It may come as a surprise to regular readers of this blog that I was not always as conservative as I am now. My parents were very conservative, and I always had pro-life, pro-traditional family values, but when I was in my late teens and early twenties I was much more supportive of welfare and government assistance programs than I am today. At that time, I held the views of many of the people who now seem to think that I am mean and unfeeling--I believed that the government needed to provide a hand up to people and that those recipients of this federal aid would go on to become grateful, producing members of society. These views were shaped in part by the fact that when I was a teenager my father lost his job and over the years that followed our family became destitute. We were never on any type of government assistance--including unemployment. My father had money saved and after he lost his job, he cashed in his retirement savings which allowed us to live until my brothers and sisters and I were old enough to start contributing to the family's support. From that time on we worked and paid the bills as best we could. I was deeply aware of how more affluent people looked down on us--and since virtually everyone was more affluent than we were I definitely sympathized with the underprivileged.
What changed? Was it starting my own business and working the long hours and paying the taxes that are part of self-employment? Not really. Certainly, owning and running a business for close to 15 years has made me understand much about how jobs are created, how wealth is built and how excessive regulation stifles and smothers initiative and opportunity. But the experience that really transformed my thinking about welfare and social programs occurred many years before I became a business owner. What fundamentally transformed my thinking about government assistance was having up close and personal exposure to it.
Shortly before my nineteenth birthday I began teaching at the local community college, where I worked for years. I was a part-time instructor in the history department but I also picked up additional classes in developmental education studies and English as a second language. Since I have a Master of Arts in Humanities Degree with a history major and philosophy minor, I was eager to teach what I had learned in graduate school to students whom I was convinced would prove to be eager sponges ready to soak in knowledge. I taught hundreds of students over the four years that I was at EPCC. I opened each semester the same way--by introducing myself and then asking each student to introduce himself or herself and tell me what specifically they hoped to get out of the course I was teaching. I learned over the years that these early introductions set the stage for the entire semester because in the twenty or thirty minutes that it took for me to meet the students and learn a little about them, I could predict who was going to succeed and who wasn't. I had many older students who had come back to school in an effort to earn a degree to improve their chances for promotion at work. When I taught English as a second language I had quite a few students who were taking those classes because they needed better English skills for their jobs and several students who were the mothers of English speaking teenagers who wanted to be able to understand their children's conversations. But every semester, in every class, I also had another type of student. These were the students straight out of high school who were enrolled for only one reason--their parents had told them they had to either get a job or go to school, and they had decided that school was the better of the two options.
Nearly all of my students were attending school on some sort of financial aid. And I did have some very motivated students who actually worked hard and were eager to learn, but they were invariably the older students who had gone back to school because they had some personal motivation for self-improvement. They virtually never came from that young group of students who were the majority of the class. In fact, after a few weeks, a good number of these would stop coming to class. They were still physically going to the campus--I would see them hanging around the halls smoking and chatting with their friends. They might even attend the minimum amount that they had to in order to keep from having me drop them from the class. But they weren't learning anything because they were not interested in working or studying or doing anything that they needed to do. They were simply kicking the can down the road a few years on the taxpayer dime--using federal financial aid to give themselves a place to crash so that they could delay going to work and accepting adult responsibilities. Seeing this colossal waste of opportunity in the form of grants and student loans handed to a group of people who did not appreciate them or take advantage of the education offered taught me the first simple principle of conservatism--what is obtained without effort is not valued. People only appreciate those things that they work for and sacrifice to get; they never really appreciate anything that is just given to them.
Twenty years later, we have just gone through a horribly disappointing election in which a majority of Americans--though not a very big one--voted to give President Obama a second term. Young people, minorities and women overwhelmingly voted for big government, more social programs, and more welfare. In the wake of this election, we see the GOP now trying to figure out how to reinvent themselves to make our party more "relevant". The GOP leadership appears to be bent on making our party more liberal so that its principles will more closely align with the desires of the electorate.
I am very certain that the problems that the GOP faced in this election are not the result of being too conservative. And I am equally certain that the solution is not to try to rebrand ourselves into a more marketable entity. As long as we continue to make our elections about which candidate gets the most or best looking celebrity endorsements, we are never going to be able to address any of the real issues that are plaguing either the party or the country.
As I see it, we need to start addressing a couple of fundamental truths:
1. Liberals have a better understanding of human nature than conservatives. As a result they are able to manipulate people using our basest instincts. They also have a better understanding of the laws of physics as they apply to humans--specifically the law of inertia which says that an object in motion has a tendency to remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force while an object at rest has a tendency to remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. (This principle of inertia makes it difficult to transform welfare recipients into productive workers overnight since they have a tendency to want to remain at rest.)
Because of these truths, conservatives can never win public relations battles using political theory. Liberalism simply sounds better. The idea of a big, benevolent cash-rich government spreading wealth around to make sure that all citizens are happy, well educated, fed and fulfilled is too good a sales pitch. It is certainly more appealing than a message that tells people to get up early in the morning, go to work, provide for themselves and their families and live as productive, contributing members of society. As a theory, liberalism will always prevail. But that leads me to the second truth:
2. Conservatives have a much better grasp on reality than liberals. In reality, socialism produces sloth and poverty. Government handouts disincentivize individual effort and achievement and produce a society where no one is productive. And the big government that can meet your every need can also strip away every freedom--enslaving the people who looked to it for protection. History teaches repeatedly that collectivism is a disaster and big, out of control governments become totalitarian and dictatorial. As Margaret Thatcher famously said, "The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money."
Because of this truth, conservatives can win political battles by demonstrating the real world differences between conservatism and liberalism. Conservative principles produce prosperity, limited government and personal freedom. Liberal principles produce poverty, and bloated bureaucracy and destroy personal freedom. The question for us as conservatives now is not how we better market this message or how we rebrand ourselves. The question is whether we are willing to stand up for our principles and live under them.
Unlike many Americans, I do not support secessionist movements, for two reasons.
1. As a student and teacher of American history, I know that the last secessionist movement in America ended with over half a million Americans dead and the secessionist states being forced back into the Union under less than favorable terms. The southern states remained second-class states for many years after the Civil War. That is not a model that any of us wants to follow.
2. We have enough conservatives states that we can demonstrate the superiority of conservative principles if we are willing to do it. If we have the desire, and the will, we can prove in a real world setting that our principles still work and always will. But in order to do this, we have to be willing stop focusing on national politics for a time and instead we have to focus on what we can do within our own states. By fostering conservatism on a state level, we can showcase its strengths while highlighting the weaknesses of liberalism. This show and tell approach is going to be the best weapon against the growing popularity of socialism in the U.S. and I believe that it is our only real hope for turning the tide of American opinion.
The rest of my posts for this year will be devoted to some simple ways that I believe we can foster and grow conservatism on a local and state level. None of the ideas is very radical, and many are currently being explored. But I think that if all of us who believe in conservatism are willing to stand together and work towards our goals, we can make a big enough impact in our nation's thinking that when we do face liberalism again on a national stage, we can defeat it soundly.
Alexandra Swann is the author of No Regrets: How Homeschooling Earned me A Master's Degree at Age Sixteen and several other books. Her novel, The Planner, about an out of control, environmentally-driven federal government implementing Agenda 21, is available on Kindle and in paperback. For more information, visit her website at http://www.frontier2000.net.