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Conservatism vs Liberalism

America is a divided country. What is often lost is that it has always been this way. Geographical and economic differences dividing the population; the north vs south, agrarian vs industrial, rich vs poor. Such divisions have quite naturally resulted in different partisan interests and goals. A degree of partisanship is at the very basis of a healthy democracy. Otherwise, everyone might as well vote for the same person or party, like in Russia. For democracy to be at its very best there needs to be a choice with a clear difference. In today’s America we have clear differences. In fact, those differences are growing exponentially. Political disagreements and street protests often devolve into fatal violence. This despite the clear weaknesses of the ideals of liberalism and the more subtle but fatal flaw of conservatism. The two major political parties in the United States sharply defining their positions as either conservative or progressive (liberal).

There are obvious issues with liberal ideals, of course, at least on the conceptual level. Liberals are seen as idealistic, pie-in-the-sky dreamers. Promises of free college, universal health care, and millions of jobs re-gearing for the green economy are just a few items on their wish list. Famous for seeing things not as they are, but instead how one wishes they could be is a turn off to many. On the other side of the aisle are the conservatives who with fervent voices plea for a return to “traditional values” and the need to fight to preserve those ideals into the future. A noble sounding cause which can arouse a particular feeling in many. Those who speak about the preservation of traditional, “old fashioned” values, may be forgiven for not knowing conservatism’s results. They are unaware that if they succeed in their fight to entrench traditional values they will be the first in history to do so; with the cost of future progress. Such is the fatal flaw of conservatism and the failure of traditionalism, the assumption of the possibility of permanence.

It can take decades, centuries, or even millennia, but, eventually, everything changes. “Every empire turns to dust and every ego will be crushed,” Martyn Jacques said. The fatal flaw of conservatism and the failure of traditionalism is the inability of its adherents who are alive today to look past where they are now; trapped into ever looking backward, or to the side, never forward. As FDR put it, “a conservative is a man with two perfectly good legs, who, however, has never learned how to walk forward.”

Keeping those identified “traditional values” alive permanently is an impossibility. The question must also be asked whether this would even be desirable. I’m sure there are some good things from the past, but there were some very terrible things, too. One of the main functions of history is to move past retrograde ideas. In fact, much of “history” as we know it, is factually incorrect. So much depends on when the “history” was written, and by whom. For instance, the history books on the post WWII cold war era will be written and read differently in Russia than in the West.

By now it must be obvious, the fatal flaw of conservatism is its habit of constantly looking back towards a time that never really existed. There was never a time when we were great all around. The past is always great to those who benefit from it. Many conservatives forget that minorities were treated like dirt, women were property, and minus vaccines and antibiotics people died young. We need to move forward-not backward, if the world is going to be great for everyone. Discard the failed dreams of conservatism and reach for the stars. Liberalism may not be perfect, but with it comes the dream of a good life for the majority, not the minority.

D. S. Mitchell