The reasons why conservatism is the wrong path for America go far beyond specific policy issues such as immigration, economics, and foreign policy. Those issues can be legitimately debated, and views can often cross party or ideological boundaries. The problems with conservatism lie at a deeper, philosophical level. To understand the fundamental barrenness of conservative thought—and why conservatives have no business running a 21st-century superpower—let’s look to the words of William F. Buckley, movement conservatism’s ideological founder and intellectual spokesmodel.
“Conservatism,” Buckley wrote, in his book Up From Liberalism, “is the tacit acknowledgment that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken…. Whatever is to come cannot outweigh the importance to man of what has gone before.”
That quote is astounding for so many reasons, not least that Buckley wrote it in a book for everyone to see. In that passage, Buckley gave away the game. He basically admits that conservatives hate change, and he helpfully explains why: It’s not just a character flaw, it’s a fundamental tenet of their political philosophy. Civilization, according to Buckley, has already reached its highest point. Whatever new ideas modern society comes up with can’t be more important than what others have already thought of. The ideas of the Founding Fathers, or the ancient Greeks (or whomever Buckley has in mind), cannot be improved. There is nothing new under the sun; we can only piggyback on the accomplishments of wiser men.
By that reckoning, then, any change, any new idea, can only be decadence and devolution. It would follow, then, that the highest charge of the watchful conservative is to prevent that change from taking place.
If you think that’s a misinterpretation or exaggeration of Buckley’s meaning, he said it again, more famously, in the mission statement for National Review, the magazine he started in 1955 in the hope that it would become the intellectual flagship of a new conservative movement (as indeed it did).
The Review (and by extension, conservatism), he wrote, “…stands athwart history, yelling Stop.”
Remarkably, Buckley’s goal for conservatism is to stop the march of history! To halt progress in its tracks! Is there a sadder, less inspiring, and ultimately more futile political philosophy for America?
The history that Buckley was specifically referring to was the “radical social experimentation” of his time (and considering that Eisenhower was president in 1955, that tells you how conservative Buckley was), the growth of government, and creeping internationalism of things like the United Nations. “The profound crisis of our era,” Buckley writes, “is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order.”
Conservatives, in other words, disdain utopian ideas like improving the human condition. They don’t want new ideas; they want to stop history, to preserve the current world order and the ancient truths and traditions they value. In some ways that’s understandable, and even noble. But if that is their goal, it’s not hard to see that in the long run it is doomed to failure. Time, of course, doesn’t stop. Progress will never be arrested, though conservatives may manage to slow it down for a while.
To be honest, most modern conservatives probably wouldn’t embrace Buckley’s view about “stopping history” anymore, nor that “everything important about human experience is behind us.” They most likely would frame their conservatism around the concept of small government and “liberty” (meaning fewer taxes and a lack of interference from government). But in fact conservatives prove the truth of Buckley’s words every day, in their red-faced opposition to virtually every new idea that comes down the turnpike. From health care to gay rights to global warming, conservative resistance to change is nearly monolithic. Buckley may be long dead, but the goal of conservatives is still to maintain the status quo or, worse, to go back to the way things used to be. Their obsession with reducing the size of government is just another mechanism for stalling history, by starving society of the money to pay for new programs or as a way to dismantle previous liberal new ideas about social welfare.
In their Lear-like railing against the winds of change, conservatives over the decades have amassed a truly appalling record of stasis and obstructionism. They have resolutely opposed liberal ideas that most Americans now couldn’t imagine living without, including the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, and collective bargaining. Just in the last 50 years, conservatives have fought against a long list of liberal accomplishments for America, such as:
- Civil rights for minorities
- Voting rights for minorities
- Interracial marriage
- Alternative energy
- Affordable health care for people who otherwise couldn’t afford insurance
- Regulations curbing the worst abuses of the credit card industry
- Creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to prevent unfair or deceptive practices in the financial industries
- Equal rights for gay people, including the right to serve in the military and to marry
In contrast to that impressive lineup of social improvements brought about by liberals (many of them profoundly transformative for American society), what new ideas have conservatives brought to the table?
Go ahead, we’ll give you a minute.
- Tax cuts? Sure. And even though they disproportionately rewarded the wealthy and created the massive deficits that conservatives now decry, that’s no small thing.
- Medicare prescription drug coverage? A genuine accomplishment.
- Welfare reform? An accomplishment, yes. But not a new idea, just a revision of a previous social improvement.
- School vouchers? A new idea with a spotty record so far.
- Deregulating the airlines and phone companies? That’s been transformational for commerce. Did it improve people lives? Maybe. It’s kind of hard to say.
The sad truth is that not only do conservatives have very few ideas of their own, they spend most of their time fighting tooth and nail against the good ideas of others, until time and collective good sense force them to concede.
Conservatism has rarely brought about significant social progress in America.1 On the contrary, conservatives have barred the door of progress at every opportunity. Most conservatives wouldn’t even think of opposing civil rights or Medicare today. But they did at one time. Conservatives have proven themselves to be on the wrong side of history time and time again, yet conservatism is still taken seriously as a political philosophy. How is it possible that voters still support an ideology that has been so consistently wrong?
In fact, a strong case can be made that not only have conservatives done little to improve America, their policies have actually brought harm to the country:
- By steadfastly opposing rights for minorities, women, and now gay people, conservatives have prolonged inequality decades beyond what might have been.
- By granting huge tax breaks mostly to the wealthy, including income, capital gains, and inheritance taxes, conservatives have created massive deficits.
- By then immorally using the deficits they created as an excuse to cut food stamps and other social programs for the poor, and by refusing to support policies such as raising the minimum wage, conservatives have created economic inequality unseen since the age of the robber barons.
- By their decades-long opposition to universal health care, conservatives have brought unnecessary misery, financial hardship, and stress to millions of Americans hit by accident or ill health.
- In their fevered opposition to even common sense gun controls, they have created one of the most violent societies in the world.
- In conservatives’ mocking disdain for environmental causes and alternative energy, they have slowed the nation’s drive toward cleaner energy.
- In their willful ignorance and mistrust of science, they may yet send the U.S. and the world toward increasingly catastrophic climate change.
Conservatism’s fundamental, reflexive resistance to change by itself makes it unworthy of leading a country, much less a 21st-century superpower. Clinging to the status quo is not a philosophy of greatness.
Conservatism: Unfit to Lead a Great Nation
What does it say about a political ideology when, at every important turning point in our nation’s history, conservatives have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future? Conservative policies reveal a deep pessimism about the ability of humans to improve our lives and America’s ability to solve its problems—despite abundant proof that we can.
That utter lack of idealism, that profound disinterest in trying to change the world for the better, that pinched, narrow, uninspired, regressive thinking, is ultimately what makes conservatism seem so impoverished, so intellectually and emotionally unappetizing. It’s utter lack of accomplishment is what makes it unfit to lead a great nation. America cannot afford a political party with such timidity, cynicism, and even cowardice in facing the future or tackling difficult social issues.
Why should Americans support a political philosophy that just can’t seem to see the future coming? Conservatism is a recipe for stagnation. No great nation, no superpower, can continuously resist progress and remain a great nation for very long. No leader can lead by looking backward.
Though conservatism may win its short-term victories, in the long run it must—it will—be defeated by the essential goodness of human beings, who understand the need to care for one another; by the American character, which demands fairness and equality; and by the basic human need for progress.
1 Social progress is different from social change. Conservatives certainly have brought about changes in society (most of them regressive), including the strong rightward political shift since the 1960s, curbing abortion rights, codifying an individual’s legal right to own guns, and more.