I’ve been very critical of conservatism this past year and have spent much time doing research. My motivation isn’t that I hate conservatives or think they’re ‘evil’ (well, some of them are obviously not nice people and possibly psychopaths, sociopaths, or Social Dominance Orientation types: Limbaugh, Cheney, Rove, Murdoch, Ailes, etc; and there are, of course, the Right-Wing Authoritarians who are the unquestioning followers that I’ve written about many times). I do get irritated and it’s not unusual for me to vent that irritation, but ultimately I desire to understand. My irritation isn’t knee jerk hatred for anyone who isn’t liberal. In fact, I can at times be quite critical of liberals as well, but the failings of liberals tends to just depress me.
Anyways, in my desire to understand conservatives, I have found that the best critics of conservatives are those who consider themselves conservatives. I’ve been reading a few books by such conservatives: Conservatives Without Conscience by John W. Dean (originally intended to be written with Barry Goldwater before the latter became sick and died), Crazy for God by Frank Shaeffer (his views have helped me understand the religious right), and Bite the Hand That Feeds You by Henry Fairlie (which I discovered because the author was mentioned in an article in reference to Joe Stack’s suicide manifesto). The last book is by a British conservative which means most US conservatives wouldn’t accept him as one of their own, but I think his views on conservatism are some of the most insightful I’ve come across. I love Fairlie’s notion of a Tory. My understanding is that Toryism is connected with conservatism in Britain, but in the US Toryism seems more similar to the Democratic party. Another book I’m thinking of buying is Take Back the Right by Philip Gold (which I came across in reading Conservatives Without Conscience).
I keep coming across these rare independent-minded conservatives. I decided to keep a list for reference which is the reason I’m writing this post. Besides those already mentioned, here are some other conservative who have criticized conservatives (and often paid the price for dissent): Bob Inglis, David Frum, and Bruce Bartlett. I should also include William F. Buckley jr who criticized the radical right and helped kick them out of the mainstream conservative movement (only recently has this radical element been invited back in with the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the Koch brothers). Let me make special note of Ron Paul who is the only recent Republican politician who has openly and strongly opposed the misuse of power by Republicans.
I respect anyone who is independent-minded, whether liberal or conservative. I don’t entirely agree with what these critical conservatives believe, but I find myself in more agreement with their more intelligent or at least more moderate version of conservatism. It’s interesting that David Frum who was the Bush speechwriter who came up with “Axis of Evil” would lose his job at a conservative think tank for pointing out the obvious. Dissent is not allowed in the present GOP and dissenters are punished. So, my respect for people like Frum (no matter how much I may disagree on particular issues) is well deserved. These dissenters are the future of the conservative movement (after the movement self-destructs).
I’ve been a bit critical of Barry Goldwater because it has seemed to me that he helped the conservative movement become radicalized. Afterall, it was Goldwater who wrote (and which is often quoted by radical rightwingers): “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” I’m sure I disagree with Goldwater on many issues, but in reading Dean’s book I’ve come to understand why Goldwater is worthy of respect. Goldwater wasn’t trying to radicalize the conservative movement. He was trying to bring conservatives back to what he considered traditional political values. Dean’s book has been helpful, especially in relation to Bob Altemeyer’s research which Dean references heavily. I found it interesting that Dean’s description of a “conservative with conscience” would, in at least moderate form, fit the description of many liberals which made me think of Fairlie’s description of the Tory conservatism being most similar to the Democrat party.
However, there was one aspect of Dean’s description that stood out (p. 71): “Freedom always trumps order and safety when government needs to weight them.” Two things occured to me. This statement represented the seed of radicalism that exists even within the moderate conservative in the US. Conservatives aren’t very conservative in the sense of actually wanting to conserve. They want to be ”free”… which brings me to my second point. Such an ideal of freedom is rather ideological. Liberals value freedom as much as conservatives, but liberals desire different freedoms and don’t use as much ideological rhetoric in defending those freedoms. The conservative often lacks understanding of complexity. Freedom from one thing tends to put people under the constraint of another thing. So, to the extent that one is free from government, other institutions and organizations will have greater power they can impose. If the government doesn’t regulate religions and corporations, they will (as they do in some countries) impose their power upon the public. There is no absolute thing called freedom because it’s a relative concept, an abstraction that we judge according to.
