Continuity or Change: Conservatives, Liberals, and the Power of the Past

MAGAChange

A friend (thanks, Tim Engelbracht!) suggested that conservatives prefer continuity and liberals favor change, and I’d like to explore that nugget. (Please don’t blame Tim for the length of this blog entry, however!) I’m expanding on an idea from a previous post:  that if the right and the left see each other as counterbalancing forces leading in different directions, we can value what each group brings to the negotiating table.

In that blog entry, I focused on what liberals and conservatives want, on their goals for the future. In this post I’ll emphasize their different relationships to the past.

Conservatives make no bones about the importance of the past; it’s right there in their name. One of their primary jobs is to conserve what is best about our history, to make sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Conservatives have an important function: to remind us of the achievements of the past and to ensure that those legacies continue into the future.

Liberals have a tendency to say, “My, that baby sure still is dirty. Looks like it needs another bath!”  Or at times we can say, “What baby? Look at the damage caused by patriarchy or whiteness or religion or capitalism. Throw ‘em out!” We can romanticize social revolution (admittedly, some right-wingers are a bit too in love with the idea of armed rebellion against the government). We liberals can overestimate the power of policy to change society. At times we can be in love with programs and their potential. Conservatives can temper our desire for change by rearticulating the values of the past.

The tricky question is: “which past?” There’s a broad thread of American life that glorifies our history: the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, the battles won by the “greatest generation.” There’s another broad tradition of questioning and criticizing that vision of a shining past. This recognizes the tendency to bathe the past in the comforting glow of nostalgia. Although some assert that America should be a “love it or leave it” proposition, we need to recognize that that love can take very different forms. The nostalgic and the critical are both time-honored American traditions.

I remember hearing a news story about a college campus that decided to have a Fifties day in the dining halls. You can picture what this would be like: cafeteria workers in poodle skirts and ducktails, Chuck Berry and Bill Haley on the sound system. Someone suggested that this be turned into a different exercise in time travel: that food should be served only by black people; that only white students could attend classes; that water fountains be labeled “white” and “colored.” Both are visions of the past: one nostalgic and comfortable, one necessarily challenging and uncomfortable.

Liberals can come across as party-poopers when it comes to the past. Who wouldn’t rather go to the Bill Haley Fifties day than the “white/colored only” version? And so I think conservatives have an easier time celebrating and invoking the past as a repository of greatness. Conservatives often call themselves “realists” compared to unrealistic dreamers on the left, and yet liberals are often the ones asking for a more realistic, uncomfortable understanding of our past.

Yes, the greatest generation had mighty military and industrial achievements; there was also much more misogyny and sexual abuse going on at that time than we ever realized. Yes, the Founding Fathers created a remarkable new system of government; they were also wealthy landowners looking out for the interests of their property (including human property). Yes, the public education system in America (particularly in the G.I. Bill era) was the envy of the world, but remember how many women and people of color were excluded from those hallowed halls. The triumphs of the past depended on a system of unpaid/underpaid labor from women, the poor, and people of color, and it’s misleading to extricate the achievements from the system that made them possible. And so a return to poodle skirts and rocking around the clock is a return to a fiction, a Marty McFly journey to a world that never existed except in a few isolated pockets.

Nostalgia’s lens is further clouded because it often focuses on the era of our childhood. The “good old days” we want to return to are simpler times partly because we were children then; we weren’t aware of the complexity of the adult world. My favorite example of this is John Boorman’s 1987 film Hope and Glory, rooted in his childhood memories of being in WW2’s London Blitz. Rather than a traumatic experience, it’s a sunny film with children playing among the rubble. When the local school is bombed, the kids shout to the sky, “Thank you, Adolf!” Childhood of course is not sunny for everyone, but Hope and Glory reminds me how childhood memories can put a rosy patina around even the most difficult times. The question of “whose past?” is important.

As L.P. Hartley noted, the past can be a “foreign country; they do things differently there.” The battle lines in the past are always clearer, given hindsight’s clear seeing. Every new era looks shabby and messy compared to the Golden Era, and politicians can always make use of this narrative of decline. (It’s at the heart of any fundamentalist movement, whether that revival is religious or political.) The story of civilization’s decline and decay is such a constant that Patrick Brantlinger has written a history of such rhetoric called Bread and Circuses (to be honest, the book is a little disappointing – wink). Seeing the past clearly (and not solely through the rhetoric of decay or nostalgia) is tough, and thus the importance of liberals’ annoying questioning of the uses and value of the past in today’s world.

Competing visions of the past recently re-emerged in the controversy about Confederate statues. Supporters of these statues usually argue with H-words (“heritage” and “history”). Someone has said, “When you hear the word ‘heritage,’ it always means ‘bad history.’” (Clearly a liberal talking there.) There was an uptick in Confederate statues and the use of the stars-and-bars on flags during times of racial unrest, and so these markers of “heritage” have a clear but coded message in the way they repurpose history for contemporary purposes. History has its usefulness in the present.

