Why Conservatives are a Necessary Component of a Vital Society
by John Shirley
“What do you mean by conservatives being necessary? Necessarily in charge?”
No. It might be difficult to convince liberals that conservatives are necessary at all. There are, after all, shades of liberals, and progressives. “The moderate Democrats are bad enough,” I hear someone say. I understand—I’m a liberal. I understand their reluctance. They can see “the arc of history.” From the point of view of a progressive, conservatives are arguably on the wrong side of history.
It’s true that colony Tories who resisted the American Revolution were conservatives opposed to change; they were loyal to the monarchy. And despite the unsupported, vastly debunked libertarian claim that “the Civil War was not about slavery,” it definitely was, and opposition to abolition was a conservative impulse. Don’t buy that? How about opposition to the female vote? Opposition to suffrage? Certainly that was a conservative opposition. Conservatives opposed the Chinese-American vote. And they opposed the League of Nations and the UN. And they opposed the New Deal, and the WPA. And they were and are in opposition—often violent opposition—to unions. And conservatives opposed integration. (Yes, Southern Democrats were up to their ears in anti-integration fights—but those were an exception, Southern Democrats acting conservatively.) Much that was opposed by conservatives—Social Security, Medicare—became treasured American institutions, which many conservatives will be grateful for in their old age. There was, too, the conservative support for crushing Democratically elected Latin American leaders who wanted to nationalize some industries…
But of course it was not always so simple. In Asia, the Vietnam war was a mess, but two Democrats, JFK and Johnson, first got us into Vietnam—though one might argue they were trying to please business interests which meant pleasing Conservatives—and Bill Clinton, a slightly left of center Democrat, signed the repeal of Glass-Steagal, a free-market move setting the stage for economic disaster. “Those people weren’t progressive enough,” a liberal would say. Maybe so.
Still—while many conservatives and business leaders (who were mostly conservatives) opposed environmental laws, it was Nixon who ushered them in.
Yet modern conservatives are generally opposed to significant (and badly needed) environmental regulations. Modern conservative polticians block money for veterans, try to eliminate food stamps and social security, refuse funding for desperately needed infrastructure projects, are opposed to a minimum wage, are opposed to subsidized health care, are opposed to the Equal Rights Amendment for women, are opposed to Planned Parenthood, believe the free market will ease problems it won’t ease, wish to gut vital social programs and unions in favor of the discredited “trickle down economics” notion, are trying to sell national parklands to gigantic private business interests, and on the whole, it does seem to many of us, that Conservatives are, as in the now trite expression, “on the wrong side of history” most of the time. The conservative impulse, the classic reactionary knee-jerking, seems to us to want to drown the baby of the future in the bathwater of the past.
And yet…and yet…
Every democracy genuinely needs conservatives. And not so we can have someone to argue with. We need them for their perspective; we need them for their call for individual hard work, which is always a good thing in itself, when people can find it; we need them for the reluctance at least some of them show to get engaged in wars that squander blood and treasure. And we need them to be skeptical of our schemes.
We need them to push back.
I can imagine conservatives reading this and reacting with, “You’re being patronizing, you’re finding a niche for us instead of giving our way a real shot.”
Herbert Hoover gave it a real shot—how did that work out? George W. Bush’s real shot with it got us into the Iraq war and massive national debt, amongst other messes.
And after all—I am philosophically a progressive. I’m a pragmatic progressive—but I really do believe in the value of the progressive arc of history.
Yet what disaster if we had no conservatives! Every political point of view, every social philosophy, is capable of excess. A mother was at risk, not long ago, of having her kids taken away from her because she let the kids play alone in a park. The kids were 6 and 10. Child Protection took them in for awhile. (And this has happened to other parents, in other areas.) Conservatives were among the first to come to her defense, and they were right to do it. You have to leave some things to parents, and governmental protectiveness can extend from the big things, where it should be, to the small personal things, where it’s excessive.
Government does well to protect us from environmental toxins; it does well to protect national parks, and wildlife habitats; it does well to protect us from invasion; from violations of Civil Rights laws and violations of the best labor laws. Local government does well to supply ordinances protecting us from wildfires. Privatization is not effective in the long run and most of us are glad for public fire departments and police and utilities. Government does well to closely oversee companies that put us at risk from poor maintenance of oil or gas pipelines. There are big overarching issues we need help with.
But we don’t need them telling us we can’t send our 10 and 6 year old children together to a park.
Conservatives are right to argue that a strong family unit is good for people, good for society. We can disagree on what that is in some cases—gay couples are just as likely to make good parents. But when Republicans decried the break-up of the family unit in African American communities, going back some years, they were called racist for it. In time the African-American community itself realized they were right: perhaps because of innate social stresses, too many families were being abandoned by men who should’ve been good fathers. Michelle Obama and many black organizations have acknowledged the problem and worked to reverse the trend. It was conservatives who first called us out on it.
An opinion piece in The New York Times said, “Republicans were right to blow the whistle on broken school systems, for education in inner-city schools is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Democrats, in cahoots with teachers’ unions and protective of a dysfunctional system, were long part of the problem…Bravo to Republicans for protesting that teachers’ unions were sometimes protecting disastrous teachers…”
Unions are overall a good thing—I could provide the statistics to show it. However, any institution can be excessive. I’m grateful to the Writer’s Guild of America and have walked the picket line with that union. But unions that bloat, that become over protective, that regard themselves as immune from corruption investigations, might be the very embodiment of liberal excess. I’ve seen some clear examples of union greed. Conservative pushback on unions helps keep them in line. Some conservatives go too far with respect to unions—Chris Christie!—but we need that conservative impulse, in ourselves and on the part of conservatives, to moderate unions, to put pressure on them to stay honest and fair. Conservative skepticism about unions helps us keep unions honed and fair.
