In America and most other countries, the conservatives are finding themselves besieged from all sides. This is one reason why some of them become radicalized. By definition, conservatives want to preserve established traditions and institutions in the name of stability, not to mention their self-interests. They resist change and prefer gradual development. The problem is that the world keeps on changing ever faster whether we like it or not.
I used to consider myself a conservative until a few years ago. The changes that are happening in this world are intensifying with increasing speed. When they come, they tend to be abrupt and earthshaking, seldom gradual. I know I cannot build a fortress to fight the rising tide of change. If I am not able to fight against the inevitable, I may as well join them. In this way, I can turn myself into an agent of change in an effort to build a better world.
Old habits, traditions and institutions don’t die easily. They either wither away as the old generation who embraces them passes, or are torn down by the new generation who represents the agent of change. Old things are not necessarily bad, nor are they necessarily good. They are just obsolete to work in the new world. If conservatives continue to cling onto the obsolete, they will risk becoming irrelevant.
The changes that are happening in this world impact all aspects of life, even our thinking and philosophy. The driving force is technology that gives birth to the so-called creative destruction that turns everything upside down while creating new opportunities. Technology has a dynamics of its own, and everybody has to play catch up. It’s not easy to see the pervasive but quiet technological revolutions that occur everyday. When they eventually accumulate to a tidal wave or a tipping point, the world will get a big shock, pleasant for those who take advantage of it, and destructive for those who resist. Let me recount some of the world-changing events as a result of technology:
The invention of the printing press circa 1440 is considered one of the greatest for spreading literacy and truths to the masses. It gave power to ordinary citizens by opening up their minds and enabling them to share ideas and knowledge. It turned millions of followers who used to listen to the indoctrinating “wise men” into independent readers developing their own opinions. It enabled all kinds of ideas to flourish and spread.
The discovery around 1540 that the earth was not the center of the universe shook the foundation of the teachings of the powerful Catholic Church. In 1859, the publication of the theory of evolution delivered a second blow. The consequence is that the world increasingly embraced scientific truths rather than religious doctrines invented by man. Surprisingly, some conservatives in America were still not ready to accept evolution.
In 1789, the French Revolution broke the myths of the absolute monarchy hitherto believed as a heavenly mandate rather than the perpetration of power by the ruling elites. Since then, absolute monarchies around the world began to crumble. How many of them still exist today?
The Industrial Revolution exemplified by the invention of the steam engine that began around 1750 elevated the European countries to great power status. The ancient conservative empires in Asia, Africa, Middle East, and South America were caught unprepared to face this change. As a consequence, the Europeans were able to occupy and colonize all over the world for nearly 200 years by employing their new firepower. The era of colonialism instilled a sense of Western superiority especially in technology, government, and economic development, which still persists today to some extent.
Women won the right to vote in the US in 1920, the UK in 1928, Switzerland in 1971, and Saudi Arabia as late as 2011. This represents a sea change when half of the population is given equal say. Furthermore, when more women become breadwinners and college graduates, our way of life will change dramatically because half of the population is liberated and empowered. Some conservatives still wonder why women should not be restricted to the home.
The first oil crisis of 1973 represents an attempt by the oil-rich countries to fight Western power and domination. They have succeeded in bringing the whole world to its knees besides the Westerners. In 2009, the unending oil crisis finally bankrupted the once powerful American auto industry that continued to produce energy-inefficient cars. Although high gasoline prices make everybody miserable, it has stimulated renewable energy such as solar and wind as viable alternatives. Despite this sea change, most conservatives are still obsessed with how much fossil fuel they can dig up from the ground.
The decision of China to shed communism and adopt capitalistic production has propelled her to the second largest economy of the world. Her inexpensive vast labor force attracts huge foreign investments. While conservatives in the West are blaming China for “stealing” their jobs, Western corporations continue to outsource manufacturing to make bigger profits. Most conservatives hate the word globalization, which has been taking shape for three decades already.
The rapid rise in fossil fuel consumption of China and other emerging countries with large populations renders environmental pollution more urgent, especially carbon dioxide emissions that cause climate change. Most conservatives are totally unprepared to accept this change that may turn out to be the world’s biggest challenge. As a result, they ridicule the climate sciences and label climate change a hoax. Perhaps they want to return to the Dark Ages where modern science was not yet born and pollution was no worry.
The Internet, mobile phones, and social media were first written off by many conservatives as a fad. As things unfold and develop, those businessmen embracing the new technology become billionaires overnight because they are able to harness the world’s markets. Those who are ill prepared for this change find themselves struggling for survival, especially in the traditional publishing industry. President Kennedy once said, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”
Finally, the demographic development of the world is running against the conservatives who represent the older age group most resistant to change. In a matter of decades, this older generation will be entirely replaced by a new one, which is more tolerant of diversity and adaptable to change because they are now being raised in a rapidly changing world.
All the above cases illustrate that conservative thinking is too slow to adapt to the modern world of fast and chaotic changes that are inevitable. No wonder conservatives are in denial and want to turn back the clock. They need to think about the new opportunities that will vastly eclipse the old ones. Perhaps then, they will come around to embrace the brave new world.