On Modern Conservativism…

A.M. Wilson
4 min readOct 16, 2020

I thought I understood conservatism. I didn’t necessarily agree with it, but it made logical sense. It was built on the idea that a country should undertake change slowly — that America was a prosperous country as it was, with opportunity for those who worked hard, and that America served as a shining example of democracy and freedom and capitalism, and that those things can raise an entire world to be more prosperous and peaceful.

That felt right in a way — it still feels right in a way. And it allows for debate about what equality of opportunity really means, or what groups might be left out, and how we can address that inequity. It welcomed debate about how to enable people to work harder, arm them with an education and attune our culture to hold onto the values that allowed for America to prosper.

Policy decisions logically followed from this as well — improving educational outcomes, reducing the deficit and having a strong military.

But what the hell happened? Was it Grover Norquist’s demands for no new taxes? Was it decades of progressivism? Was it decades of first-hand experience with the ineptitude of governmental action? Was it genuine concern for socialistic takeover?

The debate over whether or not government could accomplish big things hit the big stage in 1980, when Ronald Reagan didn’t so much say that the government was incompetent, but promised a return to growth after the Jimmy Carter years through cutting taxes, reducing government spending and deregulating the economy. I imagine that a lot of this sounds pretty familiar to politicos out there.

If not, then it likely shouldn’t surprise anyone that Trump’s landmark legislative achievements came in the form of tax cuts, while he has sought to deregulate a whole host of environmental protections. But on the last pillar of Reagonmics — reduced government spending — it has completely thrown out the Reagan playbook.

The government is now printing trillions of dollars, with the $2.3 trillion, more than half of the total $4 trillion, going to businesses, according to the Washington Post. And, the majority of it went to large companies through tax breaks and ETF purchases (this is a fairly complex scheme, but essentially, the fed is investing billions to ensure that public company debt markets don’t seize up).

One could argue that these are extreme circumstances, and the relief these companies received allowed for a far more rapid recovery. Well, it did in a way, with stock markets recovering very quickly, but labor markets haven’t recovered well (jobless claims rose yesterday). In fact, many economists are agreeing that we’re now in a K-shaped recovery, where the wealthy have recovered quickly, while the most vulnerable are worse off.

So, what can we say about the spending? First, it was falling at the end of a Democrat’s term — the budget was both almost balanced and on the way to being a surplus before 2016, when it began to rise. Second, the spending we’ve undergone is historic and not balanced — as mentioned, the bulk went to businesses, not individuals. Third, tax cuts created an imbalanced budget, and did not meet their desired purpose to increase growth (this analysis shows that growth was the same before and after the tax cuts).

In fact, what began as an economic philosophy to raise all boats, to grow the pie, to [insert euphemism here], has since become an intense dogma that inspires religious fanaticism. Indeed, the conservative movement doesn’t seem to adhere to its original principles, rather it seems primarily focused on attacking progressivism.

And this is the strange aspect of conservatism, it has become a reactionary philosophy, one not based on principles nor outcomes, but rather on intensely focused attacks against the government in all forms.

This, like so much in modern life, is exacerbated by the sheer pace of change. Today, the world is changing at the fastest rate it has ever changed — with new tools and communications techniques challenging our institutions and structures. Our technology is changing everything at an incredibly rapid pace.

Today, the inequities around us are shot on high definition video — racial injustice at the hands of the police, for example — then shared over social media. These things are impossible to ignore, but conservatives haven’t said that we need to work on equality of opportunity, rather, they said there are alternative facts and different worlds. They’ve opted out of the conversation.

They claim to care about free markets, then they don’t let them behave that the way they should allowing for companies that had poorly managed balance sheets to fail, clearing the way for new growth.

Their deregulation also led to financial calamity, with the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act widely cited as one of the main reasons for the Great Recession in ’08. Not that this has stopped Republicans from tearing at a whole host of regulations, unencumbered by logical sense.

At this point, I have to ask, what is it that conversatives actually believe anymore? It seems like all they care about is having power, so they can continue to push some kind of anti-tax, anti-government dogma, which in turn erodes the government’s capabilities to do much of anything. Much like the country asked itself in 1980 about progressivism, it feels appropriate to say, have we gone too far? We have had 40 years now of conservative culture dominating our politics, and when is the point that we can begin to let government do big things again?



A.M. Wilson

Author of Populace; former journalist, farmer, librarian, burger flipper, bagboy, groundskeeper, political organizer, and shill.