What Is It That Conservatives Are Trying to Conserve?

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Image by Stafford GREEN from Pixabay

Of all the questions I see the people I follow on Twitter asking, one rises to the top as being the most frequent. I realize this is a function of me following lots of liberal atheists. I try to steer clear of those who are dogmatic in their political views, but some get in the mix. I also realize that this question is rhetorical. Still, I cannot resist using this post to suggest one possible answer to it. The question is this:

What is it that conservatives are trying to conserve?

This question is often posed when a prominent conservative has been in the news for saying something appalling. The implication is clear. Whatever conservatives are seeking to conserve doesn't seem to involve human decency. I will expand on this below, but the essence of what conservatives want to conserve can be conveyed with one word: tradition.

Conserving Christian Privilege

As long as we are talking about social conservatism, the kind of tradition sought includes Christianity. In the United States, this is an easy task. Christianity pervades the culture and enjoys an astounding degree of privilege. People still equate it with positive morality. After all, "family values" are synonymous with Christian values. But it goes far behind that. Christianity is also a crucial part of how they define what it means to be an American.

Christian privilege is the centerpiece here. They perceive that this is threatened by religious pluralism as well as secularism. White privilege is also relevant, as it too is threatened by multiculturalism and humanism. This is about the fear of losing their power and identity by losing valued traditions and their place in the world. Consider the "war on Christmas" and the recurrent battles over White Jesus. These skirmishes are about trying to hang on to power and conserve childhood traditions.

You see, liberals are not the only ones preoccupied with identity to an unhealthy degree. We battle each other over whether progressive Whites should impose "Latinx" on persons of Hispanic ancestry. Meanwhile, conservatives are terrified of social change. They do not see it as progress. They see the world around them transforming into something they do not want. In this new world, the views of their parents are backward and bigoted. They understand that this will lead to an erosion of their influence. Their place in such a world is uncertain, and that is scary.

Conserving Leave It To Beaver

Some conservatives long for the fictional times represented on TV shows like Leave It To Beaver or The Andy Griffith Show. They weren't even around when these shows were new but grew up watching in syndication. What they long for is the world they remember from their youth to persist without so much change. Many older conservatives never recovered from the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Many younger conservatives have replaced this boogeyman with Antifa and secular progressives.

The "simpler" time depicted in these shows is bound to appeal to those seeking to return to the simplicity of their own childhoods. But that is never going to be realistic for adults. As children, we had few responsibilities. Nobody was counting on us to pay the bills, and most of us were well insulated against the stresses and strains of adult life. The situations families dealt with on many of these old TV shows were ridiculous. Of course, some conservatives want to argue that Leave It To Beaver would become a reality if we'd only put (Christian) prayer back in school!

The 1950s weren't great for everyone. What do you suppose they were like for people who were Black, LGBTQ, or atheists? It seems reasonable to conclude that they were worse than the worst times most of us have lived through.

What We've Lost Isn't Coming Back

I don't mean this to come across as harsh because we can all relate to what some of this feels like if we are willing to try. Every one of us can identify something we've lost over the years as society has changed that we'd really like to have back. I can think of several. Most of us experience a twinge of nostalgia or even sadness when thinking about these things. But we recognize that change is inevitable and that all good things come to an end. We understand that the things we've lost are never coming back. Some elements of some of them could resurface in new or different ways. This gives us hope and helps us keep going.

But what if we didn't interpret our experiences like this? What if our nostalgia included overwhelming fear and anger instead of sadness? What if this fear and anger led us to focus on trying to bring back what could never be brought back? What if it led us to seek revenge against whoever we blamed for what we had lost? Might we then approach the world much like social conservatives seem to?

One could argue that conservatives are trying to conserve their own power and privilege. I'd agree with this, but I'd consider these things to be part of the tradition they are trying to conserve. One could also argue that they wanted to conserve certain aspects of their identity (e.g., White, Christian). Again, I'd agree with this but place it in the tradition category.

We Should Dismantle Harmful Traditions

No traditions should be exempt from critical examination. Many are unhealthy, and some are unfair or even oppressive to others. It is a mistake to conserve those with serious flaws. Instead, we should revise or abandon them. If there are positive aspects within a tradition, we can preserve them. Keeping something around because it is familiar or "we've always done it that way" is hard to reconcile with freethought. It seems to provide little benefit.

Right, but how are we supposed to convince conservatives of this? I'm not sure we need to. We can continue to put this and similar arguments out there. We can listen to conservatives and validate much of how they feel. The sense of loss, anxiety about an uncertain future, and even anger are things most of us should be able to relate to. We can empathize with these feelings. But they don't mean we must conserve failed traditions.

We are going to need an accurate history on which to base our work. If we want to preserve positive aspects of some traditions, we need to understand our past. We need to know how these traditions affected those outside the privileged majority. To the degree that this accurate history isn't shared, we will encounter resistance. This is one more reason why our fractured society is struggling. If we cannot agree on the facts, it is hard to chart a path forward.