In our modern politics, the labels of each side are pretty well understood. Liberals are those who want to move the culture and government towards something new, and change the world. Conservatives are those who want to keep things the way they are, and even move back towards a more traditional culture. William F. Buckley summed this view up by saying that conservatism is “standing atwart history, yelling ‘stop.’” The root of the word “conservatism,” of course, is “conserve,” and that is how most conservatives see their movement’s goal—to conserve the past.
That’s a bad goal, and one conservatives should move away from. In order to have a really conservative society, it will be necessary to attain at least the same amount of societal change that liberals try to achieve. “Conservatism” should be about conserving—its goal should be to try to incite an entire cultural revolution.
Conservatives spend a great deal of time wishing for the “old days,” and bemoaning change. (Or “yelling stop,” if you will). But they rarely consider precisely what decade they would choose if given the choice. The fifties? The period of McCarthyism, Jim Crow, and the beginning of the welfare state? Or the thirties, during the New Deal? Maybe the twenties, during Prohibition (an incredibly intrusive act of government) and the beginnings of the collapse of the traditional family, or the teens, where the federal government was passing constitutional amendments giving it increasingly broad powers?
Conservatives are over-affected by nostalgia, and nostalgia is all to often unsupported by fact. The past wasn’t really all that great, and it’s hard to imagine a point where yelling “stop” would have been worthwhile.
In fact, throughout the past century of American history, there has been one dominant theme: liberalism has advanced while conservatism has retreated. (Actually, that holds true for most of American history). Given that that is the case, why should conservatives feel nostalgic for the past?
Right now, abortion is recognized by most people as a legal right, if not a moral one. Aside from pro-lifers, there aren’t many who want to change the status quo. The welfare state, too, is now part of American government, and has been for some time. Most Americans literally can’t imagine changing Social Security or Medicare in any meaningful way. And Americans have gotten used to high levels of government spending—any attempt to slash the federal budget would be met with stunned disbelief by the American people.
From a conservative point of view, all these things are unsustainable, and must be reversed. But they won’t be reversed by calling on the traditions of the past. It was the past that got us to where we are today. Trying to return to some past utopia is pointless.
Rather, conservatives must attempt to totally remake society in a conservative image, moving on from America’s liberal premises. (Not that all of the premises that shape American culture are liberal, but many are). It is conservatives who are (or should be) the true radicals in today’s culture—their mission should be to wholly change the American landscape.
This will necessarily be a difficult challenge, maybe an impossible one. Social revolutions are hard to pull off. American liberals tried during the sixties, and succeeded in pushing through some legislative successes and pushing American culture to the left, but they failed in their larger goal of creating a really liberal society.
Conservatives have had their share of victories as well. But they want anything more, and want to really make America into a conservative nation, they will have to overcome their fascination for a past that never existed and try to claim the future of America.