Much like “liberalism,” the word “conservatism” has come to mean any number of things, and most of the time is used as code for “things I agree with” or “things I disagree with,” depending on one’s political ideology. Here, I’m going to use an old definition of “conservatism” that is not always followed closely by self-described conservatives: essentially, a conservative believes that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and is skeptical of (but not always opposed to) government action. While I don’t always agree with their critiques, I do think they are important voices in government, which otherwise tends to attract devoted public servants who are excited to do good for their constituents, often to the point that they start throwing money about so freely that they run out of it, or regulate things to such an extent that law becomes unintelligible to most people (if not contradictory or unenforceable). Every political body needs at least one sober, perhaps cynical voice to, in the words of Bill Buckley, “stand athwart history yelling ‘stop.’” This is especially true in a city like Duluth, which does not have a shortage of well-intentioned people in government.
The problem with this conservatism is that people usually say a lot more than just “stop,” and their attempts to rationalize their opinions can make all the difference. Take the case of two local politicians who show the best and the worst sides of the conservative mindset.
At the Duluth City Council meeting this past Monday, I witnessed a clinic in compelling local government conservatism. Councilor Garry Krause voted against the grain on every contentious issue before the Council, and in several cases took the time to explain exactly why he voted the way he did not support added regulation or new development. Councilor Krause was concise, stated his principles, listed examples of negative ramifications of Council meddling, and had a knack for pithy lines that summed up his arguments. Though he disagreed with his colleagues, he remained congenial (in public, at least), and the other councilors often made an effort to respond to his critiques. They seemed to respect one another, and Krause showed a willingness to work with the other Councilors when they do find some common ground. His perspective seems to understand the world is a very complicated place, but he knows where he stands within it, and looks to carve out a niche that leaves his conscience comfortable at the end of the day. While his frequent partner in dissent, Councilor Jay Fosle, comes off as a loose cannon who picks his battles (and his words) haphazardly, Krause manages to be a man of conviction without putting on any airs of self-righteousness.
On the other end of the spectrum, we find people like the Member Art Johnston of the Duluth School Board. Like Krause, Johnston is a reasonably effective public speaker who can put together a solid sound bite. He is also not a dumb man, as evidenced by his encyclopedic knowledge of District bylaws and procedures, and by his careful consideration of issues on which his anti-Long Range Facilities Plan ideological framework does not have much to say. Even his greatest critics would never deny that he is true to his principles.
Yet Johnston is no Krause. He evinces self-righteousness and resentment par excellence. He is disruptive, holding up such routine processes as the approval of meeting minutes. He votes against practically everything before the Board even when those votes serve zero practical purpose, largely to keep up his ideological consistency. His relentless attacks have so alienated the rest of the Board that they only rarely acknowledge his presence, and simply work past him instead of working with him. Whatever his broader political views may be (and I have no idea what they are), his style is reminiscent of some Tea Party politicians: it is virulent, hard-line, and takes no prisoners. As I left the building after the meeting, I overheard him telling a companion, “I don’t know what’s wrong with those people. Actually, I do.” Whatever it was that he understood or did not understand about “those people” (a phrase that immediately sets off alarm bells in my head), his world is clearly one of rigid, Manichean distinctions.
The easy conclusion to this piece would be “Krause good, Johnston bad,” and to say the world needs more conservatives like the former, and fewer like the latter. Reality, unfortunately, is not that simple. Taking the time to develop a complex view of the world while also balancing that with a few core principles is not easy, and is not a trait found in many politicians, who are usually rewarded at the ballot box for taking firm stances. Voters don’t always appreciate nuance.
Furthermore, telling history to stop is a very difficult thing. Both Krause and Johnston hardly ever win. And when one never wins, it is easy to understand the allure of a Johnston, who at least makes the world well-aware of his presence. For all his faults, Johnston has a committed following, and a few of his supporters still come forward to thank him at the end of every meeting. Krause, on the other hand, has no fan club. As he himself noted at last week’s meeting, he is, effectively, the defender of the “mundane and boring.” And when one is not viciously screaming at the opposition, it is not hard for other committed conservatives to see one as too compliant, too much of a loyal opposition, leaving the principled conservative with very few allies. Thus the Garry Krauses of the world face a dilemma: do they sell their souls and join the Art Johnstons, going down screaming? Or do they stay true to basic standards of decorum and fight only the necessary battles, praying the voters will recognize their efforts? It is not too hard to see some immediate parallels between this debate and one of the key rifts in today’s Republican Party.
I’ve set up two ideal types here, and it’s worth noting that they didn’t emerge out of vacuums. At present, the Duluth City Council seems to be a fairly agreeable body, and while it makes its mistakes and may have a certain groupthink to it, it usually manages a constructive conversation. Within the confines of its mission and realistic standards, it is an effective body. The School Board, on the other hand, is still in the shadow of an extremely divisive school restructuring plan, and its culture remains poisoned by a near-existential war. It is easy to dismiss Johnston’s motives as sheer resentment, but his views had to be honed and hardened by something. It is the responsibility of the non-conservatives to understand his mindset, and not in a simplistic way that is just as black-and-white as Johnston’s worldview. The same is true at the national level: it is unfortunate that Washington can barely manage civil discourse anymore, but there are underlying cultural reasons for the breakdown in civility, and there is plenty of blame to be spread around on that front. No one is innocent.