Thinking about Bobby’s post, “What the Heck Does Progressive Mean, Anyway?” got me to thinking about ideology in general, and how it affects the larger collective ‘We.’ It occurs to me thus:
At their core, liberals-or ‘progressives’-are agents of change, while conservatives are agents of consistency. This is an oversimplification of an irreducible complexity, but I hope an accurate shorthand for the roles these ideologies play in society. The type of society does not matter-every society has reformers and conservatives, even societies where reformers are likely to be shot, like Stalin’s Soviet Union. The primary implication of this is going to be most distateful to partisans on both sides: liberals and conservatives need each other.
Conservatives need liberals to drive change and adaptation, while liberals need conservatives to moderate the process and prevent runaway reactions. The reasons why are simple: while adapt or die is the evolutionary imperative, one cannot escape the rules governing the operations of systems.Damn Systems Theory! Anyway, what this means is that there is certainly a danger of too much change, too rapidly-in system terms, this means unregulated change spreading throughout the system in all directions-and again, one gets the result one always gets when one tries to operate a system without regulation: an explosion. This is the primary danger of runaway liberalism, and why liberalism must be moderated by elements of conservatism, in order to assure that change is orderly, adaptive, and in keeping with the spirit of the values that have proven to do the most for the most. Runaway change is an explosion. Runaway growth is cancer. In every case, the need for a moderator is self-evident.
The problem with excessive conservatism takes a little longer to become apparent, but is no less destructive. The danger is that rigid consistency creates a failure to adapt to a changing world, or even changing local circumstances. Disabuse yourself of the notion, right now, that adaptation is anything other than an ongoing, dynamic, continuous process. Not an event, but a continuum. In other words, constant change is absolutely essential to the long-term health and survival of the system-any system, including political systems. As agents of change-as a friend said, “liberals are people who look at history and say, “We can do better”-this is the natural role of the liberal reformer in whatever ideological medium you’re soaking in right now.
This is also the answer to those conservatives whom espouse the position that pacifistic liberals need militaristic conservatives to protect them, while seeing no need for liberals at all. While to many it may seem like a good idea, shipping all the liberals off to the James Watt Memorial Wild Liberal Refuge would only polarize the remainder. Again-there are no monopoles. Cut a magnet in two-you get two magnets, each with their own bipolar gradient. There will still be reformers and reactionaries, leverage and resistant. Systems just work that way.
Yes, as a liberal, it does at times feel like what that nameless German general described, referring to the WWI alliance with Austria-Hungary, as being “shackled to a corpse.” It feels like every inch of progress has to be fought over, every issue contested, no matter how small, and regardless of whether it was previously supported. It feels like conservatism, as practiced in the US today, has stopped being concerned with quality of governance and devolved almost entirely into a malignant ideology of absolutism, contempt for science and education, propaganda, and fear. It looks more and more like postmodern conservatism has absolutely no concern with questions of truth, justice, or even basic competence, but rather with whatever will most effectively destroy any rivals for power, and with a nihilistic disregard for either tradition or consequences, as demonstrated by the debt ceiling and fiscal cliff debacles, by the disgraceful treatment of Chuck Hagel by the Senate Republicans, as demonstrated by a million bizarre Obama Derangement Syndrome conspiracy theories. It feels like postmodern conservatism demands incompetence in order to prove that government doesn’t work. It feels like some of them may actually have lost their minds. It feels like all of that.
And this is why it is so important to support rational conservatives: we need them. the US needs far more John Huntsmans and Chuck Hagels than it does Ted Cruzs and Marco Rubios and other dog-whistling FOX/Limbaugh acolytes. Because, in the end, that is how the system works: liberals are either going to share influence with a conservative establishment who believes in honest competition in the arena of ideas, or it is going to share it with a ruthless, irrational, extremist, angry, golem of a conservative ideology that conflates conservatism with nihilism and reasoning with outrage, and believes in being heavily armed and using threats of violence. So, for the political scientists: How does a progressive promote the resurgence of a rational conservative party without undermining liberalism?
Because the future of conservatism is far too important to be left to just the conservatives.