US Conservatism: Through the Looking Glass

I was just thinking about how fiscal conservatism isn’t necessarily all that conservative… depending, as always, on how you define the term.

Social conservatism is conservative because it attempts to conserve traditional culture and attempts to conserve the authority and influence of the institutions that support it. This is where American conservatism goes off the tracks. Our country wasn’t founded on conservative values, but was founded on revolution. The Founding Fathers weren’t conserving traditions. They fought against the traditional style of government and in it’s place instated an entirely new form of government. Essentially, America’s ‘tradition’ was originally in opposition to European tradition, but later on Americans came to identify with their European roots… in defining “Real America” as contrasted to the cultures of African-Americans, Latinos, and non-European immigrants.

This is sense of rootedeness in European tradition is odd considering that US conservatives think of themselves as somehow being the torchbearers of the tradition they inherited from Europe. But Europe is more traditional than the US almost by definition… but, to US conservatives, Europe is the opposite of their notion of tradition. Americans so much loved tradition that we even created entirely new traditions of Christianity. I find it ironic for Mormon Beck to be the defender of tradition.

This issue of confused ideologies came up with the recent IRS building attack by Joe Stack. In his suicide note, he criticized the government in typical fiscal conservative fashion. The confusing part was that he made statements that could be interpreted as praising communism over capitalism. This is strange as US conservatives love to disparage Europe for its socialism. Ignoring Stack’s unclear ideology, some have connected these particular statements to Henry Fairlie who was a European conservative… a very different species. Fairlie moved to the US and was critical of the Republican party because it didn’t seem conservative to him at all. As he saw it, without a stable government, there can be no stable society, no stable culture, no stable tradition.

Idealizing capitalism in place of government didn’t seem like a good answer to Fairlie. Without a strong government to enforce strong regulation, there is nothing traditional about uncontrolled capitalism. In all traditional societies, the market is controlled by government whether national or local. Capitalism itself isn’t even a traditional value. The Catholic church which is the very archetype of Western Tradition has often been critical of capitalism. In the past, religion was allied or even conjoined with government in order to control all facets of society including the markets. This is what US conservatives like to call socialism or communism.

US capitalism is a very unstable system with booms and busts. The markets change quickly and the system encourages risky behavior. The US government, on the other hand, was designed to be very conservative. The power of the govt is divided and change happens very slowly. The US government is more conservative than US capitalism and yet conservatives criticize the former while idealizing the latter. If you look at the history of US capitalism, it has been the single greatest force in destroying traditional communities. Why are conservatives considered fiscally conservative when they support a big military and undermine all programs that directly help US citizens (public schools, assistance programs, etc)? Liberals are considered fiscally liberal, but if you look at the Pew data liberals are the demographic that is the most concerned about balancing the budget.

In the US, the penultimate defenders of “fiscal conservatism” are the libertarians. This just adds to the confusion. Libertarianism was also inherited from Europe where originally it was part and parcel of the workers movement. Even in the US, the early workers movement was against the government that was aligned with the corporations (corporatism) all the while promoting what are now considered socialist ideals of workers rights. Over this past century, though, the protest against government has switched from progressivism to regressivism and the libertarian movement has switched from anti-capitalism to pro-capitalism. Even so, libertarianism and progressivism have never been entirely separated. Any time a truly populist protest movement arises, libertarians and progressives become almost indistinguishable… for example, the Peace movement protesting the Iraq War.

I suppose the connection between libertarian and progressive sentiments had been strained since at least the Civil War. But the separation didn’t become obvious until Republicans took up the Southern Strategy. By using this strategy, conservatives played off of the Southern fear and resentment toward the Federal government. As progressives were finally getting the government to enforce laws that defended the common man, this irritated the class conscious Southern Aristocrats.

I’ve discussed some of this before such as the role the KKK played in the development of conservative ideology. It’s strange how conservatism became what it is today. Glenn Beck has gone so far as even to attack the Christian tradition of social justice. Social conservatism without social justice? Fiscal conservatism without regulation on capitalism? It’s like we’ve fallen through the looking glass.

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