Column: A learning opportunity – What is conservatism?


I presented to a group of senior citizens recently, addressing their interests in learning more about the topic “What is a conservative?” While ours was the kick-off session, some six additional meetings are planned over the next weeks, in part courtesy of a little known philanthropist.

There are no tests and no grades — just the excitement of learning and discussing something new. Some adherents call the experience “a health club for the mind.”

More liberal than conservative

Sources told us that most of those signed up were more liberal than conservative but that they all had a desire to better understand the changing world of politics and what was behind the ascending conservative movement in America.

The group of 50 or so attentive men and women were members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, affiliated with the University of Minnesota’s College of Continuing Education. OLLI is part of a national network of lifelong-learning initiatives supported by San Francisco-based Bernard Osher Foundation.

When I asked, about half of the group indicated they had at one time or another volunteered to work for a candidate or political party of their choice; a few had been in government service at some time in elected or appointed posts.

Adams and Jefferson

For my part, I chose to start with the thinking of two early colonial leaders who each became U.S. President: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

The enduring success and stability of America’s democracy, I said, was the stabilizing genius of the two-party system — taking form under Adams and Jefferson and becoming a reality after George Washington retired to Mount Vernon in 1797.

Adams, Washington’s vice president, was what came to be known as a Federalist who advocated for a strong, clearly defined central government. States’ righter and Virginian Jefferson was passionate about individual rights but had some suspicions regarding a federal role while founding the national Democratic-Republican Party. Both men were genuine intellectuals.

Adams envisioned an ideal republic in which government included the notion of “civic virtue.” He was concerned about global issues, signing the Alien and Sedition Acts to protect Americans from foreign insurgents. Known as the father of the U.S. Navy and Army, Adams named the brilliant and influential John Marshall as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Jefferson, who held a strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, became the country’s most visible political leader in enhancing the rights of ordinary people. He cautioned a central government must be “rigorously frugal and simple” and, as president, he reduced the size and scope of the Washington-Adams legacy by ending internal taxes and paying off the government’s debt while geographically enlarging the country through the Louisiana Purchase.

Uniquely, Adams and Jefferson believed that each of their movements needed to debate the issues within as well as between the major parties. They respected one another even as they disagreed on important issues that were shaping the new country and world in which they lived.

Republicans, the conservative party of today, often claim Adams one of as their founders, though Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican elected president (1860). Democrats or liberals speak of Jefferson, his younger colonial counterpart James Madison, also a president, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the most preeminent national Democrats.

Today’s political parties

Prior to the 2016 election, I had generally believed that Republicans were the party that most emphasized individual rights, privacy and local control. They believed in the ability of free markets to respond to people’s needs and wants. Republicans are more reluctant to raise taxes within America’s unique form of democratic capitalism where the private sector provides more than eight in 10 jobs.

Democrats, I surmised, backed a more activist government that placed the collective good of all over the individual. Democrats often favor government, not markets, in achieving social equality by advancing programs that assign responsibility to the federal government. Democrats are strongly focused on America’s central cities and programs to serve those who most need help.

In the November election, one-time underdog Republican Donald Trump became the 45th president and a Republican controlled U.S. House and Senate was re-elected. Nationally, 33 Republicans are now governors and 68 of the nation’s 99 state legislative chambers are controlled by the GOP.

In Minnesota, there is now divided state government between DFL Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican majorities in the State House and Senate.

Emerging conservative agenda

Upon analysis, fundamental things have begun to change within the Republican ranks on some hot button policy issues with a focus on a more libertarian approach to reduce the reach and taxpayer costs of government.

I outlined seven general topics for the OLLI class.

• Pro-life views, long associated with conservative thinking, are firmly cemented into the Republican agenda at local, state and federal levels.

• Obamacare repeal was a central campaign theme for Trump and the vast majority of Republicans elected to Congress. Crafting a new federal health care system for Americans is not going to be easy, however, as Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan recently learned the hard way.

• National defense must undergo some rethinking to avoid endless war with a new foreign policy approach using a strong deterrent, realistic and restrained plans and the avoidance of “nation building” around the globe.

• Social Security, a $900 billion a year program as part of a $2 trillion annual entitlement benefit outlay, represents more than 60 percent of the current federal budget and the demographics suggest these programs are fiscally unsustainable and must be redesigned.

• Education reform is on the conservative agenda as costs have tripled in the past 40 years while student performance remains flat and in the middle of the pack. The idea of competition between public and private schools — and providing public funds for parents and students to choose — is growing rapidly in popularity among conservatives. Fifteen states have adopted new or expanded school choice programs since 2015.

• Monetary policy solutions include reigning in the reach and authority of the Federal Reserve to create a new sound money and free market banking system; this is now on the to do list for emboldened conservatives.

• Constitutional rights should be reframed under the first principles of the American Revolution — to provide a framework for a future America that will be both prosperous and free.

Commendations to those good people at OLLI who have chosen to learn more about conservatism and to better understand the potential implications for Americans now and into the future.

Chuck Slocum of Minnetonka is president of The Williston Group, a management consulting firm; he is a former chair of the Minnesota Republican Party and head of the Minnesota Business Partnership and can be reached at [email protected]