Is conscience dependable in politics?

June 16, 2011|By ALLAN POWELL

In 1960, Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Arizona, published "The Conscience Of A Conservative," in which he presented the groundwork for movement conservatism and the "Reagan Revolution." In 2007, Nobel Prize winner in economics Paul Krugman wrote "The Conscience Of A Liberal," which became a best seller. This sets the stage for a direct dialectical collision between two able, but ideologically opposite, thinkers.

In both cases, there is a well-defined claim that the political and economic agenda of each thinker is guided by that deeply intuitive guardian — the conscience. What has happened in the political life of our nation since Goldwater announced his conservative perspective? Does the liberal rebuttal proposed by Krugman provide an adequate option for America?

While it is true that the Republican Party has had a steady record of opposition to the policies introduced during the New Deal era, there were periods when stiff resistance was muted. This was the case during the Eisenhower administration. Krugman makes the observation that during the 1970s the GOP began a movement of "radicalization" that showed evidence of outright hostility to any thinking or proposals that had the slightest tincture of liberalism or progressivism.

While Krugman was making a moral case (dictated by conscience) for universal health care, the "radicalized" right wing of the GOP had a different surge of conscience. A Texas legislator asked, "Where did this idea come from that everybody deserves a free education? Free medical care? Free whatever? It comes from Moscow. From Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell." It appears that conscience works along party lines.

Krugman's major concern in his book is about the resurgence of rabid "politics of inequality" in which the dominant motivation is the procurement of favors for wealthy elites while staunchly doing battle against whatever is beneficial to America's middle class. This battle ranged from the repeal of unemployment insurance to huge cuts in Head Start. It takes a very inactive conscience to cripple a program that gives hope and skills to disadvantaged children.

President Franklin Roosevelt had these privileged elites in mind when he said, "We had to struggle with the enemies of peace, business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism (and) war profiteering. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred."

Moderate Republican President Eisenhower would be in shocked disbelief to see the political agenda of the present-day, "radicalized" Tea Party demonstrators. In a letter to his brother, Edgar, he wrote, "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws — you would not hear of that party again in our political history." Who could foresee such a change?

A look at the 2004 platform of the Republican Party in Texas anticipates the extremes of the Tea Party. Their platform wants to dismantle a large portion of the federal government. The following list is given only to show the range of their assault: the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the position of Surgeon General, the privatization of Social Security and the closure of several cabinet-level departments such as Labor.

To accomplish such an ambitious agenda will require huge sums of money to recruit a sizeable cadre of well-paid intellectuals to promote the gospel of social inequality. Several "think tanks" are funded by very-wealthy donors who have a vested interest in thwarting the advance of the demonic forces of liberalism and progressivism.

The American Enterprise Institute, The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute are well-known purveyors of the conservative ideology. Joseph Coors, Richard Mellon Scaife and the Koch family provide financial support. This is a formidable — and apparently successful — aggregate of talent and wealth.

This brief look at the ongoing contest of ideologies makes it evident that two very bright people who assert to be governed by the moral sense can arrive at two radically different politico-economic perspectives. While being fully aware of the thinking of Goldwater, Krugman avers that "I believe in a relatively equal society, supported by institutions that limit extremes of wealth and poverty. I believe in democracy, civil liberties, and the rule of law! That makes me a liberal and I am proud of it."

This would indicate that conscience — like our watches — run differently.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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