There also doesn’t seem to be anything that you can describe as a conservative taste. There isn’t any art form or cultural sphere in particular that attracts or repels them as a group. You find conservatives who like modern art or avant garde theatre, or exotic food. They aren’t any more prejudiced against different races or genders. They are just as tolerant of minorities.
Nonetheless, they do seem to have some characteristics that mark them out.
First a couple of observations. On a personal level I have noticed that my conservative friends have a greater inclination towards getting divorced. I don’t judge them on this. If a relationship isn’t working there’s no disgrace in bringing it to an end. But I have wondered about the difference. Something I hadn’t noticed until an academic paper brought it to my attention is that they tend to have a narrower range of interests. So although you can’t say, for example, that there are particular types of music that appeal to conservatives they tend to like fewer types of music. As I say, it’s not a very noticeable trait. But once you are primed for it you notice it.
But harping on the small differences really only shows that conservatives are really very much like the rest of us in just about every way that counts. And yet there is one really jarring difference that calls out for an explanation. When it comes to politics, conservatives almost always make the wrong call. If there is an inappropriate policy response available or a demonstrably false opinion to be held, these guys almost always manage to grab it and run with it. Often for long after it is obviously mistaken.
Being wrong is pretty much the defining feature of conservative politics. This isn’t because their goal is unrealistic or even undesirable. Keeping things much the same as they are, personal responsibility and respect for individual rights are all fine things. And there is nothing about them that you would expect to cloud one’s judgement. So conservative politicians ought to be just as competent and effective as any other kind. What is going wrong?
Non-conservatives will be eager to get to the end of the article to hear my opinion on what is going wrong. But I should just briefly justify the assertion that conservatives are always wrong. It is obviously the case to me, and to most people. But I should allow for the possibility that a conservative is actually reading this post. They will no doubt be aware that their representatives’ track record is not exactly glowing. But they might not realise quite the extent of just how bad it is.
To take just the postwar period. Conservatives dragged their feet over rights for coloured people. They were positively antagonistic to those of gay people. In the UK they opposed the National Health service – in the US they were instrumental in making it one of the few developed countries without a comprehensive health system. They have generally supported what is known as austerity. In plain english they have squeezed public spending leading to low growth and much unecessary suffering. They haven’t even obtained the rather poor compensation of balancing the government’s books. They have cut taxes for the rich making reliance on borrowing heavy with the inevitable payment of interest to creditors. They have been skeptical of international co-operation, notably in the form of Brexit but also with continual undermining of the United Nations and other similar forums for international co-operation.
Trump has recently cast doubt on the future of the World Trade Organisation and defunded the World Health Organisation as an encore. Aside from elected conservatives, individual conservatives have fallen for transparently concocted vaccine scares. They often don’t believe in global climate change and some have even suspected that the whole coronavirus outbreak was some kind of plot. Basically, they get everything wrong.
So what exactly is the problem these guys have? I think it is not so much that there is a fault with conservatives as such. It is more that being conservative is a consequence of a habit of thought. I think it is down to having a short time horizon. If you think short term you reach different conclusions to if you think long term.
In a sense the time horizon you choose to apply is a value judgment. If you feel that the future is unknowable you might well decide to live for the moment. If you’ve gone through such a thought process and reached that conclusion, well it’s your life. But you can’t complain about other people’s choices if you do. And if there is one defining feature of conservatives that is widely applicable it is complaining about other people’s choices. Most of us avoid discussing politics with conservatives because they often do nothing other than deride other viewpoints.
But that isn’t really an excuse. If you don’t concentrate hard enough on a maths question you don’t get the right answer. If you don’t think through the implications of a social policy, it might not be so black and white but you still get it wrong. And it is still wrong even if it takes a while for this to become obvious. A good example of this was the policy of the Thatcher government to sell off social housing at a discount in the eighties. This was an extremely popular policy at the time with the people who got to buy the houses cheaply. Everyone loves free stuff. The obvious objection was that once the houses were sold off there would be none avialable for the less well off to live in in the future. It has taken a generation to get to the point where this particular bit of not thinking ahead has come home to roost for the Conservative Party electorally. They are now finding young people have become very resistant to their charms. But that isn’t really the point. Selling off social housing has meant that a lot of people who might otherwise have lived happy and productive lives have instead lived miserable precarious ones. You might be able to justify this on the basis of the greater good of the greater number of people. The benefits of home ownership are not to be sniffed at, and the sale of social housing at a discount means more people have had that experience. But conservatives never think through the trade off. If they did they’d also be in favour of better protections for the rights of tenants and increasing taxation on the profits from house sales and inheritance to fund further help for other people to move into property ownership. As we all know they do no such thing. If anything they do the opposite.
That is just one example and a very typical one. If there is a short term easy option going conservatives will likely go for it. Much of the art of being a conservative politician is confirming your supporters assumption that they don’t need to do anything difficult. The formula is roughly here’s a problem. Here’s a simple solution. The only thing stopping us is the shortcomings of this group that is blocking us. So for example crime is rising. A lot of crime is done by immigrants. Let’s stop immigrants coming here. Oh we can’t do that because left wingers won’t let us.
It sounds very comforting. Everything is somebody else’s fault. But it doesn’t do anything about solving the problem. Indeed it is so comforting some conservatives seem to prefer keeping the problem to solving it. Crime is actually in long term decline. Most conservatives don’t realise this and certainly don’t look for the reasons why society as a whole is getting more law abiding. The idea of looking at what kind of environment has low crime rates and trying to create those environments on a more widespread basis is about as un-conservative thing to do as I can think of.
The common thread is not thinking ahead. It isn’t actually the ideas that are wrong. As a floating voter my attitude is that sometimes you need a hot drink, and other times a cold one is just the ticket. There are times when left wing approaches are required, and others where consolidation and stability serve better. The trouble with conservatives if they don’t boil the kettle or put the milk in the fridge.