Fairlie’s Tory doesn’t desire freedom at all costs. The Tory instead desires to conserve. Unlike present US conservatives, the Tory tries to avoid radical change. It’s for this reason that the Tory is suspicious of capitalism and of concentration of wealth outside of the government. The government serves the public good, but capitalists have no such requirement. Even though the government may fail in its responsibilities, the government at least is obligated to attempt to live up to its responsibilities. The capitalist, on the other hand, doesn’t even have to pretend to be concerned about the public good. Also, capitalism tends to change quickly and so isn’t a dependable source of public good. Economies go up and down, CEOs and entire businesses come and go… but a government (like a church) is a permanent fixture. In a constitutional democracy like the US, the government is intentionally designed to be inefficient. This is a good thing considering the most efficient government is fascist. Centralization of power is dangerous and that is why our government has a division of power, but the only thing that keeps power from being centralized in any single corporation is that the government disallows monopolies from forming. Without regulation, capitalism (as it presently functions; I’m not speaking about theoretical ideals of capitalism) will tend towards the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The constitution limits the power of the US government, but transnational corporations aren’t limited by any constitution.
As such, US conservatism which values capitalism and religion more than it values government doesn’t seem very conservative. Where are the Roosevelt conservatives who believed in conserving the environment and in conserving natural resources? Where are the Lincoln conservatives who believed in maintaining the Union at all costs? Despite my respect for Ron Paul, what is the point of running for political office on the platform that government is the problem? Going by the examples of recent conservative presidents (from Reagan to Bush jr), it seems that to run the government according to the ideology that government is a failure only helps to create a failing government. American conservatives don’t seem to trust the democratic process. I’ve even noticed a recent trend of conservatives denying that our political system is even a democracy. These conservatives want to treat the Constitution as if it were the Ten Commandments.
I sometimes get confused between the conservatives proclaiming freedom and the conservatives who act like authoritarians. When neoconservatives use libertarian rhetoric, it becomes extremely confusing and it’s hard to know when the libertarian rhetoric is genuine. Certainly, Reagan and Bush jr were no libertarians even though they gladly used such rhetoric to win support. However, there are those who overtly claim to be libertarian and yet it’s not clear that they are. Rupert Murdoch is an avowed libertarian who has been on the board of the Cato Institute which is a libertarian think tank, but if Murdoch is a libertarian then it’s become a meaningless word. This pro-capitalist big business libertarianism is a strange creature. Even Rand Paul, the son of the great Ron Paul, is quick to defend big business as he did with the BP oil spill (even while the actions of BP had led to the destruction of local small businesses). So, this is freedom? Whose freedom?
This is where the US conservative has difficulty in seeing clearly, even when they are otherwise critical. A British conservative like Fairlie has more insight in some ways than even someone like Dean who knows the Republican party from the inside. I want to understand US conservatism. I sometimes think I even wish to be convinced, to be won over. I want to believe that a moral version of conservatism can still exist in contemporary American politics. I genuinely respect and even agree with some conservative values. If those particular values were central to the conservative movement (in place of the present authoritarianism and radicalism), even a liberal like me could possibly be persuaded to identify as conservative. I most definitely could be a conservative according to Fairlie’s view of Toryism. Maybe it’s my own (non-radical) ‘conservative’ inclination that makes me feel so critical of the far right in the US.
