Conservatives have spent years relying upon a single man to effectively represent our movement’s philosophy in the U.S. Senate – Alabama’s own Jeff Sessions.
When others bowed under pressure or blew-up with frustration, his steadfast advocacy kept the fight going long enough for the cavalry to arrive. So while his departure to become our nation’s top cop was certainly applauded, it does leave some trepidation within our ranks.
Are conservatives now without an effective and dependable voice in the Senate?
Mike Lee, the junior senator from Utah, is quickly speaking up.
One could point to his record – Lee is the only Senator to earn a perfect 100% score from Conservative Review – or the many initiatives he’s championed, but perhaps the greatest sign of Lee’s solid understanding and genuine belief in our movement is how he explains conservatism.
“Conservatives’ view of human nature and history tells us that in this life, there will always be problems, and that attempts to use government to solve them often only make things worse,” Lee recently said in a speech at the Heritage Foundation.
Lee went on to explain when and how government should become involved in our lives, but his mention of “human nature” is quite revealing. He’s spoken about it many times before, once warning lawmakers that “policy cannot pick a fight with human nature and hope to win.”
Most people mistakenly assume that conservatism is principally about preferring things like limited government or low taxes, and defending things like the sanctity of life or traditional marriage. But that’s like thinking Christianity is principally about treating people nicely and going to church on Sunday, rather than being about what’s written in John 3:16. The same can be said for political philosophy; there’s something deeper at work here.
What truly divides the left and the right is far more fundamental, and it doesn’t begin with what people believe about an issue, but with what they believe about human nature itself.
“In the view of conservatism, ancient and modern, human nature is flawed, and in the view of contemporary liberalism, Man is perfectible,” wrote Brad Miner in The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia. “From this premise spring all differences between the two philosophies.”
And there you have the source of all this political acrimony – human nature.
Simply put, if you believe that people aren’t perfect, and therefor we’re incapable of devising perfect plans, then you’re likely to distrust large, comprehensive, and especially involuntary programs – a traditional conservative position.
If you think we’re more or less good, and that our big plans would work if we’d only get the necessary resources (funding, people, time, information, etc.), then you’re likely to trust and even advocate for such things on a grand scale – a traditional liberal position.
That may sound like a bunch of irrelevant philosophical gobbledygook, but here’s how it breaks down on a real issue:
Liberals don’t support the government-run school monopoly because they value teacher unions over student performance. They do so because they honestly believe that with the right amount of planning, money, and cooperation that all of our students would get a good education. They also oppose alternatives because they’d complicate their plans, siphon off their money, and remove otherwise cooperative people from their program.
Conversely, conservatives don’t support publicly-funded alternatives to government-run schools because we want to keep poor students in sorry classrooms. We seek vouchers and charter schools because we know that no matter how hard a one-size-fits-all school system may try, human nature ensures it will fail in some, or even many respects. The best way to help the most students, we believe, is to diversify with more options as a hedge against the failures we know will occur.
You can reverse engineer nearly every debate and they’ll all spring from those opposing views of human nature. Our understanding of it is the foundation of our political philosophies, both conservative and liberal. As with all good foundations, it may be hidden from view, but upon it all else stands or falls.
Mike Lee understands that, and that’s what will hopefully help him stay the course in the coming years when distractions and defeat eventually strike.
Hopefully the rest of us conservatives will follow suit.