by Tim Hickey, who was the Democratic Candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates in the 59th District in 2019
This weekend, the 5th District Virginia Republicans ousted their Trump-endorsed, Falwell-endorsed, incumbent Congressperson Denver Riggleman because…believe it or not, they think he’s not “conservative” enough. Riggleman had officiated a same-sex wedding. So that was it. They set up a chaotic convention at a church in a far corner of the District and booted their incumbent.
In Riggleman’s place, they nominated Bob Good, a poorly funded candidate with little name recognition, who didn’t even turn his election paperwork in on time and will now have to ask the Department of Elections to excuse his incompetence. And why? Because they wanted someone more “conservative.” But to be honest, “conservative” just doesn’t sound accurate to me anymore. The word literally no longer describes a party that has gone off the deep end.
Republican politicians like Bob Good embrace an extremist brand of politics that frequently cheers government overreach and intrusions into our lives. Perhaps we should consider more accurate alternatives: radical right, extremist Republican, Trumpist. One friend recently joked on social media, “R-Gilead.” But seriously, are these phrases not simply more accurate than “conservative?” Labels and branding matter in politics, so perhaps we could choose our words more carefully.
Consider all of the ways that many of us as progressives stand up for individual liberty and freedom against state intrusion. That is, consider all the ways that we take a truly conservative view on the role of government.
We want the state out of reproductive health decisions. A pro-choice position is not about morality, it’s about autonomy and whether a woman or a government ought to make the decision to terminate a pregnancy. As a progressive, I want the state out of the way. And yet Republicans push targeted restrictions on abortion providers (TRAP laws), transvaginal ultrasounds, abortion bans, mandatory ultrasounds and waiting periods, and countless other government intrusions into the lives of women.
We progressives want the government to get out of the business of killing people. Just a few months ago, the state of Alabama executed a man named Nathaniel Woods, even though he did not pull the trigger and even though two jurors voted to spare his life. I followed the last-minute appeals and denials with deep sadness and disgust. It was horrific government overreach. The death penalty has no possible justification other than revenge. But justice in a responsible society is never grounded in revenge. It is grounded in fairness, specific and general deterrence of criminal behavior, rehabilitation, and responsible expenditure of taxpayer money. The death penalty is applied in a racist way; it does not deter crime, it certainly abandons any notion of rehabilitation, and it’s expensive. Yet so-called “limited government” politicians push it all the time, always appealing to anger and emotion to somehow justify this as an “exception” to “principles.” Nope. The core principle of the death penalty is government sanctioned revenge killing. That is in no way a “conservative” principle.
We progressives want the government to refrain from pushing religion on us. The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a religion and erects a wall of separation between religious faith and government. Now that’s a wall we should all support (unlike racist, archaic, expensive border walls, which are actually excellent examples of government waste). Those who claim to be champions of “religious liberty” would, of course, never champion Muslim bans. Those who cherish the Constitution would know that the word “God” doesn’t appear in the document, and with good reason. The wall of separation not only protects government from religion, it protects religion from government. But self-proclaimed “conservatives” are taking a wrecking ball to First Amendment liberties.
We progressives want government to stop infringing on voting rights. Consider no-excuse early voting. People who have jobs or are taking care of loved ones, have unreliable transportation, or are just plain busy should not be prohibited from voting early at their convenience. And yet Virginia up until now has forced voters to vote on Election Day unless they swear that they have some excuse the government deems justifiable. Talk about a paternalistic nanny state. Voters trying to participate in democracy are not children asking for a signature on a permission slip. Thankfully, in Virginia we are finally on our way to eliminating that ridiculous government limitation on our lives.
We progressives want government to legalize marijuana. Most Americans support treating it similarly to substances like alcohol or tobacco, with individuals left to make their own decisions about whether to partake. Arbitrary marijuana laws wreak havoc on people’s lives and are enforced inequitably. They are an utter waste of our taxpayer money. They are quintessentially big-government restrictions pushed by people who claim to be “small government conservatives.” Please.
We progressives want government out of people’s bedrooms. If two men or two women want to get married, then no government should stand between them. Those who advocate for “family values” should embrace people who are literally trying to get married and form a family. Certainly, those who truly champion “limited government” would passionately push back against state efforts to stop this family from growing by adopting children. But Virginia 5th District Republicans want to use government power to infringe on the constitutional rights of LGBTQ Americans.
The list goes on. We progressives value protections against unreasonable government searches and seizures of our person and property. We champion due process. We oppose barriers to investments in renewable energies. We do not want the state to waste our taxpayer money and we bristle at grifter politicians. We value good government, which is quite often less government. We are champions of the Constitution and individual liberty.
To be sure, good government does sometimes mean more government. For instance, we progressives champion common sense gun violence prevention laws, because the right to bear arms must cede to the unalienable rights of all humans as stated in the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Supreme Court agrees, by the way (see the Heller decision written by Justice Scalia, which protects an individual right to bear arms but also outlines constitutional limits).
We progressives also champion universal healthcare, because we believe that nobody should be forced to forego basic care or go bankrupt due to medical bills. We favor environmental regulations that allow us to live healthy lives on a healthy planet. We support a fully funded Center for Disease Control (CDC) to protect our communities and provide scientific support and advice to our elected officials. So yes, sometimes good government means more government or living with tailored restrictions on our freedom. People shouldn’t be running around with bazookas. People should have basic health care. Companies shouldn’t be dumping toxic chemicals in streams. Folks should be able to rely on the CDC to help protect us during a pandemic.
But please, let’s stop using words like “conservative” to describe politicians and positions that are in fact the opposite of conservative. The reality is, Republicans are frequently loud champions of government overreach, intrusive laws, and extremist politicians. It’s time our vocabulary catches up with this reality.