Troy D. Smith

Okay, once more I am replying publicly to a private message. One of my conservative friends recently wrote me a sincere note expressing fear that Obama is ruining the country, and comparing him to Hitler. This is the third time in a week I have heard such a comparison. I think it's an important subject, hence this posting. Below is my reply:

I have an enormous amount of respect for you as well, and believe we probably share more values than disagreements. I have been thinking about your note since I got it. I know you are sincere, and are not exaggerating your fears about Obama. What strikes me is the fact that -no kidding, and no exaggeration -I honestly felt the exact same way and said many of the exact same things about Bush. I honestly feared, around the summer of 2005, before Katrina started turning the tide of public opinion, that our country was being led down the same slope as the Germans and Japanese were in the 20s and 30s; the need for security was playing into the hands of those who would strip away our rights and turn our democracy, slowly but surely, into a dictatorship.

You and I like and respect each other, and love our families, and love our country, and as it happens worship the same God. I find myself wondering how our political opinions can be so many worlds apart, and how there can be so many people just like each of us. Most people I know back in Tennessee would agree 100% with you- I felt very isolated when I was there, in some ways, always outnumbered by people who thought my ideology was twisted and wrong. So do some of my liberal friends who still live there. Now I live in the Midwest, in a college town. If you leave town and go into the farm country, most folks think like you, instead of like me; if you hang around town, almost no one does. In fact, I can only think of two or three conservatives I even know in this town. I now have the luxury of knowing that when I spout off my opinions, instead of starting a fight everyone agrees with me. Are there really two different Americas? And can only two political parties really represent the wide diversity of opinions one would expect from over 300 million people- or are we really so simplistic that they do?

Of course, I think it all comes down to one's fundamental life view. Conservatives want to CONSERVE- they want (at least they're supposed to want) to save things, mostly money. But they also want to save the status quo; they want things to be like they've always been, and look to the past for the "good old days" that we should still be living now. Liberals, as the name implies, are kind of liberal (or free) with the cash (among other things), more willing to spread it around. The name itself dates back to the French Revolution (as do the terms right wing and left wing) and the concept is far older than that. Nowadays a lot of liberals call themselves "progressives", since liberal has been turned into a dirty word. I don't think it IS a dirty word, and I'm proud to be associated with it (it comes from the Latin root word "liber", which is also the root of "liberty" and "liberation.")

But still... perhaps progressive is a more accurate term, after all. Because, whereas conservatives want things to either stay the same or go back to how they used to be, liberals want things to progress. They want change. One of my favorite writers is the Western author Elmer Kelton, and he once had this to say about his characters: "I don't write about good guys in white hats fighting bad guys in black hats. I write about two guys in gray hats, one trying to initiate change and the other resisting it." So maybe that's the nature of things. Maybe we are destined to engage in this back-and-forth tug of war through the generations. Maybe in a tug of war you ultimately really can have only two sides.

But this is where I take comfort. You see, throughout the history of this country, conservatives (whatever their party) have tried to keep things the same, and progressives have tried to change things. And you know what? Every generation, things have changed. Young people today, overall, are far more liberal than their grandparents were at that age. If you, a 2009 conservative, could somehow travel back in time to 1859- compared to the conservatives of that time, you would seem like a wild liberal. Sure, conservatives have held universal health care at bay for almost a full century- but we keep getting closer to it. The best that the conservative can hope to do is slow down the rate of change- like bailing water out of a sinking boat. Every attitude and political hope of mine that scares you will eventually come to pass, and become the mainstream, and the world that comes about because of it will be nothing like the world of your youth. Just like the world today is not the same as it was in 1900. And people will wonder why so many people resisted, just like we wonder why they resisted the end of slavery or women getting the vote or businesses being forced to pay a minimum wage and overtime.

Sure, there were a lot of good things about the "good old days" that it would be nice to have now... people may have tended to be more devout, polite, honest. But at the same time, black men could be hanged at random by anyone who wanted to do so, secure in the knowledge that they would get away with it. 9-year-olds could be forced to work in the mines. Chain gangs were common- not just for dangerous criminals, but for people unlucky enough to lose their jobs and get arrested for indigence. The mentally ill were practically locked away for life in dungeons. A man could do anything to his wife short of killing her and no one would dare ask any questions, no matter how broken and bloody she was.

All those things have changed, along with some of the nicer parts of the past that we might wish to have back. Taken in balance, overall I think we'd all agree that the change has been for the better. And every thing I listed above was changed because liberals made it happen. When you collect your social security, or unemployment when you lose your job; when you take a new job that pays extra if you work over 40 hours, and conforms to safety regulations... thank a liberal. In fact, thank liberals for your country: in the American Revolution, 1/3 of the people were hardcore conservatives who didn't want to see a bunch of radical changes. We call 'em Tories, and if they had their way we'd still be British. 80 years later it was hardcore conservatives- Democrats, not Republicans -who wanted things to stay the same, and wild-eyed liberal Republicans who wanted to end slavery.

Don't misunderstand and think that I am equating all conservatives with racists and bullies. Just like in Elmer Kelton's stories, in most cases there are no real villains, just people with different goals and desires.

What I AM saying is that things change. And even in politics, even if it takes a long time, it is ten times easier to change things than it is to change them back.

Change is coming. Believe in it.