Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, January 7, 2019

Former Senator Jeff Flake is a rational Republican. I’m a liberal, but I read his book because my friend Linda (another liberal) and I thought we should be reading some books by conservatives to balance our views. Jeff Flake is the kind of Republican I wish all Republicans were like. He doesn’t believe what I believe, but he’s at least sane and reasonable, with some integrity. And his book Conscience of a Conservative is a worthy read by anyone interested in current politics.

Flake tells us he’s a Goldwater/Reagan conservative and explains what that means. He then goes on to explain why the conservative movement has been corrupted by Donald Trump and his populist supporters. Flake’s book is really aimed at his fellow Republicans, and Flake even offers examples where he followed the party line and now considers himself wrong. He also regrets some of his votes he made solely to keep a perfect conservative voting record. One fascinating revelation was how Republicans vote no and pray yes. Flake even spends a chapter on the importance of bipartisan lawmaking. Much of what he writes is from a wise perspective, good political thinking for either party.

For years Flake took pride in always voting with his party. This made me think of a solution to solve our polarized politics. I’d like to see an amendment forcing Congress to compromise. I think every bill should pass by 50% of the whole voting body, with at least 25% from the minority party. That would mean if 100% of Republicans wanted to pass a law they’d at least need 25% of the Democrats. I’m tired of living in a society where half the voters are angry at the other half. If that’s too complicated we should require being governed by a 66% vote for all bills.

Flake’s book presents two essential problems for its readers. Flake wants Republicans to get back to their original conservative values. For liberals, we have a different problem to solve. We must identify the economic and societal problems that conservative philosophy fails to solve.

Flake subtitled his book, “A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.” Flake’s hope is the Republican party will become a party that embraces all citizens. He’s a big tent Republican. He believes the conservative philosophy should appeal to all groups, not just to old WASPs. I believe that’s the primary failure of the Republican party, it’s goals don’t address all citizens.

As a liberal, my problem with Flake’s conservative idealism is he’s a true believer and his faith in conservatism is too simple-minded to solve our complex problems. Flake’s religious-like belief in free-market capitalism fails to see how it can’t work. If we had 100% free market capitalism with no regulation we would not have 100% employment, low taxes, and no need for social programs. We’d have a minority of rich people, a vast majority of poorer people, and a polluted planet going down the drain hole. Only worse than what we have now.

I believe capitalism is the only practical driver for economic growth, but I also believe it should be heavily regulated. We want steady-state capitalism, where growth is sustainable for both the economy and the environment. And we need enough socialism to support those people that capitalism can’t. The percentage of people who can’t thrive under capitalism will grow if we allow automation to run unchecked, eliminate collective bargaining, and keep accepting an ever-expanding wealth-inequality gap.

Flake’s book also inspires me to read two more works that conservatives admire. The Federalist Papers and The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek. Flake spent a fair amount of his book explaining the foundation of his conservative beliefs. His book was inspired by Barry Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative. I’ve started reading it, but I’m not sure if the other two aren’t more important and relevant. However, I liked when Flake asked: “What would Goldwater Do?” His questions offer me hope if many conservatives are asking these questions too. Of course, this is also Flake’s direct attack on Donald Trump, but it also sums up his own beliefs too. Here are Flakes’s questions he’d ask Goldwater:

Would he have thought that it is conservative to abruptly abandon the core conservative belief of free trade with the world and break with multilateral trade agreements? Or abandoned established or pending trade deals, creating a void in the markets that are currently being filled by China, Russia, and even Mexico, just to name a few?

Is it conservative to believe in the magical thinking that suggests that we can ignore the growth in “entitlement” spending simply by declaring that our growth rate will reach at least 4 percent annually—growth that will make the Social Security Trust Fund flush again?

Is it conservative to play chicken with some of the most productive and important international alliances we have ever had?

Is it conservative to heap praise on dictators and to speak fondly of countries that crush dissent and murder political opponents, and muse that the Chinese massacre of students at Tiananmen Square “shows you the power of strength”?

Is it conservative to attack and undermine the intelligence agencies that are essential to our national security and to attack their findings as “hoaxes”?

