JIM WAUN

There are already at least six Democrats and more than 20 Republicans hoping to be elected president a year and a half from now. Feeling queasy and uneasy about the approaching onslaught from spin doctors and image managers, I remember 4-year-old nephew Matt once saying “Oh oh, here it comes again,” just before vomiting for the umpteenth time at a resort on Drummond Island years ago. Nine of us became ill from drinking contaminated water.

We couldn’t see microorganisms lurking in the clear well water.

Today I wonder how I can protect myself from the election campaign’s assault on my senses with demagoguery, lies, distortions and half truths in order to make reasonably informed voting choices.

I’ve long been intrigued and baffled by statements from those who call themselves conservatives. They call for tax cuts and “small government.” But what exactly is that? Whose taxes should be cut, and why? From Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign, are there people who are strictly society’s makers and takers? Fiscal conservatives seem to want to keep the economic pie to themselves and punish those who can’t afford to sit at their table.  

Social conservatives want to limit freedoms of those with differing beliefs, values and world views, or those they dislike or feel threatened by. It sometimes seems like diversity is to them a serious and possibly fatal, infectious disease.

Fiscally conservative and socially liberal Libertarians leave me cold. They want to be able to do whatever they please and have the community provide only services they want and need. Their psycho-social development is arrested somewhere around the “terrible 2s.” They want what they want when they want it and will throw a tantrum if they can’t get it.

Surely, I thought, traditional American conservatism has a stronger, more coherent philosophic, moral and social foundation than what I see today.

After some digging, I read that it actually has a rich history, emanating from Edmund Burke (1729-97). Burke was born in Dublin and lived in England. He supported the American Revolution and Catholic emancipation, leading to the restoration of Catholicism in England in 1829.

Russell Kirk (1918-97), a Burkean disciple, is credited as the founder of American conservatism. Born in Detroit and a member of the Michigan State University faculty for a while, he lived most of his adult life at Piety Hill, the center for conservative thought he established in Mecosta.

Traditional American conservatism sees society as an ecosystem of layers of individuals, families, neighborhoods, religion, work and levels of government living in harmony. Put the other way around, society shouldn’t be a battleground between government and the private sector.

In the conservative mind, Kirk holds there is inherent mystery, variety and a transcendental order in human life. Established by our Revolution and Constitution, things in society are the way they are for good reasons and should be preserved.

He had little regard for social reforms based on abstract theories like communism or socialism and would look askance at focused programs like wars on poverty, drugs and crime.

Traditional conservatism holds that society is best organized around principles that energize production and promote individual freedom, social stability and help the disadvantaged and poor become wealthier. Put the other way around, social policy ought not have as a goal the redistribution of wealth.

Traditional conservatives understand that social change is constant and reform inevitable. Stability is best maintained, they believe, by using restraint and caution. Innovation must be reconciled with custom and tradition. The measure twice, cut once rule to avoid waste fits this tradition.    

On Drummond, we drank extra water to keep from becoming dehydrated, assuring we’d remain ill. Appreciating traditional conservatism’s values and principles, and using them as measures of the usefulness of candidates’ rhetoric, I hope to immunize myself from the strident diatribe during the coming election season.

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