Thursday, April 30, 2009

Progressives & Conservatives

Trumbull's "Declaration of Independence"
It seems that most who call themselves conservatives these days have been co-opted by rich, white men in search of pliable dupes to do their bidding. Conservatives at their best are cautious, resourceful, freedom loving and fiscally responsible -- and honest. But the current breed of conservative politicians and talk-radio ideologues appeal to the basest, most simplistic, atavistic instincts of voters and listeners too uncertain in their knowledge, or too lazy, to pursue a thorough understanding of issues that imperil them. These co-opted citizens rally behind cowardly, self-serving demagogues who devolve every debate into a personal "us vs. them" dichotomy; demagogues who show no shame using half-truths and outright lies to demonize those who threaten their privileged status quo; demagogues whose mesmerized followers seem to crave the tribal oneness that witch hunts provide.

Progressives, at their best, recognize that "us vs. them" is not productive; that some of "us" are bad, and some of "them" are good; that most of society's problems are complex, and that to solve them society must take risks and accept failure as part of the problem solving process. The ultimate durability of society rests in the hands of the majority, and if that majority is well informed and gainfully employed, everyone benefits. The problem with this enlightened, nuanced view is that it offers no simplistic, emotionally satisfying solutions. For a constituency craving fast food meat and potatoes, slow-cooked bouillabaisse is a turn off.

In every society, there are those who seek to exploit economic inequalities to their advantage, and in so doing perpetuate and amplify those inequalities. Economic predators extol the virtues of free markets while enjoying the benefits of market imbalances: oil companies who enjoy cheap oil leases, tax loopholes, and captive customers; media purveyors who enjoy free broadcast spectrum; coal mine operators who enjoy lax environmental protection. Such citizens are not free-market capitalists. They are lazy, morally corrupt, cowardly parasites that we would do well to banish to the backwaters of civilization. Yet, conservative politicians and media demagogues uniformly praise such "rugged individualists" as the most productive members of American society. It is a conceit that serves a singular purpose: mitigating their own fear. Conservatives, at their worst, are motivated by fear, which is why they resent change, gravitate toward exclusive rather than inclusive society (The Klan, John Birch, The Tea Party), and covet firearms and money -- both of which offer them a false sense of security.

Progressives at their best are motivated by hope. They acknowledge their fears, but find the courage to reject them and reach for something better. Progressives recognize that bureaucracy may breed corruption, but can also deliver vital services; that taxes might stifle some investment, but will create broad prosperity by preventing concentration of wealth amongst a fortunate or corrupt few; that unions marginally impede profits, but guarantee safe working conditions and fair wages. Progressives recognize that a productive, vibrant healthy society imposes costs on its members, but that those costs are countered by benefits borne easily by a society where every honest, hard-working member can expect long-term, stable prosperity that will never be obliterated by venal demagogues who profit from illicit trade in fear mongering and pandering. Progressives, at their worst, overreach and over-promise. They underestimate the treasure and time required to overcome obstacles and meet ambitious goals. If unchecked, progressive political parties tend to devolve into a mash of competing goals and reckless grasping at solutions without performing due diligence to vet those solutions.

Conservatives -- at their best -- can play the vital role of skeptic, and check the self-destructive, anarchic impulses of progressives at their worst. But honesty is required on both sides, or the partnership collapses into a standoff fueled by acrimony -- or, outright violence. Sadly, conservative political parties and media outlets have not met their obligation to be honest skeptics these last twenty years, or so. Instead, they have merely been reactionary, putting the brakes on any initiative that challenges the status quo. How bad do things have to get before they recognize the folly in their attempt to alleviate fear with hoards of guns and money?

I vigorously recommend a fine essay, a compilation of bits of Henry David Thoreau's speeches and writing:

It gives progressives and conservatives both a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but it is illustrative of the dichotomy to which I refer above. And it's a damn good read -- go for it!

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