Is it conservative to vilify religious and ethnic minorities? To exaggerate threats and stoke security and economic fears? To promise that another sovereign country will be forced to pay for a border wall just because such a promise gets a good response at rallies?

Is it conservative to embrace as fact things that are demonstrably untrue, to traffic in “alternative facts,” and to attack the constitutionally protected free press as the“enemy of the people”?

Is it conservative to propagate a conspiracy theory about the birthplace of the president of the United States, long after the facts have put the theory to rest? And is it conservative for members of Congress to remain silent as such conspiracy theories are propagated?

Is it conservative to undermine confidence in our democratic elections, to describe them as “rigged,” and assert with no evidence that three to five million illegal aliens voted in the last general election?

JWH

7 thoughts on “Conscience of a Conservative by Jeff Flake”

  1. You raise some interesting points and questions, James. I just read an article in The New Yorker about a philosopher with some interesting ideas on equality: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/01/07/the-philosopher-redefining-equality

    She posits that our society is not a truly free society and that we are too focused on trying to redistribute wealth. “A society in which everyone had the same material benefits could still be unequal, in this crucial sense [i.e., that everyone should be equally free regardless of their differences-example: without access ramps to public buildings, a disabled person cannot fully participate in civil society, therefore is less free in that respect than the non-disabled person]; democratic equality, being predicated on equal respect, wasn’t something you could simply tax into existence. People, not nature, are responsible for turning the natural diversity of human beings into oppressive hierarchies.”

    I think she is on to something – maybe “equal opportunity” as we think of it does not really create equality – a democratic equality that she defines in the article. Check it out.

    1. What a coincidence. I had already saved that essay to Instapaper. Because of your comment, I’m more likely to read it. I went and started it and discovered how long it is. So I saved it to PDF and put it on my iPad. Hope to get to it soon. I like the early setup. And I believe there’s a direct relationship between opportunity inequality and wealth inequality.

  2. I am an economic conservative (I like balanced budgets and low debt) and a social liberal (I’m for gay rights, a woman’s right to choose, and death with dignity). I really don’ t fit in either the Democratic or Republican Parties. And, I certainly don’t fit into Trump World. On a recent PBS NEWS HOUR, commentator Mark Shields declared that Donald Trump was “a mutant.” I agree. No one else in American Political History could get away with the shennigans Trump has. Conservative claim Trump, but Trump isn’t conservative or liberal. He’s chaos.

    Republicans like Jeff Flake and Bob Corker tried to reason with Trump. Now, both men are out of the Senate, the Government is shut down, and the Border Wall is suddenly a National Crisis. Madness reigns.

  3. Sounds like you picked up some useful insights. Reading one conservative, you feel comfortable declaring one rational. That’s a start. Reading or listening to what someone actually says is very different from relying on political filters to affirm and comfort one in one’s bias. For conservative historical background, “The Federalist Papers” and “The Road to Serfdom” are excellent places to start.

    For modern conservative thought, I wouldn’t have recommended Jeff Flake. He is certainly a conservative but not as polished insightful a writer as the recently departed Charles Krauthammer. His last book, “The Point of It All,” was very well received.

    This comes from a general review of Krauthammer:

    “In 2009, Politico columnist Ben Smith wrote that Krauthammer had “emerged in the Age of Obama as a central conservative voice, the kind of leader of the opposition that economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman represented for the left during the Bush years: a coherent, sophisticated and implacable critic of the new president.” In 2010, The New York Times columnist David Brooks said Krauthammer was “the most important conservative columnist.” In 2011, former congressman and MSNBC host Joe Scarborough called him “without a doubt the most powerful force in American conservatism. He has [been] for two, three, four years.”

    In a December 2010, press conference, former president Bill Clinton – a Democrat – called Krauthammer “a brilliant man”. Krauthammer responded, tongue-in-cheek, that “my career is done” and “I’m toast.”

    1. I went and read about Charles Krauthammer. He seems interesting, so I’ll add him to my TBR pile. His books The Point of It All and Things That Matter are supposed to show up soon at Scribd.com, the new rental library I use.

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