My Turn: Conservatism as exclusionism

  • A Republican National Convention logo is seen though silhouetted production equipment on a huge video screen at Quicken Loans Arena for the Republican National Convention on Sunday in Cleveland. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 7/19/2016 12:20:02 AM

At this time of the national conventions, I’ve been trying to understand what “conservative” really means.

I know the Republicans are said to be conservative and the Democrats liberal.

“Liberal” is another slippery term – especially in connection to today’s Democratic Party – but that’s another story.

I understand that conservatism has to do with conserving, but I can’t help wondering what is being conserved these days and for whom? And what happens to those of us excluded from it?

I’ve been doing a little reading on conservatism, not its heavy-duty fathers like Aristotle, Irish philosopher Edmund Burke or Austrian philosopher F. A. Hayek, but modern writers like Matt Lewis, whose recent book, Too Dumb to Fail, analyzes the way the Republican Party has failed conservatism in order to win elections and how it can reclaim its roots.

Philosophical conservatism believes in conserving tradition, which means things like the rule of law, social institutions and religion. Human beings are social creatures whose well-being and freedom to flourish must be protected by sustaining a carefully evolved social order.

Burke, writing after the English and French revolutions, was extremely concerned with the abusive use of absolute and arbitrary power. We can see this position today in Republicans’ rejection of the federal government’s mandate on social policies and programs and, more extremely, in Libertarians’ rejection of government intervention in personal liberty.

The problem is that Aristotle and Burke, though not 20th century’s Hayek, were thinking and writing about very homogeneous societies. For Aristotle it was the Greek city state. For Burke it was the Christian and patriarchal British Empire and the worldview it created. The United States Constitution, system of government and judicial system are rooted in this tradition.

The trouble is much of that tradition no longer reflects or corresponds to the world we live in. We are a heterogeneous society. People of Anglo background are no longer the majority, Christianity is no longer the acknowledged National Religion and patriarchy is being severely challenged.

Even our allegiance to our established form of government is under siege by those who systematically and obdurately oppose what they don’t like.

“Conservatism” seems now to mean holding on at all cost to traditions that have allowed certain people to attain positions of advantage at the expense of others. Conservatism as it’s practiced today feels more like exclusionism.

In the name of conserving, we hear the phrase “we can’t afford it” a lot these days. We can’t afford this or that program. But who can’t afford it? Who are these lawmakers speaking of or for? Not the people who need Medicaid expansion or the services of Planned Parenthood or programs to heal the opioid crisis, to heal veterans suffering from PTSD or money to adequately fund schools for all children, to ensure safe drinking water for all people.

The principles of conservatism have deep and abiding value, but today they seem to have been twisted to apply only to people already empowered and to exclude those trying to create fulfilling lives – or, in some cases, any lives.

The rule of law, as we see it in our government today, steadfastly blocks and denies the needs and hopes of a great many citizens.

Social institutions to promote the well-being of citizens – and this means the opportunity to work and get ahead in life and find fulfillment – are focused on those who have and who wish above all things to preserve what they have.

Religion has narrowed its focus to such an extent that it sometimes totally denies those of differing practices while attempting to impose its particular beliefs on others.

So it seems to me that conservatism today has become an excuse for greed, for the preservation of privilege and for the systematic exclusion of others’ rights to share opportunities and benefits of social order.

For these reason I rename today’s conservatism “exclusionism.”

(Katharine Gregg lives in Mason.)




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