Barack the Conservative

The fuss made over Barack Obama’s suggestion that drivers should regularly check their tire pressure has been one of the 2008 campaign’s most amusing spectacles. After all, he’s not alone in saying this: the British government has given similar advice to motorists for years. However, this commonsensical idea is being portrayed as simple-minded: the answer to America’s energy shortages, says his opposition, is to “drill, drill, drill”. Worry more about getting more, rather than be concerned about being cautious and frugal.

This is, quite frankly, insane. There has never been a period in human history in which being wasteful was a good idea. Profligate governments find themselves swimming in debt, like Henry VIII’s England, and there isn’t always a Good Queen Bess to rescue them afterwards. Profligate peoples find that their civilisations run out of steam: perhaps one of the causes of the fall of Ancient Egypt was the concentration on extravagance for the dead rather than providing for the living. Nature itself abhors waste: the decay and effluent of one organism often provides fertiliser for another and the cycle of life ensures that “refuse” does not exist in the natural world. Indeed, even carbon dioxide is necessary for plants to achieve photosynthesis. Pure “rubbish” is most assuredly a man-made product. To argue against thrift as a priority, therefore, goes against the grain of Creation itself.

Furthermore, Obama’s suggestion is quite correct: according to the US Department of Energy, maintaining good tire pressure improves mileage by 3.3 percent. This is equivalent to a price drop of 12 cents in a gallon of gas: not bad, and certainly a saving that would have a positive ripple effect on the wider economy, if everyone did as the government suggests. The other tips from the Department are similarly maintenance focused: they state that regularly changing the air filter could improve mileage by 10 percent. Making sure the car is well tuned would add a further 4 percent. In short, it was sound advice: save money, help save the planet, take care of your things. Yet, to some, this is “dumb”; as Rush Limbaugh stated on his radio programme, “”My friends, this is laughable of course, but it’s stupid! It is stupid!”

This situation leads us to an interesting paradox: if “conserve” is the root word at the basis of “conservatism”, then who is the more “conservative”, Barack or Limbaugh? It is Limbaugh, after all, the self-described “conservative”, that is deriding the cautious use of resources; he has constantly stated his preference for oil drilling, which is the logical equivalent of trying to solve a drought by carrying more water from a diminishing well in leaky buckets, rather than plugging the leaks in the first instance. Barack, on the other hand, is on the side of economy. Yet, it is Obama who is being described as the “dangerous liberal” and seen as “profligate”, particularly with other people’s money.

We should not be surprised by this, however. “Conservatism” is a label for an ideology that has no accurate moniker, which theoretically lumps together people as ideologically dissimilar as Pat Buchanan and Andrew Sullivan. The name has been traditionally used to imply a philosophy that is opposed to radical change: however, the hallmark of the Bush administration has been a great deal of turbulence, even stretching to governments beyond its borders, and closer to home, to undermining the aged and basic protections enshrined in the Constitution. Barack’s call for “change” under these circumstances looks more like a restoration, a step back from the violence and mismanagement that have plagued the United States for the past eight years.

If it cannot be defined in reference to stability, perhaps conservatism can then be defined by its adherence to religion; certainly, President Bush is an overtly “God-fearing” man, who cites Jesus Christ as a favourite philosopher. However there is a case to be made to suggest that Barack has taken on the meaning of faith even more deeply than the President: it merely depends on where one’s emphasis lies, and what one perceives as the greater sin. “Evangelicals” appear to abhor the sin of lust above all others; but which is worse, lust or avarice? So much is spoken of the former that attack on the latter by the “Christian leadership” is a rare happenstance. That said, there is no denying that unbridled lust creates problems: for example, no one desires an increase in teenage pregnancy or venereal disease. However, if ambition is not shackled to responsibility, the consequence is to create a fractured culture in which people perceive themselves to be islands unto themselves. So long as their individual portions of territory is prosperous, they see no problem if the others fail; this is a recipe for eventual anarchy as well as widespread misery.

If a religious context is inadequate, then, perhaps conservatism can be defined in terms of the role of government; theoretically, there is trust in the freedom of the individual to manage their own affairs, and to rise or fall by their own merits. However, this assumption has been blown to pieces by the recent credit crisis: where was this red blooded philosophy when it came to the titans of Wall Street? Surely, if self-reliance is to be the key to virtue, then the likes of Bear Stearns should have been told, bluntly, “you’re on your own”, rather than be a cause of any concern for the state. Obama’s line in so far as it pertains to these large institutions has broadly been that they should be wealthy enough to sort themselves out; his focus has remained on providing tax relief to those at the bottom end of the scale, so they can better steer the waters of economic turmoil.

As the label’s meaning apparently is murky at best, it is perhaps best to say that the conservatism of “conservatives” is a brand, a matter of presentation rather than a coherent set of philosophical tenets. The moniker implies an extrovert, if not aggressive belief in God, family, home and hearth and a hidden license to unbridled consumption. It’s more about portraying Barack as some silly, out of touch elitist than rather examining the practical impact of his proposals and holding to some unrivaled claim to intellectual integrity. It’s more about trying to cast aspersions on Obama’s education and erudition as a distancing factor from the life of most Americans, rather than actually thinking through what he has to say. Smoke and mirrors, shapes and shadows, bread and circuses, we’ve always been at war with Eurasia, the whole show could roll on only so long as the practical limits of consumption didn’t kick in: these are coming to the fore in 2008.

To be completely fair, some conservatives do mean what they say. Mostly these individuals are to be found outside the United States; for example, as Andrew Marr stated in “The History of Modern Britain”, Mrs. Thatcher genuinely thought that opening markets and deregulation would somehow create a culture in which people were actually less extravagant and wasteful, not more. It was a bad line to hear while I was drinking a sip of water; I briefly did a passable impersonation of the Trevi Fountain. In her case, to put it mildly, the idea didn’t work out. It hasn’t worked out, overall. Perhaps it’s time to give the Obama variant of “conservatism” a try.

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