Conservative: of or constituting a political party professing the principles of conservatism, such as (a) tending or disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions (b) marked by moderation or caution; [or] (c) marked by or relating to traditional norms of taste, elegance, style, or manners.
- the Merriam-Webster online dictionary
When did conservatives stop being conservative?
When did a political philosophy that used to stand for preserving the old order and demanding respect for existing institutions begin trying to overthrow the old order and destroy existing institutions? When did acting with prudence morph into acting with reckless disregard? How did "freedom" manage to become synonymous with "to hell with you, buddy, I've got mine"?
Read the Merriam-Webster definition above. Can anyone still pretend that these words come anywhere close to describing today's principal claimant to the conservative banner - the modern Republican Party?
So what happened? When did conservatives start ripping up the Constitution in the name of defending it? How and why did a protest over a strictly ceremonial duty of the Vice President escalate into an attempted coup? (Let's not mince words. When you are violently invading the capitol in an effort to install the loser of a Presidential election in place of the duly elected winner, it's an attempted coup.) It's true that Democrats have also recently protested Presidential election results - to state and federal courts in 2016, and all the way to the Supreme Court, in 2000 - but the supporters of Hillary Clinton and Al Gore did not smash their way into the chambers of Congress in an attempt to stop the certification of Donald Trump and George W. Bush's electoral victories. Liberals' reactions to electoral losses, these days, are more conservative than the Conservatives. Why?
Part of the blame, certainly, rests with the leadership of men like Mitch McConnell - who has made conservatism equivalent to hypocricy - and Donald Trump, who has made it equivalent to toddler-like narcisism (tantrums and all). But in the past, when such would-be demagogues arose, there were people like Dwight Eisenhower and John McCain to tamp them down. A few Republicans like that remain today - Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney come to mind - but they are now outliers, and are painted as traitors by a party that appears to have convinced a substantial majority of its rank and file that the only proper response to an election loss is to insist - in the face of mountains of evidence that it was legitimate - that it actually wasn't. Where did the real Conservatives go, and why did almost all of those pretending to that title today fall victim to radical ideas like abandoning the central-most requirement to keep a government by the consent of the governed operating - abiding by the outcome of elections, and assisting in a peaceful transfer of power?
I think the operative word here might be "desperation." In a world where rapid change has become the norm, protecting the old order through normal political means feels increasingly futile, like trying to bring down a giant airliner with a pea-shooter. So blaming "big government liberals" and fighting against them by whatever methods are at hand - legal or not - must seem entirely logical.
It is also misled. Blaming big government, or liberals - or anyone at all, for that matter - for the flaws of current society is far off base. Most of the sea of changes we swim in today cannot be blamed on any individual, or any political party, or any philosphy of governance. Most of them result from the collective actions of all of us. Economists have a term, the Fallacy of Composition, to describe the belief that what is good for the individual is necessarily good for society as a whole. It isn't. Adam Smith's beloved "invisible hand" doesn't always push us toward the greater good: far too often, the view we get of that hand is of the back of it, waving in our faces, with the middle finger defiantly upraised.
Consider climate change. Evidence for its existence is all around us. Droughts in my part of the world; floods in others. Heat waves in Alaska; ice storms in Texas. Wildfires, hurricanes, and tornadoes all over - most of them much larger, moving much faster, and lasting through much longer seasons than those we knew as recently as the end of the last century. There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists who study the climate that the singular cause behind all of these things is the growing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That growth is a direct result of the burning of fossil fuels - the removal of sequestered carbon from far beneath the ground, combusting it, and releasing the products of combustion into the atmosphere - a process that is collectively driven by perfectly normal individual acts, like driving to the store or flying to Hawaii. What is good for the individual, in this case, is killing the planet. But the individual acts that contribute to this collective horror show are each so teensy-tiny that it is easy to deny that they have any effect at all. Extending that denial to the denial of climate change itself is an almost inevitable next step. The only hope we have of combatting the results of climate change - the wildfires, the hurricanes, and all the rest - is to change the individual acts that are the root cause of them. The Fallacy of Composition pretty much guarantees that persuasion won't accomplish this, so controls are necessary. And if you deny the existence of the problem, it is inevitable that you will see those controls, not as necessary steps to preserve life as we know it, but as intrusions on personal liberty by "big government" intent on control for the sake of control.
