Alan Zendell, August 4, 2017
I learned a lot about conservative values this week. It was enlightening. It was uplifting enough to restore my confidence in the future.
Why? I read Senator Jeff Flake’s book, which he named after Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. What I learned was that there is a sharp dividing line between the principles of conservatism and what has been masquerading as conservatism for the past two years. And to my surprise, I found myself in agreement with most of them.
Flake writes about three things in his book: his devotion to his Mormon values and beliefs, the conservative ideology he subscribes to, and the basic philosophy that governs his life. About the first, I’m ambivalent – I respect his beliefs, though they’re surely not mine, but like him, I respect and am willing to defend his right to follow them.
About the second, I agree in principle until we get down to the nitty gritty. As usual the devil is in the details, and in this case, the main details that separate my values from his conservative ones are how we define an entitlement and the proper role of government in our lives. Significant as those differences are, when it comes to his life-governing principles, I am in complete agreement, and it is that realization that has lifted my spirits all week.
Jeff Flake is the twenty-first century embodiment of Barry Goldwater, his mission in life to strengthen and uphold the ideas espoused by his mentor. I was not a fan of those ideas when Goldwater wrote about them, and I’d have guessed there was no one in our political spectrum with whom I was less likely to find common ground than Jeff Flake. But I was wrong.
His religion and ideology aside, Flake despises hypocrisy above all else. Score one for him. He values truth, honesty, transparency, and open discourse. He believes that important legislation must be bi-partisan if it is to have lasting impact. He fervently believes in the way the founders, principally Alexander Hamilton, designed the separation of powers and the rules of the Senate. He values facts and stability. And unlike many at his end of the Republican Party he believes that denying the conclusions of science will ultimately destroy us.
The most remarkable thing about Flake’s book is his attitude toward Donald Trump. Though he desperately wishes to support his president and his party, his overarching priority is that the country must come first. He believes that Trump’s brand of populism, his disregard for the truth, and his character are undermining both conservatism and American values. He despises Trump’s attitude toward immigrants, recognizing that when we close our doors we not only violate our founding principles, but we undermine the engine that drives our capitalist economy.
He believes in free trade, and thinks Trump’s attitude toward NAFTA and TPP are wrongheaded and ignorant. He says isolationism will strengthen China and Europe while our economy flounders. World trade is not a zero sum game. Winning does not mean someone has to lose, although that seems to be the only rule Trump plays by. In Flake’s view (and mine) the world is safer and more prosperous when everyone wins.
Senator Flake abhors the concept of alternate facts and is horrified by Trump’s claims of fake news and demonizing the media outlets that disagree with him, and his reverence for truth and facts has a broad scope – the evidence of climate change, certified election results, the birthplace of a president. He believes every citizen and every elected official has a responsibility to dissent when the president is wrong, and neither party nor executive power can be allowed to supersede what is in the best interest of our democracy. And he thinks unchecked gerrymandering is a cancer eating away at the fabric of our republic.
All this might sound hypocritically partisan if it was espoused by Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi, but these are the words of the current-day apostle of the conservative wing of the Republican Party. It might sound petty and self-serving except that Flake accuses himself along with everyone else of succumbing to the temptations of power and partisan bickering, and of not having the courage to speak out louder when he might have.
Flake’s 2017 Conscience of a Conservative is a plea for reason, an appeal to replace discord with concord, an entreaty to put an end to the politics of fear and lies and constant pandering that swept Trump into the White House. He postures it as the need to return to the conservative values of Barry Goldwater, but his words sound eerily like the humanism of Bernie Sanders, too. His conservatism could not be more opposite to Sanders’ collectivism, but at their heart, their arguments are both based on respect for others and upholding the values of decency most of us were raised with.
When Flake says our salvation is in learning to work together, when he says the government can only function when the parties listen to and respect each other’s ideas, I believe him. He calls that conservatism. I called it being an American. And while he never allows himself to say it explicitly, the thing about which we are in clearest agreement is that the United States would be stronger and truer to itself if Donald Trump were not its president.