For as long as I can remember, conservatism has been associated with strength. Why, exactly, is this? Is it because conservatives tend to vote for a bigger military, harsher sentencing for crimes, bigger walls along the border, more consumption of powerful fossil fuels and more exploitation of nature to strengthen the economy? Is it because conservatives stand united in opposition to liberal proposals, and hold steadfastly to a point of view? Conservatism can seem akin to bedrock, stubborn in its rigidity, impervious even to overwhelming evidence. It is the hardness of the shield that repels. By contrast, empathy and openness to truth require a porosity, a capacity to absorb that which is outside of oneself. These latter qualities may require more inner strength, yet are considered soft.
This may be why a NY Times journalist described Liz Cheney as a "tough and hawkish conservative," as if "tough" and "conservative" are naturally linked. I'm alert to this reflexive linking, because the conservatism I've seen on display since the Reagan era has a decidedly weak and indulgent side to it. If conservatism is so tough, then why does it turn tail and run from tough issues like climate change? Can it really be called tough if it directs its toughness only outwards while shunning self-scrutiny, protecting its own from investigation while mercilessly attacking its political opponents? Can conservatism be called tough if it is constantly offering candy to voters, letting them off the hook by pretending that climate change is a hoax and that tax cuts pay for themselves? It's easy to cut taxes, far harder to cut the popular government programs that taxes support.
Liz Cheney, remarkably, has found the courage to reject Reagan's decree forty years ago to "never speak ill of a fellow Republican." The high political price she has paid within her own party speaks to the degree to which Republicans define toughness as something to be directed outward, not at themselves.
But even Liz Cheney, for all the strength and character she has shown to finally impose standards of truth and decency on her own political party, maintains a persistent weakness in other realms. When it comes to climate change, Ms. Cheney runs from the overwhelming evidence while the nation's climate grows increasingly hostile. Her wikipedia page describes her as being known for her fiscal conservatism, but to what extent did she fight against the massive deficits of the Bush and Trump years? The pattern has been for conservatives to impose fiscal constraints only on Democratic presidents, not on their own. This is tactical partisanship, not strength.
The article that made the unfounded association of toughness and conservatism had an interesting perspective on the role of women in the January 6 investigation. Oftentimes it is young women who have come forward to testify, while the "50-, 60- and 70-year-old men," in Cheney's words, "hide themselves behind executive privilege.” And it is female witnesses who have more often been singled out for attack by Trump and others who have attempted to recast strong women as deranged or warped by ambition.
Toughness, then, is a trait that has falsely been attributed to conservatives who run from tough issues, ignore evidence and fail to exercise self-scrutiny. It will be all the more important to look at what constitutes strength as the climate continues to radicalize. Fossil fuel and the machines it powers played a big role in America's victory in WWII. But now we know that fossil fuels are as much enemy as friend. Using them makes present comfort and mobility possible while making the future impossible. The power they give us is also empowering an enemy that will grow more terrifying as more and more of the country becomes endangered by rising seas, increasing temperatures, drought, fires, and flooding. And authoritarianism, which we fought against in WWII, now finds fertile ground in our own country, where its brand of relentless attack and lack of self-scrutiny is mistaken for toughness.
Liz Cheney, having decided to hold Republicans to account, is on a journey. Tough in at least one way that most Republicans are not, she is reminiscent of Bob Inglis, former representative of South Carolina, whose atypical toughness came in the form of acknowledging the overwhelming evidence and calling on Republicans to act against climate change. He was defeated in the 2010 primary, and Ms. Cheney may meet the same fate this fall, spurned by a political party that can't tolerate true strength.
How we define and talk about strength matters. It influences what sorts of politicians we put in power, and what sort of country we will have in the future.
Related post: The Dark Side of the Reagan Legacy