What's wrong with the Republican Party? It's a question being asked by pretty much everybody right now. Even those within the party are beginning to offer their suggestions why President Obama garnered over 3 million popular votes more than Mitt Romney, and the largest electoral margin in history for a Democrat. The Republican Congress looks more and more like siege victims with each passing day, holding out hope that if they just filibuster one more bill, or obstruct one more presidential mandate, the country will come around to their side. The collapse is epic. In some circles, it's even become an insult to call someone a Republican.
There are obvious answers to the question. Republicans are out of touch. They're ideology driven. They're owned by corporate masters. They are scared old white men afraid of losing power. And while there is probably truth in all of these observations, I think that they are all dancing around a deeper truth. The Republican Party has abandoned genuine conservatism, and in the process, has become the party of immorality. Their root philosophy is custom designed to hurt people. They have abandoned the principles which keep conservatism ethically sound and focused on the greater good.
Let me give you a striking example. Recently, Rep. Paul Broun (GA) had the audacity to suggest that anti-discrimination laws are inherently unconstitutional, and should be struck down. Yes. He said that. He suggested wiping out with one stroke of a pen all the achievements of the GLBT movement, the Civil Rights movement, the Women's Suffrage movement, and every other equality movement in American history. To say this is gross immorality is almost understating the matter. Here was his justification:
I believe that the federal government should be doing what the Constitution says it should be doing. Following what our founding fathers meant for us to do. These issues should be dealt with on the state basis. When we inject the federal government with things it should not be doing, we create this huge federal government that is spending money it should not be spending... I think the federal government should be doing only what the Constitution says it should be.
Before we examine this in greater detail, let me offer two more quotes. "The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example." This little gem was spoken by one R. Furman, a Baptist from South Carolina. His sentiment was echoed in the words of Pat Buchanan, a presidential candidate. "We're going to bring back God and the Bible and drive the gods of secular humanism right out of the public schools of America."
What do all three of these quotes have in common? They all presume the infallibility of documents from the past. They all infer that any deviation from the "established, authoritative way things used to be done" is bad. To Paul Broun, the Constitution is as sacrosanct and immutable as the Bible is to Pat Buchanan. It is this attitude which not only facilitates but also encourages gross and unforgivable immorality from Capitol Hill.
Conservatism values what has worked in the past. It is morality derived from the precedent of having been done before. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. It's good to learn from the past. But today's conservatives have taken it to an ideological extreme. Rather than evaluate the current situation with a focus on what will work best now, they imagine and insist that the present will conform to the past. Broun and many other Republicans appear unconcerned with the effects of striking down anti-discrimination laws. Instead, they are concerned with whether they conform appropriately to the strict letter of the Constitution. This is disturbingly similar to the attitude of Mr. Furman, who would return to slavery, not because it is good, but because it is in the Bible. It is this reliance on the authority of old documents which poisons the well.
To put it in a clearer perspective, let's take politics out of the question for a moment and think about personal ethics. When you face an ethical dilemma, is it better to recall the last similar dilemma and unthinkingly go with the decision you made, or is it better to re-examine that decision to see if you've learned anything which might help you to make a better decision? It should be obvious to people of reason and morals that it is better to use the past as a guide, not a dictator. The Republican Party has opted for the immoral option. They have chosen to adhere to the past in spite of the present.
This is not an acute failure. It is not about poor application of otherwise sound principle. It is a systemic and systematic failure to employ the full gamut of moral and scientific reasoning to matters of policy. In order to ideologically conform to the past, one must ignore the discoveries of today. Current Conservatism is anti-science as a matter of guiding principle, and that is why it has become pariah. It is why people of reason all over the world are perplexed and outraged at the Republican Party's apparent ability to ignore any amount of evidence which contradicts their position.
Speaking of science, here's why Conservatives were wrong to allow their religious biases to influence their acceptance of science. Science is the embodiment of functional conservatism. Science is bold and even brash, at times, in its exploration of new ideas. But it is extremely careful in its acceptance of new paradigms. Before a new idea is implemented by the community, it is vetted through a process of small tests, larger tests, and repetition. It requires intense attention to ethics before permitting experiments involving humans. It is the "tried and true" practice of implementing the successes of the past with an enthusiastic eye toward future advances. The ethics underlying "traditional conservatism" are the embodiment of the scientific method. Today's conservatism has abandoned the very thing that provides an ethical foundation and a philosophical foundation for the party platform -- using the past as a pathway to new knowledge and policy in the future.
Reduced to its essence, this is the fatal flaw of today's conservatism: Preservation of the past has become the goal, rather than a pathway to building a new and better future. The reason scientists adhere so conservatively to standards of ethics and evidence is because they want previous paradigms to be overturned, but they don't want to cause harm by prematurely committing. That's important enough to say again. Scientists want the findings of the past to be overturned if they're wrong, and especially if there's a better way to do it in the future. The findings of the past are valued precisely because we want to move into the future.
How does the fatal flaw play out in Republican politics? One need look no further than universal healthcare. The United States is the only First World Country without it. It works. American healthcare is a shambles of corporate profiteering, gaps in coverage, medical bankruptcy, and gross disparities in treatment options for the rich and poor. In human terms, millions are suffering and dying unnecessarily
We could easily look to other countries and emulate their successful implementations of universal healthcare to alleviate this problem. There's nothing groundbreaking or radical about it. From a scientific perspective, it has been properly vetted. But it does disagree sharply with both the traditions of the past and -- some would say -- our constitution. Thus, Republicans are staunch in their opposition to implementing it. Though they occasionally wave their hands in the direction of tax increases or "death panels," everyone except FOX viewers knows this is empty political rhetoric. When it came to court, the cat was out of the bag. It was unconstitutional, said Republican legal experts. Indeed, the loophole allowing states to opt out of Medicaid expansions is a testament to following authority instead of the greater good.
Thomas Jefferson believed the Constitution -- indeed, all laws -- should be rewritten every 19 years. This idea would be anathema to Conservatives today, but listen to something else he thought about how government should be run:
But with respect to future debts, would it not be wise and just for that nation to declare, in the constitution they are forming, that neither the legislature, nor the nation itself, can validly contract more debt than they may pay within their own age, or within the term of 19. years? And that all future contracts will be deemed void as to what shall remain unpaid at the end of 19. years from their date?
At least when Democrats are in office, Republicans would most likely admit the wisdom of this approach. (Never mind that they have been the biggest spenders when they have held the White House.) It's a very conservative approach to expansion and debt. But the combination of re-examining laws and managing debt within each generation is also a powerful acceptance of the future. It is inviting the next generation to forge their own path, having learned from their forbears. Though Jefferson was considered by many to be rather liberal, in historical context his views seem conservative today. (That's how progress works.)
To the chagrin of many "conservatives," I think it's rather obvious that the Democratic Party is now the standard bearer of "traditional conservatism. " There is nothing radical in their platform. Universal healthcare, taxing the rich, infrastructure improvements, federal monies to stimulate the economy in recession, equality for all citizens... America lags behind most developed countries in implementing these tried and true, scientifically vetted policies. Democrats are urging us to trust the science, to learn from those around us, and to take manageable steps into the future with policies that have been proven to work. That's... conservative.
As for the Republican Party, they are neither conservative nor moral. They ignore the suffering of others to preserve the institutions of the past. They profess belief in the infallibility of documents which history has proven to be inadequate to address current concerns. They are not conservatives. They are ideologues who have opted for blind and zealous enforcement of the past in spite of and in open defiance of acquired knowledge. Ironically, if we were to look to the past with a critical eye, we would know the disastrous results when societies have allowed this kind of thing to happen.