Misguided Party-Switchers Choosing Backward Response

Today it is hard to find a politician in Alabama who does not claim to be a conservative. Claiming conservative values, many former members of the Democratic Party have switched to the Republican Party. The issue that concerns me is one that should concern all of us. That is: Why is conservatism attracting so many life-long Democrats?

Political scientists describe conservatism as a general state of mind that is adverse to change and innovation, and strives for balance and order, while avoiding extremes. Writing on the origins of conservatism, one scholar wrote: “Originally, as a reaction against The Age of Enlightenment …Conservatives advocated belief in faith over reason, tradition over free inquiry, hierarchy over equality, collective values over individualism, and divine or natural law over secular law.”

British statesman Edmund Burke formulated classic conservative thought in his publication of Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). The text, which was read throughout Europe, encouraged European rulers in their hostility toward the French Revolution.

Burke viewed society as an organic whole, with the individual performing various roles and functions. In his view of society, a natural elite…by virtue of birth, wealth, and education…is supposed to provide the leadership. Burke’s conservative society functioned around time-honored customs and traditions; gradual changes could be made, but only after gaining wide acceptance. He rejected the principles of equality, popular representation, and popular sovereignty. He also rejected the idea of universal franchise and the concept of majority rule.

In England, the Conservative Party that emerged after the mid-19th century remained attached to parliamentary and constitutional democracy. A gradual extension of the franchise, social legislation, and better cooperation between the rich and the poor all became part of the British conservative tradition.

On the continent of Europe, conservative movements and groups established themselves, but none evolved to become a conservative party in the model of the British. Continental conservatives opted for monarchies, (as in France from 1814 to 1848) or for authoritarian government (as with Bonapartism between 1799 and 1814 and between 1851 and 1870). Conservative movements in Italy and Germany gave their support to fascism and Nazism, in the years between 1920 and 1945. In Spain, the authoritarian conservative government of Francisco Franco existed until 1975.

Unlike England and the European continent, in America the main tenets of our political thought developed during the 19th century into a broad consensus that incorporated strong restraints on the government with economic individualism and constitutional democracy. In fact, American conservatism had little in common with the conservative doctrine of Edmund Burke. American conservatism, with principles of individual freedom and equality being paramount, was closer to liberalism. Consequently, the main characteristics of American conservatism emerged in the late 1800s as economic individualism, social Darwinism, and nationalism.

Economic individualism, allowed for free markets and celebrated individual wealth. Personal freedoms and property rights were identified with moral, religious, political, and civil rights. It assumed that individual effort and competition fueled growth, change and progress. In this view, wealth was evidence of an individual’s natural superiority, while poverty implied moral deficiency and lack of resourcefulness.

Social Darwinism took Darwin’s theory of “Survival of the fittest” from nature and applied it to society. Competition for goods, services, wealth, and power was considered natural and necessary—those that succeed were the fittest. Social Darwinism was used to justify distinctions between races and among nations, some were deemed superior and others inferior.

Nationalism is a strong tenet in conservative ideology. America’s 19th century claim of “manifest destiny” to protect and educate the “lesser” people of the world appealed to many conservative intellectual and political leaders. During this time Conservatives tended to favor a colonial policy for the United States.

In response to the Great Depression of the 1930s and New Deal legislation formulated by the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American conservative movement defined itself. During this era of Democratic Party dominance, conservatives continued to insist on a return to the free-market economy and reducing the size of the Federal government and its bureaucracy. Conservative doctrine slowly made important inroads in both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Gradually the liberal coalition established around the New Deal welfare policy begin to breakdown. In 1980, opposition to high taxes, government controls, and Federal spending, combined with renewed support for religious and national values, catapulted Ronald Reagan into the presidency and as one might say “the rest is history.”

Clearly, the history of conservative governments in Europe doesn’t reflect the type of government I think most Americans want governing their lives. I fear that many former Democrats are misguided. Their current love affair with the Republican party…embracing the tenets conservatism…is a backward response, turning away from the challenges of creating a modern multicultural government to govern our citizens.

Originally Published: 18 February 1997, Montgomery Advertiser
© Copyright – 1997 – Major W. Cox and Montgomery Advertiser.

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