Brother Dennis has a great post up about moderate Republicans and I thought it was probably a good idea to weight in on the subject. Longtime readers know that once upon a time I used a great deal of digital ink on the topic of a more forward-thinking ideology that I called ‘progressive conservatism’. I wish I could say that I coined the term but it was being used long before I began my blogging career. Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower and even Richard Nixon all used ‘progressive conservative’ to describe themselves at one time or another. While some of my friends on the Left might laugh at that characterization given the typical resistance to change that Republicans are so often accused of, it’s important to keep in mind that pretty much every president moves the country forward a bit during their time in the office. The only variable is the scope of that change and whether or not it resulted in a net good.
Dennis and I have been friends for quite a few years now and we have been involved in a few projects outside of Ordinary Times that we hoped would raise more awareness for our strain of conservatism. The labels we use are different but our message is pretty much the same. Dennis calls himself a moderate Republican, I call myself a progressive conservative. In both cases though we want to promote a different vision of conservatism from the majority in our country. The important thing to note though is that neither of us could accurately be described as Centrist. The long-standing problem with centrists is that they usually arrive at their positions by triangulating between the mainline conservative and liberal policies, the idea being that the right answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Because moderates are by definition closer to the center, they too often get lumped in with centrists, which is why I have always avoided the moderate label.
The truth is that there is nothing ‘moderate’ about the policies I would like to see implemented. They are bold and they are sweeping. For that reason I am equally hopeful that the so-called ‘Reformacon’ agenda might get some traction. Traditionally, conservatism functions as a counter-weight to liberal exuberance. Our friends on the Left have big hearts but the most common complaint you will hear from the Right is that liberals want to move too fast, often far ahead of public opinion, and they don’t think their policies through to their natural outcome. Of course there is a lot more nuance to the Left-Right dynamic, but I will plead with readers to remember that we bloggers often speak in generalities for the sake of conversation.
What I will say though is that I believe very strongly in the Yin-Yang nature of American politics. To put it simply: we need each other. The Left needs the Right to slow their rush towards change and the Right needs the Left to drag us kicking and screaming into the future. In the margins of the Left-Right struggle, I believe there is room for a progressive conservatism and in my humble opinion, it’s just what the country really needs. Afterall, when it comes to our personal lives, most of us are progressive conservatives anyway. We want our lives to move forward, but we want to be thoughtful and measured in that approach. In other words, we want to be conservative in the moves we make, rather than rushing headlong into too many foolish decisions that weren’t given careful consideration.
In the realm of public policy there is plenty of room for a progressive conservative approach. For example, our schools. Anyone who has been involved in public education or an interested observer can tell you there is a tremendous amount of waste within most public school systems. Despite the complaints you will hear about teacher’s salaries or not enough money for art programs, there is often plenty of actual money there. The problem is that school systems are not run like businesses. One of my favorite examples is the way school systems hold meetings. When there is a district-level staff meeting employees will often be called in from across the district, usually being paid for their drive time, and then they have long-winded meetings to make decisions via committee. The company I work for, which is an enormous corporation with nearly half a million employees worldwide, would never dream of operating that way. We use cheap teleconferencing and decision makers don’t take a vote before they act. There are a hundred more examples like this.
During the George W. Bush years Republicans were criticized for trying to apply too many metrics to education. Liberals (correctly) pointed out that education is complex and it’s hard to gauge progress using standardized tests, but the truth is that metrics are really the only way of evaluating the success of an organization. The trick is applying the right ones. If conservative business principles were applied to school systems in a more thoughtful way, I think there is real room for improvement. I’d like to see someone take a school system through the Six Sigma process, which is designed to eliminate waste, and then consider the results. Six Sigma was designed for manufacturing but it has been successfully applied to many other industries with great results. The budgetary savings in most school districts could easily fund a host of new programs for kids and probably even increase teacher salaries. That is what progressive conservatism looks like.
The biggest challenge Republicans face is branding and also the characterization that they resist change. The truth is that conservatives are really good at change, but we need to demonstrate what our approach looks like. As Dennis points out, that means talking a lot more about what we are for instead of what we are against. From our friends on the Left, what I would like to see is an openness to our ideas. There also has to be some willingness to let things happen a little slower. With that understanding, I think there is a real opportunity for both sides to come together on a great many issues.
Mike Dwyer is a freelance writer in Louisville, KY. He writes about culture, the outdoors and whatever else strikes his fancy. His personal site can be found at www.mikedwyerwrites.com. He is also active on Facebook and Twitter. Mike is one of several Kentucky authors featured in the book This I Believe: Kentucky.