The Harshness of American Conservatism: A Thousand Points of Darkness

by George Kennedy on March 14, 2012


American Conservatism

I call it harsh because of the impact of conservative policies on women, the poor, the elderly, minorities, and the middleclass.

In an earlier post – “Why We Cannot Afford More Conservatism in 2012 – From Democrats or Republicans”, I suggested that conservatism, as a governing philosophy, is another name for calamity.  The character of the current Republican presidential campaign reinforces that assertion.  In fact, the tenor of the campaign is persuasive testimony to how brutal the policy prescriptions – or a thousand points of darkness – of a Republican administration under any of the four remaining candidates would be if the GOP remains a dominant force in Congress.  The G.O.P. has become so radical, so partisan, its legislative proposals, if enacted by a Republican Congress, would further divide a country already polarized in the extreme.

Here are just two critical examples that the average American relates to:  education and women’s health.  Let’s begin with education.  For decades after the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, an indice of American “exceptionalism” was our support for education.  Paul Krugman says, “First we took the lead in universal primary education; then the ‘high school movement’ made us the first nation to embrace widespread secondary education.  And after World War 11, public support, including the G.I. bill and a huge expansion of public universities, helped large numbers of Americans to get college degrees.”

Moreover, a corollary benefit was the hundreds of thousands of foreign students from around the globe offered opportunities to attain an American experience and an American college education through federal exchange programs administered by the U.S. Department of State.  Hundreds of thousands of the best minds in these societies returned home to help advance ideas and programs that fostered the democratic ideals of respect for basic human rights and the adoption of free market principles.  These were critical tenets of American foreign policy then and now.

Krugman further notes that “now, the G.O.P. has taken a hard right turn against education that Americans can afford.”  This hostility to education is shared by the “social conservative and economic conservative wings of the Republican coalition, now embodied in the persons of Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney.”  Knowledge, skills, and hard work are still the standard by which the average American chooses to be judged.  Why should this change?

Second, Republicans are so determined to control women’s bodies, their vision for tomorrow is America of the 1950s.  A party that consistently bills itself as the party of jobs and opportunity introduced more than 1,100 anti-abortion laws in 2011 alone.  Eighty passed, more than double the previous year.  Republicans have to know it is not possible to effectively legislate morality any more than you can legislate the behavior of those willing to reserve the most personal decisions for themselves.

The G.O.P. cannot put sex in a bottle and then establish rules for whom, when, and how the bottle can be uncorked.  The one percent will again send their daughters off on a European “vacation” while the rest sort out their options.  We have to assume the radical conservative agenda is really less about controlling behavior than it is about establishing and preserving a morality-based narrative to frame future public discourse.

There was a time, during my lifetime, when being labeled a conservative, or Republican, did not carry the pejorative weight it apparently does today.  Personally, I preferred the label of conservative Democrat than liberal.  Many African Americans, including my family, were proud social conservatives of both political parties because there was a history of entrepreneurship and the success it offered.  There was the tradition of self-reliance and individual responsibility.  Furthermore, we took considerable pride in a multigenerational family commitment of service to country.  We were proud conservatives.

Being conservative did not in every instance mean denying others basic civil rights.  The parameters for political and social behavior, for example, permitted an affirmative defense for an integrated society and an affirmative opposition to it.  Ultimately, psychological bridges were frequently constructed to unite the two sides.

The current debate within the G.O.P. over national priorities going forward in 2012 portends a nightmare from which many hope to awaken.  The question would be, “When are we going to get back to normal?”  It is true that the definition of normal can vary among us but, hopefully, not so widely that today, two people can give the word “normal” a definition and appear to be speaking two different languages.   Sadly, that is where we are.  This state of affairs is also testament to the power of negative conservative messaging.

We live in tumultuous times; no one argues that.  But, certainly tumult alone did not necessitate the extremist brand of politics advocated by the G.O.P!  At the state level and within the Congress of the United States, we are witnessing acts of human political behavior that defy contemporary rationality.

How does an electorate commune with a brand of radical politics intent upon overturning almost a century of economic and social progress?

The G.O.P.’s crazy quilt of negative policy proposals on Women’s Health and contraception, funding for education, immigration, our social safety net, energy policy, voting rights, the environment, the denial of science, and fiscal policy, to name a few key areas of concern, is a stark reminder of the brutality we can expect from a Republican administration.  Their policies, if enacted, would constitute a thousand points of darkness.

There is no moderation; there is no compromise; and there are no benefits for anyone unprepared to survive on their own, or surrender rights we thought were any longer under dispute.   There is only intolerance of those that are different in belief, word, or deed.   If any of the four Republican presidential contenders were successful, we most likely would experience a form of social Darwinism unfamiliar to many and likely devastating to millions.

Fairness necessitates that we entertain another likely nightmarish scenario:  a reelected President Obama effectively stymied by a House still in Republican hands and a Senate under the direction of the current Minority Leader.    We would have a President with little real power.  To this, we should add that a hostile Republican opposition in the Congress would be aided by the support of a radical Supreme Court unlikely to overturn Citizens United or any legislation that undermines a Republican takeover of this country.

Listening to the G.O.P.’s presidential aspirants, unless you are among the one-percent the Republicans are most responsive to, you likely are destined for a future more uncertain than we might envision.  In fact, the only certainty might be more uncertainty.

Furthermore, the current Republican primary contest should at the very least remind us that the collective impact of policies embraced by a conservative administration might well render the delicate bonds that hold this country together.

The G.O.P., were they to capture the White House, would govern without accountability to most of the electorate.  The end result would have to be at least four more years of the disastrous incompetency we witnessed and endured under President G.W. Bush.

To those who may consider this overview too harsh an assessment, they might recall that prior to the recession of 2007-2008, the last time we hit “bottom” was during the Great Depression.  Republicans occupied the White House then and in 2007.

We should give the G.O.P. credit where it is due.  They understand that what we cannot learn through high quality education cannot hurt them.  It only hurts us.  And, gender suppression and voter disenfranchisement ensures a future for conservative, white male dominance, more mediocrity, and a society fearful of change.

The electorate does not want more harshness, more brutality from their government.  In fact, polls show the opposite.

Looking to the future, we would do well to remember lessons learned by other societies that could be germane to our survival.  I am thinking of countries like Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Japan.  They learned, as we once appreciated, that our most valued natural resource is not Wall Street, or our economy, or our military.  Each has its vulnerabilities.  Our most valued natural resource is the talent, energy and intelligence of our people – all 310 million strong.

Were we to focus, harness, and develop American ingenuity to address the challenges political extremists conveniently condense to campaign slogans, we would relegate extremism to the past it so ardently embraces.  We would reposition ourselves to win the 21st century without brutalizing women or disenfranchising millions.   At a minimum, we could in the near term, restore our economy and reprise the values that made us the beacon of hope we once represented to the rest of humanity.

Let’s give it another shot!

George Kennedy

George Kennedy is a retired senior Foreign Service officer with extensive international experience. He holds a B.A. from the University of Oregon and two graduate degrees from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mr. Kennedy was a political advisor to state and federal officials and has authored strategy pieces for Members of Congress and presidential candidates. He serves on the Advisory Board for the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona.

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