Can we stop talking now about “thoughtful” conservatives?
That phrase and various variations have been used by certain Republicans over the years to distinguish them, with their principled belief in low taxes, less regulation and other elements of conservative orthodoxy, from those wild-eyed types who believe in gay bans, Muslim bans and Kenyan birth, and who tend to behave with a sense of contemplative restraint typically associated with pigs at feeding time.
To accuse conservatives of such extremism has often meant being chided by rank and file Republicans that those flame throwers and zealots weren’t really conservatives. “Thoughtful” conservatives, they’d tell you, were far more sober and realistic than that.
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They never seemed to understand the obvious. Namely, that the very need of “thoughtful” conservatives, to use that modifier, is a tacit concession that something has gone wrong with conservatism.
Worse, for all the disdain with which they regarded them, “thoughtful” conservatives were never above trying to co-opt the energy the rowdies brought to the table. There was no conspiracy theory too bizarre, no rhetoric too hateful, no tax pledge too restrictive, no Alaskan governor too loony, no reality show host too coarse, mendacious or incompetent, that they could not make common cause in pursuit of power.
Which offers an interesting context to news that House Speaker Paul Ryan was pointedly snubbed last week by a group of eighth-graders. Students from South Orange Middle School in New Jersey were on a field trip to Washington, D.C., when they were offered a chance to take a picture with Ryan, often posited as the most thoughtful of thoughtful conservatives.
Dozens of them declined. The reason, as student Matthew Malespina explained it to the Washington Post: Ryan is a man “who puts his party before his country.”
Some observers have huffed that, had this happened to Barack Obama, it would have been called “racist.” Which is laughable, given that Obama spent eight years being snubbed in ways great and small, usually for reasons far less substantive than the one Malespina gave.
One thinks, unavoidably, of the Hans Christian Andersen fable, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Like the child in that story, these children are calling out what many adults should see, but don’t.
Namely that, where there is no moral foundation, the amassing of power can have no calling higher than the feeding of ego and the gratification of self. And that when you are willing to see America embrace its enemies and cold-shoulder its friends, willing to look the other way as justice is obstructed, willing to shut down programs funding the arts, rural aid, education, housing and food for the poor and infirm, willing to let rivers be contaminated, air befouled and sea levels rise, willing to take health care from 23 million people in order to line the pockets of millionaires and billionaires, to victimize the vulnerable in order to reward with more those who already have the most … you forfeit all claim of a moral foundation.
So let us hear no more about thoughtful conservatives saving us from the excesses of their peers. They’ve had their chances to take the principled stance and flinched, every time.
Now Paul Ryan’s moral flexibility has become so odious that even middle-schoolers would rather stand upwind. When you are being rebuked by children, it should give you pause.
At the very least, it’s something for thoughtful conservatives to think long and hard about.
Leonard Pitts Jr. can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.