The opening of the 114th Congress and the beginning of the race for the 2016 GOP nomination brought several quotations to mind, for example: "A Conservative Government is an organized hypocrisy." Think of McConnell claiming Republican credit for the economic upturn, GOP claims that the Keystone pipeline will create jobs or energy independence (while voting against requiring American steel and against banning the export of the oil), or various Republican politicians expressing concern for the poor.
"Conservative" in the quote refers to the British political party, but it’s perfectly applicable to the current Republican Party, which so describes itself. Whether Republicans (at least in their present incarnation), are in fact conservative in any meaningful sense is another question. Often their attitude is one of fierce, irrational resistance to change, as if change would somehow turn America into something foreign, as if we would lose our identity. However, the threat-to-America cry mostly is mere blather; any real conservative knows, as Jacques Barzun put it, that "identity is compatible with change." Garry Wills, citing Cardinal Newman, put it more affirmatively, defining conservatism as "continuity within development" and "identity within change." We can progress and still be ourselves.
As an example of irrational resistance to change, consider the right’s attitude toward potential climate disaster. We must take action, and soon, but they refuse to face facts. When the seas rise, they will stand at the shore like King Canute, forbidding the tide to come in.
Sometimes the right does indeed want to change, but usually toward the past. Wills disapproved of the use of "reactionary" as a way of distinguishing true conservatism from its aberrations. However, his quibble was semantic: everything reacts. I think that "reactionary" still is a useful term, but we must distinguish between positive and negative uses of the past, and reserve the term for the latter. We should return to past practices if doing so will make help people live better lives: if, in effect, we are recapturing a sensible moment, whether progressive, conservative or politically neutral. An example would be the return to public management of public functions, as was the case before the rush to privatize, a bizarre example of which is the privatization of prisons. As an example of a destructive return to the past, consider proposals for abolition of the Federal Reserve System and the income tax.
Another quote captures the attitude on the right toward liberals, more specifically toward Mr. Obama: "Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds." Accusations of treason and talk of impeachment, even of jail, ramped up once the election was safely over and Republican politicians needn’t worry about offending Democrats so badly that they might — what a concept — vote. Giuliani and friends now question whether the President the people elected twice loves America and whether he is a Christian, thereby showing their patriotism and Christian charity.
35. Benjamin Disraeli: The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, p. 251
36. From Dawn to Decadence, p. xviii
37. Confessions of a Conservative, p. 64
38. Henry Adams: Oxford Dictionary of Thematic Quotations, p. 296