(Note: I actually wrote this 4 years ago, shortly after George W. Bush began his 2nd term as President of the United States. Now that Obama is in his 2nd week as President, I thought it fitting to repost this)
"CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from a Liberal who wishes to replace them with others." - Ambrose Bierce, (1842-1914) American satirist
I've heard people (both in private conversation and in public forums, such as the newspaper and television) make a distinction between "Conservative" and "True Conservative" (or "True Conservatism"). I asked several comrades, cohorts, and colleagues some questions regarding the term "True Conservative." I got a different answer from every single person.
But now that the election is over and I witness what appears to be deepening division between Democrats and Republicans, Liberals and Conservatives, Blue States and Red States, I feel myself torn along with the nation.
I always thought I was probably more politically conservative (by the definition I thought I knew of conservatism), contrary to what my family thought. Now, I'm wondering if I am more liberal than I once thought - or if the definition of the word is changing (or being changed). And I feel torn by the divisiveness.
Yet, when I have talked to people on one side or the other, I haven't felt a great divide. Instead, we've connected as human beings. And I am beginning to think that maybe our main division is that we're listening to different people yelling at us. There are certainly fanatics on both sides, and these extremes differ greatly, but for most of us I think our beliefs and values are not nearly so divergent. Am I wrong?
"There is danger in reckless change; but greater danger in blind conservatism." - Henry George (1839-1897), Economist, tax reformist, journalist, author
Growing up, I didn't think of the beliefs and values I learned as either conservative or liberal, really. When I thought of conservative, I thought of caution, as in "conserve your energy" or "conservation of the environment"... and when I thought of liberal, I thought of openness and generosity, as in "liberty" and "liberal portions of food." Neither of them are ugly words.
But I come from what is considered a conservative state, and I felt that I shared in conservative values.
Much of Nebraska still resembles the open frontier, moreso possibly than any other state in the lower forty-eight. Hardly anyone lives there (here in San Francisco, I have more neighbors within seven miles of me than reside in all of Nebraska), and the people who settled there were fiercely independent. At one time, they were the political radicals in this country: the Populist Movement, the Farmers Revolt, The Grange. The defeat of Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan (a Populist from Nebraska) marked the end of one of the most challenging protest movements in U.S. history. It is part of our heritage, and in our blood, that individual freedom is our most precious right as an American.
And so, I thought it conservative
to believe in individual rights, civil rights, and human rights. I still do.
I had family who were farmers and family in the ranching business. I grew up with an enormous respect for the land and for nature. In Nebraska, you can't plan your day without first checking to see what nature has planned for you. And our ranches are in an area known as the Sandhills, an ocean of grass nearly the size of Maine made up of sand dunes hundreds of feet high. If you don't take meticulous care of the grass-covered hills, you'd soon be dealing with 600-ft tall open sand dunes - dunes that blow, and drift, and literally move. If that happens, we're all royally screwed.
So I always thought it was
conservative to care about the environment. And I still do.
My sister was born with Spina Bifida. She survived against astronomical odds and is now in her 30s. To this day, it seems like she has an average of one or two surgeries a year. My memory of her first five years are almost entirely memories of hospital rooms. I think my experience growing up with her has shaped my opinion of healthcare.
It may not be the government's job, or responsibility, to provide healthcare for its citizens. But I believe it is an ideal we can strive for. When President Kennedy announced in 1961 that he wanted to put a man on the moon in ten years, it was an idea that seemed so impossible it bordered on lunatic (ooh I love puns!) We did it in eight.
I don't see why we as a society can't put the same determination into healthcare - the idea isn't nearly as crazy. And it may not have been possible in 1776, or even 100 years ago - but we have advanced as a society, culturally and technologically. We are much more sophisticated and compassionate now than we were two-hundred years ago - at least I'd like to think so. As we advance as a society, don't we also want to better ourselves as a people? And when we can
achieve better things, for all of us, shouldn't we? Isn't it sometimes good to redefine our society's role, to keep up with our achievements?
