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An Open Letter to American Conservatives

Dear Conservatives,

I know we don’t agree on much, ideologically speaking. I believe that in a liberal democracy, government should represent the will of the people. It shouldn’t be castigated as some bureaucratic social and economic oppressor, but instead it should channel the needs, hopes, and dreams of the citizens it serves and be weaponized to aggressively attack the obstacles preventing all people from achieving the American Dream. I don’t fear big government, I fear bad government.

Alas, while I obviously believe passionately in my view of government, I also understand and recognize that there are opposing views, namely yours. Broadly speaking, you have a deep skepticism of government. You believe that government creates those aforementioned obstacles to upward mobility and therefore, the less government, the greater freedoms individuals enjoy. For instance, the less financial regulation, the more likely investors are to take greater risks on new businesses, creating jobs and expanding economic opportunities for everyone. The lower the taxes, the more money individuals and businesses have to play in the market, again creating jobs and boosting the economy. To paraphrase the Gipper, you don’t believe government can be part of the solution to the average American’s problems: you believe government is the problem itself.

That’s fair.

But traditionally, while ideological battles can be contentious and even hostile at times, the mainstream of America’s body politic was always united in our desired outcomes and our shared American values. When it comes to outcomes, neither Democratic nor Republican platforms in the modern age have ever expressly advocated for policies that would intentionally render Americans less prosperous, less free, less safe, less educated, less healthy, less employed, less secure. Granted, many of you may disagree with ultimately where certain proposed policies might lead, but you’ve never heard a mainstream politician introduce a bill or unveil a policy to undermine the United States and its citizens. On all sides of the ideological spectrum, we all think that our ideas will ultimately lead to greater prosperity, peace, and progress for America. You think government shouldn’t play a key role in that, we do. We disagree, but we’re all Americans, right?

As such, we all grew up understanding what that meant. We were not founded on nationality, regionality, race, or even ethnicity. In fact, we kicked out the folks who were here first, thus rendering our country literally one founded by immigrants and children of immigrants. It wasn’t until Martin Van Buren, our 8th President, that we elected a president born in the actual United States of America. This journey started out of a desire for greater religious freedom and exploded into a never-ending pursuit of the freest and most just society we could create. America is a unique and peculiar force in the history of human civilization. Our nation was founded on the radical idea that to create a truly pluralistic society, we simply couldn’t define being American on the basis of anything other than the prescription to an ideal: that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can be anything you want to be in this country. That’s the definition of the American Dream and it’s an aspiration that has guided this country since its inception.

Now, obviously we are not perfect and our history is riddled with examples of contradictory actions and policies that expressly undermined that aim, but in the great story that is America, we always move forward, never back. While our country was built on the backs of my slave ancestors, less than 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, we’d abolished slavery. 100 years after that, we killed Jim Crow. Three weeks ago, we had a black president. Women were excluded from the table at our country’s inception; last year, a woman became the first presidential candidate in American history to win the popular vote in a general election. Our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender neighbors have historically been marginalized in American society, but the ever-perfecting of our union led to the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case in 2015 that asserted once and for all that there’s no such thing as second-class citizenship in this country and that all people have a right to love who they wish. Workers have fought and organized for safety standards and higher pay against powerful titans of industry and won; immigrants have struggled against individual and systematic xenophobia only to produce some of the most amazing Horatio Algiers stories that would render much of American history incomplete without their contributions, including the son of a Syrian immigrant, Steve Jobs.

My point is simple: until recently, we agreed on the nature of our American values. We agreed that in order to perfect our union, we always had to strive towards greater equality, greater inclusion, and greater freedom. I empathize with the political realities of your base, often forcing you to move slower than perhaps even you would prefer in terms of articulating those aims, but I have always had confidence that if forced to choose, even my conservative friends would always seek America’s better angels.

So I’m asking you to reevaluate what’s most important to you right now. To what end are long-sought conservative policy achievements if you sacrifice our democracy and cherished American values in exchange? If you told me that in exchange for a single-payer healthcare system, all we needed to do as Democrats was curtail the free press, I’d reject that offer in a heartbeat. What benefits a man that is willing to sacrifice his soul for a payday loan?

There is a difference between partisan outrage and genuine existential concerns for the country I know and love. I know that many of my fellow partisans see this moment in history as a shrewd opportunity to build up the party rolls and roll all of our biggest gripes about conservatism into the same argument about actions that are unAmerican. I reject this strategy. This is a moment in our nation’s—and indeed global—history that will likely determine the course of human civilization for the next century or more. It’s imperative that we stand united as Americans against threats to the things that made this country great to begin with. It’s imperative that we target the right enemy and right now, it’s not debates about tax reform, federal spending, or even Wall Street regulation—all extremely important policy discussions that rightly should continue to permeate our American political discourse now and going forward. But they are not the same as the debates about policies that are truly designed to undermine the basic foundational pillars of our free and democratic society. They just aren’t.

I, too, admittedly will struggle to distinguish my partisan outrage at conservative policy from my American outrage at unAmerican policy, but I pledge to try. Because this battle—this existential battle for the soul of our nation—can’t be fought on partisan grounds using the same old partisan playbook. I admonish my party for not more fully recognizing the need to make an American case as opposed to a Democratic case, but ultimately, you conservatives will have to decide which bed to lie in.

Will you stand for American values of freedom, equality, equal opportunity for all, open arms for those who seek freedom, and common decency to our fellow citizen? Or will you stand aside, content to get some tax cut and school voucher bills signed, while the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania systematically undermines the principles we were founded on?

Ball’s in your court.

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