I was trying to explain why democracy matters to a conservative, but I was having a hard time.
Even though he believes in representative democracy, he has an elitist strain in that he doesn’t trust the average American, especially not the poor and minorities (even though he isn’t overtly/consciously classist and racist). He seems to think most Americans who don’t vote are simply lazy or something. He blames those who are disenfranchised rather than blaming the system that disenfranchises them. And he seems to think that the majority of Americans who support liberal policies (such as progressive taxes and social security) are simply stupid, ignorant or manipulated (in particular, what he perceives as stupid and ignorant poor minorities being manipulated by the liberal elite). But when average Americans stop being mindlessly apathetic and organize through grassroots democracy, he trusts them even less (Protesters are just violent thugs or potentially so, using force or the threat of force to unfairly get their way. How dare they try to force their majority opinion on the minority ruling elite! How dare they stop submitting to the paternalistic aristocracy that knows what is best for them!).
He does mean well (and I honestly mean that, no sarcasm implied). But he is an upper class white guy who grew up when the country was booming, when Americans were proud of their post-war global dominance, and when few would question the cultural dominance and political rule of whites and Christians. On the other hand, it was also an era of reigning liberalism (the whites and Christians ruling then were an entirely different breed than our present right-wingers). People at that time were joyfully and licentiously freed from the oppression of World Wars, the Great Depression, and Prohibition. This particular conservative and others of his generation benefited from the liberal and progressive policies that made this country great: public-funded infrastructure that helped create a massive manufacturing industry and high paying jobs, public-funded education that created a well-educated generation that didn’t go into debt becoming educated, a progressive tax rate that built the middle class, and on and on. He even worked in public-funded state universities for much of his career. But he sees none of this… or else just dismisses it or somehow sees it as not very important.
From his viewpoint: Fiscal liberals are simply naive despite having have accomplished all of these great things that he personally benefited from. And fiscal conservatives are somehow being realistic despite their policies (Starve the Beast, Two Santa Clauses theory, trickle-down economics, tax cuts for the rich, massive military spending, corporate subsidies, etc) having created and grown the permanent debt (and having eliminated the surplus when a Democrat created it with no help from Republicans)… along with, after decades of fiscal and social conservative rule, having created a society that is heading in the complete opposite direction from where society was heading during the era of liberalism and progressivism.
He basically is a libertarian, although more of what I’ve heard called an Establishment libertarian (ya know, the type that is represented by the billionaire corporatists at the CATO Institute: Rupert Murdoch, Koch brothers, etc; i.e., the plutocratic ownership class). As an upper class white man, he is largely detached from the experiences of most Americans. He is reluctant to admit that most Americans disagree with him. But even when admitting this he still dismisses that majority position. Despite his valuing freedom and fairness, despite his being personally moral, he just can’t bring himself to trust the dirty masses. He genuinely fears ‘mobocracy’. He is fine with a minimal democracy as long as it is run by a ruling elite that dismisses and ignores the majority (which is what our present government does). As someone invested in The Establishment, he has much to lose if real democracy were implemented. He seems to somewhat hold to the right-libertarian position that the rich don’t need government and the poor don’t deserve government.
Last night, I heard a perfect example of this type of person. It was on NPR and one of the guests was from the Heritage Foundation which is ultra-conservative. He argued that it would be wrong for a minority of workers to be allowed to force unionization on a majority of workers who didn’t support unionization. That is fine as far as it goes. However, it is hypocritical for someone like him to make this argument as he doesn’t trust democracy in the first place. Even if a majority of workers voted for unionization he would still consider it suspect because a majority is mobocracy (two foxes and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner; the opposite view being it’s better to have one fox and two sheep with a ‘representative’ government where the fox is the representative who decides what is best for all). Also, these kinds of right-wingers are perfectly fine with a minority ruling elite forcing their views on the majority of the population. They are being disingenuous in picking and choosing when they do and don’t want to support democracy, rather conveniently they tend to only support it when it favors their own positions and power.
It really sucks, though, to be this kind of conservative at this point in history, despite all the power conservatives wield. My conservative discussion partner mistrusts the poor, the working class (especially if unionized), minorities, traditional social conservatives (i.e., religious minorities who consistently vote Democratic), protesting activists, and the “Liberal Elite” (that he perceives as controlling the government, the media and academia). He even has some strong suspicion about big business when its involved in politics, but more because he is worried about government controlling businesses rather than the other way around. I guess the only people he truly trusts are people just like him: upper class or upper middle class, fiscally and socially conservative (i.e., right-wing) WASPs. This, of course, combines with the general conservative mistrust and sometimes outright fear of change. He is part of a shrinking demographic and all of the types of people he mistrusts are growing demographics. The fastest growing demographics are hispanics and blacks (both groups tending to be social gospel Christians), atheists and the non-religious, progressives and social liberals.
