Shedding light on conservative mind

Published 12:00 pm Tuesday, February 23, 2016

By Charlie Mitchell

When a screenwriter concocts a conservative, the prototype is standard:

• Moderately angry all the time.

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• Genuinely self-centered as well as selfish.

• Not well-educated, usually rural.

• Resentful.

• Insensitive to those who are poor, down on their luck or of different pigmentation.

• Armed, or at least ready for fisticuffs (or war) at a moment’s notice.

The liberal is the opposite: Well-adjusted, comfortable in his or her own skin, generous, enlightened, peace-loving, willing to go to extremes so that the less fortunate can be happy, just like they are.

Conservatives are hard-hearted kitten-kickers. Liberals are soft-hearted, and they care.

Here’s hoping some learned a bit about the persona of Antonin Scalia after he died last week. America’s most conservative Supreme Court justice didn’t fit the stereotype.

Are there stock conservatives, against everything? Yes. Racists, for one subset, often wear a mask of conservatism.

Are there airhead liberals filled with grand but unworkable ideas? You bet.

But Scalia was a core conservative. A core conservative is one who believes the role of government in the lives of individuals and in the life of the nation should be as limited as possible. They believe that people, if individual and collective liberty are maximized by limiting government, will eventually get things right.

“A system of government that makes the people subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.”

That’s one snippet from Justice Scalia’s dissent in last year’s Obergefell decision, the one that, in effect, legalized same-gender married in all 50 states, including Mississippi where elected officials had pledged “never.”

Liberals tend to believe it’s a duty of government, including courts, to act affirmatively to make life as good and fair as it can be for everyone — or at least try.

Conservatives — not to be confused with real sourpusses and malcontents — accept that life is never going to be easy-greasy for everyone. They also accept that people, when people decide collectively to evolve, progress or change, they may not get it right. But — crucially — running the country is the job of the people and their elected representatives, not the court.

“You think there ought to be a right to abortion? No problem. The Constitution says nothing about it. Create it the way most rights are created in a democratic society. Pass a law.”

That’s vintage Scalia, a New Yorker, honor graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Law School. Not a hayseed, not a hater. Just a guy who trusted individuals more than he trusted government.

During his entire tenure on the U.S. Supreme Court, he resisted rulings of  “reasoned judgment,” when the court chose to follow its collective conscience.

“If you’re going to be a good and faithful judge, you have to resign yourself to the fact that you’re not always going to like the conclusions you reach. If you like them all the time, you’re probably doing something wrong.”

He argued for applying the Constitution.

“If I were king, I would not allow people to go about burning the American flag. However, we have a First Amendment, which says that the right of free speech shall not be abridged.”

Some scholars say it was the injustice directed at black Americans and other minorities that sparked a transition, starting in the 1950s, from the old-style cases where judges put on blinders and applied laws as written to the new approach of fixing problems in keeping with social conscience. The white majority showed little interest in awakening to the objective truth that Jim Crow statutes were worse than unconstitutional — they were un-American. Something had to be done.

Regardless of when it started, courts have since become legislating bodies on an almost equal basis with, well, other legislating bodies. How any member of the court votes on any case is rarely a surprise anymore.

The point here is not to deliberate the wisdom of the transition that has taken place over the past 65 years, but to remember that the differences between a conservative and a liberal run a bit deeper than Hollywood would lead us to believe.

Antonin Scalia was a conservative who, as press accounts have made clear, was best friends with perhaps the court’s most liberal justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Their differences were academic, not personal or political difference.

The slugfest over his replacement started before Justice Scalia was buried, and will only intensify. Today, it’s power politics that carries the day. Scalia ignored all that, and focused on principle.

Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at