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Conservatives, liberals, ‘Rockefeller Republicans,’ ‘Cuomo liberals’ — but where’s the humanity?

Posted Dec. 28, 2011, at 5:26 p.m.

BDN columnist Matthew Gagnon makes an interesting case ( “The new conservatives,” Dec. 16) for why he is not a conservative, even though he says he claims to be a “member of the right-wing of American politics in virtually every way.” If he is not a conservative right-winger — a redundancy — then could he be, contradictorily, a “progressive right-winger”?

He seems to suggest that because he aspires to change, not conserve, those programs that protect vulnerable citizens, such as Social Security and Medicare, he is something of a right-wing radical. The real conservatives today, he says, are those liberals on the left who wish to keep the social safety net protecting the aged and the infirm.

A right winger attacking conservatives! It seems that Gagnon has stood conservatism on its head, like Alice in Wonderland, by defining words not by their meaning but by what he wants them to mean.

Modern conservatism’s godfather, Milton Friedman, is marginally clearer. Friedman believes in limited government as the best way to disperse power and protect individual freedom. Friedman understands that we need government to preserve our freedoms but also argues that a government with too much power can be a threat to freedom.

In that respect, as Friedman himself admits, he is a 19th century liberal — one for whom individual freedom is the highest value — yet laments that in the 20th century the purveyors of welfare and equality appropriated the label of “liberal,” hence forcing Friedman and others to latch on to the label of “conservative.” Individual freedom, Friedman asserts, has been compromised by the new liberals who regard the state, or government, as the only institution in modern society capable of protecting the public welfare, social equality and the social safety net that both Gagnon and Friedman dislike.

How confusing!

But label confusion does not stop there. A “Rockefeller Republican,” after former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, is one who likes small government but is willing to let government grow in order to provide social services and a safety net to society’s most vulnerable.

Perhaps a “LePage conservative,” on the other hand, wants business to be big, government to shrink and everyone else to fend for themselves.

Then there is what we might call a “Cuomo liberal,” a person who accepts what LePage might call a “nanny state,” but also like LePage wants government to be smaller and more efficient.

And then there are the tea party folks, neither conservative nor liberal, just libertarians who hate taxes, laws, foreign wars, treaties, and progressives of all stripes. Yet even they insist that government keep its hands off “their” Medicare.

The public probably should declare political party labels irrelevant in this topsy-turvy political landscape. Keep distinctions simple, based on values rather than tribal loyalty.

Unfortunately, it’s a difficult chore to bury party tribalism. Recently, an animated conversation ensued between me in my role as head of the Gouldsboro Democratic Party and the head of the Hancock County Democrats, John Knutson. It centered on whether Eliot Cutler, an independent, should receive support from Democrats in the next gubernatorial election, failing the nomination of a compelling Democrat such as Emily Cain and given a decision by Cutler to test the electoral waters again.

As the Gouldsboro chairman, I argued that in order to make LePage a one-term governor, Democrats should support the very electable Cutler who would not likely pursue LePage’s inhumane campaign to strike 65,000 vulnerable citizens from MaineCare.

“That is illogical,” argued Mr. Knutson. When pressed, he explained that what is “illogical” is for Democrats to support a non-Democrat for governor. God save us from “logic”!

Labels in this day and age should be less important than fidelity to certain values, such as the value of all citizens having access to the means of life, namely health care. This is a value that transcends partisan party politics because it is based on the simple proposition that in order to enjoy American freedoms, citizens require physical security, namely health care. Supporting that value is more important than supporting a particular political party.

After all, denying 65,000 citizens the means to life bespeaks not a conservative value but instead an immoral indifference to the health of fellow citizens.

And that position, alas, is a 19th century one best known as “social Darwinism,” a paean to survival of the fittest befitting a Dickens novel. Even Friedman, the 20th century liberal having a 19th century liberal sentiment, recognized: “If the objective is to alleviate poverty, we should have a program directed at helping the poor.” That program here in Maine is MaineCare.

Roger Bowen is a political scientist living in Prospect Harbor.

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