Such right-wing WASPs know they are losing political power and social influence, but they aren’t willing to relent with grace and generosity of spirit. They believe this is their country. They believe they deserve their position as the ruling elite and deserve their social and cultural dominance. This is why they’ve fought so hard in the culture wars which was their last stand and they’ve lost that war. The Tea Party was their final battle, their Last Hurrah. The average Tea Party supporter is to the right of the average Republican. And the average Republican, of course, is to the right of the average Democrat (and also to the right of the average Independent). But what many don’t know is that the average Democratic politician is to the right of the average American. These right-wing WASPs are so far right that they are starting to fall off of the end of the political spectrum.
They have good reason for worrying about their own growing irrelevance and obsolescence (aging implied as many are of an older generation). They maybe can’t save themselves at this point (at least not in their traditional role), but they sure can do massive damage to our democracy in trying to save themselves from having to share power equally and fairly with others. Pushing further to the right in reaction only guarantees and quickens the demise of their rule.
So, what is their plan to counter this seemingly inevitable trend? Obviously, democracy (including a functioning representative democracy) is the greatest enemy of their desire to maintain power and influence. But how to effectively undermine democracy while keeping a facade of democracy to keep the masses docile and obedient?
Well, propaganda is their best tool, especially considering they have the most influence over both mainstream politics and mainstream media (i.e., corporate media conglomerates). As Chomsky and others have pointed out, the propaganda model has been effectively used for a very long time. Unlike the past, ruling right-wingers can’t solely use and overtly rely upon violence to oppress the US population. More subtle methods are required: controlling the narrative of public discussion and of perceived consensus reality.
Another method is to shift the location of the reigns of power. When they ruled society through majority force and ruled culture through majority dominance (i.e., majority of WASPs), they could rule the government and so a functioning representative democracy was in some ways less of a danger. But they now mistrust the government since it has been for much of the 20th century becoming more egalitarian (by which I mean less dominated by the single demographic of male WASPs).
The neo-conservatives and neo-liberals (Establishment libertarians fitting in the latter category) have a similar strategy with only a slightly different emphasis. Both seek to privatize power or to otherwise control government by outside manipulation. This is how corporatocracy has shifted to inverted totalitarianism (a banana republic that continues to go through the motions of democracy, a puppet government ruled by a shadow government).
Other more average right-wing WASPs (such as the libertarian-leaning social conservative I was interacting with) aren’t among the ruling elite, although as upper class Americans some of them have a fair amount of influence on the ruling elite, and so they instead have a strategy of disempowering the federal government (that has been, at least in the past, the greatest force of civil rights). They do this by localizing power which means concentrating power at the local level where it can be better controlled (local religious and business organizations that are tied into the local Establishment of ruling elites, and yet also — unknowingly to the average conservative — more loosely and covertly (through professional and personal relationships) tied into the national and international Establishment of ruling elites; this being a way of ruling behind the scenes far away from the sanitizing sunshine of democracy). This is an attempt to return to pre-Progressive 19th century crony capitalism when local politicians and businessmen regularly colluded for power and profit (a time when the private army of Pinkerton agents was larger than the US military).
I should clarify an issue. Yes, there are conspiracies in the world. But most of this isn’t conspiracy. It’s just people acting in accord with other people (often family and friends) who share their interests, who share their way of viewing the world, who share their background. Humans have the tendency to identify with those like themselves and research shows this is even more true for right-wingers who are predisposed to groupthink and identity politics. The Establishment isn’t necessarily nefarious in a conscious or intentionally planned way. It simply represents the relationships shared by the upper classes (personal and professional, political and business, community and religious). The upper classes socialize with other upper class people. There is nothing surprising about that. The poor do the same, but it’s just that the poor don’t have the power and influence to form a similar establishment.
What these minarchist conservatives and right-libertarians don’t understand (or, in some cases, maybe understand perfectly fine) is that plutocrats, corporatists, crony capitalists, corrupt politicians and manipulative elites can control a small government just as easily as they can control a big government. In some ways, especially in a multiculturally diverse democracy, it probably is even easier for them to maintain their power on the local level of small government. Similarly, they can control an unregulated market just as easily as they can control a regulated market. The only thing that can stop corruption and concentration of power is a functioning democracy. The greater the democracy (i.e. the more it involves direct democracy, civic participation and grassroots activism) means the greater the protection against those who don’t want democracy.