I don’t think liberals like me can be trusted to run the country alone—I think we tend to be defensive about our institutions, just as conservatives are defensive about theirs. I think we need that pressure, that push-back, to moderate us. When we are inspired by what we believe is right, we’ll push back on their push-back. Hence we supported the successful effort to legalize gay marriage despite Republican opposition. But on other issues, the conservatives hold a mirror up, a special lens, and challenge us to look into the mirror and through the glass…and see things as they do. Sometimes we see they’re right, or partly right. And we eventually modify our position. Because the dynamics of debate leads to new ideas, to insights.
Then there’s the question of democracy—America is not made up of liberals, though there are a lot of them, and a lot of moderate Democrats. There are also a good many conservatives, and we liberals fall into some kind of argumentative quivering mass, chasing our tales with political correctness arguments, without conservatives to help us focus on what matters.
This website, Tangent Online, relates to the science-fiction field, and so do I. From time to time the sf field has been storm-lashed by political controversies, essentially conservative vs. liberal and vice versa. Going back, it cuts both ways: back in the day, Donald Wollheim and Fred Pohl and Judith Merril and others were slagged by conservative sf writers and editors for leaning left. Now the pendulum has swung way, way the other direction and certain reasonable conservatives amongst science fiction writers and critics are sometimes being over scrutinized, even punished, for outspokenness and some fairly normal speech tropes—most recently, Dave Truesdale was actually ejected from the Worldcon for having declared on a short story panel, in the space of a few minutes, that science fiction was being unfairly truncated by politics, and free speech gagged by political correctness emanating from the left. I listened to a tape of the remarks and could find nothing that broke any convention rules. Some defending the convention fall back on claims that his use of the term “pearl clutchers” is sexist, is hateful to women. But in my experience the term does not apply to women, particularly—it’s about people who are making a drama of nothing, probably just to get attention. Underlying the con committee’s action was, I suspect, emotional fallout from the “Sad Puppies” Hugo Award controversy. But people shouldn’t let emotions dictate their interpretation of the rules.
Lawrence Person reports that a few years back those with a political agenda “forced WisCon… to disinvite Elizabeth Moon as Guest of Honor (something that’s almost never done in the field) over the ‘crime’ of penning an essay mildly critical of Islam and the planned Ground Zero Mosque.” I was shocked to hear about that. Disinviting her for that reason is absurd.
Excessive lefty sensitivity led to fist-shaking condemnation of the Red Sonja cover art for an issue of the SFWA Bulletin—rather foolishly under-dressed, in terms of war preparation, the red-maned woman warrior was posing a trifle luridly but was also showing tough defiance, and while one can recognize a cheesecake aspect, the image is more to do with old-time science-fiction/fantasy pulp tradition combined with recognition of the power of a deadly warrior who just happens to be a woman. Are we supposed to assume that men (and gay women) can never publicly appreciate full-body female pulchritude? The outrage was more lurid than the image—it was lurid over-reacting, the kind of thing that the left is sometimes blighted by. By all means, progressives, we should call the right-wing on its real sexism—as just two examples, its dismissal of a woman’s right to get paid the same as a man for the same job and its attempts to undermine women’s reproductive health concerns. But this outrage at the Red Sonja cover just makes us look foolish. It also slanders women who like to dress in a mildly provocative way. Will these same people start picketing costume events at cons where fan women (and sometimes men!) dress as Red Sonja types, or, perhaps, Wonder Woman?
If I see a guy passing out actual KKK literature at a convention, I’ll be the first to denounce him; if I see a man actually sexually harassing a woman at a con, grabbing her ass and drooling on her, (I’m reliably informed there were some real cases at Dragoncon a couple years ago) I’ll denounce that guy and even call for his arrest. But PC policing is likely to be inaccurate; it’s like a purblind referee at a ballgame, shouting foul ball when it struck inside the line. PC excess suppresses free speech and free expression; it chills conversation, it creates needless gulfs between people. And what we lose, in science fiction—in the stories sometimes, in the conversations at fan venues—is the valuable perspective of conservatives, and people who are more culturally traditional. We don’t need to agree with their conclusions, but we can benefit, at least in terms of mental flexibility, by their perspective. And without a contrary viewpoint, discussion becomes flaccid, dull, and eventually narrow-minded.
So—we need conservatives, in science fiction and in the nation. But do conservatives need liberals? “We don’t need liberals—there are shades of Conservatives, we have more liberal and less liberal conservatives and that’s enough!”
But conservatives need to be opposed. Just as liberals need to be opposed. Just as children need to be opposed at times. We’re all children, pushing and shoving, trying to define our territory, not fully understanding our world, learning as we grow up together.
Perhaps it’s like yin and yang, completing one another in the circle; we’re the yin to their yang, they’re the yin to our yang, and so on. Or perhaps it’s Hegellian—thesis, antithesis, leading to synthesis. We’re constantly synthesizing and re-synthesizing our society. Alloys are often stronger metals. And the USA is stronger as an alloy.
New York Times quote and data from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/10/opinion/kristof-where-the-gop-gets-it-right.html
♣ ♣ ♣
John Shirley is the author of numerous novels and books of short stories. He has also written for television and film. His novels include the cyberpunk works City Come A-Walkin’ and the A Song Called Youth trilogy, Silicon Embrace, Halo: Broken Circle, Demons, Crawlers, and Bleak History. His most recent story collection is In Extremis.