Home 2017 Races Isn’t It “Conservative” to Care About American Norms?

Isn’t It “Conservative” to Care About American Norms?


Before getting to the present piece, a word about a previous posting, i.e. the latest entry in my series, “A Better Human Story,” which appeared here recently.

It looks likely that the piece, titled “Understanding Evil,” escaped the notice of some readers who would otherwise have been interested: first, it was almost immediately buried by other postings; a second, as evidence that it may have been lost in the shuffle, got roughly 1/3 as many readers as previous entries in the series appearing here.

This piece may be one of the more important in the series, for two reasons. First, the question of how evil should be understood has puzzled people for millennia. And second, as I have argued publicly since 2005, it has been precisely the failure to recognize and understand evil that has been Liberal America’s lamentable contribution to the rise of that force on the right that has done so much damage to this nation, and indeed to the planet.

So for any interested readers, that piece can be found here.

Now, on to today’s article, which is the latest of my op/eds addressed to the conservative readership of the newspapers in my congressional district (VA-06),


As I’ve said here before, I am struggling to understand the conservative part of America’s electorate. I’m trying to square what I thought I knew about the conservatives with whom I had radio conversations back in the 1990s with what I’ve observed since.

Back in the 90s, my impression was that conservatives had a commitment to the basic values and norms of the system of government our founders gave us. Indeed, over the years, it has been the conservatives in America who have most vocally proclaimed their patriotic commitment to our political heritage.

But that doesn’t square with a lot I’ve seen in recent years, leading me to wonder:

Are the conservatives –whom I esteemed 20 years ago for their commitment to the norms of our democracy — unaware of how much the political force they’ve been supporting has trampled on those norms?

Voter ID Laws

For example, I would like to ask Republican voters about the voter ID laws their party has been passing in the states. “Would you approve of such laws, if you understood clearly that these laws do virtually nothing to prevent voter fraud, but have instead, as their main effect, preventing millions of American citizens from voting?”

Because it’s crystal clear that this is what those laws do.

Of course, there’s a reason for Republicans to like these laws: most of those who get disenfranchised by these laws don’t vote Republican – which is likewise crystal clear the reason Republican legislators have erected these barriers. And so these laws help their side win elections.

On the other hand, it is a basic American value that even those fellow citizens we disagree with have a right to vote. So these Voter ID laws – by rendering those millions voiceless — trample on that hallowed American notion, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, of “the consent of the governed.”

So, my puzzle: Have the voters who support these Republican laws been hoodwinked by the bogus talk of “voter fraud”—an almost non-existent problem that these laws don’t address anyway? Or have they willingly cast aside America’s democratic values to get their side more power?

Across-the-Board Obstructionism

Two other basic American values were abandoned by the Republicans in Congress when, throughout President Obama’s eight years in office, they did everything they could to prevent that Democratic President from accomplishing anything.

Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio articulated clearly the Republicans’ obstructive priority: “If he [Obama] was for it, we had to be against it.”

That violates our democratic ethos, first, by showing contempt for the will of the American people. Through our constitutional electoral process, the people had “hired” Mr. Obama to play an important role in our constitutional system. In making the President’s failure their top priority, the Republicans showed disrespect for both the people and the Constitution.

This reached its climax in 2016, when the Republicans in the Senate declared that they would not consider anyone whom the President might nominate to fill a Supreme Court vacancy. As a study of more than a hundred such situations from our history showed, never before had any Senate acted in this way to thwart the President from playing his constitutional role and exercising his rightful prerogative.

Again, for their violating the spirit of the Constitution (in this case, a grotesque distortion of the Senate’s role to “advise and consent”), the Republicans got rewarded with increased power. This theft gained “conservatives” a controlling majority of the Court.

From Republican supporters, no objections were heard. Does that mean these Republicans were reassured by the phony rationales offered by Senate Republicans? Or — as seems more likely, given how flimsy and ever-changing were those rationales — were rank and file Republicans willing to applaud a theft if it gained their side more power?

(“What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8:36)

Another way that across-the-board obstructionism clearly contradicts the intent of the founders is that it quite patently opposes what is supposed to be the purpose of our public servants: namely, to advance the good of the nation. After all, it was to advance the common good that our Constitution was fashioned.

When Republicans voted even against ideas that had previously been their own, they showed that their concern was not to do what they thought best for America, but what would gain them partisan advantage. (And no, this kind of obstructionism has not gone both ways: George W. Bush had some Democratic support for all his major accomplishments, and from the outset, the Democrats have declared emphatically their willingness to team up with President Trump on measures on which they agree.)

Creating gridlock just to make the President look bad inevitably means doing damage to the nation and its people.

But I never once heard Republican voters complain about that strategy. Did they always care more about defeating “the other side” than about the good of America? Or did they change?

Compromise as a Dirty Word

Polls have shown that the majority of Republican voters don’t want their leaders to compromise in order to get things done, whereas a majority of Democratic voters do favor compromise.

Refusal to compromise works fine– if one’s side has all the power necessary to accomplish one’s goals without any help from people who have different views. But the American system was set up so that, most of the time, getting things accomplished requires people to overcome their disagreements and find compromise solutions that serve the nation better than gridlock.

The necessity for compromise was one of the things we learned in basic American civics.

Given that basic understanding of what the American system requires, how did Republican voters come to think compromise a dirty word?

Even before the election of Donald Trump, there were worrisome signs that American conservatives, who once seemed a stronghold of allegiance to traditional American political norms, either forgot – or stopped caring — how the system our founders gave us is supposed to work.