Conservative Critics of Conservatism

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.

– – –

* 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.

12 thoughts on “Conservative Critics of Conservatism

  1. Why so malevolent? ‘After the movement self-destructs’? Ain’t probable, just going to be a cycle. Those that rise from the debris will end up becoming conservative again but in a different way and my son or nephew will probably be reading or even talking face-to-face with yours about it; maybe at the time we might even have a world government.

    • I didn’t mean to be malevolent per se. I do get frustrated, but I was trying to be objective in my observations and assessments. I genuinely believe that any group, movement, or country that becomes radicalized will end up self-destructing. It isn’t as if I’m cursing the conservative movement to self-destruct. I just see that if it continues on the path it presently is on the result of self-destruction, if not necessarily inevitable, is certainly highly probable.

      That isn’t a bad thing. If it self-destructs, then that is an opportunity for a new generation to create the conservative movement from the ground up. All things come to an end at some point, but as they say all endings are just new beginnings… until the apocalypse comes, that is. Just like you say… a cycle.

      Radicalism just ain’t a sustainable attitude. Extremism leads to imbalance and outrage leads to frustration if it keeps being pushed towards the extremes. Everything goes in cycles, but the radical doesn’t want to believe that. The radical thinks they can be victorious over the forces of evil or whatever. Anyways, radicalism isn’t very Taoist or Buddhist… or even very Christian for that matter. There is no love and forgiveness when one feels outraged.

      I too get outraged, but I don’t make a philosophy or political ideolgy out of it. Outrage, like all emotions, comes and goes. What causes outrage to become radicalized is when someone thinks they have the final answer, the perfect solution, the one right belief system. But there is nothing wrong with being outraged in and of itself.

  2. Sometimes, I feel like I have to meet you in person or at least on webcam; how innocently you defend your position. It isn’t in the choice of words, or maybe it is, but it tends to evoke a sense of innocence that isn’t exactly there. But they can’t be dismissed, the very serious points that are raised within that overcoat of innocence.

    Why am I even saying this stuff? Maybe it’s sleep, lol.

    • I wouldn’t claim to be “innocent”. I would claim that I try to be rational which isn’t the same as being neutral. I choose my words carefully most of the time. I intentionally present myself in a certain way. No matter what emotions I feel, I try not to be entirely controlled by them and I’m in many ways very controlling of how I express my emotions. I’m an introvert and so there is always a lot going on behind my words.

      Your intuition about me might be correct. Still, I’m not quite sure what you mean by the evoked “sense of innocence that isn’t exactly there.” I’m no moral exemplar and would never present myself as such, but there are certain moral ideals I’m righteous about. For example, I get quite righteous about certain attitudes of righteousness. Part of this might be hypocritical, but I’d argue it isn’t overall because I tend to only be criticial of righteousness when it is motivated by radicalism which is what I was criticizing in this post. I try to avoid radicalness in my own thinking.

      Obviously, I am a very critical person. I’m critical of everything and everyone. Criticalness is my general attitude. If you knew me, you’d understand that I’m a very depressed person, very self-enclosed even to the point of defensiveness at times. This causes me to be prone to a judgmental attitude. I hate in others what I hate in myself. This is why I try to be rational because I figure that if one is going to be righteous then one should have a good, rational reason to justify one’s righteousness.

      Righteous or not, I would argue that no one in this world is innocent. Some people such as sociopaths are blatantly not innocent, but we all are complicit in the suffering and injustice that exists. Also, we are all mired in our own biases. Our perception of the world isn’t pure. Our vision is too close to the muck and mud. So, of course, I’m not innocent. But maybe a part of me idealizes innocence. I was raised with the ideal of pure goodness as an inherent trait to humanity, that we aren’t merely fallen creatures trapped in our own sinful natures.

      My criticisms of conservatives may ultimately come down to that basic sense of humanity. I want to believe in something that is good, but US conservatism is based in the fundamentalist Christian notion that humans aren’t good or else that most humans aren’t good (just a chosen elect of the saved who are truly good). This distinction touches upon something very primal within humans or at least something primal within the zeitgeist of Western civilization. It’s the dirt in which the roots of this society grows.

      Am I responding correctly to your observation of an “overcoat of innocence”? I don’t know. My sense is that you were sensing other layers to behind my words. Also, that those deeper layers might be more genuine than the words themselves. Is that what you meant? If so, I’d agree with you.

  3. Exactly. Even when your seem to take an aggressive tone, that innocence can be sensed and an intuitive debator would know that it isn’t positively a belligerent attitude. Some others or when blinded some would construe it superficially.

