On Why (Some) Conservatives Give Me Hope

I always like to read conservative writers.  When I was in high school I took a journalism class and the teacher assigned a paper on opinion journalism.  We each picked a writer to use in the paper and were each assigned another.  Even at that time, my political leanings were well-known to those around me and I was loud and irritating.  She assigned me George Will – very much intentionally.  Since then I made a habit of reading his columns along with some others like David Brooks and Thomas Friedman (not a conservative but a New Democrat from the late ‘90s mold).  Most of the time I absolutely loathe them.  That changed in the last year and a half.

In trying to understand the sixteen member planned-parenthood-defunding dog pile of the Republican Presidential Primary, I started reading more conservative writers.  Libertarians Conor Friedersdorf and David Boaz first, Bush staffers. Michael Gerson, David Frum, and Yuval Levin later.  I found common ground with the former two straightaway.  They decried the authoritarian tendencies of Donald Trump and the detrimental effect that was having on the rest of the primary while most on the left were still making fun of his spray tan.  The latter three expressed their disgust with the primary but twisted themselves into pretzels hoping for a Kasich, Cruz, or Rubio convention that never came.  As that became obvious, their tenor changed.

In the three months since the election, these writers have become even more interesting.  These writers in particular are ruthless critics of the current administration.  With the possible exception of Levin, they are critical without qualification and without casting aspersions across the ideological spectrum.  Though substantially less than other intellectuals and pundits they certainly bear some responsibility for the toxic nature of partisan politics.  Some of them have acknowledged this.  They’ll always bear that responsibility and they’ll likely always bear the stain of their past policies and their past prejudices, but this is their opportunity for redemption and it’s worth noting.

There are many things that give me hope in the wake of the last election – the final tally of the popular vote, the final tally of the senate popular vote, the peaceful protests, the engagement – but these writers belong on the list.  Not higher than those other phenomena, but on the list nonetheless.  More precisely, what gives me hope is the integrity of some of those people with whom I disagree.  When longtime conservatives not only snub a destructive candidate on election day but maintain their high profile within conservative media and use it to criticize him, something happens to the political fault lines in this country.  When long-time Christian conservatives line up with Christian liberals in their opposition to the misogyny of the current president, something changes.  When the pope washes the feet of refugees and Catholics advocate on their behalf after an executive order – rank with religious discrimination – restricts their opportunity, politics clarify.

When people who see the world very differently than I oppose Republican politicians and stand up for women and refugees, they do something that I cannot.  They do something that Democrats, progressives, and liberals cannot.  They change the fault lines of the current situation.  When they align in such a way, the current debate is no longer about conservatives and liberals or Republicans and Democrats.  It becomes a struggle between those who value our institutions and those who would subordinate them without so much as a thought.

In his widely circulated cover story for The Atlantic entitled "How to Build an Autocracy," Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote eloquently about the importance of that distinction.  He states that “if the story ends without too much harm to the republic, it won’t be because the dangers were imagined, but because citizens resisted.”  He continues:

“The duty to resist should weigh most heavily upon those of us who—because of ideology or partisan affiliation or some other reason—are most predisposed to favor President Trump and his agenda. The years ahead will be years of temptation as well as danger: temptation to seize a rare political opportunity to cram through an agenda that the American majority would normally reject.”

Frum concludes by reaching back to a forebear of the modern conservative movement.  Barry Goldwater was a firebrand, controversial for the extremism of his positions and their implications (most notably for civil rights and segregation).  Frum uses this extremism and the divisive nature of the man himself to highlight the importance of the country’s institutions – even among those politicians whose limited vision for the role of government borders on the cruel.  He quotes from Goldwater’s book, The Conscience of a Conservative:

“If I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.”

I’ll disagree with Frum on matters of policy all the way down to the fundamental role of government in the lives of its citizens, probably until the day that we’re both dead.  Barry Goldwater’s legacy will always be one of ideological extremism that was rejected in an election by a two-to-one margin.  Levin and Gerson will always see the conservative movement in a way that I cannot.  But as long as they remain vigilant and critical of their own party’s disregard for the institutions they claim to value above all else, they will give me hope.  

Hope, not only that this administration will be opposed, but that the opposition will be ideologically diverse.  It gives me hope that some within the “small-government” Republican party have made note of the dangers of disparaging outright the institutions of the government whose power they seek to limit.  It gives me hope that, after the administration collapses under the weight of progressive opposition, there will be someone there to pick up the pieces and rebuild something healthy.  We’ll see.