Friday, October 21, 2016

Can Donald Trump save conservatism? Maybe.....


To all my conservative friends and allies who have not already come to this conclusion: Hillary Rodham Clinton will win the United States presidential election on November 8, 2016 and will be sworn in to succeed President Barack Obama on January 20, 2017. If this was not clear to you before the final presidential debate, it ought to be clear now. Our nominee, Donald J. Trump, has no business being a presidential nominee, yet 14 million of us voted for him in the primaries because he is not "part of the system", whatever that means. I ask you to be honest for a moment: Can we, as a people, trust Mr. Trump with the power of submarines that can annihilate continents (we have at least 14 such machines, he could essentially blow up the world twice), or talk to foreign leaders responsibly? Better yet, does this man even know what the word "responsibility" means? Based on his business deals and lack of empathy to fallen soldiers families, I am skeptical of that.


But, don't resort to nihilism comrades. We will likely retain control of the United States House of Representatives, thus retaining the power of the purse. We may or may not keep the Senate, but even with the loss of this chamber it is highly unlikely that the Democrats will gain 60 members, which would enable them to prevent filibusters (please stop overdoing those Senator Paul and Senator Cruz). More importantly though, Donald Trump can actually be what he seems to think he is, namely a savior of sorts. And he is right, he can save something, namely conservatism. But not with his election to office, but with his loss.

With the election of Hillary Clinton to the presidency, that will be three straight losses that conservatives have suffered trying to take control of the executive branch of government; that is not a coincidence, we are doing something wrong. And it is not that we did not nominate someone not conservative enough in John McCain or Mitt Romney, or that we nominated a narcissist who would make Narcissus himself look the other direction in Donald Trump. It is that we have abandoned what conservatism really is.

Ask a conservative or a liberal what conservatism means, and you will likely hear some of these phrases : religious, gun-lovers, anti-abortion, anti-gay, disbelievers in climate change, etc. While this is what popular culture has linked to conservatism, these are not the principles that give it a foundation. Perhaps the best definition of conservatism was given by conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott in his essay On Being Conservative:
"To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to Utopian bliss"
Close quote. To put this into simpler terms, conservative philosopher John Kekes states that conservatism is built upon four pillars: Traditionalism (keeping what works), Skepticism (caution about radical change without knowing the outcome), Pluralism (belief that there is no one correct way to do things), and Pessimism (you call this realism, the belief that things are never going to be perfect). In the United States at least, we have done decently well at traditionalism (in some sense anyway), but that is about it. We have abandoned our skepticism for fanaticism, our pluralism for fundamentalism, and pessimism for the belief that capitalism will eventually bring about a utopia and solve all of out problems. Think I am over exaggerating? Allow me to explain.

The principle of skepticism is practiced at its best in the field of natural sciences. While some people think that science has solved all the problems, this is far from the case. As philosopher of science Michael Ruse said in a recent lecture: ""Good science begins with a problem in the morning, solves the problem by lunch, and then goes to supper with two new problems" In short, there are many debates in the scientific community, such as whether or not there is one single universe or a multiverse, or whether or not evolution is gene-centered; in short scientific skepticism will rule out absolutism about things unless there is sufficient evidence. So when scientists nearly unanimously agree on an issue, you better take note.

On the issue of climate change, climate scientists are in complete agreement: climate change is happening and human activity contributes to it; how much that is the case and how long we have before things are damaged beyond repair is disputed. In addition, the National Academy of Sciences recently released these graphs showing the temperatures of our planet in the past and in the future. To put it frankly, we are in serious trouble. Yet, conservatives in this country almost universally reject climate change as an article of faith; our nominee routinely calls it a complete hoax, and Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, chair of the Committee on Environment and Public Works, when confronted with the evidence simply said "God is still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous." He followed it up with his 2012 book The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. There is room for skepticism of utopia, but not of facts.

If there is one thing that annoys me in politics, it is when politicians or citizens say "America is a Christian nation." While it is true that 70 percent or more of Americans identify as Christians according to polls, the first amendment of the United States Constitution says:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances"
How can America be a Christian country when it's constitution maintains pluralism? If conservatives want to argue for strict construction of the constitution, they should probably read it first. It forbids the sort of fundamentalism that they are proposing. It would also interest them to know that the Constitution in many of the founding fathers (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton for example) were not Christians but were deists. If America was built as a Christian country, why would these founders lock themselves out of it? Pluralism is a key of conservatism, and it is about time we reclaimed it.

"Ayn Rand taught me what my values are" House Speaker Paul Ryan once said (he has since distanced himself from that). However, it is true that many conservatives in this country think capitalism is the most legitimate way to succeed and care little for others suffering; in short they think capitalism will bring about a utopia. However, the father of capitalism Adam Smith in his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments pointed out that unrestrained capitalism would be immoral because some would not benefit, and that we have a moral duty to help the less fortunate. While conservatives are right that some abuse welfare programs, this does not mean we can't have a safety net for those who don't help themselves (Hayek also argued for this). We should be pessimists about Thomas More's Utopia just as much as Ayn Rand's version.

Conservatism in the United States is at a time where it needs to define itself. The way ahead is not the egoism and selfishness exhibited in philosophy of "conservatism" offered by people such as Barry Goldwater. Rather, we should return to the conservatism of thinkers such as David Hume, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and Michael Oakeshott. Conservatism, which has a foundation of pluralism, is a big tent type of philosophy; there is room for more than we currently have.

Donald Trump often admits in interviews that he does not read much, and his desk only has magazines on which his face graces the cover (seriously, this guy is our nominee?) But, too often it is the case that we as conservatives our not well read on the thinkers who have founded and influenced our political philosophy and theory. So, I would like to end with a list of suggested reading materials, and remind those conservatives who are feeling blue about this election (pun intended) that we can recapture the ideas that make conservatism far preferable to liberalism. Donald Trump may lead to our third loss at the presidency, but he can certainly save conservatism by having us remember who we are and allowing us to reshape our identity.

Reading list: The Conservative Soul by Andrew Sullivan, The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk, A Case for Conservatism by John Kekes, Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth  by David Hume, On Being Conservative by Michael Oakeshott, Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke







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