Last year, a libertarian friend asked my definition of conservatives and liberals. He was poised to attack any biased flaws. I told him, "To me, a conservative is a person who sees what is good and important about the past, and wants to protect that and keep it strong. A liberal is someone who wants to grow the present into a strong, vibrant and even better future."
This received his hugely-surprised seal of approval.
I've never thought conservatism is inherently "wrong." Indeed, it's important as part of a well-rounded world-view. Just as it's equally critical to have liberalism in one's makeup. The question is the balance.
Ultimately, I've gravitated to a liberal or progressive philosophy because if society is going to prosper, it is only going to happen in that future. Liberalism is not perfect. But given that liberalism is about change and questioning the status quo -- it allows for changing itself when necessary, addressing its excesses. Most often, however, this liberal change is adapting to Life, whose conditions are relentlessly, unavoidably changing -- child labor laws, the minimum wage, Civil Rights Act, federal deposit insurance, the TVA bringing electricity to rural America, unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare and more.
A conservative view provides crucial, specific benefits and solid stability. But the benefits are of the moment, of the issue. Expanding those moments to an all-encompassing life philosophy relies over-heavily on always looking backwards. Too often conservatism stays entrenched in the past it's "conserving," also pushing to undo progress to return to that preferred past. Because conservatism is grounded on tightly holding onto what works best from previous times, no mechanism for resolving conservative mistakes readily exists. And the conservative tenet of unquestioning faith, passed down from the Religious Right, only serves to protect those very mistakes, which in secular matters results in stagnation.
And so, we see Far Right/Religious Right/Tea Party Republicans of today campaigning to cut Social Security, cut Medicare, cut the minimum wage, cut unemployment insurance, cut health care reform, cut Wall Street Reform, repeal the 14th Amendment. That's the conservative philosophy. That's the America they want.
What most Americans want is Social Security and Medicare.
In recent weeks, we've seen Republican candidates Joe Miller in Alaska and Linda McMahon in Connecticut suggest cutting the minimum wage - a program so wildly-popular that a new Public Religion Research Institute poll found that two-thirds of Americans want it increased by 50%. Reaction against Ms. McMahon was so intense that she raced to reverse her position.
To be clear, conservatism is not inherently cruel or mean-spirited, as it is often portrayed. But that appearance is the natural result of actions taken that continually harm those in need.
We saw this in Congress, as Republicans filibustered extending unemployment insurance during the biggest recession since the Great Depression. Or when Republicans blocked a jobs extension bill that would have saved tens of thousands of desperate Americans.
And so, from cutting public services, it's a natural progression to a fire department letting Gene Cranick's home burn over a $75 fee that wasn't paid -- but was pleadingly offered. We get conservatives applauding this. We get Glenn Beck mocking "compassion, compassion, compassion, compassion." We get Jonah Goldberg ridiculing it as "an important lesson," amazingly adding, "Zing!"
If anyone wonders where the mean-spirited image of conservatives comes from, this is its parking spot. Alongside the Ann Coulters of the world "joking" about poisoning Supreme Court justices.
By the way, if you saw a total stranger drowning, I'm guessing you would all try to help in some way. And you wouldn't ask for $75 first.
This is the world that the Far Right/Religious Right/Tea Party Republicans want to bring to America. Cut, cut, cut, return to the past. Burn, baby, Burn.
Cut unemployment, cut the minimum wage, cut Medicare, cut Social Security. Cut health care reform. Cut Wall Street reform.
That Public Religion poll reports that 54% of Americans are more likely to vote for candidates who support health care reform. And 58% favor a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Unlike the Jan Brewers of the world in Arizona who want to see your papers.
It is a world where Nikki Haley, "Tea Party" Republican candidate for governor in South Carolina, wants to drug test anyone getting unemployment insurance, same as Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). Never mind that this would surely cost more than it would save. It's a world view that sees the unemployed as shiftless, drug-ridden and probably black, rather than our destitute American neighbors out of work. And it singles out the destitute, rather than testing anyone getting government money.
It is unfair to paint all conservatives with one brush. Such a picture of wouldn't be true. But the picture has a foundation they have built themselves.
It's a foundation built upon selfish "I've got mine, you're on your own" bravado - ignoring that we all benefit from government. Government never seems too big when it provides what conservatives want: military, police, fire protection (okay, except to Gene Cranick), college loans, VA loans, interstate highway system, protecting our food and water and children's toys, bank deposit insurance, infrastructure, and on and on and on and on. Government only becomes intrusive for Far Right conservatives once they've finally got theirs. The rest be damned. Sharron Angle says she's already had her babies. Rand Paul wants some inconveniences unprotected by the Civil Rights Act.
Again, this is not inherent in conservatism, which is a serious part of society. But at heart, it is founded on the past, and the Far Right cements it there. That is the problem with a conservative life philosophy as the direction for America.
America doesn't live in the past. America builds for the future. And despite Far Right actions to the contrary, America compassionately asks to embrace the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
And this is why a conservative direction for America, spanning our 234-year history, is backwards. Liberalism is flawed, but self-correcting. Conservatism is flawed, but self-perpetuating. And that is why the conservative "Pledge" to America is actually a threat.
"We are not going to be any different than what we've been," said the man hoping one day to be Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), when he presented that Pledge.
And in the end, that is precisely the problem with a Far Right/Religious Right/Tea Party philosophy. It is not going to be any different. Ever. The rest of us always prefer to grow.
But thanks to John Boehner for at least warning us.
Follow Robert J. Elisberg on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RobertElisberg