Most conservatives today are conservative in name only. Their stance on numerous issues bears no resemblance to the positions held by their forebearers in the original conservative movement.
Consider the congressional father of conservatism, Senator Barry Goldwater or the icon of contemporary right wingers, President Ronald Reagan. No one would question their patriotism, which is why they would be appalled at conservatives who in 2010 seem to care more about having President Obama fail than the country succeed.
Nowhere is the adulteration of original conservative principles more manifest than in the treatment of environmental concerns.
Russell Kirk was the author of the 1953 treatise, The Conservative Mind, regarded as the classic introduction to modern day conservatism. More than a half century ago, Kirk declared that "The issue of environmental quality is one which transcends traditional political boundaries."
Tell that to today's conservatives, who have made environmental protection a highly contentious, partisan issue despite the words of their idol, Ronald Reagan. He at least paid lip service to unity when in 1984, he asserted that "preservation of our environment is not a partisan challenge. It's common sense."
When the Democrats moved to make environmental protection one of their signature issues shortly after the first Earth Day (1970), conservative Republicans' political response was to discredit and obstruct the trend rather than outdo it. This strategy resulted in a majority of the GOP robotically opposing stringent environmental regulation at virtually every turn. Today, the conservative Republican leadership characterizes environmental activists and their crusade for strong anti-pollution regulation as the embodiment of leftist collectivism and totalitarian rule.
I don't think this unflattering description would appeal to Kirk, who 50 years ago already was critical of where he perceived conservatism to be heading.
"Practical conservatism has degenerated into mere lauding of private enterprise, economic policy has almost wholly surrendered to special interests," he opined. One could understand his disappointment in light of his view that "Nothing is more conservative than conservation."
Nor would Barry Goldwater be happy with the environmental intransigence of his successors. Back in 1970, the Arizona senator stated that "while I am a great believer in the free enterprise system and all that it entails, I am an even stronger believer in the right of our people to live in a clean and pollution-free environment."
Many of today's conservatives consider the global warming threat a hoax, environmental regulations a repressive and unnecessary weight on the economy, and the appropriate energy policy to be "drill [for oil], baby drill".
These views would not likely enthrall Richard Weaver, author of the 1946 tract that launched the American conservative moment. "Nature is not something to be fought, conquered and changed according to any human whim," he once commented.
Jeffrey Hart would also be displeased. A senior editor at the conservative National Review and a former speech writer for Presidents Nixon and Reagan, Hart recently remarked that "when the free market becomes a kind of utopianism, it maximizes ordinary human imperfection, unleashing greed, short views, and the resulting barbarism."
Run this by today's conservative bigwigs and they would denounce it as "liberal propaganda".
Edward Flattau is an environmental columnist residing in Washington, D.C. and author of the forthcoming book, Green Morality, scheduled for publication at the end of this summer. Telephone (202) 363-1270. Address: Suite 609, 1330 New Hampshire Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036