America, Change, and the Flaw of Conservatism
**Disclaimer. This week’s column is weighted more in the direction of opinion, than of researched analysis. Opinions contained herein, therefor, are those of the author alone.**
The United States of America has a unique and quarrelsome relationship with change. On the one hand, it was founded as a case study in change; an example of how governance might be approached differently from the monarchal and parliamentary systems of Europe. On the other hand, it tends to think of itself in a peculiar ‘end history’ state: that it has, or at some point in history had, reached a pinnacle. That perfection had been achieved and there was no further need to change or update itself. Conservatism is fundamentally based on this principle. Change, according to this political ideology, should be resisted and stunted, at the risk of sacrificing an achieved perfection.
Is this really in keeping with American tradition, however? And does it live up to the ideals that are laid out in the United States’ founding?
No. The answer is this plain and simple. A rejection of change, of progressive ideals, is in fact fundamentally unAmerican. This can be seen in historical example and written into founding documents. The natural state of the country is, or rather should be, one of constant re-examination, updating, tweaking, and yes, changing.
Consider the opening words of the Constitution itself, something the conservative movement of America is apt to point to. “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect union…” begins the preamble. Thought it was something about Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness? Common mistake on the right. That’s not the Constitution, it’s the Declaration of Independence. Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness are not codified anywhere in the Constitution.
Back to the point at hand. A more perfect union. More perfect. Not perfect, period full stop. More perfect. The founders themselves realized they were creating a fundamentally imperfect document. And to that end, in their wisdom created a contingency to allow for the document of governance to be updated continuously. To allow it to change with changing times.
Amendments. That’s what allows the country to morph along with her people. In fact, the original Constitution as it was written in no place guaranteed a lot of the ‘liberties’ that the right holds up as what makes us exceptional. Speech? Religion? Arms? Counsel? All of these rights were guaranteed only after the first ten amendments, The Bill of Rights, were created. America’s founding document was literally changed before its was even rolled out.
Increasingly, though, amendments are a rarer and rarer thing. It has been fifty years since an amendment was passed that affects the body citizen- the longest stretch of time since the country’s founding. Do you know what the last amendment ratified was? Interesting trivia: a law governing how congress gets to adjust its own pay. Food for thought.
It should be no surprise that with the rise of polarity in our political process, so too has the country ceased to keep up with the pace of change of both its people, and its very nature. The idea of America was radical at the time of its founding. A democracy as was being defined by the new nation had never been attempted. It was, for all intents and purposes… progressive.
Progressive ideals are increasingly shunned. The United States is in a period of turmoil, by all observations, and that is to a large degree because it has been held back from realizing its true potential. It has been stunted in its growth as the tyranny of the minority has forced it to stop evolving. We cannot even agree on a common history anymore, or rather, there are those who would like to deny the history we have in favor of a rosier version with the heroic white man at the center.
From founding to modern times, the United States has been a flawed nation. It has done objectively terrible things. It’s treatment of the Native peoples who were here prior to European colonization. Japanese internment during World War II. Anti-China bigotry in the era of the ‘wild west’ (yeah, we had problems with Asian racism even before COVID-19).
All of these things should be taught in context and explained in detail as part of our history. Not to make modern generations bear some sort of shame, as the conservatives would make you think. But to learn from these mistakes. These atrocities. To assure that, going forward, we write policy and create systems of governance that adapt to changing times and seek to lift up those who have been held down.
You know, kind of like the original intent of the document was set forth.
America’s promise is not, in fact, in its freedoms. Its promise is in its ability to change. To grow. To adapt and evolve. Like it or not, the United States is changing, and changing rapidly. Not just demographically, but technologically and industrially. We are no longer a nation of white farmers or city dwelling bankers. We are a multi-ethnic, multi-industry menagerie of experiences, souls and minds. A static system cannot serve this version of America. We need dynamics again in our politics.
This, more so than anything else, is why conservatism is fundamentally flawed in its ideology. The idea that we can “conserve” a version of America we liked better, or hold back further change from occurring, is like trying to hold back Niagara Falls with a popsicle stick. America is changing. It will not stop. It cannot stop. It should not stop. And we need to change along with it.
Change is fundamentally frightening. Our cave-dwelling brains have not evolved to a point where change is easily embraced. It still feels scary and dangerous. But it need not. It can be embraced as exciting, as wondrous and as thrilling. I understand this outlook is naive- but, hey, I’m an optimist. A cynical one. But an optimist.
The simple fact is, The United States needs change to survive. Conservatism is a threat to this. A threat to survival. We need to evolve our thinking. We need to evolve our country.