by Paul Mero

No good deed goes unpunished. You would think I would have learned that lesson by now after 30 years in politics. Of course, career politicians do not care about such lessons. Their interest is their career, not truth, not plainness, not honesty and certainly not the other guy’s opinion. But some of us working in politics have made a career of at least trying to do the right thing for the right reasons in the right way.

You might think that a conservative condemning the agendas of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon might be considered a virtue, an act of integrity an act of honesty. But, as I found out this week, such is not always the case. After penning a commentary for The Salt Lake Tribune calling out Steve Bannon as an enemy to Utah, ideologues and opportunists wasted little time rebuking me. My point is not “woe is me.” My point here is that ideologues and opportunists will always plague politics and will always be an enemy of the right thing.

Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, the comment section for my article in the Tribune is full of incredulity, if not some humor, not unmatched by heaping helpings of ideological error and excess. For me, a faithful conservative and long-time culture warrior, to criticize Bannon left many readers calling me the pot to Bannon’s kettle. Others suggested I could not have possibly penned the article, and that I must have been abducted by “pod people.” Such is the nature of Tribune trolls.

Is it acceptable anymore to be thoughtful in politics? Or are partisanship and ideology the only accepted practices today? For instance, is it possible as a sound conservative that I could defend policies sustaining traditional marriage over the years and also defend policies protecting undocumented immigrants? I think so but, evidently, it is not possible to many so-called conservatives in Utah. Is it possible to be a student of conservatism and still oppose many politicians and commentators who seem to represent conservatism today? Again, I not only think so, I know so. And yet ideology and partisanship will not permit the “true believers” to see any other view except their own.

How many times do I have to say it? Entertainment conservatives, such as Hannity and Limbaugh, do not define conservatism. Republican politics do not define conservatism. Prejudice and narrow-mindedness among critics of conservative ideas do not define conservatism. Conservatism has been defined by its historic authors, from Burke to Kirk, and, in a much lesser way, by yours truly right here in Utah.

But ideologues, partisans, and critics are not the only ones to blame for muddying honest debate. Politics also is filled with opportunists, perhaps amounting to more impact than the other three imposters combined. Opportunists, in this case, are those people who use conservatism and the cause of freedom for their own gain. They are often too cute by half in their attempts to cover their sins. Not that all of them are nefarious. Life is full of temptations for fame, money, and power. Good people, even the elect, get their hearts set upon the things of this world and aspire to the honors of men. I know I have at times. Nobody is immune. But susceptibility is no justification or excuse to permit it when we see it.

My Tribune article was a clarion call to all rational conservatives in Utah to reject Bannonism. And yet, as I mention, some people welcome Bannonism to Utah for their own selfish purposes, whether personal or institutional. And when “some people” include a representative of what, in my opinion, used to be the most influential conservative voice in Utah – a voice I created over a 14-year span – insult becomes offense.

One of the most serious errs in the conservative movement, generally, especially as of late, is the penchant to stay silent when friends are wrong. We do so out of a misplaced sense of our own shortcomings, personal courtesy or political loyalty. I have been guilty of that – ignoring the wrongheadedness and imprudence of my friends. Discretion is often the better part of valor. But sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is simply partisan forgiveness or, more accurately, partisan condemnation.

We think Utah is conservative because we understand what conservatism is. I am not so sure. Ideology, partisanship, critics, and opportunists will always be with us. But the sign of a healthy conservative body politic is how the rest of us behave – and how the rest of us behave will always determine what everyone now calls the “Utah Way.”

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  • Paul understands the problem. His point about Burke to Kirk might be lost in the prose of this piece. Here’s the problem made explicit: so called self described “conservatives” are not actually conservatives in the pure political philosophical or ideological sense.

    For Paul, conservatism is defined by its philosophical authors. This makes sense because the basic notions of conservatism as a philosophy are related to its name and in the earliest years were predictable as outgrowths of the things those philosophers believed about it. However, in recent decades, and particularly in recent years, the waters have become quite muddy. Ask anybody what it means to be “conservative” politically and you’ll not only get different answers but those answers will likely not conform closely to the ideas of Burke, Kirk, and others.

    Limbaugh and Hannity may not define Burkian or Kirkian conservatism; but, what Mero may not appreciate is that either a) many people in this country believe more in a different idea of conservatism defined by today’s political commenters or partisan battle lines instead of yesterday’s philosophers, or b) people who claim to be “conservative” just simply aren’t “conservatives” in the Kirkian sense.

    I think we need to retire the word because it’s basically meaningless today. Let’s instead talk about ideas, principles, and policies on their own without the need to focus on labels and tribalism. The focus on labels and what amounts to political tribal warfare is what has landed us in this mire of deeply divided partisanship and a constant battle of political rhetoric.

    I don’t care what you call someone’s ideas, just be decent when you call them.

  • Katharine Biele

    Paul is always a thoughtful commentator, and I agree with Josh Daniels that (not just) conservatives define themselves more by partisanship than by ideology. It would be nice if we could retire both the words “conservative” and “liberal.” They no longer define us.

    I do wonder, however, how the conservative philosophy squares with the vitriol, lies and very bad personal behavior of our politicians.