Why conservatives are always WRONG
Keeping perspective for perplexed progressives
By Jefferson Smith
Suppose you had a friend you had known for many years, one who was very opinionated, who always seemed absolutely certain about everything, and yet who was always turning out to be wrong. He got you to buy stock in Enron and swore it would just keep on rising. He bet on the Yankees to sweep the Red Sox in ’04. He said mobile phones were just a fad, and before long people would give them up and go back to sending telegrams.
Would you trust this person’s powers of analysis? Would you continue putting any faith in his predictions?
“Conservatives,” or those who call themselves this nowadays, have an equally good and much longer record of faulty analysis and wrong prediction. In order to exist as a viable movement, they depend on everyone forgetting that they’re basically always wrong.
Unfortunately, progressives and liberals have obliged. They seem to have forgotten who they’re actually dealing with. I’m not the first to point out that conservatives are always wrong – on any longer view, it’s hard to miss – but after years of observing the dispirited moderate left and the hapless, helpless leadership of the Democratic Party, I thought it was about time for a few reminders. If we step back from the issues that preoccupy us at the moment, it’s easier both to see that conservatism has consistently been failing and to examine the deeper reasons why. There are flaws in conservative positions that eventually cause them to collapse, and those same flaws are at work today. It’s true that one side in America’s great political debates is playing a very weak hand. Fortunately, that side isn’t ours.
If they recognized this, if they remembered how reliably the conservative cause has come to grief in the past, I think my fellow progressives would be in much better spirits. I hope the analysis I’m offering here will not only brighten their mood, but suggest some specific arguments and approaches they might find useful once they figure out that they’re already winning – and have been for a very long time.
In a few cases the conservative error was so clownish that it passed into legend and therefore hasn’t been forgotten. The old belief that the sun and everything else in the universe went around the earth, for instance, wasn’t merely what people assumed when they looked at the sky; it was a carefully structured system of doctrine with a great deal of ancient authority behind it, including Aristotle, the Bible, and an elaborate theology that put human beings and human history at the center of the cosmos.
By the 16th and early 17th centuries, though, evidence was mounting rapidly that this doctrine was wrong. It didn’t fully explain the movements of the planets or the things people saw when they began looking through telescopes. So scientists like Galileo looked for new explanations. Based on the data, they said, it seemed that the earth actually goes around the sun.
Because other examples are less well-remembered than Galileo’s, it’s easy to see his as an isolated case and to imagine that progress is usually widely applauded. In fact, though, virtually every development of the last few hundred years that increased knowledge, improved society or made people’s lives better was met in its time with furious conservative resistance. If we scratch the historical surface just a bit, we can see how wretched a record conservatism has actually been compiling since the dawn of modern times:
- In the 16th century, medical pioneers set out to chart the workings of the human body. Where the old doctrines relied on sacred symbols and mystical “spirits” and “humours,” the new science mapped internal organs, watched blood circulate and began to uncover the physical causes of disease. These first steps toward modern medicine filled conservatives with horror, and they tried hard to bring the whole enterprise to a stop. They opposed the use of autopsies to learn how the body worked. They insisted that disease was caused by Satan’s influence, epidemics by collective sin, and mental illness by demonic possession. And even as the scientific facts were becoming known, later conservatives kept up the fight against further new developments, like vaccines and anesthetics – which, they said, violated “nature” and usurped God’s right to decide who should suffer and die.
- In the 17th century, while Galileo was fighting his battles, other debates were getting underway over the sources of government power – whether it lay within families and was rightly conferred by birth, or whether it rose from the people and should rest on the consent of the governed. Against proposals for electing rulers and other novel “democratical” ideas, conservative opinion came down firmly on the side of aristocratic privilege and the so-called divine right of kings.
- In the 18th century, movements developed with the aim of reforming the system of criminal justice. Liberal thinkers argued for speedy and public trials, rejected the “cruel and unusual” in favor of penalties that fit the crimes, and supported modest efforts to see that even prisoners were treated humanely. Why did these arguments need to be made? Because at a time when dozens of minor offenses carried the death sentence, when political and religious dissent was criminalized and when legal penalties included literally cutting people to bits, conservatives thought the laws were, if anything, too soft.
- In the 19th century, women were still unable to vote, own property or practice professions. When reformers called for giving them these rights, conservatives invoked both nature and the Bible to prove that women were created subservient to men, belonged in the home, and didn’t need to participate in public decision-making because men knew their interests better than women themselves did.
- In the 20th century, another movement declared that people should be treated equally regardless of race. Progressive reformers like Martin Luther King Jr. called on America to live up to its founding promise, and to honor Scripture’s true meaning, by guaranteeing civil rights for all. Conservatives – including some still alive today – replied that King was distorting both the Constitution, which left it up to each state to decide how racist to be, and the Bible, which licensed white supremacy based on some tale of an ancient curse. Defiantly standing in the schoolhouse door (literally and figuratively), conservatives darkly warned that “unnatural” mixing of the races would lead to all manner of social evils.