And what's not conservative about caring for people who are sick and need help?
So those are my conservative values. Am I a conservative liberal, or a liberal conservative? Is it an oxymoron, or can we get along after all?
"I'm a liberal when it comes to human rights, the poor; so's George Bush. . . . But Liberal and Conservative don't mean much to me anymore. Does that mean we care about people and are interested and want to help? And if that makes you a Liberal, so be it." - Barbara Bush (1925- )
And so what is our big difference? What makes some people red and others blue?
There's a web site circulating where people have posted their pictures, with messages of apology to the world for the outcome of the election. The bulletin board where I first found this site has lots of posts making fun of it.
And yet, I actually got a tear in my eye reading what the kids (mostly kids, it seemed - people who had probably only been voting a few years) were expressing.
(I can hear Hank Williams croonin' already: "You're Bleedin' Heart!!!!") but I digress...
There was an honest sense of failure - personal failure, disenchantment, and powerlessness. I think people were feeling a sense of responsibility to the rest of the world, but that they had dropped the ball.
Of course, I can only truly speak for myself. But that was my biggest motivator, when deciding how to cast my vote. My domestic issues can and will be dealt with, if not now, in a few years. Even though I believe Bush is a tax and spend Republican - none of my reasons, really, for opposing him are "life or death" to us, and therefore nothing to move to Canada over, except, maybe, the path he is taking our nation down as a world leader, as the last remaining Superpower.
Liberals aren't alone in thinking our president is failing when it comes to foreign affairs. Even among Bush supporters, there are a lot of people who believe that our foreign policy is embarrassing, if not shameful. But to me, personally, this
is the big issue. And, again, personally, I do believe he has led us horribly astray.
And no matter how we differ, as Americans, on this point - there is a growing distaste (to put it mildly - hatred, to put it more accurately perhaps) for Americans and America, in the rest of the world. I think that was the despair behind these apologies.
Every human on this planet who is born an American is a lottery winner. I don't think, for us, it is even possible to imagine our privilege (don't take this as braggadocio; it is a humble acknowledgement of a very real truth). Most of us can go about our daily lives without giving a thought to a single foreign nation, not even a fleeting thought to a single thing that is happening outside our safe bubble full of comfortable houses, spacious shopping malls, restaurants, clubs, and theaters. That's
It's not true of a single person who lives in any country besides ours, because the United States, for better or for worse, is a major player in the lives of every single person on the planet, every single day. Luckily for us, that's US!
But that makes me feel responsible, when I vote for the person to lead this nation, to vote for a person who will lead the WORLD wisely, carefully, and morally. I feel responsible to choose a person who values the environment, and values human life, not just the lives of Americans. I feel responsible to choose a person I think is honorable, and worthy of respect - a person who cares about our planet, and wants the world to be a good place for everyone, not just America.
America has assumed a role among the nations of Earth - kind of like, we're the president. And that gives us Americans a lot of privilege, and also the responsibility to do right by the world. I'm happy to take on that responsibility - the privilege is more than worth it.
And that's why I was moved, when i looked through the apologies on that web site. Because I shared in the sense of failure to that responsibility. And I saw also the smatterings of forgiveness from other nations - also from very young people. And I thought that there was hope and optimism there. And connection.
But again, many conservatives agree that our foreign policy is failing. Many Republicans have acknowledged that we've made a mess in Iraq. Even people who continue to maintain that invading Iraq was the right decision will admit that something needs to change. (And to be fair, a lot of liberals (like me) didn't like Kerry that much. A lot of Democrats still question what he really stood for.) I think that most of us have some common ground here.
It seems to me, once again, that the divisiveness among most of us lies more in our perception
of the "other" than anything else. And perpetuating that perception is who we are listening to. It's the Limbaughs, Novaks, Carlsons, Hannitys, Begalas, Carvilles, et. al. driving a wedge between us. Perhaps I'm just a hopeless optimist, but I think we'd all come together, at least in some ways, if we stopped listening to them, and started listening to each other.