Thursday, July 12, 2007

Growing older, growing... "conservative"?

I think the problem with the old chestnut about becoming more conservative as you grow up is not that it's inaccurate, but rather that what we call "conservative" these days is actually "right wing." The spirit in which that maxim was coined was one where "conservative" meant "more uncomfortable with change, more comfortable with stasis." The opposite of conservative was "liberal," which meant a craving for change of some kind.

Young and old haven't changed much since... well, since probably ever. Young people still crave change, older people still want things to remain more the way they are. Young people want upheaval, older people want to move cautiously, if at all.

The modern American "conservative" is actually one who craves much change. They want to dismantle Social Security, they want to slash our tax rate, they want to send troops overseas, they want to institutionalize religion. "Conservatives" are arguably conservative when it comes to keeping gays from achieving full rights, but on the other hand, over the last forty years or so, mainstream America has grown less tolerant of intolerance, so maybe blocking gay rights isn't that conservative after all. Chasing gays back into the closet is more of a radical position—the word radical coming from the Latin radix, for root. Hauling us back to the bad old days of gay repression is as radical a social policy as, say, bringing back slavery or the Inquisition. (Maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but such is the general direction.)

I'm approaching forty, and I also don't drink like I used to, and I still don't consider experimenting with drugs. I've never found "free love" appealing, or even tasteful. I suppose I'm socially conservative, then. As I grow older, I find I believe in my government's institutions more: Social Security, wielding international influence through diplomacy before war, funding public schools, paying graduated income tax, etc. These are positions that used to define conservatism. It seems that the cult of youth that the still-powerful, aged hippie generation still follows has had the unintended consequence of giving rise to a kind of non-conservative "conservatism" that inflicts America today. If the Baby Boomers had just grown up to be adults like normal generations, America's new right wing couldn't possibly be thriving the way it is. Like these aging hippies, modern right-wingers crave constant engagement, and thus thirst for a return to older times, rather than keeping things the way they are. That's going backward, which is very different from preserving what you've currently got. Like the Flower Power generation, the people who call themselves "conservative" want to tear up the roots of our established institutions and plant new ones. When you hear today's right-wingers grouse about rights for minorities, it's an echo of the old conservative movement politics of the 1960s. The John Birch Society may have called itself conservative, but it was always radical, pining for an ideal America of yesteryear that, in fact, never existed in the first place.

Modern "conservatism" and modern "liberalism" are both liberal in the classic sense: both push for change of some kind. Barry Goldwater was the last genuine conservative nominated for the presidency by either major party until Bill Clinton. Since Bill Clinton, America has moved away from classic conservatism toward Bush's rightist radicalism. But what's in a name?

Anyway, that's why either that maxim needs to be updated or our political terms need to be updated. I vote for the latter, but I'll take what I can get.

This was originally posted in a slightly different form on Jersey McJones' blog.

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