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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The True Conservative & the Triumph of Conservatism

(Editor’s note: This is the second and concluding segment in a two part series.  The first segment introduced readers to traditional notions of conservatism.)

Does change mean destruction?  What happens when there is no change? …

Against the traditional definition of the term “conservative,” Theodore Roosevelt, however, identified what he referred to as the “true conservative:”

The true friend of property, the true conservative, is he who insists that property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth; who insists that the creature of man’s making shall be the servant and not the master of the man who made it.  The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being.

There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains.
We must have complete and effective publicity (disclosure) of corporate affairs, so that the people may know beyond peradventure whether the corporations obey the law and whether their management entitles them to the confidence of the public.  It is necessary that laws should be passed to prohibit the use of corporate funds directly or indirectly for political purposes; it is still more necessary that such laws should be thoroughly enforced.  Corporate expenditures for political purposes, and especially such expenditures by public-service corporations, have supplied one of the principal sources of corruption on our political affairs.

In the first decade of the 20th century, a time when 1% of families possessed 7/8 of all wealth, the reform agenda of T.R.’s Republican Party called for efficient government run by competent, able people with a need for expanded government action.  The ground-breaking work of Ida Tarbell, “muckraking” progressive journalist, provided the impetus to take on and ultimately succeed in breaking up the gargantuan oil monopoly, Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.

Utilizing a previously toothless, obscure federal law known as the 1891 Sherman Anti-Trust Act, T.R.’s administration rejected the previous Republican policy of laissez-faire and passive, limited government.  Henceforth, and for the very first time, the government would reject the principles of Social Darwinism and recognize labor (i.e.: the ordinary citizen) as a necessary ingredient, if not equal partner, in its struggle with entrenched businesses (i.e.: ranging from finance to railroads to steel to coal mines).  It was then labeled as the “triumph of conservatism.”

T.R.’s program of reform exemplified an activist government to combat the various ills plaguing society as a result of the Industrial Revolution.  Noteworthy legislative achievements on behalf of the ordinary citizen included the enactment of workers’ compensation, child labor and compulsory education laws, as well as laws to ameliorate excessively long shifts and unsafe work conditions.

In short, T.R. used his presidency to make laws to protect people “on the make” as opposed to those “already made,” in the attempt at “making an Old Party Progressive.”  It was in line with the Jackson-Lincoln view of the presidency: to act when it is your duty to act as the steward of the people, unless explicitly forbidden by the US Constitution.  His program would inspire much of the social agenda of the future New Deal a generation later.

Conservatives, said T.R., “are taught to believe that change means destruction.  They are wrong.  ...  Life means change; where there is no change, death comes.”

If I could ask but one thing of my fellow countrymen, my request would be that, whenever they go in for reform, they remember the two sides, and that they always exact justice from one side as much as from the other.
But we must be ready to face temporary disaster, whether or not brought on by those who will war against us to the knife.  Those who oppose reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism.

These are strong words to ponder, as wealth disparity and concentration in the hands of the few are again acute problems in the second decade of the 21st century.  But amid society’s growing unrest, there is an enlightened path to follow.  Thanks in no small part to Theodore Roosevelt.

-Michael D’Angelo

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Conservatism and the Status Quo

(Editor's note: This is the first segment in a two part series.)

What does it mean to be a conservative? Why must the status quo not be casually discarded?

It is informative to reminisce about the presidential election of 1912, which has come to define the ideologies of the national political parties as presently constituted. The Republican Party preferred to field a losing candidate, rather than gamble on one who would “radicalize” its “traditional” (i.e. – conservative) platform. Better to lose the election, regroup and use the lawful mechanisms available in our democracy to obstruct and wait it out until the next election.  Doesn't this sound all too familiar?  In the 2012 national election the party’s conservative base could not bring itself to go “all in” on the more moderate ideas of its presidential nominee. This ensured President Obama’s re-election to a second term.

The election of 1912 is a case study in how seemingly impossible the task of upsetting the status quo. The Republican nominee, President Taft, the unpopular conservative incumbent, merely tolerated the futile contest, viewing former president Theodore Roosevelt’s break from the Republican Party and third-party Progressive insurgency as a challenge to “the principles of the party … the retention of conservative government and conservative institutions.” Although he doubted even T.R.’s ability to pull off a long shot victory, Mr. Taft knew he was not likely to win that election, either. He didn’t. The national election and the one following would be thrown to Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat.

1912 marked the first use of a phrase that would re-enter the American political vocabulary in criticism to the policies of Republican Party conservatism under the Reagan administration nearly 70 years later. T.R. had remarked at a campaign speech that “The Republican proposal is only to give prosperity to (wealthy industrialists) and then to let it trickle down.”

In the ensuing century, there can be no mistaking that the Republican Party has remained firmly within the control of an entrenched, affluent, conservative, some say reactionary base, squarely in support of the status quo. This is both sweeping as it is powerful.

The ordinary citizen who talks with five people who call themselves a “conservative” these days will surely receive five different definitions of that political term. For example, when I think of conservative, the idea is of small, frugal, debt-free government with the freedom to enjoy individual pursuits without the interference of government. That’s what Jefferson had in mind. It is the kind of conservatism that Republicans have been preaching, but have been remiss in their practice, for at least the past 40 years. The more recent variety would also add a healthy dose of militarism.

So, what is a conservative? According to Wikipedia, conservatism is defined as follows:

A political and social philosophy that promotes the maintenance of traditional institutions and supports, at the most, minimal and gradual change in society.  Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others oppose modernism and seek a return to the way things were.

A more moderate definition was pronounced upon seasoned reflection late in life by the legendary Coke Stevenson, the 20th century self-made rancher beloved as “Mr. Texas” back home. He put it this way:

A conservative --- he’s one who holds things together.  He shouldn’t fight all progressive movements, but he should be the balance wheel to hold the movement to where it won’t get out of hand.

Proponents point out that conservatism supports the larger, desirable idea of a common culture or identity, who we are as a people. Hard earned and built with the blood and sweat of prior generations, that culture must continue to evolve deliberately, upon consensus. It must not be casually discarded. In its simplest sense, it’s an argument of order and control over chaos. The point certainly has great validity.

Consequently, perhaps, whenever it perceives an opening, the Republican Party has attempted to take measures designed to grind the wheels of progress and change to a halt, preserving the status quo or even rolling it back. Of course, the same argument in reverse can be made against its main targets: T.R.’s activist, Progressivism; F.D.R.’s New Deal; Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the civil rights movement of the 1960s; affirmative action and a woman’s right to choose, among others. The administration of President Obama and the progressive agenda he seeks to implement also lie directly within its targeted scope.

In fact, given the strength of the status quo’s gravitational pull lined up against him, it is no small wonder that President Obama has been able to make good on any pre-election campaign promises of change. This is especially true in the case of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the new law commonly known as Obamacare. This major national healthcare reform legislation is a progressive prize of historical magnitude to improve the lot of the ordinary citizen. Its passage had escaped every reform-minded leader who attempted it, dating back to T.R. more than 100 years ago. Somehow, somewhere, T.R. must be smiling down upon us.

(The second and concluding segment in this two part series features T.R.’s views of the "true conservative," the balance of competing forces required to manufacture change and the "triumph of conservatism.")

-Michael D’Angelo