The controversy over statues is about who we commemorate and why, not about history. No one is asking that we erase the books written about Robert E. Lee; they are arguing that we stop commemorating the action of rebelling against the government to promote the continued enslavement of black people. Heritage necessarily whitewashes.

Both left and right tend to cherry-pick from history. On the one hand, Michelangelo and the modern economy; on the other, protests and the poor. One difficulty with conservative cherry picking is the temptation to think that history is over, that we have accomplished the goals of the civil rights movement or worker’s rights, and now we should just move on. Liberals, to this way of thinking, are too obsessed with race, gender, class, and the Sixties. It’s counterproductive for us to dredge up the difficult past. Let’s move forward.

The standard liberal reply is William Faulkner’s classic “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And thus the weirdness of the conservative’s relationship to history: they advocate that parts of our traditions should remain alive and well while discounting the past’s full influence on the here and now. History for conservatives alternates between being really important and not important at all.

Liberals can’t help but note that “let’s move on” also means “let’s ignore how conservatives in the past opposed crucial progressive changes that are now widely accepted” from the minimum wage requirement to Social Security to voting reform for women and African Americans. Conservative pushback on such initiatives often emphasizes the possible unintended consequences of change, and it often foregrounds the frightening possible outcomes (economic or social) of a new program (and fear, as I noted in a previous blog post, is a particularly dependable touchstone emotion of the right).

Yes, conservatives are correct: there are always unintended consequences, which (by definition) can’t be predicted. But liberals would rather be on the side of change rather than not trying anything and thus avoiding unintended consequences. For liberals, we’d rather try a new solution than do nothing. For conservatives, doing nothing is not a bad thing because trying new things can do more harm than good (a political repurposing of the Hippocratic oath).

True enough: change CAN do more harm than good. But that argument can be raised about any new idea or program. If you emphasize how frightening the unintended consequences (economic, social, whatever) can be, you’ll never implement any change. If you want a guarantee that a program will do exactly what it hopes without causing collateral problems, then you would never start any program. Avoiding all unintended outcomes is a recipe for the status quo. Which is not a bad thing for conservatives because they are designed to be a voice for preserving the status quo (or at least returning to a version of the status quo in the recent past, whether that’s Reagan or Eisenhower or even Hoover).

Forgive the extended flashback into history (or our attitudes toward it), but my argument here is that our differing visions of the future (and the means we trust to get us there) have much to do with our different relations to the past. Our understanding of the past and its value shapes our decisions in the present.

It’s hard to imagine a purer distillation of American conservativism’s relation to the past than “Make America Great Again.” It acknowledges the nation’s superiority but then suggests that’s not so true right now (because libs have been mucking it up). It locates that greatness in the indefinable past (but not so far in the past that it’s out of memory). Let’s go forward by going back.

Nor can one imagine a terser call to arms for liberals than Obama’s “Change.” Change to what? From what? Such details matter less than the need to change what’s wrong.

Here’s where liberals have an obvious advantage in the culture. Every advertisement in our consumer world tries to convince you that buying a new and improved thing can give you a new and improved life. Virtually every narrative is about how characters change for the better. There are few novels and films about staying the same; change is the basic material of drama. Morals and mores necessarily change. No wonder conservatives feel that their values are under attack; the cultural cards are structurally stacked against them.

The other rhetorical awkwardness of the conservative appeal is that Republicans can become the “party of ‘no.’” Instead of being able to argue forcefully for what they want to do (“so what IS your alternative to the Affordable Care Act?”), conservatives can more powerfully assert what they don’t want to do: no more taxes, no more regulations, no more immigration, no more Obamacare, no more expansion of Constitutional rights, no more new forms of gender and sexuality, no more having to worry about what pronouns to use. That is their job, after all, but it’s not a particularly sexy one. Our society has a prejudice toward those who build new things; demolition is not nearly as glorious a job. And thus need to anchor the conservative appeal to when America was great (as opposed to a strong affirmation of the ongoing “American experiment,” which is necessarily open-ended and exploratory).

Again, here’s where an understanding of the yin and yang of politics can be useful. We liberals can acknowledge that a shiny new program is usually tempting for us and that we need questions and opposition from the right to temper our optimism and shape better policy. Conservatives could recognize that their tendency to distrust the new can hinder the republic’s progress, that they need the questions and ideas of the left to move forward (not back into an all-too-imagined past). You need both an accelerator and a brake to drive a car.

So how would such a discussion move forward? Conservatives would need to address liberals’ questions seriously and not sneer at these concerns as silly or disingenuous or uselessly navel-gazing. What is good about patriarchy, or whiteness, or capitalism? What of these historical forces should we hold onto, and why? Are their advantages inextricably caught up in their disadvantages, or can they be separated? Are they worth the damage that they have caused? In spite of our idea of “progress,” there are always tradeoffs. The past wasn’t simpler; there were tradeoffs made (some good, some not so good). The same is true for the balance of stability and adaptability in our current institutions.

