The giveaway regarding presidential candidate Barack Obama's plans for America was his repeated use of the words "fundamentally transform."
Some of us instinctively reacted negatively -- in fact, with horror -- at the thought of fundamentally transforming America.
The "us" are conservatives.
One unbridgeable divide between left and right is how each views alternatives to present-day America. Those on the left imagine an ideal society that has never existed, and therefore seek to "fundamentally transform" America. When liberals imagine an America fundamentally transformed, they envision it becoming a nearly utopian society in which there is no greed, no racism, no sexism, no inequality, no poverty and ultimately no unhappiness.
Conservatives, on the other hand, look around at other societies and history and are certain that if America were fundamentally transformed, it would become just like those other societies. America would become a society of far less liberty, of ethically and morally inferior citizens and of much more unhappiness. And cruelty would increase exponentially around the world.
Conservatives believe that America is an aberration in human history; that, with all the problems that a society made up of flawed human beings will inevitably have, America has been and remains a uniquely decent society. Therefore, conservatives worry that fundamentally transforming America -- making America less exceptional -- will mean that America gets much worse.
Liberals worry over the opposite possibility -- that America will remain more or less as it is.
Two famous statements encapsulate the operative liberal worldview.
The first was attributed to Robert F. Kennedy by his brother Sen. Edward M. Kennedy:
"There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were, and ask, 'Why not?'"
The other is one of the most popular songs of the last 50 years, John Lennon's "Imagine":
"Imagine there's no heaven. It's easy if you try. No hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine all the people, living for today.
"Imagine there's no countries. It isn't hard to do. Nothing to kill or die for, and no religion, too, Imagine all the people, living life in peace.
"You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will be as one.
"Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can. No need for greed or hunger, a brotherhood of man. Imagine all the people, sharing all the world.
"You may say that I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope someday you'll join us, and the world will live as one."
Regarding the Kennedy quote, a conservative would respond something like this:
We conservatives look at America and ask, how did something so decent, so different from other societies, ever get created and last over 200 years? Of course, we always seek to improve it. But more than anything else, we seek to preserve it and its core values. We do not "dream of things that never were." We dream the same dream as our American forefathers did -- to maintain a society committed to the values of E Pluribus Unum, Liberty and In God We Trust. As for utopian dreams, we believe they are more likely to result in nightmares -- horrors that would engulf America and the world if America were to be transformed.
To Lennon's song, a conservative would respond:
Lennon's utopia is our dystopia. A world without God to give people some certitude that all their suffering is not meaningless is a nightmare. A world without religion means a world without any systematic way of ennobling people. A world without countries is a world without the United States of America, and it is a world governed by the morally imbecilic United Nations, where mass murderers sit on its "human rights" councils. A world without heaven or hell is a world without any ultimate justice, where torturers and their victims have identical fates -- oblivion. A world without possessions is a world in which some enormous state possesses everything, and the individual is reduced to the status of a serf.
Liberals frequently criticize conservatives for fearing change. That is not correct. We fear transforming that which is already good. The moral record of humanity does not fill us with optimism about "fundamentally transforming" something as rare as America. Evil is normal. America is not.