Other ongoing changes have similar patterns of cause and effect. The demographic shifts that promise to make White Americans a minority within the next few years are driven by our individual choices - whom we marry, where we live, how many children we have - but it's easier to blame immigration, and to react by building walls, both along our borders and in our minds. Becoming a nation composed entirely of minorities is forcing changes in the way we think about our culture, but it's more comfortable to assign those changes to deliberate attempts by "liberal snowflakes" to take away our rights than it is to adjust to them. Broader understanding of the genetic codes and hormonal mixes that drive gender identity and sexual preference leads to wider tolerance of transgendered individuals and same-sex marriage, which leads in turn to defensive moves on the part of those who consider these rare but perfectly normal human conditions to be moral failings instead of body chemistry.
And then there's the pandemic. In a world roiled by climate change and shrunk by air travel, pandemics are inevitable. They are spread primarily - in the case of COVID-19, probably exclusively - by direct contact with the bodily fluids of those harboring the viruses that cause them. The only way to stop that spread - the ONLY way - is by placing barriers in the path of the virus, either physical (masks, social distancing) or biological (vaccines). But creating those barriers requires changes to individual behavior, and once again we come face to face with the Fallacy of Composition. It is easier to deny that the problem exists than to try to mitigate (or even to understand) your own small but crucially important part in causing the problem in the first place.
These attitudes toward change are not new, of course, and they've caused problems in human social interactions for millenia. What IS new, I think, is the number and scale of the changes, coupled with their worldwide ubiquity. Climate change and pandemics apply to all nations; refugee populations, and therefore immigration, are expanding everywhere; the Internet and smartphones have brought information (dare I say enlightenment?) regarding the chemistry of gender identity to all corners of the globe. The future is closing in on all sides, and it doesn't look anything like the past. Panic rises; it is time to run and hide. But there is no longer any place to run to and hide in.
So those who would run and hide are trying desperately to create one.
Those fearful of what the world is rapidly becoming have gravitated to the more conservative of our two political parties - the party that resists rapid change - and have largely taken it over, altering it in the process so that it now not only resists any change at all, but attempts to roll back the changes that have already happened. It is exactly at this point that conservatives stop being conservatives. Radical activism is not a conservative position - not even if it is trying to push the country backward instead of forward. Look again at that Merriam-Webster definition at the beginning of this piece.
The forces that have taken over the Republican Party call themselves conservatives and patriots, but they are neither. True conservatives resist radical change; today's "conservatives" attempt to create it. True patriots uphold American values; today's "patriots" are fighting a desperate battle against that most basic of American values, majority rule. Their attitudes toward freedom fare no better. They claim to be fighting for it, but what they are actually fighting for is freedom's poor cousin, license - the right to do whatever one pleases, regardless of the consequences to others. And they only want that for themselves. Ask a gay couple, or a transgendered teen, how much "freedom" those who call themselves conservatives today are willing to allow to anyone who doesn't look, act, and think exactly as they do.
What can progressives, and true conservatives, do to combat this? First, we can stop fighting each other. We face a significant mutual threat; we will do better against it if we face it in a unified manner. The events of January 6, 2021, demonstrate conclusively that we are up against forces that are perfectly capable of destroying the American experiment in the name of saving it. When our system of government is safe once more, we can go back to debating how best to direct its actions.
Second, we can support laws protecting the vote. In a democracy, this should be a no-brainer. Protect the process of casting a vote; protect the process of counting the votes after they are cast. Prevent either party from gerrymandering voting districts to give themselves an advantage in elections. Do this on the federal, state, county, and city level. Majority rule no longer exists if those who vote are purposefully manipulated to skew differently from the the population as a whole.
Finally, we can stop calling today's Republican Party "conservative." As I hope I have made clear here, the definition no longer fits. What to replace it with is an open question. "Fascist" and "Reactionary" are both accurate, but they carry connotations that get the hackles up on people who should be working with us. "Insurrectionist" is appropriate but limited to a small subset of Republican voters. I suggest, for now, that we go with "unAmerican." Yes, I know: similar terms have been used by the radical Right to describe liberals and progressives for many years. But I cannot frankly find a term that fits today's so-called "conservatives" better. What is more unAmerican than trying to overthrow majority rule?