It was hard for me to watch the past 30 years, as the GOP of my childhood morphed and warped into a twisted caricature of the party it had once been, and as classical conservatism slowly faded away only to be transformed into neo-conservatism, the political force now stronger than ever today. This was hard to watch not because of the harm that has been done to political discourse in general and to millions of Americans through misguided policy, but because I still hold a deep affection for the old principles that once guided the conservatism of a bygone era, and because those principles have been cast to the wayside as a consequence of the past several decades of political wrangling.
Conservatism once offered up an ideal counterbalance to the excesses of hurried idealism that fueled liberal changes to law, government and life, mostly by virtue of applying caution and a respect for fiscal sanity (in principle if not always in practice) into the debate. The two extremes functioned like Yin and Yang, each grinding away the roughest and worst edges of the other. That balance is entirely lost to us now.
Many remember the more recent struggles for the 'soul of the party', but the battle has been going on much longer than that. So long, in fact, that most have forgotten what Republicans and conservatives were like prior to the 1980's and the Reagan administration, which swept into power an enormous number of early neo-conservatives and entrenched them in both our political system and public political dialog.
From Christine Whitman of New Jersey, whose brief stint as head of the EPA was ended by an apparent hesitance to routinely lie and creatively edit scientific studies that didn't jibe with the administration's platform, to General Colin Powell and former prosecutor David Iglesias, conservatives who display moderation and unflinching fairness without regard to party interests are removed from power and replaced with persons who share the new party zeal for strict neo-conservative orthodoxy.
Locally, for those of us in this part of Michigan, we watched the removal of Joe Schwartz from the party ticket, against the will of his many supporters, so that a radical neo-conservative preacher could campaign in his stead. Two years later, the position was in Democratic hands, since no one really felt comfortable with a radical weirdo and support shifted to a Democrat who at least gave the impression of being sane.
A few notes regarding Joe Schwartz should be included to understand why he didn't pass the neo-con litmus test. As a military veteran and former intelligence officer, he was a firm supporter of veteran's rights, which is inconvenient in an era where more veterans than ever are being mishandled and abused by a system intent on reducing their financial impact on the federal government. As a doctor, he opposed excessive restrictions on abortion access and gag rules that limit a doctor's ability to give sound medical advice. In the new orthodoxy this is akin to heresy, and Joe Schwartz paid the price for bucking at the reins. He was proof that a conservative Republican could support efforts to reduce abortion by reducing its causes in a sensible fashion, without falling back on draconian attacks on the individual liberty of women. That kind of thinking is unwelcome at GOP meetings these days.
But how did it come to this? What was different about the GOP prior to its radicalization? Does anyone even remember? I can't speak for everyone, but I can speak from first and second hand experience by referring to my grandfather, a man I admired enormously and loved without condition.
He was comfortably middle class, in part because he often treated people when payment was an unresolved issue. He didn't always make the 'right' financial choice, but he tried very hard to never make the wrong ethical choice. When it came to health, the town was his flock, and the needs of the flock sometimes outweighed the needs of the shepherd. It's almost impossible for people today to imagine a doctor in wintertime in the 1940's hitching a sleigh with bells and riding a circuit through the area so that people stuck in distant farms could wave for help if anyone was sick and couldn't get to town...but that was the town doctor that he was. It was his badge of honor and he served it, not vice-versa.
My grandfather was a practicing doctor, and his wife was a practicing RN. They were ardent Catholics, stolid lifetime Republicans, active in charities and in personal hobbies, local politics and schools, and an integral part of the community the lived in throughout their lives. They were both extremely literate, not merely in necessary sciences for their jobs, but in poetry, classical literature and popular fiction. They enjoyed travel, photography, piloting small aircraft, hunting and fishing, bird watching and nature conservation.
They were never racist, being firmly in the camp of meritocrats, believing that deeds measured a person's worth far more accurately than skin color or faith. Being well educated and well read, as well as having traveled broadly, they did not subscribe to generalities about other cultures. When you've met people in their native country, it's hard to be fooled by cheap punditry, and they had seen Egypt, Germany, Ireland, Japan and endless others up close and personal. Also, when you've examined thousands and thousands of people medically and seen all races and creeds naked and sick and hoping for their health back or praying for a family member's recovery it's hard to view them as truly different from each other in any meaningful way.
Their conservatism was a quiet prudence...a belief that changes should be made with great caution, that public purse strings should be opened only when appropriate, and that honesty and forthrightness should always win over deceit and charlatanism. On my grandfather's desk were two signs. One read "Illegitami Non Carborundum"...Latin for "Don't Let The Bastards Grind You Down." The other was "All Men Are Self Made...Only The Successful Ones Like To Admit It." In essence, they encapsulated most of what he'd learned about life. Earn what you receive and you won't be ashamed of it. Your mistakes are just as much yours to own as your victories are. Never surrender to the pressure to be less than what you can be.
Likewise, they were firm believers in capitalism as a way of life, but with the caveat that people should regulate and manage capitalism to ensure that businesses act in an ethical and transparent fashion. It was not "Socialist" to suggest that oversight might be necessary when a company or even an industry has a long track record of criminal acts with repercussions for the public...it was just common sense. If he held any opposition to modern unions (circa 1960's and 1970's) it was largely because the nature of their demands had shifted from fair compensation and safety to excessive compensation and luxuries for leadership.
They were both studied naturalists, my grandfather having been a Boy Scout since Lord Baden-Powell toured the U.S. forming troops, and when it came to environmental matters they viewed the role of each generation as custodial...keeping and preserving our nation's beautiful parks, waterways and landscapes in trust for the children to come after them. It was about responsibility...accepting a burden and understanding that it was a solemn duty...not a privilege of rank to be sold off at auction for pennies on the dollar.
