The word “conservative” has become a kind of battle flag that politicians use to rally the troops. George W. Bush described himself as a “compassionate conservative”; Romney, as “severely conservative”. However, neither of these guys is nearly conservative enough for today’s Republican primary voters, so the candidates try to outdo each other, staking out ever more extreme positions, using the word to mean whatever they want. True, intellectuals try to give it definition in terms of principles or beliefs, but, inevitably, they disagree among themselves, and end up dividing into obscure groups: neo-conservatives, paleo-conservatives, etc. So I propose to look at the term more simply, without the dogma.
Miriam-Webster gives us a pretty clear definition: “believing in the value of established and traditional practices in politics and society”. Understood this way, conservativism is an approach to life and politics. Conservatives prefer change to come gradually, organically, rather than suddenly. Conservatives respect established authority. They see the best way forward is to make existing institutions work. They are instinctively cautious, more concerned about the dangers and unintended consequences of a proposed change than enthralled with the new possibilities. True conservatives are particularly skeptical of utopian dreams of the future based on ideological assertions about human nature, the grand arc of history, or the consequences of new technology. Rather, they see themselves as grounded in the hard, verifiable realities of the present. They want to preserve what we have, what works.
None of this even remotely describes the so-called conservatives who dominate the Republican Party today. Far from respecting authority, they have shown unbridled contempt for the Presidency ever since an African American was elected, a contempt far beyond the usual vitriol of American politics, at times going to almost treasonous extremes to undermine whatever the President attempts to accomplish. Rather than trying to make our institutions work, they threaten to shut the government down, often over what amount to relatively minor political battles. They propose radical changes to our economic order, directed not at what actually seems to be broken, but based on some abstract notions about how they think economies should be run. Rather than confronting the hard realities of today, they ignore data when it is doesn’t suit them, and go to great lengths to undermine the credibility of anybody who provides evidence that contradicts their ideological stance. They seem to prefer willful ignorance over information, not only on climate change, but any number of economic and social issues. It is hard to name anything, other than white privilege, that they are trying to conserve, not the economy (which is working pretty well), not the government, certainly not the environment, not even the principle that all men are created equal. Many will claim to espouse conservative, “Christian values”, but these values, whatever they are, seem to have little to do with the teachings of Jesus.
Basically, these people express serious dissatisfaction with American modern life and institutions. Living in one of the most dynamic cultures in the history of man, they want to return to the world portrayed on TV in the 50s. They are frightened by the influx of cultures from elsewhere, as if that was a new phenomenon in America. They see the myth, the American dream, slipping away from them and their children. Competition from far flung corners of the globe threatens their livelihood, and the emerging information age seems to be leaving them behind. So, they are angry. They are antiestablishment conservatives, an oxymoron by my description.
Among the most oxymoronic of the so-called conservative proposals are changes to the very foundation of our democracy: the Constitution. All of the leading candidates support some amendment to the Constitution. It seems to be a requirement.
Most support the balanced budget amendment. This is actually an excellent illustration of what passes for thinking among these people. This amendment proposes to solve the problem of deficit spending, important according to some “conservative” notions, but not really a problem at all according to many economists. In any case, the United States of America has lived with debt almost continuously since its founding. Businesses, which many conservatives hold up as models for how government should be run, routinely use debt to finance their operations, and many experience periods of loss, where income falls short of expenses. I admit, the deficits rung up during the recent recession were frightening, but our democracy provides a remedy for this: elect someone who will implement a better policy. We did that, and the economy recovered. So, the evidence shows that our current framework is working. The conservative approach would be not to change it. However, the evidence doesn’t matter to these people: what maters is the notion that governments should not go into debt, a notion that they have branded “conservative”, but is actually a radical departure from our historical practice. Their solution, writing an inflexible fiscal policy into the the constitution, is simply a prescription for disaster.
Some of the candidates vying for the nomination have proposed an even more disastrous idea: returning our monetary system to the gold standard. Talk a about a problem that doesn’t need fixing! We are in a period of near zero per cent inflation and our currency is accepted as a standard around the world. Most countries left the gold standard behind in the 1930s. Returning to it now seems to me to be a recipe for returning to that time of catastrophic economic collapse.
Though these radical economic proposals might be the intellectual core, they do not get at the heart of this so-called conservative movement. This heart belongs to the hard working Americans, who, rather suddenly, have found themselves disposable in this world of intelligent machines and global competition. Looking for someone to blame, inflamed by the anger of talk radio and the constant drumbeat of bitter invective directed both at Obama and at immigrants, they target the large influx of people from elsewhere, much as their forefathers did in years past.
