All about ideas…

Conjunction of Conservatives vs Liberals in Public Policy

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Power to the PeopleDavid Frum, conservative public policy writer and contributor to The Daily Beast and CNN, wrote a scathing blog post today on his DB blog excoriating protesters, whether OWS, NATO, or other issue protesters, specifically regarding the planned protests during upcoming G8 and G20 meetings.  It’s not likely Frum will read my response, let alone respond to it since he has chosen not to interact with those who comment on his blog posts, either at TBD or Frum Forum.

Nevertheless, he raises an important issue which is the difference between the conservative mind and the liberal mind on issues relating to public policy, societal structures, and cultural norms. As Jonathan Haidt points out from his psychological research, conservative minds and liberal minds are quite different in how they view the world and change. So, it is with this information in mind that I speak to Frum’s – and other conservatives’ – fears and concerns regarding the changing nature of our public dialogue as well as why change is not a net negative.

I suspect what really angers conservatives is that OWS, NATO, and other protesters refuse to accept the dictates of authority and common order as perceived by the hierarchy of  those structures. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of thinking. After all, generally agreed upon order and a certain amount of submission to authority enables societies to grow and function.  They still do.  Order, stability and culturally agreed upon structures and values are necessary to maintain a functioning society.

However, when those structures become strictures, people – the young in particular – revolt.  Protests are the simplest and least destructive of all revolts. Moreover, protests often bring attention to issues that otherwise go unnoticed and unresolved.  If the protests are loud enough, the media will report it, bringing the issues and problems to the attention of the political and elite classes where public policy is determined as well as the public where opinions can be changed and thus create policy changes.

Reflect upon how the Vietnam War protests, both violent and non-violent, changed the public perception of that War and, thus, the opinion of the political and elite classes. The same clash of conservative vs liberal ideas played out in public and in private then too as young people, those most affected by the war, publicly protested.  Eventually change occurred, even within the staunchly conservative military establishment.

Like it or not, protests of one sort or another have been the case since communal history began.  Without these rebels – those protesters – little in human history would have changed over the course of the last 20,000 years as the status quo is always more comforting…or at the very least knowable. Change is disruptive and unknowable in its final form; thus, it is frightening to the psyche that appreciates structure and the values of existing social norms.

Yet, even our own founders were protesters. Rebels and anarchists defying authority and the stated order to create a change in their circumstances: more freedom to live as they chose regardless of British social structures; more liberty to determine their own destinies without the heavy hand of a distant British Empire; and more representation in governmental affairs that affected them.

Remember these words from the Declaration of Independence: “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.–Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government.”

Those are not the words of conservative minds, holding fast to the existing order of authority and cultural restraint. They are the words of protest and of rebellion and of rabble-rousers.  Parliament saw the original Tea Party as destroyers of private property; as people acting outside the law; as anarchists. And so they were. Those original Tea Partiers defied Parliamentary authority and were destructive. Yet, today – 200+ years later – we nearly have deified those rebels, those destroyers of private property, those rabble-rousing anarchists who defied the existing order to bring about major political change that affected – and continues to affect – the world over.

As biographers of Teddy Roosevelt write, he chose to demand changes in public policy via restrictions on business practices during the Gilded Age not to destroy capitalism but to save it from the worst of the radical protests. Protests which, bear in mind, had authenticity and broad public support. By understanding the problems and concerns of average working Americans, he protected capitalism from its worst impulses and conserved societal and cultural norms from massive – and potentially destructive – upheaval.

While he’s called a Progressive today – an evil nomenclature among the far right – his policy prescriptions conserved the country from massive revolt and violent revolution that would have destroyed not just private property but capitalism itself. His conservative mind recognized the need for liberal change not only to advance liberty and freedom but to protect conservative values of societal stability and cultural norms.

There’s an old Indian saying about walking a mile in the moccasins of another to understand that person’s life.  For the more serious of the protesters, whether they be OWS or NATO protesters or large scale protesters of other sorts, it might be well, in order to preserve the conservative values, to understand and address the issues of those protesters before destructive rebellion occurs.  In that way, conservative values will be maintained while creating solutions to address the problems and concerns of those who protest.

So, perhaps, evaluation of protesters lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Progress towards more humane values are often wrought through protests of one sort or another. The American Revolution is one sort of protest that advanced humane values of liberty and freedom for all. Another type of mass protest brought Civil Rights and the belief that all humans, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or religion, deserved equal opportunities and freedoms.

Conservatism is not just defending what was, regardless of how inequitable society is, but in creating a society and culture in which all peoples have a voice and their concerns are understood and met in order to maintain a stable society.


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