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Posted by on Sep 1, 2010 in Politics | 0 comments

The (Im)Possibilities of Reforming Conservatism

Blogger E.D. Kain’s “Up from Conservatism” post had me thinking about something that I’ve seen over the years. You take a guy who was a conservative that starts to see some of the problems. They start to see them grow bigger and bigger and start to take on a crusade to reform conservatism. However, they continue to focus on the issues plaguing the movement, until the problems are all they see. At some point, they write a post renouncing their ties to conservatism and citing how awful the movement is. They either choose to become independent or go over to the liberal side of the political spectrum.

On the surface, one can look at this as proof about how messed up conservatives are. I don’t doubt that. The current state of conservatism has caused many to pull up stakes and move towards greener pastures. But I am also bothered by another concern and that is: why are there so few folks committed to reforming conservatism? Why is there not an effort to make conservatism more modern in the way it has been done in the United Kingdom?

I’m surely no expert, but I do have a few theories as to why this is the case, so here goes:

  • It’s harder to reform than it is to leave. Reforming something takes far more energy than it does to walk away. We humans are creatures of habit, and we don’t change long held opinions easily. That can get rather frustrating for folks who want to see change happen now. Walking away is a lot more immediate. That leads to the second reason:
  • Reform takes a long time. If you think about it, the effort to reform the Conservative Party took a long time to come to fruition. The Tory Reform Group came into being in 1975, when future Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron was eight. It took years for ideas which were disseminated through new think tanks to take root within the party. Even here in the United States, it took many years for the Goldwater-Reagan insurgency to flower. Ideas are hard to change and new ideas take a long time to develop. In the age of everything-instant, that can be translated as failure.
  • Accentuate the negative; eliminate the positive. It seems fairly common that the wider culture, be it the media or even close friends, always focus on the most negative aspects of conservatism. The anti-gay conservative looking to block gay marriage is highlighted and given a podium to shout their view, while the pro-gay conservative toils away in near obscurity. Blogs on the left, right and center will focus on the person that wants all Muslims sent to work camps, but tend to ignore the other conservative that says otherwise. This gives the impression that all of conservatism has gone loco. In my years working with Log Cabin Republicans and Republicans for Environmental Protection, I’ve noticed how these groups don’t get the attention they deserve from the larger media. It also doesn’t help that its embedded in people’s minds that conservatives hate gays, so that when people meet a gay conservative, they assume that person is self-loathing if they think of that person at all. This flows into the next reason…
  • All politics is social. I’ve learned this one because of my being autistic and having issues relating to others socially. Politics is a social activity. If you’re someone that is witty and urbane and on top of that, a conservative — well, you feel rather lonely. Most humans tend to seek groups to be a part of and can only be on their own for so long. It takes energy to swim against the current. It would make sense that someone who has been against the grain for so long, would want to just give up and become part of a larger group. Many former heterodox conservatives get tired of trying to be different and stand out. After a while they just give up to join the crowd because they need and crave social contact.

Like I said, these are just off the cuff theories. So can conservatism be reformed? I tend to think so, but it will take folks who are patient and willing to be alone and ignored for a while. Like Conor Friedersdorf, I want to see a conservatism (and a liberalism) at its very best. I’m willing to wait to see that happening.

Crossposted at Big Tent Revue