The one who has recently captured the imagination of these people is Donald Trump, arguably the candidate with the least conservative credentials. He is the heir to a long string of Tea-Party hopefuls who rose into the spotlight briefly in 2012 only to quickly wilt in their own obvious incompetence, ignorance, or racial bias. Unlike any of them, Trump has remained at the top of the polls for months. His pronouncements show the same level of ignorance and racial prejudice, but with more belligerence. It is precisely this unapologetic style, this belligerence, that is the basis of his appeal to a group who feels under attack in our rapidly changing culture. Trump has even found support among evangelical Christians, a group whom you would expect to be appalled by his casino fueled life-style, his many marriages, his inconsistency on abortion, his profanity, and obvious lack of commitment to his professed faith.
George Packer, in the New Yorker, explains Trump’s appeal this way:
Republicans today have given the country conservatism in the spirit of Sarah Palin, whose ignorance about the world, contempt for expertise, and raw appeals to white identity politics presaged Trump’s incendiary campaign. So did the spectacle, in 2009, of a Republican congressman calling the President a liar during a speech Obama gave to a joint session of Congress, and Party leaders comparing Obamacare to Nazism and slavery…. Once the restraints are lifted, they’re hard to restore. Trump may be the bastard spawn of the Republican Party, but his parentage can’t be denied.
Most appalling is what might be considered the cornerstone of Trump’s campaign: his response to illegal immigration, an issue this country has long struggled with. Although it now appears to be under control, Trump has proposed solutions that are both impractical and draconian. He wants to build a giant wall on our southern border and somehow make Mexico pay for it. He wants a massive increase in the deportations, glossing over the massive expense and any inconvenient civil or human rights that such a program would end up violating. Finally, he wants to amend the Constitution (of course) — to end birth-right citizenship.
You wonder how a nation of immigrants, home of the free and the brave, comes to such a point. Ann Coulter, popular pundit and Trump supporter, offers this, which turns out to be a pretty good explanation:
We’re assimilating you, you’re here, and you’re going to be an American. There will be no celebration of Cinco de Mayo, there will be no Ramadan, in fact there won’t even be a Feast of the Immaculate Conception – we are an Anglo-Protestant country, and you will learn about the Battle of Valley Forge.
There was no actual battle at Valley Forge. However, such mere facts don’t matter. Coulter’s audience hears affirmation of the myth, and, by God, they are going to hold onto it.
For it is this myth of America, an America of small towns and farms, founded on hard work, self reliance, family, and church, that they long for. They remember a time when wholesome Protestants could bring their religious rituals into government events without question, when people of color knew and apparently accepted their place, and when the future seemed secure. They feel the world as they remember it slipping away for them and their children.
Along with this myth, is a cry for freedom, freedom from high taxes, freedom from regulation, freedom from big government intruding into their lives. Here the libertarian businessman merges with the old Southern segregationist. Corporate leaders dream of the time when corporations could dump their waste into the environment with impunity, when unions had not yet won decent conditions for workers, when taxes were low and government was weak.
A century ago, long before the Great Depression, before the Civil Rights Movement had had any success, the attitudes and ideas of the current crop of leading Republican candidates might have been correctly called conservative. It is as if the their mind crystalized in that long ago time, and does not recognize what has happened since: the American Century, during which American power, American culture, and American influence spread throughout the world. Living in the most wealthy and dynamic country in the history of the world, these people want to turn the clock back. Such a viewpoint can only be described as reactionary: trying to reestablish an order as it was long ago, in a time before they were born.
Calling them conservative grants them an intellectual currency, a heritage tracing back to Madison, that they neither value nor deserve. Their immediate antecedents can be found in the John Birch Society and in the Dixiecrats of mid twentieth century. They like to point to the founding fathers, but their ideas more closely resemble those of the Know Nothing Party, an American anti (Catholic) immigrant party of the 1850s. Collectively, their backward looking focus, xenophobia, and willful ignorance pose a major threat to the future of our country.
Words matter. Every time we misuse the word “conservative” to describe these extremists, we help raise their battle flag and undermine the standing of thoughtful conservatives whose voices are being drowned out in a deluge of ignorance and bigotry. We need to stop using this word to describe the radical, reactionary policies being put forward by these candidates for the presidency. They are not reasoning, compromising conservatives; they are unthinking, willfully ignorant reactionaries. We need to refer to them that way.