I can remember my grandfather's deep distrust of televised advertising for new pharmaceuticals. To tell a patient the symptoms before they seek diagnosis? Madness! His desks were littered with unwanted gifts from drug manufacturers that had piled up over decades of practice, but his solitary concern was always the patient. He knew with perfect clarity that such a move would lead to people fudging their symptoms to receive treatment, and to the over-prescription of drugs that might not be as necessary as people imagined.
The interference of politics in medicine was anathema to him. A physician, sworn to a Hippocratic oath that transcends party lines, should never be obliged to alter his diagnosis or the treatment for same because of outside factors. Only what the patient required to become healthy and whole had merit. As an elected county coroner, the county jail doctor, and a private practicing family physician, politics touched on his work regularly, but his commitment to being a good doctor never swayed.
So deep was his commitment to that principle that only once did he knowingly and willfully violate the law, keeping the secret until very late in life, confessing it to his son near the end of his days. When civilian medical supplies were rationed during wartime, and antibiotics became hard to obtain, a flurry of whooping cough cases struck the area and susceptible patients were dying of related but treatable lung infections like pneumonia.
There was a black market for antibiotics, and once he knew it existed he was placed in the worst moral dilemma of his (then) comparatively young life. If you know of a means by which to treat a patient with a high probability of recovery, but the means would include violating the law of the land, did the Hippocratic Oath supersede his belief in ethical conduct and good citizenship? In the end, the treatment of patients to the maximum of his ability was more important than obedience to law, but he accepted without reservation that what he had done was illegal and a crime during wartime. There was no attempt by him to dress it up as heroism, which some of us may feel is a better description, and a certain humility is evident in his character because of this.
His personal faith survived in the face of hard questions about God and His relationship with humanity, but was never intrusive or evangelical in nature. They were Catholics in Ohio in a community with very few other Catholics, and during a time when KKK members would still spread the suspicion that as a Papist, he would secretly plot to baptize the children of others on the Pope's behalf. It sounds foolish now, but it isn't much wilder than the theories put forward by neo-conservatives regarding Muslims today. This did not change his faith, but it did make him a tireless advocate for people doing their job without intertwining it with their faith, and over time even the most suspicious residents finally warmed to 'The Doc', eventually refusing to be treated by anyone else but the town doctor they knew and trusted most.
I ask myself today if my grandfather would fit in with the GOP we see before us now, and the answer is no. Like Whitman or Schwartz or Iglesias, he would have been drummed out for having displayed even a shred of real principle. He would be politically homeless, a conservative of the classical era of American prosperity and good sense, chased away by zealots frothing at the mouth with neo-conservative pscyho-babble spilling from their tongues.
I don't share all of my grandfather's views, politically, socially, religiously or otherwise. I rejected Confirmation as a Catholic when I was a pre-teen, because I couldn't accept the notion of making an oath to God affirming myself as a Catholic for life and accepting all accompanying dogma...when I had deep and abiding questions about church dogma that would make such an oath a lie. The moral question was whether a lie before God was acceptable compared to abandoning a family tradition and refusing a sacrament. At a moment like that, I like to think that I showed a shred of my grandfather's character before I even knew his thoughts on deeper subjects.
When I was old enough to first vote in '88, I voted Democratic primarily to oppose the neo-conservatives of the Reagan administration. I fell into the familiar pattern of imagining that the 'other party' MUST be better, because the GOP had behaved in so patently immoral a fashion. That notion was quickly disabused by the election of the Democrats to power in '92. Despite my high hopes for a swift change in the way government conducted itself I was treated to the spectacle of the Clinton era, and any blind faith I had in two party politics quickly died an ugly death.
I began to judge politicians with a jaundiced, but experienced, eye...weighing them as individuals without regard to party affiliation. I would be considered broadly socially liberal today, since I hold a deep and unshakable conviction that all people should be treated equally under the law, that transparency and accountability are essential to the ethical operation of both government and private business alike, that all faiths must be free and separate from government so that they might remain free, and that the first order of government is to serve the people...not the unelected minority of business leaders whose solitary goal is to reduce obstacles on the way to profit without regard for the health or well being of the population with whom they share this country.
But I never forget that I learned most of those principled beliefs I hold so dear...from lifetime Republicans and conservative people of faith. If the GOP still had room for people like them, that's where I'd probably be, but alas, we live in different times. The changes that have taken place in just 30 years are so great and so pervasive that there is no resemblance between the party of yesteryear and the GOP of today, and only when we look back at the panorama of the last century are the differences suddenly so stark and obvious.
In 2008, after a battering at the polls and losses that even penetrated traditionally red states, I held my breath for just a moment, wondering if the fight for the soul of the party would finally bring better results. It was as clear as day...eight years of fiscal irresponsibility, regulatory laxity, intelligence mangling, data fixing, vote rigging, war mongering and visible tolerance of corruption inside the GOP had come home to roost. Here was the chance to purge the hateful clique of neo-con maniacs out of the party and return to a saner era of principles over personalities.
And we all know how that turned out. Oh well...maybe some other century will see the GOP clean its own house instead of slowly sliding into a pit of lunacy and blind reactionary hate...but I won't be holding my breath for it. I'll be weighing politicians on an individual basis, voting locally to smite corruption wherever it's found, and pushing for a return to sound principles wherever ears are listening...and I hope, despite our many differences, that my grandfather would be proud.