Rush Limbaugh, a well-known American radio talk-show host, is fond of saying that conservatism has succeeded wherever it has been tried. But since conservatism is rooted in a reluctance or outright unwillingness to change the existing order, can anyone truly argue this to be the case? After all, as human society progresses towards greater rights and protections for more and more people, conservatism has been characterized more by failures rather than successes.
The premise behind conservatism is simple. Conservatives prefer things to stay the way they are, believing the status quo to be better than any possible or potential system. In extreme cases, some “conservatives” even seek to revert to a previously existing order but, since reactionaries are not necessarily the same as conservatives, we’ll focus on conservatism and leave reactionism for another day.
Historically, conservativism has lost out because things do not stay the way they are. At every stage of human history, some people have looked forward to a better, fairer, and more inclusive world while conservatives have preferred to keep things the way they are. During the colonial period, conservatives wanted to preserve the status quo, i.e., British rule. In the 1860s, conservatives opposed the abolition of slavery. In the early part of the 20th Century, conservatives opposed giving women the right to vote. During the Great Depression, conservatives opposed the social programs of the New Deal. In the 1960s, conservatives opposed civil rights and equal rights legislation. And today, conservatives have come out against expanding federal hate crimes legislation.
Internationally, there is a similar pattern. In 1980s South Africa, conservatives were the most vocal supporters of Apartheid.
In every one of these cases, however, conservatives have lost. People have listened to their hearts and chosen progress over stagnation. Little by little, progressive ideas are being adopted by more and more people. How many people today can say that women shouldn’t have equality under the law or the right to vote? How many people today advocate the segregationst policy of “separate but equal“?
Certainly there are still many battles to be fought. At every step in human society’s advance towards a more just world, conservatives have popped up and argued for a halt to progress, warning mankind of the dire consequences of progressive ideas. Today, some people continue to openly make disparaging and dismissive remarks about Black people, women, and immigrants. Gay people are still denied many rights and benefits enjoyed by heterosexuals and ostracized by many religious groups. Poor people and minorities are over-represented on death rows across the country. In many places, it is becoming harder for a woman to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Millions of immigrants still languish in legal limbo, victimized many times over by ruthless coyotes, unscrupulous employers, domestic hate groups, and an overzealously punitive government policy of detentions and deportations.
But all in all, there is cause for optimism. Human society has never stayed stagnant and the status quo is always under challenge. Progress is inevitable. Today, abortion is illegal in only three European countries while the U.S. is the only industrialized country that enforces the death penalty and women in most countries have the right to go to school and vote.
As progressive ideas become more mainstream, conservatives are constantly being forced to back up, draw another line in the sand and say, “OK, but you’re definitely not crossing this one.” Thanks to progressives, today’s world is very different from what it was a hundred years ago. And much better too. How many of today’s people would rather live in the world as it was in the past? How many women would rather live in 1900? How many Black Americans would like to go back to 1850? Very few, I’d imagine because, thanks to progressive policies, the world today is a safer and fairer place, especially for women and minorities. Fifty years from now, gay and lesbian Americans might look back with horror and shame on a country in which most states barred them from getting married or having/raising children. If progressive policies win the day in the next half-century, how many gay Americans would prefer to live in today’s America, which denies them so much?
The fundamental irony about conservatism is that change is the only thing that remains constant in human society. Looking back on a human history characterized by progressive change, and with progressive ideas becoming more and more mainstream, how can conservatives honestly claim to be winning?
Full disclosure: In my late teens, I shared a workplace with some Limbaugh fans so I have listened to many, many hours of right-wing radio.