This has been a very dissatisfying year from a political point of view. And I don’t know what to do about it. I remember saying the same thing four years ago and another four years before that. So I guess I have had quite a few dissatisfying years.
Let’s just get this out there: I am, and have been for quite a long time, a conservative. So, I can hear some asking, “why are you so dissatisfied? Conservatives have been rolling all over themselves to become President since the days of Barry Goldwater, and quite a few of them have done it.” Well, . . . maybe not.
None of the candidates running this year has really scratched me where I itch. And up until now, I had been having trouble putting a finger on just why. And then I listened to it again.
“It” is the speech that Ronald Reagan gave in 1964 on behalf of Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated campaign. Goldwater got nowhere in that election year, but Reagan hit the big-time that day. If you have a half hour (like I did as I ate lunch at my desk) you should Google and watch it.
You might agree with what he said or you might not. But here is what is indisputable: Ronald Reagan espoused a conservatism that was all about what he genuinely believed to be good for the common man. He was a man who grew up without much besides good looks and a gift for gab. He had studied economics at a little college in Illinois and later became an ardent supporter of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal. He knew that he had been fortunate, but he also knew that he was a regular Joe, not unlike most everyone else. But as he got older, his views on the relationship between ordinary citizens and their government began to change.
Reagan spent years thinking about and talking about what he believed. He spent years, decades even, thinking about what those beliefs meant in the lives of ordinary people. By the time he reached national prominence as a politician, Ronald Reagan had a core set of beliefs that went all the way down to his bones. And agree with him or not, everyone knew what those beliefs were.
Even Reagan detractors have acknowledged his gift as “The Great Communicator”, and his oratorical skills were never better than in that speech from 1964. But I think that Reagan’s appeal went beyond his ability to communicate his beliefs. What set Reagan apart was the nature of conservatism as he understood and explained it.
Most of us may never have thought so much about the beliefs that Reagan held, other than to be fairly certain that we either agreed or disagreed with them. But the candidates of recent election cycles have shown how Reagan was different from most of the presidential aspirants who have come since.
To Ronald Reagan, a conservatism that was about nothing more than some legislative program or some wrong in the world was not worth the effort. To Reagan, conservatism only mattered if it served to better the condition of the average person and that of that person’s family and community. And conservatism was never to be a used as a club to attack honest people who were trying to improve their lives.
Reagan could explain his philosophy by citing examples that resonated with ordinary people, and he invited ordinary people of good will to stand with him. And when he tore into that with which he disagreed (something he could do with some vigor), he tore into ideas that he saw as wrongheaded. If he attacked people, it was almost always on the basis of the ideas that they held and not their character or their career or their station in life.
Perhaps conservatives in general have been spoiled by being allowed to build on the intellectual foundations supplied by the likes of Reagan and William F. Buckley. These and others like them gave us a deep framework of ideals and beliefs that were grounded in the freedom of the individual and a wariness of the power of the State. They saw the American Constitution as a great protection against tyranny, something that had been all too much in evidence during their lives in the fascism and communism that affected so many of the world’s peoples. Even if you disagreed with them, I think it could fairly be said that their positions were arrived at in good faith and not as opportunistic calculation over some isolated issue of the moment.
Maybe this is why it has been so easy to slip down the slope to where what passes for thoughtful conservatism today starts with an incendiary sound bite, followed by a chorus of “Damn Right!” Sadly, this is what seems to pass for thoughtful discourse on the left as well. Have we all become so lazy and intellectually flaccid that we can no longer articulate what we believe and why we believe it without meanspirited attacks on those who disagree with us? Is it too much to ask that each of the candidates come to us in an honest attempt to tell us what they see that is wrong, what they see that is right and how you and I can be a part of making life better for ordinary people? Not something that polls well, but something that the candidate truly believes as shown by the way he or she has lived life.
And THAT is what I have missed this year. The only candidate I currently see who even remotely displays a coherent set of core beliefs is Bernie Sanders. Say what you will about Sanders, it certainly cannot be said that he has come to his views recently or for political gain. But aside from Sanders’ sunny view of socialism (a view which I do not happen to share) my biggest problem with his world is the way in which life is a zero sum game. For someone to win, someone else has to lose. In speech after speech, he rails about the morally defective nature of those who have not lived in harmony with his worldview. His world is a world of “us” vs. “them”, and “we” are going to make “them” pay for their transgressions once we have the power to do so. I don’t see myself as one of those on his side of the fence, which makes me wonder if I am one of the “them.”
In Donald Trump (and, frankly, in most of the candidates) I hear the same thing, only the “us” and the “them” are made up of different groups. And coming from the political place I inhabit, it concerns me when either you or I might be an “us” or a “them” depending on who wins an election. This, it seems to me, is what has separated the United States from the many small countries that have been led by a succession of “strong men” over the last century or two. Is Banana Republic too strong of a term? Perhaps modern politics really is just a gang war where sides are chosen and where the winners get to pillage the losers. But I hope not.
In my day job, I practice law. Our legal system is an adversarial one, where each side tries to demonstrate to the neutral judge why my client’s side has the better argument. Just as in politics, there are lawyers who treat each dispute between clients as a blood sport, where the only possible ways to disagree is to be stupid, dishonest, or maybe even evil. To a person of that mindset, there is no such thing as a disagreement between people of good faith and good will who just see things from different perspectives.
There are some big issues in our Nation, and deep disagreements over how to address them. Is it too much to ask that our candidates build a coalition by persuading us into their worldview rather than by dividing us into smaller groups and walling out those of us seen as undesirables? I hope not.