I’m sitting in the darkened study of my sister’s beautiful home in Bethesda this morning looking forward to a long day of renewing old acquaintances, making new friends, and participating (more like observing) the goings on at CPAC.
I had an interesting discussion last night with my 17 year old cousin about the problem with conservatism today and was surprised that he pretty much nailed the reasons conservatism is in such bad odor with the public and specifically, with his generation. He sees nothing positive coming from conservatives like Hannity, Coulter, and Rush (just picking three examples). What he sees - and I am forced to agree with him - is an overarching arrogance that brooks no discussion and has little room for disagreement.
We may not like it, but my cousin’s generation - and a couple of previous ones - have been educated differently than many of us. They have been taught that moral questions have many sides, that there isn’t one way of looking at the world. When they hear conservatives referring to the opposition as “unpatriotic” it turns them off - they aren’t sure of their own feelings about America themselves.
Clearly, if conservatives wish to attract the young, a better job of educating them outside of the classroom must be done. They will never learn about conservative principles in school - not only because education is dominated by liberals but because the study of most any western philosophy would be anti-diversity.
So the only exposure to conservatism that most children receive comes to them via the Coulter/Hannity/Limbaugh’s of the movement. Entertaining though they are, their very shrillness and presumption of being in the right turns off most kids who have been educated to eschew such certainties.
But isn’t “question everything” the mantra of any good student? I would hope so. However, at some point, questions must harden into a belief system. And when that process begins, the young have little or no idea what classical conservatism is all about because show biz conservatives either don’t know themselves or find it profitable to abandon reason for ranting.
The perils of educating the young in such a way is that enlightenment values get thrown under the bus in obeisance to a nebulous doctrine where ideology rather than philosophy is encouraged. “Diversity” is a wonderful thing - except in teaching competing ideas. And appeals to “thinking with the heart” are substituted for reasoned thought and a rational, objective examination of the issues.
What’s missing? Historian Page Smith, when writing about the Constitutional Convention referred to a “classical Christian Consciousness” that dominated the gathering. This conservative school of thought posits the idea that man is basically evil, that he is stained with original sin and that therefore, governments must be instituted that restrain his baser instincts and protect others from those who would seek to dominate.
But Smith went on to describe the emerging enlightenment values that were also present at the convention. The enlightenment saw man as basically good, capable of perfection with the application of scientific principles to government. This tug of war - roughly between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians - ended up with the creation of a document that reflected both sides.
The two great classic philosophies have largely been subsumed by today’s ideological battles. In their name rages a war where one side seeks to dominate the other by any means necessary. I would like to see conservatives try to reclaim some of that classical heritage by becoming more thoughtful, less ideological, and perhaps less doctrinaire - especially since that doctrine is, in my opinion, woefully out of touch with modern realities.
CPAC was not set up to deal with these questions. But it just might start a conversation that would lead to an understanding that for conservatism to become competitive in the marketplace of ideas again, it must acknowledge its shortcomings and work toward reforming itself to better reflect what America has become rather than the way America used to be.