Politics & Policy

Why Principled Conservatives Should Tune Out, for a While

(Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

The Age of Trump is now a few weeks old, and most of us have recovered from the initial shock of Indiana’s final whimper. Conservatives are sorting themselves into camps, with most politicians finally reconciling themselves to Donald Trump’s candidacy, although a sizable share of intellectuals and pundits steadfastly maintains that he is unacceptable. Predictably, the pundits have started in on yet another round of recrimination, with #NeverTrump conservatives under heavy fire from multiple directions.

One favorite tactic is to patronize: Although Trump’s detractors include many of the most respected thinkers in the conservative landscape, make it sound as if they’re just angsty teenagers in a temporary funk. They’re drama queens. Hysterical, really! It’s time for them to grow up. Stop making politics into a morality play. Respect the rules of decorum or civility, or, well, there’s got to be something left in our platitude box, even here in the Age of Trump.

This fuming is all perfectly understandable. After all, it’s uncomfortable when others around you take a moral stand that you don’t wish to join. The easiest way to alleviate that discomfort is to laugh off serious moral concerns as just so much juvenile posturing. Write it off as a character flaw. That’s the other guy’s character flaw, in case you’re keeping score.

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To be clear, I’m not voting for Trump, but I don’t wish to torch the Rolodex cards (or smartphone equivalent) of everyone who is. I agree with Jim Geraghty that thoughtful #NeverTrump and #ReluctantTrump conservatives can and should remain respectful friends and allies. We can all recognize the gravity of the present moment, and there’s no need to expel people from the conversation for refusing the #NeverTrump loyalty oath.

For serious Trump supporters, it’s clearly a different matter. There are people who conscientiously believe that it’s better to spin the Trump roulette wheel than to watch Hillary Clinton ascend; this is a defensible position. Then again, there are people who cheered for Trump all along or who criticized him for a while but seem to have raced out for their Trump 2016 yard signs on the evening of May 3. That’s not so defensible. It’s also hard to respect the pundits who spent several months belittling anti-Trump conservatives (we were all worked up about nothing, right?) but who now want to make amends by implying that, actually, he’s still probably the adult in the room.

Those sorts of people may just not be worth listening to anymore.

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Frankly, a lot of people aren’t worth listening to anymore. Oddly, the Herculean task of the next few months might be to build an echo chamber and become bad listeners. Several readers have asked me recently what they can do to help start rebuilding conservatism, and this is my first piece of advice: Stop your ears with beeswax. I’m only half kidding.

Echo chambers are a huge problem in modern culture. It’s more pleasant to be flattered by people who agree with us than to be admonished by those who don’t. Consequently, we go looking for the like-minded. Are you feeling tired this morning? Matt Drudge is happy to rev you up with some anger porn. Are you feeling bad about yourself? Flip on Bill O’Reilly and revel in how righteous you are compared with the other half of the country.

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I’m not just pointing fingers at conservatives. Liberals do this, too. We all do it. In mild forms, enjoying points of agreement can be a perfectly legitimate way of building a sense of community, but it becomes problematic when our mutual-admiration societies shield us from important realities. In our time, they’ve driven sharp wedges between different components of society, which is why we should, in general, strive to be good listeners, sympathetic citizens, and the kind of broad-minded people who can appreciate what is around and (especially) in front of them.

Still, there are times when it’s actually best to exercise some self-discipline and turn our attention away from distracting, immediate realities. Good quarterbacks must learn not to focus on the host of enormous men rushing forward to tear them to pieces. Ulysses made his sailors stop their ears again the Sirens’ haunting melodies. Soldiers and rescue workers often need to steel themselves against imminent threats to their own safety in order to save lives. Conservatives right now are in a similar position. We need to cultivate some selective attention, lest the din of the derisive media and bitter erstwhile allies distract us from more-important questions.

We need to cultivate some selective attention, lest the din of the derisive media and bitter erstwhile allies distract us from more-important questions.

