Breaking from conservative orthodoxy
I have to admit to being stunned, albeit pleasantly so. Catholic Ireland gave a big kiss to marriage equality with 62 percent voting in favor and conservative Nebraska outlawed the death penalty with a solid majority of its Republican-dominated unicameral legislature voting to override the governor’s veto.
It’s refreshing to see common sense can still have moments in the conservative universe.
To be sure, there remains a powerful messianic core on the right. The Vatican—at least the second in command to Pope Francis—responded apoplectically to the Irish vote, the Crossroads Cowboy Church in Colorado Springs keeps trying to Christianize Florence high school students, and male-dominated legislatures keep passing restrictions on reproductive freedom. So it goes.
Nevertheless, these events underscore a truism that has been at play since the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason: Progressives break new ground, conservatives resist with Chicken Little “the sky is falling” hysteria and finally conservatives grudgingly move to the liberal position helping to create a new paradigm.
That is unless one’s a candidate in the Republican presidential sweepstakes that will have more entrants than horses in the Kentucky Derby. There one has to play sycophant and espouse hot fire, hell, and brimstone if he/she wants to be standing after the herd is culled.
Conservatism is often predicated on simple nostrums, which get passed off as common sense. It ignores the complexity of human beings when trying to reduce all humans to a prescribed construction. While they may be common, they’re rarely sensible.
For example, conservatives posit marriage in nearly every historical culture consisted of a man and a woman. That’s true but in those same cultures marriage was seen as a necessary alliance for the purpose of uniting family dynasties, producing heirs, and insuring property rights both in terms of protecting it and of the wife oftentimes being considered part of her husband’s estate.
While women did enjoy relatively stronger legal rights in ancient Rome, they had few in Greece. Both cultures practiced slavery, however, as did many of our freedom-loving founders including Washington and Jefferson.
The death penalty as practiced in America is based on the eye-for-an-eye philosophy, a perverse form of justice. In practical terms, it doesn’t work, is fraught with inequities—men of color are disproportionately likely to face it—and inhumane.
The Nebraska legislature recognized this and thus voted on the basis of reason not passion.
Looking across the American social landscape, one can see progress made on a variety of fronts from women’s and workers’ rights to voting and social rights such as rejecting discriminatory practices in housing and education.
Separate but equal is inherently unequal, said the Supreme Court its 1954 Brown v. Topeka decision. It said similar in its 1967 Loving v. Virginia that outlawed miscegenation laws that forbad interracial marriage. Those are only two examples that give witness to the fact western civilization continues to evolve.
That’s true as well in America: We’re not the same people that populated the eastern seaboard in the 18th century. We don’t allow slavery and the right of suffrage is no longer limited to white, property-owning males who have reached 21 years of age.
As the 2016 presidential scrum unfolds in the Republican Party, it’s interesting to watch candidates try to separate themselves from one another while keeping an eye on new social realities and doing contortions to pledge fealty to fundamentalist positions the party’s core holds.
Keep in mind fear is the most powerful human emotion and conservatism plays upon it: fear of the “other,” the outsider, those that walk to a different beat and hold to alternative metaphysical, cosmological, sociological, and psychological prescriptions.
Conservatism sees the world as a duality: black and white and good and evil. Progressivism rejects that simplistic worldview recognizing the complexity of not only humans but also the social constructs they’ve created. That’s not to imply approval but to take a pragmatic view of reality.
To date, there have been a few deviations from orthodoxy among the Republican candidates: Jeb Bush on immigration, Mike Huckabee on Social Security, and, most pronounced, Rand Paul on Iraq. Let’s hope we hear more.