his party who poured millions of his own dollars into the campaign had no realistic chance of getting that party's nomination.

And why was Romney so soundly beaten by hacks like Huckabee in the southern primaries? It all comes down to simple, unadulterated prejudice. A Mormon candidate in the GOP primary in South Carolina has a huge disadvantage due entirely to the conservative mindset that labels any identity outside of the narrow definition of mainline Christianity as unacceptable. And this is evident time and time again in the right-wing, as moderates like Senators Specter and Snowe are either driven away or derided as phonies. Anytime your movement is so narrow as to exclude even those who tend to agree with you, you know you've painted yourself into a corner and out of the mainstream.

So I'm not sure what to suggest to conservatives concerned about doing poorly in elections when the female and minority votes break bad for them. When your political philosophy is built on the idea that those who have traditionally held power and wealth should be the first and primary voices in debating, setting, and benefiting from national policies, it's hard to feel sympathy when demographic and social transformations undermine your political viability. It's time at that point to not just revise a platform or alter a message. It's time to admit that conservative views toward contemporary American society--who we are and how we interact with a range of people--have become provincial and useless in the 21st century.

Friday, September 18, 2009


I suppose I ought to just start this project with the big issue, the thing that differentiates liberals and conservatives. I'm not talking about the Iraq War, abortion, taxes, gun control, or welfare (although I will be tackling some of these down the road). I speak instead of the elephant in the room (all puns, of course, are intended) anytime conservatives attack liberals: government.

(I actually thought about saying the number one issue is that of pronouns, but that seemed too geeky even for me. But we'll circle back to parts of speech in a minute.)

The more I think about this, the more I'm convinced that the defining trait of conservatives is a fundamental misunderstanding of what government is and does. (This is especially unnerving, since so many of them are in elected or appointed government posts.) But, nevertheless, it is the case that conservatives seem to view government as a monolithic, intrusive, intimidating force bent on stealing every freedom imaginable, some sort of cross between an Orwellian nightmare and the Third Reich. Governments can certainly evolve (or, rather, devolve) into this sort of thing, but the knee-jerk reaction of calling anything government-related evil is simply incorrect. No, that's not it. It's stupid. Even that misses the point. It's unpatriotic. There, that's more like it.

Now, in ,making this claim, I do not say that dissent is wrong. On the contrary, when we believe that our government is in the wrong, we have not just the right, but the moral obligation to speak out, to protest, to vote and to act for change. Having been highly opposed to many policies during the Bush years, I cannot condemn criticism of one's government. In fact, intelligent and constructive criticism is a bedrock principle of a citizen's role in a democracy (a fact that seemed frequently missing from the discourse during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, for example, when critics were told to keep their mouths shut, as if any act of protest were treason). What I speak of is the Goldwater-style conservatism that casts government as the antagonist of every freedom-loving man, woman, or child. That is the unpatriotic approach and attitude of which I speak.

Here's what I mean. I believe it is unimaginably unpatriotic to view American democracy through the same lens as Stalinist Russia or the French Reign of Terror. This is especially true for Latter-day Saints, who make claims of love of country and who believe that Heaven blessed the founding of this nation's government. To speak with casual disregard and intense disdain for that same government so immediately whenever one makes a political statement—to say that you distrust, fear, or hate our government—is an affront to both the spirit of the founding of the nation and the two and one-thirds centuries project of striving for “a more perfect union.”

Here's where the pronouns come back into play. Note what I said in the previous paragraph: “our government.” We share this common bond as Americans; no matter what region you live in, what color your skin is, what music or movies you like, you are part of something greater than yourself. It's a unity. But the pronoun “our” also indicates something of ownership. It is government by and for, but first and foremost of the people, belonging to and serving us. Now contrast that with, for example, the language used in the health care debate. A conservative will typically refer to government in the third person: “they.” As in “they want to take over health care.” A liberal will speak in the first-person plural: “we.” As in “we have a responsibility to care for and help each other.” (I'll address this idea of responsibility in a future entry.) This word choice indicates one's relationship to the republic of which one is part; the former indicates a separateness, a radical and dangerous emphasis on the individual that is at the core of conservatism, while the latter speaks of a sense of community that is central to what is best in liberalism.

I don't pretend to think that government or government involvement is the best answer to all problems. As an example, I am deeply troubled by the role of the federal government in the financial markets and other industries in the wake of last year's market crash. I felt then and feel now that the executive and legislative branches overstepped their bounds in bailing out failing companies. My liberal philosophy (which echoes my father's more conservative one on this matter) is that a mismanaged and inefficient company deserves to fail, and that the proper role of government is to serve as a safety net, to provide resources and assistance—not to the companies and their overly-compensated executives, but to the working poor who find themselves unemployed, to families and children, to those who want to work and are willing to do so. In essence, I would have preferred to see an effort akin to the Depression-era WPA and CCC initiatives. I would prefer a liberal approach to government, one in which we (note the pronoun) watch out for each other, not just for those businesses that have failed to adapt to changing markets (see GM and Chrysler) or that made greedy and short-sighted choices (see the mortgage and housing markets). That is what our government can and should and is meant to do, what it can and should and is meant to be.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Back to the Ranting

It's an odd season politically, and that's evident in how this blog has stagnated. The left (myself included) has been dealing with an odd post-inauguration hangover, so happy to have a competent, intelligent, qualified president that it's hard to tap into that characteristic liberal anger that has historically driven so much of our work. (This is different, by the way, from the typical claim of liberal self-loathing, but not, I suppose, by much.) And thus I've found myself unable to really rant properly.

But the oddness is also a result of what I believe is a strange strategic move by the Obama administration. Health care reform is a tricky endeavor, and the White House has handled it poorly. And support for needed reform has been horribly uneven. The people who need it most tend to distrust government and vote Republican (or be young and uninterested in the issue), and the people who believe in it most are both largely unaffected by it (the more affluent liberal types) and such reliable Democrats that there is little incentive to woo them

I, for example, fit into several of these categories. I have good insurance, am healthy, and still feel young and invincible. At the same time, I believe in the need for health care reform, and I support most of Obama's statements and plans on the issue. I just don't feel that this needs to be the number one priority for the nation or the administration, and I have a hard time getting fired up about it. And it's been frustrating to see Team Obama, which ran such a focused, efficient, powerful campaign, struggle to get a clear message out persuasively.

It's this sense of frustration then that brings me back to the blog. The summer of political discontent—the lies, the yelling, the threats of violence and succession by right-wing demagogues and their followers—has reached a breaking point for me. I'm sick of the hypocrites and liars calling us out. I'm sick of the attention that's been given to people who are uninformed, loud, and bellicose. And I'm sick of sitting back and watching it all unfold.

Thus begins an occasional series on this blog to counter the logic and arguments of the right. I'm calling it “Reasons Why I'm Not a Conservative and Can't Support Republicans.” I undertake this with great respect and fondness for my conservative friends and relatives. I love and admire many of you, and I have learned and continue to learn much from you. And I aware that very few may ever see this, that some who do see it may be offended, and that I can do very little to change the national political discourse. But I feel a powerful obligation to speak up for what I believe, and this is my chance to do so.

So, here is my basic thesis. I believe that the liberal impulse is a smarter, more moral, and more American approach to governance, ethics, and social justice than the conservative one. It is fairer and more in line with the foundational principles of democracy. In short, it is a better way of conceiving of and operating a society and a system of government. Over the next few days and weeks I will post entries here detailing some of the specific issues that support this thesis. I think it'll be fun.