1. disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.
2. cautiously moderate or purposefully low: a conservative estimate.
3. traditional in style or manner; avoiding novelty or showiness: conservative suit.
None of those three definitions describe people who self-identify as "conservatives" in American politics today. And therein lies the problem.
A healthy political dialogue in a progressive society would occur between progressives on one side and conservatives on the other. Progressives would push for change, identifying problems that need fixing or opportunities to achieve something, to make society more egalitarian, wealthier, healthier, better-educated, more enlightened, more peaceful, fairer, more just, freer, etc., etc. Conservatives would object with "yes, but" arguments. But do we really need to make this change at this time? But look at the cost! But consider the unforeseen consequences. The subtext of all of which is: We agree with the overall goal. But let's not be hasty. Maybe this isn't the best way to do it, or the best time.
It's a useful -- in fact, necessary -- function in the dialogue, conservatism. It's necessary because (let's face it) progressives aren't always totally smart. On occasion, we can be profoundly stupid. Half-baked. Overly zealous. Insufficiently mindful of costs, social and political realities, and unintended consequences. So it pays to have a conservative side of the dispute, frustrating though we may sometimes find it, to insist that progressive ideas prove themselves in imagination and accounting before they're actually implemented.
But that function can only be served by real conservatives. Wingnuts need not apply. Those who reject, not only the half-baked hasty ideas sometimes generated by progressives, but the very idea of progress, are not conservatives, because one of the cardinal principles of conservatism is to support the traditional values of one's society, and the traditional values of the United States of America are progressive. You know, things like "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal," or "government of the people, by the people, and for the people." Conservatives -- real conservatives, that is -- hold to the same progressive values as progressives do, they're just more cautious about implementing them and less convinced at any point about the size of the step we're ready, as a society, to take.
The problem with conservatism in today's American politics is that the term has been hijacked. It no longer applies to real conservatives, it applies today to wingnuts who reject progressive ideals altogether. It applies to people who don't believe in the secular, Enlightenment-based democracy that America traditionally seeks to build, but would instead create a theocracy. It applies to people who don't recognize the value of a multiracial, tolerant society, but would have a white people's country. It applies to those who advocate, not a cautious approach to change, but a radical one -- in anti-progressive directions. To re-criminalize abortion is not conservative, it's a radical change. To abolish such long-standing government functions as Social Security, Medicare, aid for the poor, regulation of the economy, even public education, is radical. To end the separation of church and state and create a Christian government and legal base is radical. To bring effective democracy to an end and hand all political power over to a corporate plutocracy is radical. Conservatives do not advocate radical change. And so the people who advocate these radical changes are not conservatives.
Over the course of elections since 1980, I have watched the wingnuts take over more and more of the Republican Party from the true conservatives that used to dominate it. I kept hoping that the process would have a natural limit, that the GOP would come to its senses at some point and return to traditional American values and its own previously-solid conservative function in the dialogue. It's still conceivable that they may, but given the depths to which the party has sunk at this point, I think we need to entertain and plan for the contingent possibility that they also may not. What happens then?
There are still a few conservatives in the Republican Party, and also quite a considerable number of them in the Democratic Party, but Republican conservatives have become an endangered species. (Due to the wingnuts having hijacked the term "conservative," these Republican conservatives are nowadays known as "moderates." I refuse to cooperate with that theft of a perfectly good term by those to whom it does not properly belong, and so insist on calling these politicians conservatives, which they are.) We hear today that Florida Governor Crist, a conservative who will almost certainly lose the GOP Senate primary this year to a wingnut, will probably ditch the GOP and run as an independent. A few conservative Republicans have already left the party and either become independents or joined the Democrats. John McCain of Arizona is another conservative who faces a primary challenge from a wingnut, and although he has not indicated any inclination to jump party, none of us should rule out the possibility at this point. The surge of wingnut Republicans zealously trying to rid the party of conservatism has become endemic.
