The one clear voice we keep hearing from conservatives — who presume to act as if the Republican party is the “Conservative” party — is that we need smaller government, for the purpose of greater freedom for citizens.
But is there any vision of what we citizens are? Is there a vision that Americans as individuals ought to adopt, and work towards, certain ideals?
On this, yes, we hear a number of things, such as: (a) honor our soldiers and police; (b) shoulder personal responsibility; (c) obey the law; (d) honor our country; (e) fulfill our promises and obligations to others; (f) donate to, and volunteer in the work of, charities that serve the poor; (g) support and vote for politicians who speak up for this list.
The problem with this “Conservative” list is that it is neither exciting nor inspiring. It does not call on citizens to be creative, inventive, or to explore into unknown possibilities. It is a list for people who are comfortable in life with things pretty much the way they are. Perhaps the deficiency in the list arises from the inherently narrow definition of what is a “charity.” Basically, for conservatives, a charity is something that provides a little assistance to people to avoid the most catastrophic suffering, but not so much as to change society in a way that might raise up to a higher economic status whole groups of people.
I think that America is inherently unable to support a dominant “Conservative” majority — this is the land of exploration, opportunity, and change.
Certainly the Republican party was not founded as a Conservative party. At its founding it was a revolutionary party, because it wanted the eventual end of slavery in North America, as territories entered the nation as free states and thereby eventually tipped the national balance to such a large free-state supermajority as to bring about an end of slavery by lawful Constitutional means. The Republicans led a Civil War to accomplish this, and then instituted efforts at integration known as Reconstruction. They also stood for development of the West, via railroads, and for development of other new technologies, which was led primarily by business.
Even through McKinley and T. Roosevelt, the Republicans were the party not of “conservatism” as listed above, but of exploration and innovation and out-reach. McKinley captured the former Spanish colonies; Roosevelt freed Panama, making possible the canal, and built the Great White Fleet and sent it around the world to signify expansionism; and he personally was a symbol of adventure and exploration — witness his trips to Africa and South America.
The transformation of the Republican party into the “Conservative” party was really the work of Coolidge and Hoover. The country responded to that by electing Democrats for five Presidential terms and giving the Dems the House and Senate. After the uninspiring Truman, the country turned to the conqueror of Europe, Eisenhower — and the conqueror of Europe is by definition an adventurous, expansionist figure. The fact that we look on him today as dull deceives us into seeing him wrongly. Truman and the Dems had gotten us in trouble in Korea and the country changed leaders to find a way to get out.
In 1960 both parties offered energetic young men, World War II junior officers, and the vote was so close that no great conclusions can be drawn based on differences between them. In 1964 the country resoundingly rejected the “Conservative” candidate, Goldwater.
While many would debate it, I think that the country chose Nixon in 1968 because the Democrats were responsible for the controversies of Vietnam protests and the M. L. King assassination riots; and chose Reagan in 1980 because Democrats were responsible for the problems with Iran, Russia, etc., as well as the economy.
In short, when given the choice between a party that stands for innovation and exploration, and one that stands for the list of conservative principles as I listed above, without also standing for innovation and exploration, the country chooses the party that stands for innovation and exploration, unless that party has been in office a while and the country has gotten into a major mess.
I think that this difference is symbolized in the academic credentials of the competing candidates. With rare exceptions, the Democrats ever since 1912 have nominated Presidential candidates who had tangible reputations for being superior in academics, going to or leading elite universities. These are people who, in their lives starting as young people, have demonstrated intellectual curiosity and intelligence — people who have inquiring minds — and who are, as a necessary aspect of that, somewhat detached from religious doctrines and denominations that have a reputation for telling people that they must think certain things because those things are written in an ancient book.
In an era in which practically all the mainstream journalists come from the same schools and evince the same intellectual mind-set, and in which even Hollywood TV and screenwriters more and more often have Ivy League degrees, it is becoming impossible for any candidate who lacks a similar personal history of intelligence and inquiry to gain any respect in the media. This is why Sarah Palin, as energizing as she was during the campaign and still is today, will never be able to achieve the level of intellectual respect that our national media demands of itself as well as of all political leaders.
In my opinion, the media is anti-Republican and anti-Conservative because the conservatives, and the Republican party they have dominated, do not really value intellectual inquiry and exploration, because at no point in the development of political leaders do they particularly gravitate towards, value, and nurture the political leadership development of young people who demonstrate those qualities. The press thinks that the leadership of the most powerful country in human history must be in the hands of the most intelligent, intellectually multi-faceted individuals.
And that, frankly, is the vision of our original founding fathers — who, all of them, were such elite people of their day. Conservatives, who are so fond of quoting the Federalist Papers, ought to recognize that those papers were the product of the pre-eminent intellectual elite of their time. How, then, can people who call themselves conservatives so thoroughly dismiss a requirement for demonstrable intellectual achievement as a pre-requisite for serious consideration for national leadership? It is true that many Republican presidents have not had this background and yet have been very successful. But that does not justify sneering at the criterion as a generally-applicable rule.
Thus the Republican party must include some additions to the list of ideals, additions that are not part of the “Conservative” list but that are in the main compatible with their list. Foremost on the list of additions is the ideal that people have inquiring minds; that they pursue the highest level of academic and intellectual achievement that they can; that they actively look for nationwide defects and deficiencies in the way our society is structured, develop effective approaches to remedying those deficiencies, and seek to inspire the country to implement those approaches.
Some conservatives will argue that it is not the necessary role of a limited government to provide a broad vision for what an American should be. But it is human nature that peoples seek a vision of what kind of people they should be. Do conservatives want Americans to find this vision in their religions? What institutions, if any, do conservatives see as being valid sources of statements about what kinds of lives we should live?
My experience is that conservatives do not even recognize the problem. They do not see that peoples — including the people that live within the boundaries of the US — always seek someone to offer them a vision of how and why to live. They will seek this from whatever institutions happen to exist near them. And they won’t be concerned that the documents that facilitated the formation of a particular institution might not have set-forth that role as being a role for that institution to perform. The demand of the people for a vision that makes life more meaningful will inevitably be satisfied, and they will accept and support the reshaping of institutions in order to get that leadership. I do not argue here that the people ought to do this, or ought not to do it; instead, I say that across human history and across the globe, this is what human populations actually do. And thus, those who fail to offer an inspiring vision will always lose.
Reagan described America as an inspiration to the world, a “City on a Hill.” His doing this was not within the conservative definition of what the federal government is for. But conservatives are mighty glad he did that, because it made them look like people with an inspiring vision, too. Offering an inspiring vision must be a part of any successful political party. What the Republicans need now is someone with demonstrated intellectual achievement, an inquiring mind, who offers an inspiring vision.
If that kind of person is outside the boundaries of the kind of person “Conservatives” value and respect, then the Republican party must not be merely the “Conservatives'” party. It must reach out to a different kind of person, whom many Conservatives may find unsettling in certain respects. Success will not be found in looking around at the current leaders and constructing a definition of what constitutes an inspiring leader by starting with that person’s resume, calling every element on that resume inspiring, and dismissing every element not on that resume as being unimportant.
— written by Guest Poster Edward Sisson (“sissoed”)