As I have listened to all of the campaigning, media coverage and breaking news stories over the last few weeks, I have been reminded of a conversation I had with a friend of mine late last year.
This friend is a committed Democrat, and we have enjoyed lively debates over the years about virtually everything. In this last conversation, we were both expressing our exasperation over some of the positions and mistakes of our respective parties, and the ups and downs of the Presidential race. When I restated my long held view that our country won’t be able to fix many of its problems unless we return responsibility to people and local communities, my friend said something that crystallized many of our differences: “Ed, I don’t trust people to do the right thing like you do.” Toward the end of the conversation, as we were discussing certain social issues about which we disagree, I asked my friend whether he was concerned at all by the unintended consequences that changes in social customs and mores create, and he flatly said, “No. We can address any problems later, but I am for change that broadens people’s ‘rights,’ and it is just mean-spirited not to broaden them.”
Now, it’s not like I had never heard comments like those before—any conservative who is old enough to read and write has heard statements like them too many times to count. But, for some reason, my friend’s statements have been ringing in my ears lately as I’ve tried to make sense of all that is transpiring around us, and of what needs to be done over the next few months as we head into the November election. If we conservatives are going to win the national elections this fall, we need to convince the American people that implementing our vision will fix the problems we face, not just rearrange those problems and defer their resolution to another day. My friend’s statements helped me re-look at what unifies our conservative vision.
What ties our conservative policies and ideas together is that they depend for their success upon a basic trust of our neighbors—a mutual trust that we will make more right choices than wrong choices privately and publicly, and that together we can rely on our mutual trust to rebuild our families, our communities and our economy.
This trust drives us to oppose centralization of responsibility in Washington and state capitols, to oppose the ridicule and diminishment of churches and organizations whose work helps to form our character as individuals and as a people, to oppose grand schemes that depend on mandates and entitlements to solve our problems, and to oppose a growth of government that is purchased with debt borrowed from our competitors and enemies. Meanwhile, this trust inspires us to promote the protection and exercise of our basic civil rights, to find answers to our problems in the opportunities constantly created by free markets and free trade, to require governments to live within their means and abide by their constitutional limits, and to engage with our neighbors in the lives of our communities to guide inevitable social changes in a way that prepares our children for the future while preserving for them the unique society we inherited.
But our trust is tempered by our inherited memory that decisions and actions have consequences, and that some of those consequences are often both unintended and destructive. Such memory leads us to oppose change for the sake of change, or to oppose change that may make us feel better about ourselves today without regard to what we may do to our children’s tomorrow. That memory leads us to oppose changes that confuse rights with privileges, that confuse liberty with autonomy, that confuse the exercise of wisdom and conscience with censorship or discrimination, that confuse opportunity with mandates and regulations, and that confuse growth of government with the growth of freedom and wealth.
However, such memory also challenges us to engage in the process of change when it is necessary or inevitable. That engagement requires us to guide such change so that it results in preserving and strengthening our unique society for future generations, rather than to disengage from the process and allow changes to unfold that destroy the fundamental principles of our society over time.
All of this is easier to describe than to live by—it always has been. That is why it is easier to be a political progressive or liberal in our society than it is to be a conservative. It is this gap between talk and action that has led many people to tune-out conservatives when we start talking about returning responsibility to the people, or when we discuss the potential for negative consequences from certain changes that, at least superficially, sound good, fair and just.
Indeed, this predicament frames our challenge this year: we must describe our vision of a society that is grounded in mutual trust, and that channels that trust to guide inevitable change confidently and prudently; and we must persuade our neighbors that we will live by the best of this vision, if elected.