A Battle of Moral Arithmetic

As a dedicated conservative, I find myself consistently saddened by the widespread public perception of conservatives as mean, selfish, greedy, and detached from broader society. As Arthur Brooks explained in a 2013 article for the American Enterprise Institute, ​”Conservatives are fighting a losing battle of moral arithmetic. They hand an argument with virtually 100% public support—care for the vulnerable—to progressives, and focus instead on materialistic concerns and minority moral viewpoints.”

I don’t like to think of conservatism as a “mean, selfish, greedy, and detached” ideology. I am conservative, and yet I care deeply for the vulnerable peoples of this world. I lead a group on Penn’s campus called “Stand Against Genocide” in order to bring attention to those who shoulder unimaginable suffering. I volunteer each week as an unpaid Emergency Medical Technician on Penn’s EMS squad in order to help those in physical pain. I’ve also lived in absolute and contemplative peace in the middle of the jungle at the birthplace of Gautama Buddha in southern Nepal. I have a decent grasp on the abstract concept of suffering and I know that, at some level, all human beings seek a sense of peace and security. My grandmother was a librarian and my grandfather was a Harvard-educated doctor and they lived in a tiny rural town in Maine. Sometimes, my grandfather’s clients paid him in lobster or handed him IOU’s because they could not afford his necessary services, and yet he never complained. When my grandmother died last year, she was remembered by each and every person at her service as being perpetually more interested in the lives of those around her than in bragging about her own impressive accomplishments. My grandparents were kind souls​ and R​epublican voters; they remind me that we all need just a little bit of extra kindness in our lives. Perhaps human emotions and personalities are immensely complex, but at the end of the day, don’t we all feel better knowing we’ve done something nice (even if it is just opening a door or saying “bless you” after a sneeze)? I know I do.

Compassion and a youthful focus have become part of the new conservative movement in American politics and daily life.

Conservatives are faced with a special challenge: we must balance this basic human desire to be kind with our ideological focus on responsibility and our pragmatic political outlook. For example, while we acknowledge that Bernie Sanders’ plan for free college education is indeed laudable, we also recognize that it is fiscally irresponsible. While we can admit that racial equality would be ideal, we also know that expecting human beings to suddenly overlook race after thousands of years of contrary behavior is like expecting the sun to rise in the west and set in the east starting tomorrow. Unfortunately, our conservative sense of responsibility is often misconstrued as being a sense of scorn or indifference. As Margaret Thatcher discovered in December 1980 when she raised taxes in the short­ term in order to obtain long­term economic recovery in Great Britain, taking responsibility is hard and idealists are always more popular than pragmatists.

We are living in a painfully polarized age, and perhaps to find some common ground, we can all make some ideological concessions. As conservatives, we would do well to emphasize the human kindness that I​ know e​xists within each of us; as my fellow writer Eric Hoover once said, “conservatives are really some of the nicest people I know.” Perhaps we can do a better job balancing our overwhelming sense of responsibility with our inherent desire to make the world a kinder place.

In return, I would call on my liberal peers to stop demonizing conservatives. We are human too, and we have the capacity for compassion, we deserve kindness, and we are worthy of a chance to speak our minds without fear. I challenge liberals to recognize that the “tolerance” they so often preach compels them to tolerate not only the people they like, but also the people they disagree with absolutely and completely. Particularly in an environment like the University of Pennsylvania, where everyone understands the need to be realistic about stress and commitments, I ask liberals to understand conservatives not as mean and selfish but rather as dedicated pragmatists. If liberals are not willing to give us the benefit of the doubt, then perhaps they don’t deserve to carry the societal torch of idealism after all.

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