Steve Hochstadt: Why I Am a Conservative

[Steve Hochstadt was a Professor of History
at Bates College for 27 years. He now teaches at Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL.]

I believe in traditional values. I think that values from our heritage as Americans need to be more powerfully expressed in our society. On those aspects of social life in America where I feel like I stand outside today’s norms, people call me conservative.

I was raised in the 1950s, when traditional values dominated in America. We were taught to respect teachers and government, that families should eat together, and that being a good sport was more important than winning.

I married a conservative. Elizabeth Tobin’s values come from deep within her family: regular family gatherings, staying close to family members that other people call distant, emphasis on the Christian holidays, and ways of behaving at the table. There is no line between inlaws and outlaws. Instead family friends become family, creating long explanations about how we are not actually related. All blood kin are important, but being related goes beyond blood. My family was more scattered and much more narrowly focused, like other immigrants and refugees. I love being part of the large warm family my wife’s values create.

We had no trouble agreeing to be strict in the lines we drew for our children and our unwillingness to abandon them. Our children called us conservative, and complained mightily by comparing us to more liberal families they knew. That prompted heated but ultimately useful exchanges about our values and their belief that we were enforcing outrageous discipline. Since I am heavily influenced by my children’s ideas, I was happy when their arguments became half-hearted, because they came to share our family values. We could all agree that Dr. Spock screwed up by encouraging permissiveness at every crisis.

Our family attitudes toward television were considered so neanderthal, we had trouble finding babysitters in our working-class city. Our children had to learn by hearsay what was going on in the popular shows so they could pretend to have a normal home life. Now they laugh at us for having bought a large-screen TV so we can watch sports.

I feel very protective of my family. I get steamed up when people try to get inside my family circle to promote their own interests. I just think that my family is nobody else’s business. It seems like every day somebody I don’t know asks for my home phone number. I know that my response is unusual, because so many of those people get confused when I refuse to provide it. Of course, my children are pleased to point out each way that I lag behind in contemporary telecommunications. It doesn’t bother me a bit to be so unmodern.

I believe in regulation. My natural response to bad behavior is to think about better rules. Rules are the opposite of freedom, but I want to make rules for children, for students, and for employees. Good rules protect society. Unregulated freedom encourages selfishness.

I like old things. We live in an old house which we are restoring to its old look. It is filled with old furniture. I keep old tools in the basement, and save used nails and screws in case they come in handy later. My father-in-law’s favorite phrase has become our family’s byword: waste not, want not.

I like the one Latin phrase I know, although the habit of quoting Latin has gone out of fashion: “de gustibus non est disputandum”. There is no disputing taste. I can’t defend my taste for old things and it’s far better not to argue about it. I know that because my arguments with my children about revealing clothing, low slung pants, and contemporary music accomplish nothing. I do draw the line, though, on things that some people want to say are about taste. I think some men’s taste for children is criminal. I think Hollywood’s taste for violence is sickening. People with illegal tastes should be put in jail. I don’t think our society’s penalties for stealing, lying, conspiring, or abusing are severe enough. I don’t accept the defense that we just have different tastes. How conservative is that?

I smile when someone calls me a conservative, to show me how wrong I am. I like that. I have come to my principles over a lifetime and I’m proud of them. What I miss are more people who call me a conservative to show how right I am. I don’t seem to get any conservative credit for my traditional values. Our very public citizens who have decided they represent conservatives don’t talk to me. I hear them talk about traditional values, but I don’t see them stand behind them.

Family values are supposedly a conservative idea, but today’s conservatives are not protecting my family. They refuse to keep poisons out of our food or our air, which could ruin the health of my children or grandchildren. They shut their eyes and ears to the reality of global warming, which could devastate my children’s world. They are always talking about the right to life, but have done nothing to protect women’s lives from the men who brutalize them.

I want to conserve the beauty that makes America unique, but that doesn’t qualify as conservative today. Every effort to preserve our national parks, to limit suburban sprawl, or to save endangered species is labeled liberal by today’s conservatives.

I want to limit government, but that’s no longer a conservative value, either. Today’s conservatives want to listen to my phone calls, look at my bank account, and read my email. But they sure don’t want me to know what they are doing, hiding behind the kind of government secrecy that our founders hated. Maybe it’s because they are so busy spending my tax dollars to support their private interests rather than the public good.

Today’s conservatives try to keep those without power or money quiet, but where are their values when it comes to the rich and powerful? Every effort to get giant corporations to follow our laws is labeled liberal. Why do the biggest crooks in history, stealers of billions of dollars from private citizens and public coffers, seem to be buddies with today’s conservatives?

Probably the most traditional value of all is my feeling about the truth. I hate lies and the liars who tell them. Public lies are the worst lies, for they are meant to deceive the most people. Honesty no longer seems like a traditional value, just an inconvenience when the truth is hard to take. Today’s conservatives have brought our political standards of honesty to a new low. Can we even imagine one of our current leaders voluntarily telling us an inconvenient truth before everybody already knows about it?

I feel nameless. When they harken back to simpler times, I feel a kinship with intellectual and political leaders who name themselves conservative. But they spend much more time attacking me, not just when I take positions they call liberal, but when I try to defend my conservative values.

Not all my values are traditional. The founders were heroes of their time, but I’m not a principled strict constructionist because I don’t like all of their principles. Racism in public life, sexism and paternalism in private life are values I reject. The founders were far ahead of their time, but also products of it. The popular forces for equality have won great victories since then, often relying on the underlying ideas of the founders, but then going further than they were willing to.

One of the things I learned in the fifties was that homosexuality was bad. Eventually I found out that the evidence for this idea was made up, that many of its most vocal proponents were hypocrites, and that homophobia was just a nasty prejudice with deadly consequences.

So I support a mixture of values, traditional and liberal. I don’t think that makes me middle-of-the-road, however. People who know me remark on my strong opinions and the strong way I express them.

I am not a moderate.

Now I have to vote. That is both a responsibility and a privilege, which I am grateful to use. Out of all those mathematically conceivable combinations of values here in America, there seem to be only two choices in every race, sometimes with a dark-horse third. Often there is really just one choice, the incumbent, whose powers to influence elections would astound our founders.

This year, wherever I have a real choice, I’m voting for the candidate who is called most liberal. I don’t agree with everything liberal politicians do. I wish they would pay more attention to some of my traditional values. But if I want to insure my family’s health and future, preserve the principles that make America unique, and solve the real problems that modern life creates, then conservatives don’t offer me anything except loud talk.

It was scary during those years when liberal became a curse word. Liberals ran away from being liberal, and found other words, or just kept running. People with the most unpleasant manners and least willingness to change their minds have been screaming at me for years that liberalism is a sickness. Fortunately I can regulate what I hear on the radio, and by now you should be able to guess where I turn the dial: oldies stations.

Now liberal is making a comeback. It turns out the party that prides itself on being conservative, led by its most self-congratulatory of conservatives, is not even competent to do most things that a government should do. Liberals will make gains, and some will even dare to embrace the word.

I want to rescue the good human values packed into that word: generous, open, free-spirited.

I am a liberal.

I guess.

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