Without its moral code, conservatism will fade away;
BUT WITH IT,
Conservatism can lead a 21st century American renaissance
Jay B Gaskill
The alcohol prohibition era of the last century was a failed experiment in liberal social engineering. Political correctness is the new puritanism; this overreach by progressive liberalism is an opening for the resurgence of a practical, reasonable, morally anchored conservatism, presented with clarity and humor.
Any long-term conservative recovery must grow from a well-understood and easily explained moral core. Otherwise, conservatives will be pissing into the progressive headwinds, mouths open, eyes unprotected and compasses gone wild.
CAUTION: The conservative moral core is not centered on the feel-good therapeutic values of the left – nor is it one more version of the harsh, overly judgmental values attributed the “vast right wing conspiracy.”
By necessary implication, the conservative moral code contains the core features of our common morality, the principles and precepts that undergird any healthy civilization (as in no stealing, cheating, lying, raping, pillaging, assaulting or trespassing on/against innocent men, women and children).
People still assume that these common moral precepts are equally shared by modern liberals, but that is not always the case. If you doubt this, study the positions of t progressive left activists on law and criminal justice, on terrorism and national security.
A robust adherence to traditional moral values among the loudest voices of the progressive left? Not so much. The Democratic Party attempts to compensate for this embarrassment by going for the images we associate with America’s moral comfort zone. Think of the liberal in Southern or Midwestern clothing, like candidates Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The current leader of the Democratic Party, our president, is an outlier. This is true both in policy terms and style. Most Americans, and a large plurality of Democrats, are disenchanted, but criticism is muted because Mr. Obama is protected by a politically-correct force field. That free pass is revoked in 2016.
CORE ELEMENTS OF THE CONSERVATIVE MORAL CODE
The conservative moral code inspires and drives five distinctly conservative projects:
v Protect all innocent American men, women and children, whether of high or low status and power, whether rich or poor, conventional or unconventional, from criminals, terrorists, invaders and other predators, including government itself.
v Protect all law-abiding productive, creative and striving Americans, whether of high or low status and power, whether rich or poor, whether conventional or unconventional, from the cadres of invasive, bureaucratic, puritanical officials bent on punishing success, hindering accomplishment and achievement, and meddling with creative initiative and freedom, in all its manifold forms.
v Promote upward mobility for all Americans, whether of high or low status and power, whether rich or poor, whether conventional or unconventional.
v Ensure individual personal accountability for failures and misdeeds, while protecting the fruits of success for all Americans, whether of high or low status and power, whether rich or poor, conventional or unconventional.
v Commit to practical, commonsense policies that work in the real world; and relentlessly expose the opposite ones promoted by the progressive left.
These are the five touchstones of big-picture, morally-anchored, forward-aimed conservatism. All the rest – the bickering, the honest the policy differences, the rhetoric, all of it – is small change.
Why are these five goals both conservative and morally grounded? How can this be explained in simple, commonsense terms?
Nineteenth and twentieth century conservatives like Edmund Burke and Winston Churchill in the UK, and eighteenth and nineteenth century conservatives like Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln in the USA were considered liberals in an entirely different context and sense than in the present usage. They, like the shopkeepers, artisans and professionals who rose up in the 18th and 19th centuries against royal privilege and control, were not levelers, driven by resentment of the hard-won achievements of others. They were achievers and aspiring achievers in their own right, those who opposed the dead hand of the titled classes, challenging the ersatz achievement of inherited status of the complacent royals who would suppress the aspirations of the real achievers. This was classical liberalism, and it is part of the modern conservative heritage. It is rooted in two morally anchored ideas, a belief in the innate dignity-status of every human being, and in the concomitant right to earn and own property, including land.
There once was a rock solid moral consensus among Americans, both liberal and conservative, that went something like this:
We believe in the dignity of the individual, in her or his absolute right to earn and keep property, to defend self, family and home against predators; and we believe in a country that takes as its first responsibility the duty to protect its individual citizens from such invasions; and undertakes to refrain, itself, from becoming another invader.
And, by virtue of our country’s essential legitimacy as a guarantor of the personal dignity of its citizens, we believe that the USA is and should remain a mighty nation worthy of defense from all enemies domestic and foreign, a defense to which we, as Americans, are firmly bound.
Somehow in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, progressive liberals “evolved”. Now they are no longer “comfortable” with this consensus. And they have quietly discarded the classic liberalism of the Founders.
Instead, modern, movement-progressives tend to misappropriate the common language, twisting and obfuscating the old terms – for example – subordinating individual rights to collective “claims” that are deliberately mislabeled “rights”.
In manifold, subtle ways, over the better part of a century, through curriculum changes in schools and academy, through conversions of a critical mass of the chattering classes, a takeover of the media, progressives have been busy with the “mind-change project”: to overwrite the older (read outmoded) moral code with a vaguely therapeutic morality.
In place of criminal justice they propose “treatment”. In place of individual, restorative justice, they propose collective “social justice”. In place of the right to own property they propose “social responsibility”. But without the right to property, we become the de facto property of the governing elites.