All of this obviously makes me sad, even despairing at times. It almost makes me lose all hope in humanity. I was trying to explain to this particular conservative why a functioning democracy matters, why the majority matters. Thinking further about it, I came up with a way of explaining it which maybe conservatives could understand. It uses free market economics which they claim to love so much. Here it is:
Trying to have a democracy that ignores and dismisses the majority on a consistent basis is like trying to have a free market that ignores and dismisses the majority of small business owners and workers. A free market works (at least in theory) because there is competition. Likewise, a democracy can only work if there is competition. However, if the ruling elite clamps down on political competition by disenfranchising the majority, then that is no longer a free political system, no longer a functioning democracy. An economy where two corporations nearly monopolized every market couldn’t accurately be called a free market. So why, in context of a government where two parties nearly monopolize all politics, do we insist calling it a free democracy (or even a free republic for that matter)?
To claim the US is a functioning democracy is a convenient fiction used to assuage the guilt of our individual and collective moral failings, a way of avoiding the awareness of our individual and shared responsibility that would otherwise require individual and shared action to alleviate the injustice.
This free market metaphor for democracy might be close to reaching him in a way he could understand, but I still have doubts that he (and those like him) can be reached. His fear of commoners is just too great. He knows in his heart that most Americans disagree with him (because if he didn’t know this on some level, he wouldn’t respond with such gut-level mistrust). He’d rather disempower the majority than to risk genuine democracy (with all of its messy civic participation). As a well educated professional, he sees himself as having earned his wealth and power. Therefore, he believes his opinion is worth more than the opinion of the poor and the working class, maybe worth more than the opinion of even most of the middle class that is now struggling (the conservative belief in meritocratic rule where meritocracy is conflated with plutocracy). He isn’t entirely detached from the lower classes. He didn’t grow up super rich, but neither did he grow up poor. He just doesn’t understand, maybe can’t understand. Most importantly, he doesn’t comprehend on a gut level all of the privileges and opportunities of being a well off white male and all of the public-funded programs and polices that have allowed him to succeed. He lives in a fantasy shared by many other well off white males.
It saddens me because he is so normal, so typical. If you met him, you’d just think he was a genuinely kind and friendly person (which would be an accurate assessment on the personal level). He goes to church and he volunteers. He is always helping other people. For certain, he isn’t a greedy narcissist, a soulless sociopath, or anything like that. He simply is blind to those who are different from him. Or not exactly blind. On some level, he fears those who are different and fears what he thinks they would do to this (to ‘his’) country that he believes was built by WASPs like him. He is intelligent and well educated, but he just can’t understand.
This kind of moral split reminds me of Derrick Jensen’s analysis. In his books, Jensen describes how people become dissociated between different parts of their lives. For example, someone can do things at work that others would find emotionally distasteful or morally horrifying, and yet these people often can go home to play with their kids without any thought about what they were doing a few hours before. The two parts of their lives are absolutely split. I think a similar thing happens with personal life and politics. People can make political decisions (as politicians or as voters) about strangers that they could never make about their own loved ones or their own neighbors or the members of their own church.
When that dissociation breaks down, people make very different decisions. An example is that data shows social conservatives tend to vote against stem cell research, but if they personally know someone who could be (or could have been) saved by stem cell research they tend to vote for stem cell research. Morality can’t function when there is no personal investment and many people aren’t able to connect personally to strangers. Research, however, has shown liberals are better at and conservatives worse at empathetically connecting with strangers (it’s even a criticism conservatives make of liberals because they see caring about strangers such as foreigners as implying a split loyalty). Conservatives are what Ernest Hartmann calls thick boundary types. What this means is that a conservative makes a great surgeon in being able to disconnect their emotions from their work but also can make morally questionable decisions for the same reason of that disconnection.
As usual, I’m left with no clear conclusion, no understanding of how to move forward.
Is it simply a matter of people never changing? Is it true that change only happens when the old generation dies and new generations gain power and influence? If so, that is sad. Does this mean that in hoping for change I have to hope for the death of people like this conservative along with the death of the old generation of narcissistic Boomers (and those on the cusp of the Boomer generation) who have held onto power for far too long? That is a depressing thought. I don’t wish harm on them, but I do wish that their harm against others would end. I see the right-wing reign coming to an end and yet I fear that the after-effects of their reign could last for the rest of my life.