Since the recent elections, there is a lot of soul-searching among the conservative politicians about what went wrong. Why didn’t at least 51% of the voters go along with their agenda? What can they do to reverse what appears to be a trend against conservative leadership?
Maybe they should look to history for their answers.
Historically, the American conservative movement dates back to the Salem Witch Trials, which were conducted by conservative leaders of that time and place who feared that witches were taking possession of young girls in Salem, Massachusetts.
By the time our founding fathers were preparing to fight for our independence from England, a strong conservative movement led by church leaders opposed all talk of revolution. Conservative leaders strongly advocated obedience to the Crown, and steadfastly refused to join the revolution. In fact, when the founders met in Philadelphia in 1776 to sign the Declaration of Independence, there was not a single church leader among them. There were planters, lawyers, soldiers, bankers, surveyors, farmers, ship captains, artisans, and all manner of merchants – but not one religious leader was willing to ink his name to the document.
Conservatives warned that it was unnatural to rebel against our Sovereign Lord, King George III, and that doing so would plunge the colonies into disorder. They assured us, as the father of conservatism, Edmund Burke echoed, that social stability would come from the small group of wealthy aristocrats ruling over the poor majority. Conservatives reiterated that it was the duty of the poor to obey their “betters.” Their reward, after all, would come in Heaven.
A few years later, when President Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, the conservatives went berserk. Jefferson had no constitutional right to make such a deal, and the hefty price would bankrupt our government, they claimed.
Then, in the 1840s, when President Andrew Jackson fought vigorously against the Central Bank, conservatives stood solidly against his efforts to free the government from that expensive and parasitic early model of the Federal Reserve Bank.
Conservatives divided by 1860, and went to war against one another. Conservatives in the South wanted to keep their “peculiar institution” of slavery, while religious conservatives in the north were unwilling to compromise and prepared to go to war over the issue. Moderates on both sides were drowned out in the conservative gridlock which made that horrific war inevitable.
After the war, as commerce began to expand westward, conservatives opposed regulating business in any way, fighting to prevent laws which outlawed child labor, made working conditions safer, and required foods and medicines to be pure and safe for consumption. They fought to stop the government from breaking up business monopolies which were damaging to our economy and causing massive poverty and hardship across the country. They fought to keep the government from regulating railroads, banking, and all forms of manufacturing. They openly supported the use of armed troops to attack and even kill workers who went on strike.
As women began to organize themselves to obtain suffrage – the right to vote – the conservatives came out solidly against them, essentially telling them they needed to get back in the kitchen and bake cookies, and leave the politics to men, who were better qualified.
Conservative ministers preached that electricity was the work of the devil. They said automobiles were the work of the devil. Then it was airplanes. Then radios and phonographs. Then it was the movies and music. As each new technological advance made its’ debut, there were conservative preachers there to explain why this was just more of Satan’s work.
It was during this era that conservatives succeeded in one of their only pro-active efforts: The 18th Amendment, which established prohibition. Conservatives during this era also strongly opposed the waves of immigration from southern and eastern Europe – an immigration from which 40% of present-day America is now descended. It was also during this time that there was a resurgence of conservative thought which swelled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan and other right-wing groups.
When the Great Depression hit, the conservatives didn’t want the government to get involved in “bailing out” people and places hit hardest by the disaster. They opposed President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” projects, like the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and other programs to provide jobs. They called him a Socialist. Leading conservatives like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh sang the praises of the miracles being wrought in Europe by leaders like Hitler and Mussolini, and encouraged America to take a similar path.
The conservatives hated FDR, and particularly they hated the Social Security Act. They opposed many progressive causes of the time, including: The minimum wage, time-and-a-half for overtime, the 40 hour work week, and the banning of child labor.
Even after Hitler invaded France and went to war with Great Britain, conservatives would not authorize our government to provide assistance to England, insisting on strict neutrality. They fought tooth and nail to prevent the lend-lease program which certainly saved Great Britain from becoming a German province. They only relented after Pearl Harbor.
After the war ended, conservatives fueled the Cold War for 40 years by insisting on a constant buildup of nuclear weapons and a continuous string of proxy-wars around the globe. During this time, conservative administrations set up and supported dictatorships in Chile, Argentina, Iran, Iraq, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cuba, and dozens of other countries. These were not regimes in which the citizens had a voice – they were fascist dictatorships, supported by the United States.
During the 1960s, conservatives favored drafting 18 year-olds and sending them off to die, but didn’t want them to have the right to vote. They fought hard to stop President Lyndon Johnson from signing bills that would create public housing, Medicaid, food stamps, integration of schools, affirmative action, voting rights, and other civil rights causes.
In the 1970s conservatives worked hard to stem the tide of environmental regulations. They fought a running battle against “tree huggers” to keep our air and water foul and polluted by plants which spewed toxic poisons, and by pesticides which were proven to cause birth defects.
By 1980, conservatives were making a comeback with Ronald Reagan riding at the front of their attack on all things progressive. For the entire decade, unions were increasingly marginalized and government regulations on business were done away with. They won their greatest victory during this era when the Cold War ended, ushering in a time of economic prosperity.
It was during the Reagan revolution that religious leaders became increasingly prominent among the conservative leadership. The longstanding conservative hatred of gay people was a natural outgrowth of the “Moral Majority” which constituted the first conservative Tea Party.
Conservatives have recently championed causes that most Americans oppose: Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Tax cuts for the rich; Blank check appropriations to Israel; and privatizing of Social Security. They have opposed things that most Americans want, including affordable health care, increases in the minimum wage, stem cell research, and ending the wars we are fighting.
Time after time, conservatives have found themselves on the wrong side of history. They have vigorously opposed nearly every positive step as our American civilization has advanced. Yet, as P. T. Barnum might have said, a new conservative is born every minute.
If you hate Mexicans, queers, and blacks; If you believe that the rapture will occur soon; If you believe that life is sacred but favor the death penalty; then there is no other option for you.
The pendulum will swing conservative again, and at some point in the nebulous future we will see them marching off to Washington to once more stand solidly against all progress while pounding their Bibles and screwing their secretaries. Or vice versa.