I read an interesting analysis that compared liberals and conservatives in the US. The person was pointing out the different ways the two sides perceived Communism. Conservatives believed Communism was a massive threat. This implied that these conservatives, oddly, had great faith in the possible success of Communism in taking over the world and yet little faith in the strength of democracy. Liberals, on the other hand, tended to agree with Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The liberal has great faith in democracy and so trusts in the democratic process which he believes should never be sacrificed. A conservative like Dean seems to want to move in the direction of the liberal, but it’s not clear that he is willing to allow himself to do so. Like a good American conservative, he defines freedom in terms of being free of government, but our government is a democracy which protects our freedom. Even when our government fails in its duties, the liberal has faith in the democratic process, has faith in American culture, in American institutions, in the American public. The liberal doesn’t see the government as inherently in opposition to freedom. To get back to the analysis of Communism, the person who made the analysis said that he, as a liberal, always knew Communism would fail in that authoritarianism will always fail. The liberal seems more conservative in that the liberal is more concerned about conserving: conserving government institutions, conserving the democratic process, conserving civil rights, conserving the environment. Conservatives are the opposite in wanting to (often radically) return to some idyllic past that may never have existed.
In conclusion, I’m still searching for a worthy form of conservatism that could exist in America. The emphasis in that statement is on the “searching” part. I’m trying to imagine what a truly moral conservatism would look like, but the reality of present conservatism makes it difficult. Bob Altemeyer’s research shows that authoritarianism strongly correlates with conservative ideology in the US (specifically social conservatism). Nonetheless, he is careful to point out that authoritarianism isn’t identified with rightwing ideology and can at times become linked with leftwing ideology. So, in theory, an egalitarian conservatism that actually seeks to conserve should be possible, even in the US. Prior to the Southern Strategy, the Republican party wasn’t dependent on the wedge issues of race and religion. Even during Reagan’s administration, intelligent people were drawn to the Republican party (actually even making the average IQ of Republicans of that time higher than Democrats… which is the complete opposite now). I’m eager for the Republican party to destroy itself in its increasing radicalization because the quicker it does the quicker it can begin to return to sanity. I hope I live long enough to see a new conservatism rise out of the ashes.
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* As a note, I should add an additional category of critical conservatives. Similar to the libertarians and minarchists, there are the anarcho-capitalists who are critical of mainstream politics in general. For example, the anarcho-capitalist Stephan Molyneux makes criticisms using the exact same kind of data that is used by the liberal environmentalist Derrick Jensen. However, many anarcho-capitalists (like many rightwing libertarians) can tend to be more ideological than critical-minded… meaning their criticisms are extremely limited and biased. Anyways, it seems quite a few anarcho-capitalists are wary about being identified with conservatism and prefer to think of themselves as independents. In my opinion, the more moderate mainstream conservative-leaning independents (or independent-leaning conservatives) like Dean are maybe on average more intellectually respectable in their analyses (having less tendency towards extremes in their beliefs and ideas).
* As another note, I thought of some other conservatives I could add. I just watched Nader do an interview of Napolitano. The latter seemed to express what I’d consider genuine civil libertarianism. I’ve also heard John Stossel make a very lucid libertarian argument for legalization of drugs and as I recall he made that argument on Fox News. A third example is Shep Smith who is on Fox News as well. This makes me wonder to what extent Rupert Murdoch might genuinely believe in libertarian values or what libertarianism even means to someone with so much wealth and power. Anyways, these people (Napolitano, Stossel, and Smith) represent an authentic conservative impulse within mainstream conservatism, but still I wonder. Who listens to them? Who among the conservative leadership takes them seriously? It was interesting to see how critical Napolitano was of Republican politicians and judges. Does the intellectual rationality of Napolitano truly balance out the anti-intellectual radicalism of Glenn Beck? Between Napolitano and Beck, which one has more influence over the views of the average conservative? If I had to guess, I’d say Beck has had the most influence recently for sure. When people speak of conservatism as a movement, who exactly are the main representatives and leaders? The reason I wonder is because when I listen to someone like Napolitano I can’t help but think that certain of his conclusions would be more similar to the views of liberals than to the views of conservatives.