09/17/2012 05:13 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

The Conundrum of the Pendulum

George Will, on ABC's "This Week," correctly refuted the Romney campaign claim that the Middle East riots would not have happened if Romney were president. But one wonders why Will still has a national voice. He used to be the kind of conservative I loved to read; he is smart, articulate, presents a well-crafted argument, and has a good sense of history. But he lost credibility years ago when he called the American war for independence a "conservative revolution." He presented this oxymoron (in his defense, he is not alone) to promote the idea that conservatism can lead to positive change in the course of history. But in contorting himself into this impossible position he sacrificed his credibility, which like virginity, once lost is lost forever.

To boil down the essential differences between liberals and conservatives, we can take the conclusion from John Locke (1632-1704) and Edmund Burke (1729-1797). Liberals believe in and support human rational potential, a compact between the people and their government, and the right of revolution if that pact is broken. Conservatives place a high value on existing institutions, customs and traditions, put faith in a supernatural force guiding human affairs, and accept human inequality and the consequences of social hierarchy. However laudable those latter ideas may or may not be, they do not lead to revolution.

Thinking conservatives face the dilemma that most of history's advances derive from liberalism. Conservatism resists change and promotes either the status quo or a return to earlier times. If conservatives had won the day, we would still have segregation, women could not vote, child labor would be the norm, mixed-race marriages would be illegal, evolution could not be taught in science class, abortions would be criminal, Christian prayer would be embedded in public schools, the air in Los Angeles would still be brown and deadly, our water would be contaminated with lead and arsenic... and we would all still be British subjects. We are American and not British thanks to enlightened liberals. In each of these cases, conservatives fought in their day to preserve what we view in retrospect as failed social and political constructs.

Take any one of those issues -- women's suffrage or child labor for example, and read the stories of the day. Conservatives predicted catastrophic consequences if women were allowed to vote. Industrialists fought tooth and nail to prevent the passage of laws to protect children from the vilest forms of exploitation. And conservatives fought hard to remain loyal to the British. What could be more anti-American -- literally -- than that? Conservatives have historically fought to preserve what we now consider some of the worst abuses in society. They are doing the same today, and we'll have that perspective 50 years hence. Citizens United will be our Dredd Scott. You cannot have a conservative revolution; a revolution is a fight for radical change to create a new and better future. A revolution is not a quest for some reversion to an old past; change is the antithesis of conservative thought. Revisionism and linguistic contortions will not save conservatives from the harsh reality that their movement is based on a fight for causes that decades hence will seem archaic and barbaric.

Historically, conservatives have served a single useful purpose: to rein in the excesses of liberalism. Liberal thought is the engine for change, but without the pull of conservative resistance that train can quickly accelerate beyond safe speed. In the absence of opposing views, liberalism fast becomes too much of a good thing. A sense of entitlement, too much reliance on government, excessive regulations that stifle innovation, exploitive taxation, legal constructs that interfere with desirable market forces, and social policies that threaten individual rights are all consequences of liberalism unconstrained.

Liberalism properly reined in by conservatism is like the water falling through a turbine to generate electricity. The force of the water when resisted by the internal gears of the turbine creates something useful to society. That same force, though, becomes destructive when flowing uncontrolled over the top of the dam. Liberalism creates change necessary to advance our society; conservative resistance prevents the rate of change from exceeding redline.

The real danger of right wing extremism today is not necessarily the medieval views advanced by party advocates. I believe the majority of Americans will reject the far rights' antiquated views on women's rights, science, unregulated capitalism of robber-baron days, and jingoistic nationalism. No, the real danger is that extremism is going to damage the legitimate conservative movement beyond repair for a generation or more. In the absence of a sound conservative movement, liberalism will be prone to excess. Then in response to that excess the pendulum will swing back too far to the right, and we will enter into ever-widening and unstable swings left and right. Our future is in the middle, and the further we swing away on either side the greater the danger.

My great hope is that a decisive Obama win in November will largely discredit the extreme right, giving voice and power again to moderates in the Republican Party. Liberals have no exclusive insights to what is best; nor do conservatives. We need both in dialogue to create a better future. We need the falling water, but we need to guide that water to useful purpose. We need both liberals and conservatives, absent the extremes we see today on the far right. And no, I did not include extremes on the far left. At least for the moment the left has no equivalent of the Tea Party, or the extreme voices of Rush Limbaugh with 20 million listeners or extreme candidates like Michele Bachmann or Todd Akin. Where we stand today the right must swing to the middle across a greater distance than the left.