Conservative, as defined by Merriam-Webster means one who supports existing views or institutions. So let's break this definition down and weigh the claims of the modern conservative against it.
The government is an institution. Yet conservatives, if you believe their rhetoric, despise the institution of government. Short, simple, to the point, modern conservatives themselves say they oppose our government institutions. Clearly this part of the definition no longer applies.
Existing Views & Conditions
Existing views presents another problem for conservatives. Modern conservatives seek to reverse a host of existing views. For example, ABC News reported that 53% of Americans now support gay marriage but conservatives seek to prohibit gay marriage wherever possible. The right wants to break unions and cut teacher salaries even though according to a recent WSJ/NBC poll, 47% support unions while only 30% oppose. In addition, 73% support teachers while only 10% feel negatively about them. The right wants to cut medicare but only 18% of Americans agree with them. The right wants to cut social security, but only 22% of Americans agree with them. The right wants to cut taxes for the wealthy while 55% of Americans believe that we should raise them to help reduce the budget deficit.
I could go on, but you get the point. The core values of the modern right don’t match the core values of Americans. It would appear that conservatives neither support the existing institutions nor the existing views of Americans. So what then do conservatives want to do. What has the word conservative come to mean?
Ironically, conservatives appear to want change. We can’t say they want progress because that would imply they are liberal. This must mean that the modern conservative wants to support the institutions and existing views of the past. If conservatives want to return to the past, how far must we go into the past to find a time that is consistent with their beliefs?
We could go back to George H.W. Bush, but he was pro-choice. We could go back to Ronald Reagan, the actual man, not the myth that has been propagated. The actual Ronald Reagan won’t work because he believed that corporations should pay their fair share of taxes. Richard Nixon won’t do because he increased funding for many civil rights programs and he created two new federal agencies, the EPA and OSHA. Eisenhower won’t do because during his presidency individuals making over $3 million in today’s dollars paid a tax rate of 90% and he invested heavily in our national infrastructure by developing our interstate highway system. It would appear that the best fit for the modern conservative would be the days of Calving Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. It has not been since those days that we have seen so much wealth concentrated in the hands of the wealthy few.
If modern conservatives don’t seek to support the prevailing view or the prevailing institutions then perhaps their goal is to minimize government’s role and scope. Perhaps the modern conservative is focused on preserving individual liberty and keeping big government out of our lives. Unfortunately, yet again the facts don’t support modern conservatives.
Actions Speak Louder Than Rhetoric
The 2010 midterm elections have given modern conservatives the opportunity to bring their views and goals into sharp and clear focus. After being sworn into office, our new conservative governors, state legislatures, and congress immediately returned to the very policies which led us to the great recession while adding even more invasion of privacy and even more big government infringement on our rights.
Take for example Wisconsin and Scott Walker’s crushing of the public sector unions in the face of enormous public opposition. The small government conservatives used the government to go against the public will and to remove worker’s rights to collective bargaining. Of course no use of big government would be complete without violating multiple court orders against closing the state house to the public, violating state law to pass the bill, and violating several court orders forbidding enacting the law. Go small government!
Ohio’s Governor John Kasich also crushed the unions in his state. But not to be outdone by Wisconsin, Kasich also banned the ability to strike but failed to gain the power to send picketers to jail for up to 6 months. Governor Kasich passed this bill while only 34% of his state’s residents supported the measure. Go small government!
The midwest has a third champion of small government in Governor RIck Snyder from Michigan. Governor Snyder signed a bill that empowers him to declare local governments insolvent. In so doing, Governor Snyder can dissolve locally elected governments and replace them with for-profit corporate managers. Yes, you read that correctly small government in Michigan means government gets smaller because it is dissolved and replaced by corporations who will run your town. Go small government!
In Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett used small government to unilaterally empower a former coal CEO C. Alan Walker to make decisions regarding oil, gas and coal permits free of the burden of state laws. Governer Corbett gave C. Alan Walker the ability to “expedite any permit or action pending in any agency where the creation of jobs may be impacted.” As Deborah Goldberg of Earthjustice put it, “I have never seen anybody give an economic development director the authority to tell every other agency in the state what to do with regard to its statutory responsibilities.” Go small government!
In Texas Governor Perry wants to use small government to force women to have medical procedures and psychological counseling they neither want nor need. Governor Perry seeks to force women seeking to have an abortion to be forced to undergo state-mandated sonograms, be forced to listen to the heartbeat of the fetus and to be forced to view an ultrasound image of the fetus. In addition they would also be required to listen to a dissertation on fetal development. South Dakota has pursued similar measures. Go small government!
In Maine, Governor LePage used his small government philosophy to destroy a mural of the people of Maine’s labor struggles throughout the history of the state. It’s clear that small government’s role is to revise or remove historical fact whenever possible. Adding insult to Maine’s historical injury Governor LePage is also trying to pass a bill to reverse child labor laws to enable kids to work more hours for less money. Go small government!
