Underlying conservatism is a universal and deeply human experience: Loss. And loss is inextricably bound up with change, whether it's a storm that uproots the tree that's been outside your window since you were a child, or the socio-economic upheaval that remakes the culture of the community you call home.
So there's something quite poignant about The Week's Matt Lewis comparing American conservatism to Tim Howard's performance in the United States' last game at the World Cup. Howard heroically blocked shot after shot from Belgium, but his team still lost. In Lewis' reading, conservatives are similarly playing defense. They're not naturally comfortable with political conflict, and would much rather live out their lives tending and keeping to the values of traditional America. It's progressives who are the aggressors, constantly "attacking our net" with new laws, programs, and overhauls of the status quo.
It's easy enough to see why conservatives might feel that way. But here's the problem: This metaphor also gets something very basic about the world very wrong. In his book Orthodoxy, the author G.K. Chesterton illustrated the point with a simple analogy. Imagine you have a white fence post, and you want it to stay white. In that case, the one thing you cannot do is leave it be. Wind, rain, sun, dirt, and time will beat against it, until the fence post is black. To keep the fence post white, you must always be agitating and aggressing against the world by repainting it white.
Change is natural. It is stasis that is artificially imposed.
Consider one of the issues Lewis mentions: Immigration. America has an enormously productive economy, in which any individual has the chance to produce far more wealth than most human beings ever have. It also happens that just to our south is another country that is far less productive and far more impoverished. Can it surprise anyone that millions of people are streaming north across the border to seek a better life? Is this change to the status quo of America's existing population or demographics somehow unnatural or unexpected? This change did not require liberal agitation — it naturally occurs without any American action.
Or consider gay marriage. America's unofficial founding charter states "all men [obviously meaning all human beings] are created equal," and marriage is one of the foundational ways Americans have built meaningful lives between those we love and our communities. Putting those two preconditions together does not make it inevitable that a growing swath of Americans would eventually find excluding gay people from marriage ethically intolerable. But it certainly gives it very good odds. Like the civil rights movement before it, the gears of the gay rights movement were largely set in motion by the principles of the very national founding conservatives revere.
The point is not that there are no deliberate leftist agitators. There are plenty, and they are deliberately trying to push forward change. But change does not require them. Change is inevitable even if we do nothing.
The leftist agitators are usually just riding the wave, or at best prodding it along. There's a reason all the sweeping changes Lewis objects to did not just come to America, but to virtually the entire Western world, and all roughly at the same time. These are foundational forces we are contending with here.
Meanwhile, the right has more than its own share of agitators and aggressors trying to halt the wave in its tracks. The lesson of Chesterton's fence post is that to keep things the same paradoxically requires continual action. To keep a piece of the world from changing — be it the structure of a family, the nature of a culture, or the ecology of an economy — you must acquire power over it. And then you must keep it, for once acquired that power will always be naturally slipping away. The point weirdly mirrors Corey Robin's observation in The Reactionary Mind, that conservatives are in many ways the revolutionaries par excellence. To keep the world from changing, conservatives must constantly be pushing anew to maintain their control over it.
And let's keep this in mind: There is nothing "natural" or "given" about the values conservatives perceive to be laid down by the American founding. American colonists crossed an ocean, settled a land, displaced and slaughtered a native society, overthrew a king, and established a form of government the world had not seen in over a millennia. You can call this a lot of things, but an effort to preserve the status quo is certainly not one of them.
Everything that is now old was once new, and was itself an aggressive and artificial imposition on the state of affairs that came before. And as gay marriage shows, old values we've long taken as given can still surprise us with their consequences. There is no first principle or first way of being to conserve. It's turtles all the way down.
The fantasy that "traditional values" are a given allows conservatives to wriggle out of actually accounting for the content of those values. Instead, conservatives can claim those values were simply what were here when "we" arrived, and thus inherently worth defending against change. Traditional values need never be defended on the merits.
It's no accident that straight, white, well-off, Christian men tend to be the most dyed-in-the-wool conservatives. Thanks to those "traditional" values, these are the people who have most reliably enjoyed power through the history of human civilization. So it's their personal worlds that are the most vulnerable to social efforts to distribute power more equitably. But protecting their worlds from change requires these conservatives to hold jealously to their power over other people who may want different worlds.
And therein lies the most dangerous aspect of conservatism's hostility to change: It does not just involve a fantasy about the world, it involves a fantasy about the honor of one's own moral stance. At any given moment, the people who will benefit from change the most are those with the least power. Those who will benefit the least are those who already possess power.
So conservatism, for all the understandable heartache inspired by loss, is constantly devolving into a defense of the current king of the mountain.
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