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Review of Conscience of a Conservative: A Reflection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Princip

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” Senator Barry Goldwater

This is not a quote you will find in Jeff Flake’s Conscience of a Conservative. Having begun his political career as the executive director of the Goldwater Institute in Arizona, a free market think tank, an experience which Flake credits in part to forming the foundation of his conservative credentials in advocating small government by supporting tax cuts for the wealthy, cutting entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security while championing the free market strategies that have helped increase income inequality.

Flake, of course, does not spell out the economic consequences of his political conservatism, and the GOP’s in general, while he waxes eloquent in his hero worship of Senator Barry Goldwater, who, those of us who came of age during the Vietnam war remember, advocated the use of low level nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Nor did Goldwater oppose the use of Agent Orange, a chemical warfare agent which defoliated the demilitarized zone, and caused cancer, skin diseases and nervous system disorders in returning soldiers and Vietnamese citizens as well. Goldwater’s election bid for the presidency was crushed by Lyndon B. Johnson that same year due to his warmonger image.

While Flake celebrates the conservative principles set forth in the Goldwater Bible, The Conscience of a Conservative, (after which he named his own treatise), his entire premise is that conservatives have lost their way in subsuming themselves to the right-wing populism that led us to the election of Donald J. Trump. Flake’s criticism of Trump is unceasing throughout the pages of his discourse, for which he places blame squarely on the Republican Party for having moved away from ideas of limited government and economic freedom, to embrace xenophobia, blaming immigrants for our problems, advocating jailing of political opponents, alternative facts, outright lies, conspiracy theories, use of violence, politics as reality show entertainment, support of white supremacy and twitter blasts that substitute for well thought out policy and strategies. However, contrary to his blistering critique, Flake has voted the Trump line 95% of the time.

The other influence in Flake’s life that he credits for his political “principles” is his large Mormon family in whose bosom he was nourished and brought up among the “hardworking and decent cattle ranchers” in his native community of Snowflake, Arizona, founded by Mormon pioneers Erastus Snow and William Jordon Flake, his great-great grandfather. Suspicion of government, he claims, was inbred in the Mormon experience of government sanctioned persecution, an egregious historical legacy for which as a nation, we look back on with regret. He credits the ranching lifestyle of hardscrabble living and make-do philosophy, and his Mormon religious upbringing for the principled (by his own lights), conservative legislator he has become. The use of religious credentials to lend authority to kings and politicians is a long and time-honored tradition. Flake is not the first, nor will he be the last, to embrace such a strategy. In fact, the entire GOP is infested with religious, righteous blowhards who justify stripping health insurance from millions, and defunding SNAP programs which feed millions of low income children, claiming such safety-net programs foster dependency.

Flake’s father employed Mexican undocumented laborers who worked the Bar F Ranch seasonally and returned to their homeland in winter. From this formative experience, Flake, to his credit, attributes his adamant defense of immigrants. He was a member of the “Gang of Eight” who in 2013 crafted a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill that ultimately failed to pass the House after passing the Senate. And more to his credit, Flake decries the hyper-partisanship which now permeates both parties and threatens extreme dysfunction, blocking achievement of enduring legislation to the detriment of the American people.

About midway through his exegesis, Flake, while still disparaging government planning that he equates with control, which ultimately, he believes, disempowers individuals, he shifts a bit from his hardline posturing and points out that even the conservative’s darling, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek, a freewheeling supply-side thinker and neo liberal, was “in favor of some form of what be called universal health care.” That after all, the model for the ACA came out of the Heritage Foundation as a conservative idea. Further, Flake acknowledges that “government sometimes needs to ameliorate the most deleterious effects of capitalism,” and should extend a hand to the most vulnerable and to those most in need.” (p.76-77). And yet Flake has voted consistently to repeal the ACA.

Flake’s biggest complaint against the current alt-right extremist bent of the Republican Party, and Trump by extension, is their nativist and nationalist positions of canceling trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, imposing trade tariffs, goes against the grain of globalization as the 21st century economic reality. Trade agreements may need revision, but Flake insists we must maintain good relations with our trading partners, such as Mexico, where “40% of all Mexican “exports” are made up of American content.” (p. 87).

Finally, Flake insists that the Republicans have made a Faustian Bargain in their efforts to turn back the clock and reject bipartisan solutions which is what is needed to repair our present dysfunctional government. He states, and rightly so, “that we you need bipartisan solutions that can be sustained through more than one presidency and more than one Congress. And we don’t see any evidence of that in Washington.” (p. 93). In other words, I believe, Flake rejects his hero’s ill-fated admonition, more or less conceding that perhaps “extremism in the defense of liberty,” might just be a vice after all. In the end, Flake, like some other moderate Republicans, has trouble putting his vote where his mouth is. For Congress to become functional again, Flake is going to have to live up to his own “principled" admonitions and start working across the aisle.

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