Despite the fact that there have been many brilliant thinkers through the centuries who called themselves conservatives, it does seem that, when we look at things through the rearview mirror of American history, it is conservatives who are left stuck in the mud.
Today’s conservatives may call themselves tea partiers, but the original bunch that tossed boxes of tea over the side of British ships was a gaggle of radicals, not conservatives. In 1776, it was conservative people who thought the Declaration of Independence was a traitorous document. Their loyalties lay with British tradition and the king in London.
Throughout the long debate over slavery, abolitionists were condemned as radicals. Even a moderate like Abraham Lincoln was too extreme for the conservatives of his day. They bought into all kinds of excuses for why slavery should be left alone – that it was Biblical, that it would wither away on its own or that the property rights of slaveholders should not be infringed.
In the Gilded Age, when robber barons ruled the economy and workers toiled for long hours at dangerous jobs for meager wages, it was the conservatives who opposed the minimum wage, the 40-hour work week and the eight-hour day. They opposed the right of workers to organize. They opposed Teddy Roosevelt’s conservation plans and his regulation of rapacious industrialists.
And on into the 20th century, it was conservatives who fought against the franchise for women, Social Security, Medicare and racial integration. More recently, they have stood in the way of gay rights and universal health care. Even when they had the right idea – opposing Communism – they were prone to dangerous excess – McCarthyism.
To be fair, the best conservative intellectuals and political leaders have provided a useful tempering of the enthusiasms of liberal social engineers. But on so many of the biggest challenges that have faced the nation, the conservatives of each era have ended up on the wrong side of history.
You would think that might make them a bit more humble and introspective, but turn on conservative talk radio any day of the week and you will not hear a whisper of doubt.