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The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) regional convention was held yesterday (Sept. 28) in St. Charles, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch report, the main activity at this conference was not a measured consideration of conservative policy ideas, but rather railing at the dreaded liberals and plotting the rightwing battle strategy. The invective seems to have run high. One of the organizers of the conference, though, held forth on the liberal decadence of contemporary Americans in a way that points out all too clearly one of the main failures of conservative ideology, which is its lack of an accurate historical compass:

“Conservatives are angry,” Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, told the gathering. “We’re witnessing the first generation of Americans who, instead of asking what they can do for America, are far too eager to accept liberal platitudes about what America can do for them.”

Liberal platitudes? That’s rich coming from characters who like to beat drums, tootle on fifes and refer to themselves exclusively as “we the people.” Where I come from, folks are pretty sure that government by and of the people means government for the people – we know our Constitution just as well as any conservative and we know what government “for the people” entails. We know that in the first sentence of the Constitution, “we the people” set government the task of securing the “general welfare.”

Nor is the current generation the first to believe that securing the general welfare, making life better for Americans, is one of the most important tasks of government. We know that we are part of a proud tradition that views government as responsible, first of all, for the needs of its citizens.    

My generation, born in the 1940s, was the beneficiary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” which brought us Medicare, The Office of Economic Opportunity, The National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, The Wilderness Protection Act, and extensive consumer protection regulations, as well as a “War on Poverty” that was, despite rightwing claims to the contrary, measurably successful in improving the lives of many Americans.

My mother’s generation, born in the 1920s, was  saved from the horrors of the Great Depression by the many government programs of the New Deal – in my mother’s case, literally saved from childhood starvation thanks to a government helping hand. And later, Social Security, one of the many products of Franklin Roosevelt’s brain trust, insured her a secure old age – as it does for me.

My father’s generation, born in the first decade of the twentieth century, participated in the Progressive Movement that saw the expansion of public education, government regulation of business to insure fair practices, electoral reform that targeted the corruption of the Gilded Age pols, income taxes to insure that the obscenely wealthy capitalists of the era paid their fair share, along with the expansion of labor unions.  

Liberals and Progressives know that the work of insuring the general welfare is an important part of government. That’s why we elected a President who promised to reform a moribund, “free market” health care system that served fewer and fewer people at greater and greater expense. We know from sad experience that we can’t leave our welfare to the workings of a blind, free market whose ascendency still animates rightwing wet dreams. From the Gilded Age to the Bush recession, our history tells us that the radical conservative prescription does not work.  

Sadly, Mr. Cardenas and his angry conservatives would like to take us back to the bad old days: no taxes, no regulations, massive financial inequality, horrendous working conditions, a government that exists only to serve the needs of a wealthy elite. They claim to be worried about a culture of dependency. Cut food stamps, they say, but hand out agricultural subsidies to rich farmers and Big Oil; cut cancer research, but throw tax “incentives” at corporations. Mr. Cardenas is right; there are Americans who expect government handouts – and you’ll find them writing the checks that support the political aspirations of many of the politicians who attend CPAC.

I would say to Mr. Cardenas that liberals are angry too. We’re more than angry; we are sick-at-heart that in the light of our history there are still people in this country willing to stand with Al Cardenas and his cohorts and say I’ve got mine, the rest of you chumps can go to hell.

Cross-posted to the DailyKos.