The late William F. Buckley, the intelligent and witty voice of conservatism before talk-show primitives took over the microphone and the movement with it, famously described a conservative as "someone who stands athwart history, yelling 'Stop ... . ' "
There's only one slight problem with that: History does not stop. While it is impeded and diverted sometimes, mostly it just goes marching forward, trampling any "stop!" shouters standing in the way.
Today I stop to consider why conservatives behave as they do. Last week I looked at liberals, who are apt to be silly and unsure of what they stand for -- beyond a general desire to have the government do something nice.
That said, women today are educated and allowed to vote, racial minorities have their rights and the kids are out of the mines -- and all because the spirit of liberalism took the hand of history and led it past conservative roadblocks in days gone by.
This may explain why conservatives are so grumpy. They are forever being forced to adjust to the advance of impertinent history. My own definition of a conservative is: "Someone who has his or her underwear in a permanent knot and blames the media."
Now, it is true that millions of conservatives do not fit this definition. They are not underwear-bunched and live normal, decent lives thinking kindly of children and small animals.
But as my mail verifies, many others are in a permanent state of peevishness. They have made the GOP, when it is not being God's Own Party, into the Grumpy Old Party.
Most of my email correspondence comes from feisty old guys apparently driven to agitation by the last rush of testosterone. They have invented an alternative reality for themselves in which liberals are not fellow Americans but the enemy -- collectivist-minded, welfare-loving, freedom-hating nonproducers who must be despised in the name of all that is good and holy (and old). Never mind that this is all crazy.
In recent years, conservatives have not just been yelling for the train of history to stop right here, but to go back down the track to the station known as 1788, not stopping at the stations for the 19th or 20th centuries where vital lessons could be learned about how a nation grew to maturity as the greatest power and influence in the world.
No, we can only be free if we return to the Garden of (American) Eden, the republic as the Founding Fathers envisaged it when they ratified the Constitution.
Mind you, this is not the Constitution as others understand it, but the one that conforms to the conservative dreamscape of an America of independent farmers and musket-toters in which you don't need the government to give your vehicle (a horse) an emissions inspection sticker.
This seductively simple notion of freedom invites us all to put on three-cornered hats and ask: What does government do for me (other than build roads and bridges, set standards for clean air and water, guarantee the safety of the food chain, and many other things not foreseen in the 18th century but necessary to a modern nation, all of which come at the price of paying taxes)? Taxes? Did some rude person like myself say taxes? Conservatives hate them with religious fervor. They sign pledges never to raise them. For them, taxes are not the price we pay for a civilized society; they are the dreaded wealth redistribution.
In always wanting tax cuts, conservatives are like the English with their cups of tea. No matter what domestic disturbance, the English always put the kettle on. Gunshot wound? Have a cup of tea. Childbirth? Here's a tea bag. Rabies? Boil the water. In the same way for all our economic disturbances, the tax-averse Tea Party movement wants to have nothing but tax cuts with no sugar.
You have to hand it to them. They have made a dirty word out of entitlements -- you know, the life supports of ordinary people who are entitled only because they worked hard for years and paid their taxes. These entitlements are not the same as the king's ransoms paid to CEOs. Why, nothing wrong with those in the conservative mind.
Unfortunately, the conservative idea of freedom is really about letting companies and powerful individuals be completely free of all restraints, often known as unnecessary regulations (unnecessary for them, anyway). Conservatives usually oppose evolution, but social Darwinism is OK when the people at the bottom have little chance of evolving.
What can we do with our conservative friends who cannot be reasoned with, due to their fact-repellent mental armor? I just hope enough of us can stand athwart polling booths and yell "Stop!"