Dirty Boots: Moderation, Practicality, and Prudence

In the essay “Not Compassionate, Not Conservative,” which appeared in the Winter 2007 issue of The American Scholar, University of South Alabama political science professor Ethan Fishman wrote, “Conservatism as a political philosophy is analogous to conservatism as a personality trait. Both stress moderation, practicality, and prudence.” The essay also outlines Fishman’s contentions about the modern phenomenon of “pseudo-conservatism,” which has “adhered to an ideology of anti-intellectualism, substituting feelings and emotions for rational discourse.” The more traditional conservatism, Fishman tells us, relies instead on those three traits listed above, as well as “a belief in the existence of natural law, a set of moral ideals that gives meaning to such terms as honor, integrity, justice, and courage”— all good things.

Forecasting what was to come, Fishman wrote in 2007 about “pseudo-conservatives” being “suspicious of reasonable analysis” and having “an insistence on political conformity,” and he added that some politicians and voters are “describing themselves as conservative because the term appeared to identify them as being diametrically opposed to the forces they perceived were threatening both their lives and their social positions.” Near the end of the essay came this statement:

As long as citizens remain fearful of their status in society and as long as Americans continue to dread attacks from powerful enemies committed to the destruction of their country, [American historian Richard] Hofstadter warned, the specter of pseudo-conservatism never will completely vanish.

What came to my mind as I read this dozen-year-old commentary were: assertions about “alternative facts,” constant firings and resignations from the White House, accusations of a dishonest media and “fake news,” and concerns over foreign hacking and immigrant caravans— all lacquered with the repeated reassurance that things are better than they ever have been.

Closer to home, in Alabama, the term conservative has become a post-Southern Strategy political synonym for acceptable (where liberal is the synonym for unacceptable.) The implication, of course, is that a conservative politician embodies those values of “moderation, practicality, and prudence” and has the underlying values of “honor, integrity, justice, and courage.” Yet, the facts and results are complicated. While some of our conservative leaders may well have those character traits, neither the rash of criminal charges, convictions, guilty pleas, and resignations that have cascaded across Alabama politics in recent years, nor our failing schools and overcrowded prisons could be attributed to the virtues of moderation, practicality, and prudence being put into fullest action in the governance of four-plus-million people.

However, if those seven virtues describe what it means to be truly conservative, then I might actually be conservative, too! Despite considering myself either a liberal-leaning moderate or a fairly moderate liberal, I also value those traits – moderation, practicality, prudence, honor, integrity, justice, and courage – and would like for our government and corporate leaders to exhibit them in recognizable ways. Rather than regarding my left-leaning politics as the American version of conservatism’s contrapasso, I think of liberalism and conservatism at their best as being counterbalances to one another, and when balance is achieved, our country is better for it. For me, to be liberal means: free-thinking and open-minded, considerate of opposing viewpoints, respectful of differing lifestyles, and steeped in empirical knowledge and facts— all of which are valuable in a multiethnic, multiracial, geographically large, democratic nation that respects the freedoms of speech and religion.

Although Ethan Fishman claims the virtues of “moderation, practicality, and prudence” for Team Conservative, those values are not so much conservative as they are just plain good and right. While self-proclaimed conservatives today decry the further-leftward move of the Left, toward positions more radical, I can assure anyone who is open-minded enough to hear it that the shift is based on the general lack of “moderation, practicality, and prudence” in our political leaders, in our economy, and in our society. There is nothing moderate, practical, or prudent about gerrymandering or any other mode of limiting voting rights. There is also nothing moderate, practical, or prudent about starving our public schools. That’s where the anger comes from: when a hard-working person doesn’t see fairness or opportunity in the system, he or she will support significant changes being made to the system. And that is a particularly moderate, practical, and prudent approach to politics.

Even though the equalizing initiatives that left-leaning politicians will proffer and endorse over the next year or two would probably benefit Alabama, I don’t spent any time worrying or wondering about whether many ordinary Alabamians will actually consider their validity. (65% of Alabamians voted straight-ticket last November, an option that forty-three states don’t even allow.) The conservative/liberal heuristic is so strongly rooted down here that it’s probably more likely that we’ll all subscribe to The American Scholar than that many will change their voting habits. However, if we’re to stick with being a conservative state, then let’s have Ethan Fishman’s ideas be entrenched as the litmus test: does this candidate/bill/policy exhibit the values of moderation, practicality, prudence, honor, integrity, justice, and courage? If the answer is yes, then the outcomes and benefits should be obvious . . . and Alabama should become a recognizably better place.

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