Confusion and despair are the most prominent themes of our media-drenched world at the moment. It’s all too easy to be overwhelmed by the dirge. I understand why zealous readers now write me asking what they should do, even though I’m just a Minnesota-dwelling mom and really not in a good position to advise them. Quite a few of us feel an intense desire to pull away from the broken political discourse of our present moment, wherein corrupt officials defend ineffective policies in obeisance to long-outdated ideologies. We feel instinctively that there’s got to be something better out there. There’s real grief, but also a “Go West, Young Man” type of energy in the anti-Trump camp. We need a new horizon. The relocation will have to be less literal than in Horace Greeley’s day, but once again we are looking for a way to “grow up with the country.”

It’s unclear whether we’ll succeed in finding such a way. Greeley was sure that the West would eventually be settled, but we are understandably less confident. People keep muttering Benjamin Franklin’s famous “Republic, if you can keep it” line — and indeed, we may not be able to keep it. I have kids, though, so I have to try. And on a hopeful note, I find that many of my more liberal friends and associates have lately come to share the general conviction that whatever they’ve been doing isn’t working, and that they also owe it to their kids to look for a new path. Oddly, the very fact that our politics are hopelessly polarized has made my leftist friends more open to suggestion perhaps than they’ve been in their whole adult lives to this point. It’s a dynamic moment, with possibilities rising in unexpected places.

#share#Let’s do our best, then, to look downfield and ignore the rush. We might get flattened, but perhaps we’ll find an open receiver. In that spirit, I do have a few slightly-more-concrete suggestions for what we should be doing, discussing, and pondering.

We need to rethink our policy in multiple areas and on multiple levels. Some people are already working on this, of course, but more participation, along with a general willingness to consider things, will help. We need a whole slate of ideas for how to make just about everything work better. We need to keep talking about education, health care, the justice system, anti-poverty programs, public safety, and a healthy business climate. Keep talking about entitlement reform and debt relief. Keep pondering where and how we might be able to generate new jobs.

RELATED: After the GOP Darkness, the Dawn of Conservative Opportunity

Let’s do our best not to read all policy questions through a few comfortable conservative filters. What are our social realties now, and what do the data suggest about what works and what doesn’t? Are there places where our ideological opponents have some reasonable questions we should address?

Of course, we won’t really re-invent the wheel, but sometimes it helps to look at our civilization through Robinson Crusoe lenses, assessing what tools we have and making a list of jobs that most urgently need doing. Bad policy has facilitated a lot of waste and heartache. Conservatives know this, but we aren’t always as zealous as we could be about offering better policy ideas. Let’s work on that.

RELATED: Does a Conservative Reformation Loom on the Horizon?

Next, let’s look for pockets of society that do seem healthy and functional. Let’s figure out what they’re doing right, and then let’s consider how we can protect it, promote it, or otherwise replicate some elements of its success. One of our major challenges is to explain to one subculture (such as the progressive Left) why the belief systems and lifestyles of another (such as the Right) might be good in ways they don’t appreciate. Even the beliefs and practices one group can’t quite call good might at least be tolerable, with “toleration” meaning more than “we will permit you to retain your beliefs in the privacy of your own mind, and to practice them in the privacy of your own home.”

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have noticed that the people who display “Coexist” bumper stickers never really want to do it. We need to be the ones who offer workable suggestions for how we can coexist.

#related#For starters, explain federalism to people at every available opportunity. Any workable path forward will have to start with the recognition that our country is simply more ethnically, socioeconomically, and morally diverse than it was half a century ago. Finding ways to live together means allowing states and communities more latitude to decide for themselves what sorts of schools, courts, public works, health plans, or poverty-relief programs they want to have (and how they want to pay for them).

When I point this out to fellow conservatives, they often protest that most Americans don’t even know what federalism is. People don’t understand a lot of things — until they are explained. With a vomit-inducing slate of presidential candidates, now is the time to highlight the upsides of doing things more locally.

When we look back on this moment a decade or two hence, will it seem like the beginning of the end? It’s possible. But I still entertain the hope that Trumpism will be the forest fire that makes a thousand flowers bloom.

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