The False Perception of Conservatism

A recent article in Five-Thirty-Eight pointed out the problem of empathy and how Republican candidates don’t seem to have it. Polls show that Mitt Romney, John McCain, Ronald Reagan, and other GOP politicians are perceived as less caring than their Democratic counterparts. While Republicans habitually fare better than Democrats on issues like national defense and fiscal responsibility, it is Democrats that supposedly “care” about the common voter.

But while the article limits itself to the realm of mainstream political candidates and presidents, it highlights a problem with conservatism in general. Or, at least, the way in which people think about conservatism. Right-wing-minded Americans are constantly defending against charges of racism, bigotry, and an uncaring attitude towards the less fortunate. In railing against government intervention, welfare, affirmative action, and other terrible policies, we inevitably expose ourselves to accusations of being cold, callous, and cruel.

Does that describe a tiny minority of conservatives? Of course. It also describes plenty of liberals. A movement cannot be defined by its worst participants. But the accusations leveled at conservatism are not limited to a handful of strident screamers; even moderate Republicans like Romney are perceived as having little empathy for the working-class American.

Tradition and Sense in a Maelstrom

The problem, of course, is one of messaging. Studies have shown that, contrary to perceptions, conservatives are much more charitable than our liberal accusers. Liberals may be willing to vote for candidates who talk about helping the poor, but conservatives are willing to go the extra mile and actually donate to the cause. We understand that nothing cures poverty like the free market. Nothing helps a broader swath of Americans than protecting capitalism. And nothing kills motivation faster than a government handout.

It goes back to the biggest difference between liberals and conservatives. To be a good liberal, all you have to do is appear to care a lot about an issue. Conservatives aren’t interested in putting on a show. We want answers. We want facts. We want to know what policies will be best for the country, even if those policies don’t provide a quick fix.

In a culture that now runs off sound bites, though, that pragmatic approach to politics may prove to be a tough hurdle to climb. Voters, less informed than ever before, want to see candidates who wear their hearts on their sleeves, talk a good game, and deliver zingers at the State of the Union. 24-hour news channels, YouTube, Twitter, and instant communication access have conspired to crush our attention spans. We want answers now, not in a decade.

And in the rush to embrace new technologies, new iPhones, new this, and new that, where does that leave the conservative approach? The one that looks at new ideas, ponders them, and advises caution. The one that champions liberty over feelings. The one that champions self-reliance over government dependence. Well, we can only hope that Americans will look back, see the damage “empathy” has done to this country, and opt for tradition. If we continue to let our “hearts” guide us, tragedy awaits.

 


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