Conservatives' pockmarked past: Who owns the soul of America?

Yes, the GOP had a good election. But conservatives can't name one previous policy of theirs that helped the nation

Published December 6, 2014 2:30PM (EST)

Ronald Reagan                  (AP)
Ronald Reagan (AP)

Republicans are determined to dismantle Obamacare, not because they have any chance at succeeding–the president’s veto can’t be overridden–but because it’s of a piece with everything else they’ve been doing to embarrass this two-term chief executive.  They do so, they say, in the name of conservatism.

Now, name one program since Eisenhower, initiated by conservatives in Congress, that the nation looks back on and breathes a collective sigh, on the order of: “Whew, we dodged a bullet when we reversed that progressive misstep.” The left reflects proudly on the strongest part of its history: Where would we be without Social Security and Medicare? It was the Truman administration that integrated the armed forces, and it was Lyndon Johnson who openly embraced the civil rights movement and helped advance the cause of social justice. Conservatives were wary of these initiatives at the time they were publicly debated. Do gays make good parents? Would gay marriage do irreparable harm to the American family tradition? Would the Affordable Care Act create death panels? It takes less and less time these days for conservatives to be proven wrong, to have panicked.

If you are conservative, you will have answers, but probably not a permanent program to fall back on as proof positive that liberals were misguided. Last month it was Obama’s mishandling of the out-of-control Ebola crisis; last year it was Obama’s out-of-control spending (he’s brought down the deficit significantly). And don’t forget all that ACORN-inspired voter fraud. Today’s conservatives will not name a past conservative program that helped the nation; they will only tell you how liberals have been meddling in citizens’ lives.

Before gays corrupted the military, women did. Before Mexican/ISIS "illegal immigrants" threatened national security, Sharia law had to be defeated in the Oklahoma state legislature, marijuana led to heroin, and Irish Catholics, socialists and Chinese all had to be stopped before they cheapened or polluted the American essence. Conservatives believe things were better in the past, when…. what? When eugenics theories were embraced by Theodore Roosevelt and a generation of respected thinkers, or blacks and whites restricted from marrying and procreating, all as means of ridding society of bad blood. Yeah, that racial purity thing. Was American life better when rich white capitalists built empires uncontested by labor unions?

The right insists that local school boards and community religious leaders have a better grip on morality than outside “elitists” representing secular institutions. The right prevents federal regulation from standing in the way of business development and individual decision making. This is the logic behind loose gun laws, too. Because guns make America strong, right?, and peace overtures (remember President Obama’s “apology tour”) make America weak.

In 1830, the celebrated American author James Fenimore Cooper praised the late Thomas Jefferson: “His knowledge of Europe was of immense service to him. Without it, no American is fit to speak of the institutions of his own country, for as nothing human is perfect, it is only by comparison that we can judge of our own advantages.” No two early American nationalists did more to promote what we now call “American exceptionalism” than Jefferson and Cooper. Both subscribed to an impossibly romantic picture of American history. At the same time, Jefferson knew where the most accomplished scholars were, and dispatched a trusted aide to recruit the best and brightest of England and the Continent to serve as the first faculty of the new University of Virginia.

It’s about being honest, when it comes to promoting the public good. While the right stews in its super-patriotic exceptionalist bubble, the left will unabashedly compare the United States to the advanced nations of northern Europe, and admit that we have a great distance yet to go in order to enact comprehensive social reform. Is American logic and imagination so lacking, that a majority can’t understand what the French, Swedish, Danes and other civilized peoples understand, that retired persons (the citizens most in need of continuing care) should not bear responsibility for debilitating doctor or hospital bills? Yes, taxes are higher in those countries. But life is more secure for the vast majority. That’s the trade-off. The right holds fast to its mantra that America offers the best medical treatment and best outcomes in the world. (For all who can afford it.) Government should not impose, or muck things up. The battle between left and right is clearly rooted in ideological, more than practical, considerations. That is, it is based on gut feeling rather than real-world objectives.

Ideology is corrupting. On the major issues of the day we need citizen education to encourage the kind of independence of thought that fortifies common sense, that balances the just fears of conservatives against programs that (a) insure social progress in the United States and (b) preserve the natural world that sustains the ever-increasing billions on the planet. And we need historical perspective, too. Badly. Because conservatives are generally wrong when they claim, “the past was better when….”

Here’s where the conservatives are right: when they hold up the “great books” of times gone by that need to be a part of a citizen’s education, worried lest today’s faddism replace proven standards of social value. We should probably all read Machiavelli, Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, as well as Shakespeare. But past forms of knowledge are not to be considered sacrosanct either. Case in point: making Biblical stories timeless, universal and somehow “the holy word of God,” rather than a less than wholly intelligible compilation of ideas that animated a narrowly positioned, long-dead people of one rather limited part of the world, is to artificially construct a moment of uniform, universal truth.

A liberal arts education dictates against uniformity, placing historical study for the sake of intellectual advancement alongside empirical energies directed toward improving humanity’s lot. Cross-cultural understanding is the sine qua non, the very definition, of modernity. Rigid ideology only gets in the way.

Useful experiment, tried and tested, and honest public conversation is the only method of governing that can be correctly called republican democracy. President Obama attempted this method when he began his presidency with a comprehensive study of health care options. We all know the shape resistance took to his idea of concerted study and informed bipartisan debate. It was a bizarre refrain that, as translated from its original language of dissimulation, went something like this: To grant people new choices is a bad thing; for government to step in and apply fairness standards to insurance companies is to deny freedom to individual consumers when they purchase substandard health insurance. People who wanted to, believed it.