    I still remember your first post I commented on, it was on ‘Science being about what works’, even then when your posture looked like you were speaking to someone who was annoying you with shortsighted views, the innocence of the stance was palpable between the lines. I see these things but others don’t, I can’t understand why.

    Truth be told that I also responded with a certain heavy-handedness but it was tentative knowing the abovementioned innocent spirit but the body was so persuasively assured that I ignored my spectral analysis and took to reacting to the plain.

    Thing is, as I grew I saw the lie in society that makes people into what they aren’t in the name of harmony. Grass assumes shrub face, toad wears a mask of a sparrow; so many masks with others managing to stay natural for their native state is the desire of the entire group and is the model for the masks. Mostly it’s dishonest and it’s hard to defend your judgment when one sees through it in this scientific world. So me too am hanging on the side of the bus still undecided, to join or not. For instance, I generally dislike authority and though I will follow my own way with or without influence, I will even go against something I might agree with if some authority tries to impose. But, to fit in I have to pretend to like em, it messes with my mind, such a release it is when I talk back to em. Aaaah!

    Owing to that, my use of my sixth sense has dwindled but I devised another system, I wait, know the person then I judge em, that way I can defend myself and still maintain my impression though suppressed. Your impression on me was as I have described cos you hold back even when you are most annoyed. That is probably the origin of the innocence; you’re just trying to tell something not to bite, it’s almost like a good mom would do.

    Am I close?

    • Your last comment resonates with me.

      I know that I’m a conflicted person. I am very defensive and yet at the same time I often wear my emotions on my sleeve. I don’t like standing out and yet I’m very independent-minded. I can be quite judgmental and yet i’m ultimately forgiving of even the worst in humans.

      I do express this conflictedness to an extent in my writing. However, I downplay or simplify this confictedness to create a coherent message that can be understood by others. I can’t constantly explain all of the complex undercurrents of my inner life which I have a hard enough time grasping myself.

  4. The message I was struggling to express in the above post was a desire to discover authentic voices of conservatism, a desire to understand what conservatism really is and what it could become. My sense is that culture war wedge issues aren’t fundamental to conservatism. My sense is that refusing to accept responsibility for the government’s public role isn’t fundamental to conservatism.

    Reading the criticisms of conservatism by conservatives has given me some hope. These conservatives are authentic in the same way certain liberals I favor are authentic. None of them are fully accepted by the mainstream. However, in the past at least, it has seemed there was still a difference. In recent US history, it’s been conservatives (both in and outside of the mainstream) who have embraced or allowed for radicalism. This difference is something I still don’t understand.

    This radicalism seems to relate to a different view of violence. I’ve often wondered why even the far left is wary of violence. The Weather Underground was a leftwing terrorist group and yet they went out of their way to make sure they never hurt anyone while blowing up buildings. Only a liberal terrorists would uphold pacifism in relation to human life. Liberal environmentalists have been destroying property for decades and yet have chosen not to attack people. The same can’t be said for rightwing activist groups. Why?

    I wonder if it goes back to the Christian ideology of those who are saved and those who are not saved. If Dr. Tiller is one of the unsaved and is doing harm to those who are saved (or potentially saved), then killing him can’t be a bad thing. To a fundamentalist, someone like Dr. Tiller is beyond redemption. You’re either a part of the in-group or your not. This relates as well to other races, other cultures, and other religions. Only certain people are considered real Americans or real Christians.

    Beyond that, US conservatives have more of a war mentality. There are the foot soldiers who kill the abortion doctors, who shoot up liberal churches, and who attack federal buildings. But those radical activists wouldn’t be as motivated towards violence if the pundits didn’t constantly use violent speech and imagery: pictures of targets on the houses of opponents, “don’t retreat, reload”, play-acting out the killing of people on mainstream media, making lists of enemies, etc.

    Some of the conservative critics I’ve mentioned have struggled with this. Frank Schaeffer understood the danger of the religious right from having been a part of it. John W. Dean and Barry Goldwater saw the conservative movement become radicalized and spoke out against it. I even finally saw a Tea Party leader state that racists shouldn’t be tolerated within their movement. Maybe the conservative movement is slowly shifting.

    Still, the question remains: How did the conservative movement ever become this way in the first place? And why are liberals even when radicalized reluctant to hurt people they disagree with? What is that fundamental difference? Considering it’s been with the conservative movement for quite a while, what are the chances that conservatives will ever be able to free themselves from these kinds of violent tendencies? If certain conservatives stood up against this radical romanticization of violence, would they themselves become targetted by this violent element within the conservative movement? Is this violence the inevitable result of romanticizing the Civil War and romanticizing gun culture? Can the US conservative movement be different or is it stuck in a particular worldview?

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