The key principle conservatives need to fiercely defend here is that justice and morality are part of one in the same determination: An individual accounting based on individual responsibility.
Because (to paraphrase Acton) politics corrupts, and absolute politics corrupts absolutely, the power of the “people” (read the power of political classes) to control how and where we individuals live, work, earn, keep and spend – and with whom, for whom, presents a grave moral issue. Conservatives need to respond to all this in a way that incorporates common sense morality at every turn. Human freedom, as a value, springs from the respect for individual human dignity in the context of the moral obligation to respect the individual human dignity of those who do the same.
Beware the utilitarian argument. Allowing a free market may be more “efficient” and may over time generate more “income”, but those very terms invite the end of freedom when its exercise is less “efficient”. Substitute the phrase “allowing me to live my own life” for “allowing a free market”. Now spend a minute reflecting how, in an interest-group-driven political regime, being “allowed to live my own life” might become inconvenient to the political classes.
There are utilitarian arguments for protecting the “productive, creative and striving” among us from petty officials. And there are utilitarian arguments for assessing accountability for “failures and misdeeds, while protecting the fruits of success”. But suppose these are restated as a moral principle, applicable to all Americans, whether of high or low status and power, whether rich or poor, whether conventional or unconventional. Do you sense the change? The utilitarian arguments are suddenly ennobled and acquire potency – when the arguments are explained and added – words have the power to stop the progressive juggernaut in its tracks.
And the practice of soft-balling values in favor of utilitarian arguments can lose elections. In an astute analysis of the GOP defeat in 2008, Values Voters Prevail Again by Christopher Caldwell, pointed out that the republicans allowed the democrats to dominate the values debate “Where two candidates argue over values, the public may prefer one to the other. But where only one candidate has values, he wins, whatever those values happen to be.”
You may notice that I included, as a specifically conservative principle, the obligation to “promote upward mobility for all Americans, whether of high or low status and power, whether rich or poor, whether conventional or unconventional.”
America is the product of upward mobility; it is in our DNA. The ideal of upward mobility is a statement of moral principle for Americans.
Conservatives support this ideal without using therapeutic language or proposing an open ended entitlement model. This is a statement of conservative principle, of the core moral belief in human dignity, and of conservative support for the American Dream as a primary moral value.
Conservatives are about practical, commonsense policies that work in the real world. Upward mobility does not apply to invaders. Nor does it entail downward mobility through welfare addiction. But it does apply to all those “huddled masses, yearning to be free” once they are legitimately and legally present as our neighbors. It is a sign of deep respect.
As an illustration, only (this is not about personalities), I suggest that Marco Rubio, the Florida Senator, has not placed himself outside the intra-conservative dialogue by leading out on “immigration reform.”
Conservatives will disagree on aspects of the policy merits. But while doing so, every conservative in the conversation needs to explain the core moral commitment to upward mobility, and to outline workable conservative policies that are consistent with that principle.
THE OBLIGATION TO EXPLAIN AND PERSUADE
“Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.”
Ronald Reagan, White House Conference on Small Business (August 15, 1986)
President Reagan was particularly good at this because of the confluence of unique circumstances in his life. He lived and worked among Hollywood liberals; he spent years as a patriotic spokesman for General Electric; he honed his policy and rhetorical skills as a two term California governor; he was continually underestimated by his opponents; and he achieved moral clarity in part because he was a privately religious man, and in part because the Cold War demanded and facilitated moral clarity.
Almost all Beltway politicians – and most others, tend to repeat rote phrases as a shorthand for arguments never made; or when pressed, they repeat standard arguments with little explanation and less conviction. This leaves us with the conservative cause in the less-than-capable hands of men and women content to piss into the progressive headwinds, unaware that their mouths are open, eyes unprotected and compasses gone wild. These are the would-be leaders who are content only to “stir up the base” while persuading almost no one among the un-persuaded.
For all the reasons indicated, and more, the forward-aiming conservative case will be a compelling reason for a majority of voters in 2016 to actually elect the conservative alternative over a liberal-progressive, the virtually inevitable Democratic candidate.
But that case cannot be made just then; and only belatedly incorporated into the run up to the coming presidential election. The case needs to be made now and by hundreds of different public voices.
To paraphrase Mr. Reagan, a conservative should not speak ill of another conservative in times like these.
Every single public figure, every woman or man in the public square with a legitimate place in the conservative dialogue, everyone who begins to personify the resurgence of a practical, reasonable, morally anchored conservatism presented with clarity and humor, is hereby deemed an ally of the conservative movement and, by extension, an ally of the American Renaissance.
Government is like a baby – an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.
In times like these, all allies are to be cultivated and respected. We might as well be living in the Cold War, because the stakes for the survival of this remarkable, beloved country of ours could not be higher.
The hope of hundreds of millions of people around the globe, looking at us from a remove, are captured in the phrase, “God save America”.
But, we are the Americans. And as the Bard wrote, our fate is not in our stars, but ourselves….
Copyright © 2013 by Jay B Gaskill, Attorney at Law
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