“Individual premiums will rise by as much as fifty or sixty percent!” opponents of Obamacare calculated. As we now know, costs are lower since Obamacare kicked in and made the marketplace ever so slightly more competitive. Meanwhile, in promising to repeal the Affordable Care Act after winning new majorities, Republicans (who pretended that the success of Romneycare in Massachusetts was irrelevant) came up with a plan to tax middle-class employees on their employer-provided health coverage. That’s an answer? We’ll see what happens next. It won’t be pretty. Judging by the past five years, it won’t make sense either.

On the other side of the coin, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback tried to run his state by adopting conservative methods of economy. The results have been pretty horrendous, with the state’s bond rating being lowered this past summer as a consequence of Republican policies. Yet Brownback was just reelected by promising more of the same experiment in lowering taxes on the wealthy.  “Republicans are the party of big business, and therefore better for the economy,” the axiom goes. Polls reconfirm the currency of this opinion. But Democratic administrations have, over time, demonstrably produced better economic results.

The disconnect is obvious, the problem of critical thinking and citizen education ongoing. So let’s go back to the problem raised in the opening paragraphs: Ask a conservative to name one domestic program initiated by a conservative majority that the nation remembers and takes pride in. What’s different now from the 1980s is that President Reagan was an inveterate optimist, whereas today’s conservative message is laced with contempt and laden with cynicism.

People will, one hopes, look back one day and recognize that a national health care administration on the order of Social Security and Medicare, civil rights legislation, women and gays in the military and other progressive laws provide democratic fairness, giving more American citizens opportunities to save for retirement without worrying unduly about access to superior health care when they most need it. And, as it is with the other aforementioned liberal social programs, the public will forget how conservatives vehemently opposed them, proclaiming that each, in turn, would either ruin the economy or sully the social fabric.

Historical amnesia is a remarkable thing, especially in view of the conservatives’ current method of denying how wrong they were to declare that the sky was falling. We observe today the lack of shame as we tick off a list of every ideologically driven stand or accusation being exposed as a partisan manufacture or crude rewriting of history. Of late, we have the Benghazi tragedy, so long painted as an Obama administration “cover-up” and finally acknowledged as a bogus charge. What Republican has publicly regretted having predicted Obamacare’s “death panels” of bureaucrats deciding (as private insurance companies do!) who gets how much treatment for potentially catastrophic health problems? Democrats have been meek in seizing back the narrative, and in spelling out that Tea Party control of hot-button issues functions as nothing more than a desperate, wrong-headed, fear-mongering appeal to illiberal instincts.

If conservatives see liberals as naive in their altruistic designs and advocacies, liberals see conservatives as inherently selfish. This is the ideological divide of today. Liberals are not perfect, of course; they do, from time to time, exhibit softness when a hard-nosed response might be called for. But it doesn’t help the cause in claiming historical justification for conservatism when Ronald Reagan is shown rationalizing, as in a 1980 debate with Jimmy Carter, that white Americans in his younger years were unaware that a race problem existed; and then, as president, ignoring the AIDS epidemic; and again, in 1988, on “60 Minutes” as an outgoing president, criticizing civil rights leaders for artificially “keeping alive the feeling that they’re victims of prejudice.”

Was it willful duplicity? No, in Reagan’s case it was comforting self-deception. These years later, many conservatives (albeit less honestly) remain wedded to Reagan’s notions about race. Recall Newt Gingrich’s statements while campaigning for the Republican nomination in 2012, saying that it’s poor black people who just aren’t interested in working hard and getting ahead, and expect government to provide for them. In this construct, government should coddle under-taxed corporate giants, but not poor people.

It is not very likely that future generations will look back and say, “Gee, it’s a good thing we didn’t listen to all those scientists who documented man-made climate change, but followed instead the suspiciously uninformed folks who left the globe in the hands of productive business executives.” Yet there will no doubt be conservative voices in times to come decrying a new progressive idea that we cannot imagine. If homeless people aren’t crossing over from Canada in flying cars, surely some sensible women’s right will newly threaten the tradition of the family.

Our progressives are frustrated because many Democrats in Washington are not good at combating cynicism. Too many candidates this past campaign season distanced themselves from the good that President Obama has put in motion, because they feared how the Republican opposition would twist it. They would instead wait a few decades until historians currently in diapers reflect positively on the domestic legacy of Barack Obama and negatively on the tone-deafness of the right’s cruel and intellectually dishonest talking points. But really, what good is a progressive politician who feeds the cynicism?

Who owns the soul of America? The jury is out. Meanwhile, there is hope. The most obnoxious racist of the 1960s, Governor George Wallace of Alabama, reversed himself while still in office, and apologized to black America for segregation. Conservative icon Barry Goldwater found the religious right to be thoroughly obnoxious, and in his last years gave vocal support to acceptance of gays in the military. It may be asking too much of Mitch McConnell to embrace universal health care, but hey, it could happen.

By Andrew Burstein

Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg are historians at Louisiana State University and co-authors of the forthcoming book "The Problem of Democracy: The Presidents Adams Confront the Cult of Personality." Follow them on Twitter @andyandnancy.

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