January 29, 2013

The root of all political evil, or Why Conservatives Really Aren't

“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

Although it is universally attributed to John Kenneth Galbraith, other than from Richard Parker’s biography of the great economist and political philosopher, I've been unable to find this quote in context.

Galbraith died in 2006 without having the opportunity to comment further on the continued regression of the once Grand Old Party, but it appears that even some within the Republican inner circle are ready to speak up about the extreme turn that “conservatism” has taken. To understand just how far to the extreme the GOP has traveled one merely has to gaze back a few decades to the pre WW-II, Great Depression days.

Republican Warren G. Harding assumed the office of President in 1921. Four years later saw the ascendancy of another Republican, Calvin Coolidge, followed in March of 1929 by yet another one-term Republican, Herbert Hoover. This period of time ushered in a brief period of laissez-faire economic policy and Poor Hoover was the sucker unlucky enough to occupy the White House on October 29, 1929… Black Tuesday. The Great Depression fell squarely in Herbert Hoover’s lap and led to the rise of the Rooseveltian Democrats and several years of liberal, humanistic leadership in the White House.

The post WW-II Republicans of the 50s took the lessons learned by the failure of free market right-wingers and managed a rebound from two decades of futility. Roosevelt’s New Deal and successful management of the war had done much to strengthen public resolve against the Republicans, but still the GOP continued to hammer the Democrats with charges of socialism and too extreme liberalism.

Sound familiar?

But the Republicans of the 50s were a far cry from the modern extremists seen on Sunday television railing against gays, women, and “entitlements”. As strange as it may seem, there were GOP politicians in those days more interested in the survival and success of a country and her people than the enrichment of a plutocracy. Those Republicans were statesmen with the memory of Hoover still fresh in their minds.

From the 1956 Republican Party platform we find a strange dichotomy of ideas when compared to modern conservatives:

“Our Government was created by the people for all the people, and it must serve no less a purpose.

The Republican Party was formed 100 years ago to preserve the Nation's devotion to these ideals.

On its Centennial, the Republican Party again calls to the minds of all Americans the great truth first spoken by Abraham Lincoln:

‘The legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves in their separate and individual capacities. But in all that people can individually do as well for themselves, Government ought not to interfere.’

Our great President Dwight D. Eisenhower has counseled us further:

‘In all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with people's money, or their economy, or their form of government, be conservative.’

While jealously guarding the free institutions and preserving the principles upon which our Republic was founded and has flourished, the purpose of the Republican Party is to establish and maintain a peaceful world and build at home a dynamic prosperity in which every citizen fairly shares.”

The document continues:

“We are proud of and shall continue our far-reaching and sound advances in matters of basic human needs—expansion of social security—broadened coverage in unemployment insurance —improved housing—and better health protection for all our people. We are determined that our government remain warmly responsive to the urgent social and economic problems of our people.

To these beliefs we commit ourselves as we present this record and declare our goals for the future.”

This a far cry from the Ryans and the Rands and the Goodhairs of the modern GOP. One of the most strident conservatives of the post-Eisenhower era was former AZ Senator Barry Goldwater. In a September 16, 1981 speech from the floor of the Senate Sen. Goldwater placed the blame for the rising extremism within his party squarely where it belongs, and he names a particular group that should be held responsible for the mess we now see in Washington, D.C. and statehouses across the nation:

“On religious issues there can be little or no compromise. There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs. There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever one calls this supreme being.

But like any powerful weapon, the use of God's name on one's behalf should be used sparingly. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom. They are trying to force government leaders into following their position 100 percent. If you disagree with these religious groups on a particular moral issue, they complain, they threaten you with a loss of money or votes or both.

I'm frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in "A," "B," "C" and "D." Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?

And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of "conservatism."

The Republicans at present are facing a similar challenge as the Republicans did toward the end of the 50s. Sen. Goldwater efficiently identified the threat and the modern GOP is perhaps finally recognizing their failure. The Republicans of the 50s were able to wield Truman’s failure to institute more progressive policies and leverage Eisenhower's war record into a win for reasonable conservatism.

At the end of Eisenhower’s eight years Democrats demonstrated that liberals like John Kennedy could lead as ably as a reasonable conservative and did a good job of painting “Tricky Dick” Nixon with the stain of McCarthyism.

But the level-headedness wasn't to last. With the Kennedy assassination and the moves toward racial equality by the LBJ Administration, followed by the defection of the old, Confederate south, Nixon managed to finally gain the White House and the modern age of Republican dirty tricks became enshrined. Nixon and the Republicans of the 70s gladly welcomed the fleeing religionist racists that were once the Democrat base in the south, and over the subsequent four decades the GOP has allowed the bigots to entrench.

The Democrats, in their success, are again fracturing. We are seeing much the same divisions between the far left liberals and moderates in the party that enabled the rational Republicans of the 50s to gain power. The ball is again in the red end of the court. Between now and when this president’s term runs out in 2016 the GOP can choose to push back on the racists… the bigots… and the religionists.

It will take work and determination, but if the reasonable wind of the GOP can shed the “GOPer” cloak, rational conservatism can again rise and once again hold the mantle of the Grand Old Party of Lincoln.

The tail is wagging the dog, conservatives. You have the opportunity. If you want a change it’s up to you to clean your own house.

... and speaking of right-wing extremest nuts in the Republican Party...