Then there is Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer who seeks to use small government to force anyone who appears to be “an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States” to produce proof of citizenship. Reasonable cause for search and seizure, no need, not in Arizona. Let’s just discard the fourth amendment “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Go small government!
In Florida, Governor RIck Scott also seeks to take away fourth amendment rights by putting in place mandatory drug testing for all public employees. Governor Scott implemented a super big government intrusion by requiring mandatory drug testing for anyone receiving government benefits. Thankfully, Florida did discover one important thing, that the poor and recipients of government benefits are actually less likely to use drugs than the national average. Recently GOP and Tea Party House members sought to verify these findings by trying to pass a similar measure at the national level for recipients of unemployment benefits. Go small government!
Virginia’s Governor looks to use small government to insert itself into the lives of ordinary citizens personal lives wherever and whenever possible. Governor MdDonnell believes that "every level of government should statutorily and procedurally prefer married couples over cohabitators, homosexuals, or fornicators." Go small government!
Don’t worry, you don’t need to hold elected office to use small government to intercede in people’s lives. The modern conservative looks to use small government in other ways as well. Take for example the conservative think-tank the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a group associated with the heritage foundation looks to use the Freedom of Information Act in unprecedented and expansive ways. The Mackinac Center has made requests to three state universities requesting access to the personal emails of any professors who teach labor studies. Specifically, they requested access to any emails that contain “"Scott Walker"; "Wisconsin"; "Madison"; "Maddow"; Any other emails dealing with the collective bargaining situation in Wisconsin.” Similar requests have been made in Wisconsin specifically targeted at Professor William Cronin who suggested that Governor Walker’s actions go against WIsconsin’s tradition of “neighborliness, decency and mutual respect.” All of this is consistent with past conservative efforts to produce the thoroughly debunked Climategate of 2009. Go small government!
Who You Are Affects The Conservatism You Get
Perhaps there is a third way to look at the modern conservative. Perhaps whether the modern American right adheres to conservative ideals depends upon who you are.
For example large corporations and individuals with large bank accounts fare pretty well. For these types of people modern conservatives do support their prevailing beliefs that as much money and power as can be concentrated in their hands should be. Why else would they argue for tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans whose share of the pie has done nothing but increase over the last 50 years?
For these types of people the modern conservative supports the use of the institution of government to provide the maximum benefit and protection. They use the government to shelter Wall Street from any real scrutiny. They use the government to apologize and protect BP as it perpetrates the largest oil spill in our nation’s history.
Unfortunately, when it comes to fiscal conservatism the modern conservative gets further off the path. They vote for large subsidies for oil companies, the largest most powerful companies in the world. They vote to give large rebates and tax shelters to corporations and individuals who seek to avoid paying taxes. As it has been said, when dealing with corporations and the wealthy, modern conservatives are socialists. Modern conservatives choose to socialize the losses in our economic system while privatizing the gains.
Of course, when you look at the modern conservative and their advocacy for the individual you find the most troubling views of all. Modern conservatives seek to limit the individual’s rights under the law and the constitution through measures like the Patriot Act, personhood laws, and support for Citizens United. They seek to undermine individual freedom through supporting the personhood of large corporations and the notion that money is speech. The beliefs and prevailing views of we the people find little support in modern conservatism.
For the individual, the government and law is to be weakened. Fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution are ignored. Protection of food, water, air, the poor, the weak, the elderly, all of these powers of the government are to be minimized. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, these are all frequently under assault.
However, the modern conservative isn’t a complete hypocrite, they do support fiscal conservatism when it applies to people. Whenever possilbe, the modern conservative will opportunistically cut any programs that affect or benefit actual citizens. Subsidize corporate interests, cut programs in our interest.
The father of modern conservatism, Barry Goldwater, as he neared the end of his life expressed concerns with modern conservatism. He expressed concerns about the undue influence that social conservatives were having on his party and his movement. He expressed concerns that the direction modern conservatism was heading was anything but conservative.
So then what is conservatism? Whatever it is, it's a badge of honor. As the GOP race to become the presidential nominee rolls on, we hear almost as much about why each candidate is the true conservative candidate as we hear about their hatred of President Obama. And they do hate President Obama. Why is conservatism inherently good? Why are we to accept that being the most conservative candidate makes them the best candidate?
I would argue that we first consider what conservatism truly is, then consider what it has become. By so doing we'll find an already weak field of candidates supported by weak rhetoric and even weaker philosophical moorings even more hollow than they already sound.
As with so many other articles you’ll find here, I'll conclude by saying we need both liberal and conservative views to solve the difficult problems that confront us. Increasingly I find myself wondering where the authentically conservative views will come from that can replace the inflammatory, cynical and rhetorical conservatism of the current day.