Friday, August 4, 2017

The Conservatism that Gets you Elected

For decades, the strength of the Republican Party has flowed from conservatism. In one sense, conservatism attempts to maintain the status quo, resisting trends that threaten to upend the social order that has worked well for some (often conservative) people. In another sense, conservatism aims to protect those things that are worth conserving: independence of families, unborn babies, the sanctity of marriage. Those who wish to conserve these precious things rarely value the conservation of the Earth herself. Maybe that sort of conservation is seen as a threat to the aforementioned social order. I don't know.

One lesson that has emerged from President Trump's ascension to power is that the political candidates who the Republicans are electing--those who excite the base--fit much more squarely with the "status quo" protectors, than the "precious things" protectors. Make America Great Again isn't hearkening back to the moral uprightness of the Puritans, the grounded sensibility of Thoreau, to a time when small communities worked together to care for their needs, or to values of thrift and industry. As Candidate Trump was exposed for sin after heinous sin, his popularity actually grew! The "old days" for Trump, were when dissenters were beaten to death or near death and carried away on stretchers. He says he was joking. Of course. But such "jokes" are seen as "real talk" from his excited base, who won him the presidency. In very real ways, Trump is the voice of the people.

And the strategists have taken note. The blueprint is set. To win future elections, the Republican party will ride the concerns of the status-quo-protecting conservative. Precious things be damned. Trump and FoxNews continue to harp on Clinton's e-mails and anything they can scrape up that will deflect attention from Trump's moral and leadership failings. This deflection is dishonest, but it's dishonesty clothed in "political strategy." And honesty is yet another value of true conservatism that political conservatism has discarded like toxic waste.


A student e-mailed this week with a "randomly intense discussion," asking how I thought Wendell Berry would respond to the use of human embryos for testing. The dilemma he was considering was whether someone with serious moral objections to others' actions ought to stand in the way of others who don't share their convictions. And he wondered whether the political arena was the way to go about standing in someone else's way. That is, even though he disagrees with Republicans on many issues, should the sanctity of human embryos compel him to vote for the "conservatives" nonetheless. To respond to this question, I wanted to brush up on Berry's thoughts regarding our political parties, so I re-read a 1993 essay entitled, "Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community," where Berry talks about the  about the "conservative" and "liberal" political parties. Berry's thinking provides context for ways that the dismemberment of our communities has led to the self-contradictory stances held by both parties.

I've posted a few paragraphs from the essay below, and it really is a lot to consider. Read these paragraphs, and then come back in a week or so and read my reaction, in which I will attempt to bridge a connection between my thoughts on the two types of conservatism, human embryo research, and the absence of true community.


 As our communities have disintegrated from external predation and internal disaffection, we have changed form a society whose ideal of justice was trust and fairness among people who knew each other into a society whose ideal of justice is public litigation, breeding distrust even among people who know each other.

Once it has shrugged off the interest and claims of the community, the public language of sexuality comes directly under the influence of private lust, ambition, and greed and becomes inadequate to deal with the real issues and problems of sexuality. The public dialogue degenerates into a stupefying and useless contest between so-called liberation and so-called morality. The real issues and problems, as they are experienced and suffered in people's lives, cannot be talked about. The public language can deal, however awkwardly and perhaps uselessly, with pornography, sexual hygiene, contraception, sexual harassment, rape, and so on. But it cannot talk about respect, responsibilty, sexual discipline, fidelity, or the practice of love. "Sexual education," carried on in this public language, is and can only be a dispirited description of the working of a sort of anatomical machinery - and this i sa  sexuality that is neither erotic nor social nor sacramental but rather a cold-blooded, abstract procedure that is finally not even imaginable.

The conventional public opposition of "liberal" and "conservative" is, here as elsewhere, perfectly useless. The "conservatives" promote the family as a sort of public icon, but they will not promote the economic integrity of the household or the community, which are the mainstays of family life. Under the sponsorship of "conservative" presidencies, the economy of the modern household, which once required the father to work away form home--a development that was bad enough--now required the mother to work away form home, as well. And this development has the wholehearted endorsement of "liberals," who see the mother thus forced to spend her days away from her home and children as "liberated"-- though nobody has yet seen the fathers thus forced away as "liberated." Some feminists are thus in the curious position of opposing the mistreatment of women yet advocating for their participation in an economy in which everything is mistreated.

The "conservatives" more or less attach homosexuality, abortion, and pornography, and the "liberals" more or less defend them. Neither party will oppose sexual promiscuity. The "liberals" will not oppose promiscuity because they do not wish to appear intolerant of "individual liberty." The "conservatives' will not oppose promiscuity because sexual discipline would reduce the profits of corporations, which in their advertisements and entertainments encourage sexual self-indulgence as a way of selling merchandise.

The public discussion of sexual issues has thus degenerated into a poor attempt to equivocate between private lusts and public emergencies. Nowhere in public life (that is, in the public life that counts: the discussions of political and corporate leaders) is there an attempt to respond to community needs in the language of community interest.  

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