At the same time, as we progressives are painfully aware, the conservatives within the Democratic Party are making it harder for progressives to achieve what they should be doing. Well, of course that's what conservatives are supposed to do, but the problem is that the progressive-conservative dialogue, which has mostly become intra-Democratic, is in turn hampered by the howling wingnuts on the other side of the aisle. It's very difficult for Democrats to manifest both sides of a healthy political dialogue (progressive and conservative), and at the same time present a united front against wingnuttery. There's a strong tendency for people on our side of the discussion, that is to say, progressives, to turn upon conservative Democrats in wrath and insist that they be replaced by progressives, a desire that is amplified by fear and loathing of the wingnuts. Our political landscape is rapidly changing from one of progressives and conservatives to one of progressives and wingnuts, with conservatives squeezed out of the picture altogether.
Folks, that is not a good prognosis! We NEED conservatives, and we certainly do NOT need wingnuts! So I think it may be time to consider some practical contingency plans for bringing conservatives, real conservatives, non-crazy conservatives, conservatives-not-wingnuts, back into politics with a home of their own.
The simplest and best solution would of course be for the Grand Old Party to recover from its thirty-year binge and return to sobriety. Let the "big tent" goppers win the intra-party argument. Let the wingnuts be consigned to the wings and fringes where they belong. Let genuine conservatives again take their proper places as the loyal elected opposition. A nice dream. Maybe it will become real. But I'm no longer willing to hold my breath waiting.
Failing that, what we may need is a new political party. Governor Crist, rather than running as an independent, should found this party. I don't have any idea what to call it -- well, sure I do; it could be called the Conservative Party. But maybe that has too much potential confusion with the British party of the same name. The Party of Sanity is too flippant, as is the Party of Non-Wingnuts. Ah! I have it! We can bring back the oldest, most original name for an American party of conservatives there is, and call them the Federalist Party. Or maybe they can come up with a better name themselves, but I'll use that tag provisionally here.
The Federalist Party would include such Republicans as Crist, Olympia Snowe, Tom Campbell, John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenneger, and similar targets of wingnut loathing. It would also find room within its ranks for Democrats (and ex-Dems) such as Blanche Lincoln, Joseph Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and so on. Since these people would no longer be competing in Republican (or Democratic) primaries, there would be no pressure on them to adopt wingnut positions and they could remain true to their conservative beliefs, and let those positions run honestly and fairly in general elections versus both progressives and wingnuts.
After all, there's really only one reason why the wingnuts are getting anywhere at all: they are big fish in an increasingly small pond, as the number of voters willing to call themselves Republicans declines, and the smaller and smaller numbers that remain are increasingly dominated by wingnuts. This means that on election day, it becomes increasingly likely that one of the candidates in every election will be a wingnut. So I say, let that process reach its logical conclusion, let the Republicans become purely a wingnut party, and let those Republican conservatives who remain have somewhere else to go besides the Democrats. Since under those conditions wingnuts would win very few elections indeed, the Republicans would, over a few election cycles, quickly go the way of the Whigs, and future elections would be mainly between the progressive Democrats and the conservative Federalists. (At least until we adopt proportional representation so that we can have more than two active serious political parties. But that's a change of subject.)
Would this be better or worse in terms of elections for progressives? I'm going to be have to be honest here: it would be worse. There's no question that, most of the time, a progressive can beat a wingnut in an election more easily than a sane conservative. So if all we care about is the short-term goal of electing progressives, a return of genuine conservatism isn't a good thing. But I don't think that is all we should care about. It also must be recognized that wingnuttery does not deserve to be represented in Congress, yet in many districts, replacing wingnuts with progressives is simply not feasible; the people might be uneasy with their wingnut reps but they don't want any dad-gum lib'ruls neither. So a real, true conservative Congresscritter would be the realistic alternative, better than a wingnut because, well, anything is, and better than a progressive because he or she would represent the people of the district, which a progressive (in all honesty) would not.
Let me repeat the first sentence above: A healthy political dialogue in a progressive society would occur between progressives on one side and conservatives on the other. That's something we don't have any more. It would be good if we did. We might not elect as many progressives that way as when the only alternative to progressives consist of clowns and zanies, but on the other hand we would elect no clowns and zanies. And that would be better for America.