by MICHAEL CHARNEY
Imagine Disney doing a version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. In this version Howard Roarke is played by a doddering (but still funny) Dick Van Dyke while Julie Andrews slips comfortably into the role of Dominque Francon. (And, by the way, Julie still looks great. She was born for the part.) At one point the two of them, along with a few obsequious followers, jump through an architectural drawing that’s been chalk-marked onto a sidewalk. They then frolic and cavort in some other-worldly nanny state filled with animated characters (created by Pixar, of course, since Disney owns it), while singing the title song, the one you see at the top of this essay.
A nonsense word. Even when you try to sing it. (C’mon. You know you did…)
The idea it contains—that there is something special about fiscally conservative and socially moderate (or liberal)—has also been accused of nonsensicality. In a recent essay, my co-host on The Middle Ground, Eric Byler, had this to say about it:
"I am socially liberal and fiscally conservative."
I hear that so often, I’m tempted to say "Who isn't?” before the speaker adds: “That’s why I hate politics,” or "That's why I feel like I have no political home."
The self-ascribed label is often used to set the speaker apart from society, and yet, especially in younger and more urban demographics, it has become the norm.
I agree—just a bit—with Eric. The terminology has been genericized into near-meaninglessness, but that’s not the fault of the terms themselves, but of the way they are so casually used. With the term “socially liberal,” for example, it’s easy to answer Eric’s question. It’s pretty clear to me (and, I imagine, to you) “who isn’t.” We generally refer to them as the base of the Republican Party, the substantial minority of registered GOPers who still think that Todd Akin is just the cat’s meow. (As opposed to the cat’s hairball the rest of us consider him.)
There’s also the “socially moderate” label, which I prefer to “socially liberal,” the term with which it is often combined. I don’t think you can conflate the two so easily. My example (sure to ruffle some feathers) is the now-settled question of gays in the military. Social liberalism would argue that a policy like “Don’t ask/Don’t Tell” was a humongous insult and a mistake to boot. A social moderate like me would argue that it was the perfect policy for the time. It took careful steps toward an important change, but allowed society and the military to both monitor and assess any unintended consequences, and to allow for additional enculturation. A similar example is playing out with respect to gay marriage, where a socially liberal person would likely embrace a federal law (or constitutional amendment) supporting the move, while a social moderate looks for both the respect of state’s rights and a period of, again, enculturation.
The whole fiscally conservative thing, though, is where we end up with chalk marks in a rainstorm. (Double analogy, for those paying attention: Mary Poppins and Joni Mitchell.) I haven’t heard anybody claim the mantle of “fiscal liberal” and I doubt even J. M. Keynes would have accepted such a moniker.
Many would likely accept the alternative term fiscal responsibility if offered the choice, especially since the word conservative carries around such elephantine weight. It does seem, though, that there is a tendency to use either term at least somewhat interchangeably. For me, though, they are not the same at all.
Fiscal responsibility—which I define as balancing a return on investment with a humanitarian heart—should be the price of admission. Think of Congress as a collection of 538 CFOs all sharing the responsibility of keeping our bottom line from bottoming out. If they can’t do that job, we should just fire their asses and hire people who can. We expect—and demand—fiscal responsibility from our elected leaders. Every single one of us. It’s a mom-and-apple-pie economic principle. (We don’t often get it from Congress, but that’s another essay. Maybe three.)
Fiscal conservatism, though, isn’t just about responsibility. It means that decisions about how to responsibly spend our money will generally favor maintaining the status quo (for those things that are working), and making gentle, subtle adjustments (for those that are not), all the while ensuring that we take the time along the way both for analyzing the possible unintended consequences and for any necessary enculturation.
Allow me to provide an example, another one that will certainly re-ruffle those same feathers I ruffled a few paragraphs back:
There are people I’ve talked with who would consider it fiscally responsible for the U.S. to make drastic cuts in military spending. In fact, that would be fiscally irresponsible. Our military/industrial complex is woven so deeply into the economic fabric that any attempt to rapidly pull threads could result in severe unemployment, a terrible drop in GDP and, possibly, another recession (or worse). The fiscally conservative approach would be to look at what’s working and what’s not, anticipate the future needs (cyber vs. subs, for example), and then to make incremental small cuts and/or program trade-offs that would be far less likely to shock the system and far more likely to move us in the direction we need to go.
That’s not, I’m sorry to say, a position I often hear, but it is the fiscally conservative approach. (Ironically, today’s GOP is taking a fiscally liberal approach: spend and build and spend and build. As always, the military is the party’s Keynesian backdoor.)
These examples—both on the social and the fiscal side—will, I hope, give you pause to reconsider how you define these terms for yourself. To people like me (a self-proclaimed consiberal) these terms do have real meaning. They’re not just a nice blanket that covers a large group of fence-sitters. Socially moderate and fiscally conservative define an ideological approach, not just a middling moderate middle.
I would add as a final note a very specific—and frightening—answer to Eric’s question. I can tell you precisely “who isn’t” a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. Glenn Beck isn’t. Al Sharpton isn’t. Rush Limbaugh isn’t. Ed Schultz isn’t. Michael Savage isn’t isn’t isn’t. They’re all just loud people possessing more wattage than you and me….
It may be very true—and I hope and believe that it is—that millions of you out there are socially moderate (or liberal) and fiscally conservative. (It must be true! Someone's selling t-shirts, for God’s sake….) But if it is true, then we dearly need to hear from more of you. We need you louder and stronger and better organized. We need you to “be the media,” as we sometimes say, on Facebook and YouTube and Twitter and Internet Radio. Eric and I would want you to know that you do, in fact, have a “political home.”