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No, Conservatives Aren’t Always On The Wrong Side Of History


If you’re interested in reading one of the silliest trolls in recent memory, head over to Michael Tomasky’s column at The Daily Beast to learn how conservatives are entrenched on the wrong side of history. No, not only recently, and not only when they were wrong about Nelson Mandela in the 1980s, but going all the way back to the founding of the republic – and, who knows, maybe even to the reign of Ramses II.

Do you support the American Revolution? I should hope so. You would not have, however, had you been a conservative in 1785. American Loyalists, perhaps 20 percent of the white population of the day, were devoted to king and crown for mostly the usual reasons: They were older, better established, had more money, were scared of change.

(Indeed, a revolution led by the American gentry hit all the touchstones of the modern American Left: lower taxes, muskets, individual liberty and unfettered economic activity.)

How about the abolition of slavery? I reckon you’re on board with that. Well, Lord knows you wouldn’t have been if you’d been among the 1860 conservatives who started a war over it (and whose apologists today insist the Civil War was not about slavery).

In terms of domestic politics, few polemical tasks are easier than demonstrating how wrong conservatism has been about pretty much everything in all of American history. Eradication of child labor? Why, an imposition on business owners to run their factories as they saw fit, you socialist! Giving women the right to vote? Women?! They simply don’t possess the logical faculties to be entrusted with such a responsibility, and anyway where will it end—I suppose you’ll be suggesting that black people get the franchise next? Segregation. Miscegenation laws. Immigration. Civil rights. The environmental movement. Conservatism’s record: wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong.

It is true that few polemical tasks are easier than brewing some historical tropes. Here, let’s give it a shot:

Do you oppose fascism? I should hope so. You would not, however, had you been a liberal in 1920s when the American Left was busy praising this new ideology of coercion and statism emerging in Europe.

Do you oppose communism? I should hope so. But you would not have, however, had you been a liberal in 1920s and 1930s. You would be celebrating the oppressive regimes that were murdering tens of millions of people in the name of “progress.”

Do you oppose needless war and bloodshed? I should hope so. But you would not, however, had you been a liberal in early 20th century, as you would probably have voted for a bitterly racist president who embroiled America in the one the most illogical, consequential and bloodiest conflicts in mankind’s history.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, and so on.

It certainly can get confusing. Does the racism of the early progressive movement count? How about the nihilism of the 60s Malthusian? Remember the America Firsters! Forget Japanese internment camps. It must take a selective memory to always — “always” — find yourself on the right side of history.

Now, it would take considerable effort to untangle the muddled revisionism of Tomasky’s piece. For starters, it rests on the idea that this nation’s philosophical divisions have remained static for hundreds of years. But let’s just take the inane insinuation that conservatives would support slavery if only they had an opportunity. It was the flourishing of classical liberalism that helped bring about the end of slavery around the world – for starters. And these days ‘liberals’ like Adam Smith, John Locke and Frederic Bastiat are read and praised by libertarians (“kookoos” who peddle, according to Tomasky, an “overrated” intellectual consistency) and many conservatives, but rarely by the modern Left. William Wilberforce is a hero to the Evangelical Right not the secular Left. In America, the kinds of people Tomasky might refer to as theocrats were the moral center of the abolitionist movement, not to mention its most relentless crusaders.  Today, it’s the American Right that concerns itself most often with the egregious attacks on liberal ideals in autocratic states across the Muslim world. For all its faults, and there are many, the Right was on the right side of history for two of the biggest issues of the second half of the 20th century: the morality of capitalism and depravity of communism.

The main problem, though, with Tomasky’s piece is that it conflates “conservative” ideology and disposition. Indeed, “conservatives,” if we define them as folks who are antagonistic to any change at any time for any reason, will find themselves eternally on the wrong side of history.

Let’s give it a shot: Union-run public school systems are dependably failing most of our children. Why have conservatives like Michael Tomasky supported these archaic institutions that destroy the future of our children?

Then again, even if we accept conservatism and liberalism as Tomasky characterizes them, they still have a nuanced role in a healthy society, as they create a tension between traditionalist and progressives views that allows us to move, rather than lurch, forward. Even if they are always “wrong,” there are often serving a purpose.

As Jim Antle recently wrote, on conservatism and the complexity of history:

Conservatism at its best has an appreciation for human nature, including a realistic assessment of man’s inhumanity to man. That means attempting to conform to a just moral order while realizing that history isn’t always a simple morality tale.

But while Tomasky’s understanding of conservatism is misleading, his definition of liberalism is just humorous: liberals are people, he explains, “who weren’t happy with things the way they were and saw they had to change, and who have been on the side of personal liberation and de-concentration of political power. Those people are virtually by definition liberals and reformers and radicals.”

(Good to know those of you advocating for reforming Social Security, Medicare and abortion laws will find ourselves on the right side of history.)

How about today? Modern liberalism champions concentrating political power on almost every front. Where, outside of gay marriage and abortion (an issue that an honest observer would concedes is about when life should be worthy of protection), does the Left support the de-concentration of power or liberation of the individual? Progressivism champions direct democracy, the centralization of federal power, national health care policy, national education policy, national banking policy, national everything policy. Nudging. Coercing. Mandating. Radical, indeed.

To skate around substantive debate, folks like Joan Walsh have honed an uncanny ability to bore into souls of millions of Americans to find latent racial animosities. But Tomasky does her one better, arguing that the genetic code of conservatism is wrong — not sometimes, but “always” — preemptively rendering all positions from the Right unworthy of discussion. That kind of position tells us a lot more about his intellectual honesty than anything else.

Follow David Harsanyi on Twitter.