Conservatives and the Spiteful Politics of “Can’t”

Timothy Egan’s column on Pope Francis highlights what he calls Francis’ “Art of Joy”: the Pope’s sunny, humorous upbeat disposition and confidence in his ability to change both the institution of the Church and the world at large for the better. I’ve written about Pope Francis’ important impact both here and at Alternet, emphasizing his commitment to reforms on social justice and the environment that could affect the politics of Catholics and Christians of other denominations both at home and abroad. But I haven’t adequately keyed in on the power of his personal optimism and positive attitude. It’s an often overlooked point that also provides perspective on American politics.

It’s easier to be a happy, welcoming warrior when one’s politics are liberal. Telling people that everyone deserves a fair chance at equal opportunity and a guarantee against misery tends to be a happier message than admonishing people that their poverty and misery is their own fault. It’s much easier to be inspiring if you’re Barack Obama promising better, more expanded healthcare than if you’re Paul Ryan promising to privatize your Medicare.

But even conservatives can be happy and inspiring. The classic example is, of course, Ronald Reagan. Conservatives like to look back at Reagan’s legacy of sunny optimism combined with conservative politics, but fail to understand that Reagan’s moment was somewhat unique, contrasting his then-untested supply-side theories against the public’s (wrong) perception of liberal overreach and economic failure in the 1970s. It turns out that Reagan’s theory of economy and governance was disastrous for all but the very rich, and that the 1970s weren’t nearly as bad for the middle class as people felt at the time, gas lines notwithstanding. As income inequality increases, environmental consciousness spreads and the public becomes more socially liberal, the Reagan legacy of Bible-thumping, polluting trickle-down economics looks far less cheery now than it did in 1980. But it is possible for a conservative to be a happy optimist.

But modern conservatism is angry revanchism writ large. Pope Benedict was the surly face of a declining, hidebound institution. The GOP candidates for President are all dour, angry moralizers out of step with prevailing trends in American public opinion. And everything conservatives say amounts to the same thing: the country has no money, we have to cut back everything, and you have no right to decide for billionaires whether they should buy their 20th golden yacht or pay back some of their loot to fund schools and healthcare. It’s the cant of “Can’t.”

That’s ugly, and it doesn’t inspire–regardless of the issues involved.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.