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Diane Roberts: If Florida is “conservative,” let’s conserve something besides freedom to cash in

Last Saturday, the Republic of Ireland came out in rainbows, saying yes to marriage equality: 62 percent in favor. Yet Ireland is a “conservative” country, still – despite clergy sex abuse scandals – very Catholic. Divorce has only been legal since 1997; and abortion is only allowed to save the life of the mother, no exceptions for rape or incest.

Ireland’s risky strategy of putting the rights of a minority up for a vote got me thinking about the shifty nature of a word we throw around without thinking very hard. Which is more “conservative:” heterosexuality or commitment to marriage? Stewardship of creation or profit from it? Being your brother’s keeper or every man for himself?

Florida’s elected “leaders” (using that term loosely) insist Florida’s a “conservative” state, keen on low taxes, unfettered capitalism and guns, unenthusiastic about unions, government programs and tree-hugging.

In 2008, Floridians amended their state constitution to define marriage as one man plus one woman. But Floridians also chose Barack Obama over John McCain. In 2014, Floridians (the 42 percent who bothered to vote) re-elected Rick Scott, the polluter’s best friend, at the same time they amended the constitution demanding the state spend money cleaning up the environment.

Elections are complex organisms, with personalities, money, luck, strategy and a hundred other variables in play. Some people who voted for Florida’s worst governor also voted for the best initiative in decades: Amendment 1.

Are they “conservatives”? No. Some just didn’t like the shape-shifting Charlie Crist. Some just don’t get it: Never underestimate the power of sheer slack-jawed cluelessness.

But just as everybody with a blog can now call herself a journalist, anybody can redefine words like “conservative,” and to hell with Buckley and Goldwater. Conservatism used to be a political philosophy dedicated to historically inherited institutions, old, proven principles, a defined social order with defined hierarchies and roles.

Or, as Ambrose Bierce put it, a person “who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”

Edmund Burke, the 18th century parliamentarian whose disapproval of taxation without representation endeared him to Americans during the Revolution and after, is often called the “Father of Modern Conservatism” – especially by reactionary think tanks trying to impress.

It’s kind of true. Burke hated popular democracy. The American Revolution, propagated by lawyers and plantation owners, was a good thing: the French Revolution (revolting peasants! beheading anointed monarchs!) not so much. Burke believed the landed gentry should rule.

So does Congressman Ted Yoho, the Birther vet from Gainesville who isn’t sure the Civil Rights Act is actually constitutional. He’s also been known to say only property owners should have the vote.

Then again, other conservatives would fight like minks in a sack against any restrictions on their “freedoms” – though what they often mean by that is their freedom to own weapons, despise blacks, Latinos, Muslims, etc., impose Christianity on everyone and rejoice in their ignorance.

Not Burke’s sort of people at all.

So what is “conservative” about Florida? Obviously, most of the residents agree on conserving the Everglades, conserving our water, our wild places and our wild creatures. Last year’s Amendment 1 vote shows that. Yet we elect “conservative” politicians who, because they really work for the polluting industries – Big Ag, Big Builder, Big Phosphate, Big Energy – conserve nothing but their ability to cash in.

What about our educational institutions? Florida’s governing elite aren’t doing anything to save them. Public schools and universities are under attack financially and politically. These “conservatives” disdain the arts (unprofitable and often dirty), the sciences (a threat to their paymasters) and all forms of critical thinking.

They do enjoy conserving the worst of our history: systemic racism, sexism, xenophobia, violence, an Old Testament penal system on the grounds that the voters support them. Yet a recent Gallup poll shows in 2015, Americans who describe themselves as “socially liberal” and those who describe themselves as “socially conservative,” are at parity: 31 percent. The number of those calling themselves “conservative” has declined, while “liberal” has gained.

Our legislators are behind the times. As Martin Dyckman has been reminding us for decades, the gerrymandering of Florida legislative districts ensures that most of them aren’t competitive, and most will go to Republicans – they drew them, after all. Yes, Democrats did it, too, when they were in charge. That doesn’t matter. It’s still wrong. It’s still fundamentally unrepresentative.

In Ireland, all the major parties supported marriage equality – all of them, across the political spectrum. Imagine if sane Republicans and willing Democrats threw out the labels and started listening to people who don’t contribute big money to their campaigns. Imagine if they were to ignore the governor in his stupidity on climate change and expansion of healthcare for the poor, and join forces to actually do something for us, the non-lobbyists, the ordinary, the people who need a doctor, the people watching the sea rise ever closer to their front steps.

Conserve our democracy for a change? I know. It’s crazy. But we can dream.

Diane Roberts teaches at Florida State University. 

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Diane Roberts teaches at Florida State University. Her latest book, “Tribal: College Football and the Secret Heart of America,” will be out in paperback in the fall.

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