I’m in an interesting position here myself because I’m a political liberal who is personally invested in one our oldest, most stabilizing institutions: organized religion. I recognize that there’s an awful lot of bathwater here. I acknowledge that organized religion has been one of the most retrograde, violent, repressive, damaging forces in human history. And yet I still believe in the Baby. I believe in working from within rather than throwing the whole thing out. I believe that clearly seeing our past (both our collective sins and our collective glories) is vital to the process of living fully in the present and moving toward our future.

5 thoughts on “Continuity or Change: Conservatives, Liberals, and the Power of the Past

  1. Ahh…the fresh perspective a new morning brings…

    I must admit the notion that any potential comments I may have made in regard to one of your previous blogs would, in some small way, influence the impetus of your latest installment is rewarding. Thank you, sir! After now reading through your current blog post for the third time, I am prepared to make a few comments.

    First, that I suggested “conservatives prefer continuity and liberals favor change” is a very loose interpretation of what I actually wrote during our exchange on your Facebook post of February 19. That is not a statement I would make as it implies, incorrectly, that one side is resistant to any change at all. Looking back at the referenced comment thread on FB, I used the analogy of gradual gratification vs. immediate gratification with gratification referring to the attainment of common goals. Both sides really want the same things. The difference is how each goes about achieving those goals. One prefers the continuity of building upon the advancement and change that has occurred throughout our country’s existence. The other prefers faster change and advancement and uses the universally-acknowledged sins of the past to make that case. The answer, as almost always, lies somewhere in between.

    Second, I dislike the use of over-reaching labels in our society. I do not believe, despite a daily barrage of group-think that would have one believe otherwise, that there is a systemic discrimination problem in America. Does discrimination, in many forms, exist here? Yes, just as it does everywhere in the world. Is it right that discrimination should exist here or anywhere? No. But one would be hard-pressed to prove that it is more rampant today than anytime in the past. That’s because it is not. Many call that progress. Again, despite a daily barrage of group-think that would have one believe otherwise, we live in the most diverse and accepting country in the world. Even more today than yesterday – and we’re not going backwards. One would also be hard-pressed to disprove that fact.

    Finally, your closing paragraph struck me in three ways. First, your blog series is based on the subjects of politics and religion but never shall the two mix in a single post. Well, you did it this time and, frankly, I have no problem with that. Second, I’m not sure how one’s political beliefs should ever be in conflict with one’s religious beliefs. Despite our Constitution’s call for separation of church and state, the two will forever be inseparable to believers. Third, it is, for me, perhaps the most impactful paragraph of the post.

    As always, thank you for your passion and effort to lay out your argument in an effort to find common ground. I remain open to my mind being changed.

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  2. Wow, you reading my blog post for a third time is either evidence of your dedication or my poor writing! Or both? In either case, many thanks.

    Yep, I found the words “continuity” and “change” were the ones I gravitated toward, though you definitely find the “gradual gratification” vs “immediate gratification” distinction to be key. I didn’t run with that because the label doesn’t feel like it fits to me (at least on the liberal side), and one of the crucial rules I set for myself was to use terms that the political factions would accept for themselves. I have difficulty thinking that many liberals would consider themselves the party of immediate gratification. I do think that many conservatives wouldn’t have much problem with calling themselves the party of continuity (at least continuity with a particular past). My metaphor about the accelerator and the brake perhaps gets at something like what you’re saying, that there is a different preference in speed involved. Still I hope you found my tangential path interesting.

    And as is the case with many of the thoughts you express in our exchanges, I’m afraid that I’m going to have to give you an I.O.U. when it comes to the topic of discrimination in America. Much more on that to come (but not for awhile). I hope you’ll still be reading when I get there, brother.

    And yes, in spite of my best efforts to keep the religion and politics sides of my blog separate, they keep bleeding into each other, don’t they? That may be inevitable given that my blog essays are personal writings, not just theological/political. And of course separating church and state is something the American government is committed to doing; that doesn’t require individuals to do the same.

    Next time, back to religion…

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  3. I liked this one, although I get a little uncomfortable about any suggestion of equivalency, since Reagan, between liberals and conservatives. I’m not saying who the good guys are, but I don’t hesitate to say the modern Republican Party is evil.

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    1. I’m not disagreeing with you, but I avoid using words like “evil” because I’m trying to find ways for conservatives and liberals to move forward and work together. I do tend to use the word “conservative” a lot more than I use the word “Republican” because I want to make space for those who adhere to conservative principles but who don’t wholeheartedly embrace the party of Trump. George F. Will comes to mind as a long-standing conservative who has backed away from the Republican party (or vice versa?).

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