I’ve written about this topic quite a few times before. I don’t have any grand insights to add to my previous commentary. I just find myself constantly perplexed by American conservatism.
One particular thing keeps coming back to my mind. America has no tradition of traditional conservatism. This has been more or less true going back to colonial times, but definitely true at least by the revolutionary era. The Europeans who immigrated to America mostly came from traditionally conservative societies and communities, although modern liberalism was already beginning to take hold in certain countries such as Britain and the Netherlands. The important part is that these people were usually leaving traditional conservatism behind on purpose, sometimes even being forced to leave by the defenders of traditional conservatives of their homelands.
The Enlightenment eventually led to the demise of traditional conservatism in the West. What replaced it was reactionary conservatism. This took hold earliest in America because there was no other conservatism to compete with it. But what exactly is this reactionary conservatism? Is it even conservative in any basic sense?
Traditional conservatives were the strongest opponents of classical liberalism, most specifically laissez-faire capitalism. Modern conservatives have come to embrace many of the major issues that classical conservatives opposed. Conservatives no longer even promote conserving such as the precautionary principle which goes back to the origin of the word itself.
They don’t resist change, but react against it. In reacting, they oddly end up embracing so much of what they reacted against. There is no core set of beliefs or values to reactionary conservatism. It just depends on what they happen to be reacting against at the moment?
Being predisposed to the liberal worldview, it doesn’t bother me that liberalism lacks any core principles. I’ve always thought of liberalism as more of an attitude, a mindset. Liberalism is all about changing with the times, all about embracing the new and different. But that isn’t how conservatives think of conservatism… which makes reactionary conservatism a very odd beast.
Am I not fully grasping what conservatism is all about? Maybe I’m doing what conservatives tend to do by pushing the idea of the idea of a genuinely conservative conservatism of the past. Maybe conservatism has always been reactionary. If one were to seek an origin of conservatism, one would have to look to the most traditional of societies which are hunter-gatherer tribes. Even the traditional conservatism that existed when the revolutionary era came was far away from tribal societies.
All of civilization was built on largely liberalizing forces. The merging of cultures and syncretizing of religions in such civilizations as the Roman Empire. Civilization is fundamentally liberal in bringing local people into an increasingly cosmopolitan world.
By following the strands of conservatism back in time, do we find a beginning point of conservatism? Or does the entire idea of conservatism simply unravel?
29 thoughts on “Is Reactionary Conservatism Conservative?”
I could be wrong but it seems to me that the modern “conservative” movement which Barry Goldwater ostensibly represented was a reaction to the threat of world domination by Communism in the post-WWII world. I don’t think it bears any resemblance to or owes its origins to the conservatism of the past. The big fear was that the world would slowly and surreptitiously become socialist. When he was in the Senate Goldwater opposed the voting-rights act and the other civil rights legislation that LBJ passed, as well of course Medicare and Medicaid, I suppose he thought they were a gateway to socialism. While I think that the fear of Communism was the starting point for modern conservatism, it gained momentum by adding other causes, e.g., anti-civil rights for blacks (the Southern strategy), anti-abortion with the passage of Roe v Wade, and of course all the environmental and consumer protection work that Ralph Nader was doing. The problem with modern conservatism is that it turned into a culture war–anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-Obamacare–and they lost. Aside from lowering taxes on the wealthy, Romney had no message, no core beliefs. The Republicans come across as being against things that most other people are for, but they don’t give good reasons for their positions.
I agree with your assessment of the modern ‘conservative’ movement. You also taught me some new facs about Goldwater. I wonder what he thought about his own record later in his life when he became critical of the GOP.
What you described is the situation conservatives were reacting against. This led to specific reactionary positions that would never have taken hold if not for the situation itself. But I was wondering about a hypothetical conservatism outside of any single situation. Conservatives often claim that such a real conservatism exists. The problem with modern conservatism is that in theory it is based on principles while in reality it is reactionary and hence situationally relativistic.
I was making the point that the best agument for a real conservatism based on principles would be traditional conservatism. Many conservatives, of course, would argue that modern conservatism is traditional conservatism or rooted in it. This is a weak argument considering the evidence.
If traditional conservatism exists as a principle-based real conservatism, then it exists in contradistinction to the evolving and shifting nature of modern conservatism. Conservatives don’t have any response to this besides denying the allegation and the evidence.
My personal interest is coming from the opposite side. I wish conservatives would defend traditional conservative principles and positions so that liberals wouldn’t feel compelled to do so. As conservatives became more reactionary, liberals became more traditionally conservative. I’d like to see a conservatism that is primarily focused on conserving and a liberalism that is primarlly focused on liberalizing/liberating.
A fascinating topic, one I’ve given much thought to. Unfortunately it comes at a moment when I’m too busy to respond in full. Still, let me sketch out a response:
I think modern American conservativism, as Bob notes, began as a virulent form of anti-communism. It has continued that way, morphing since 1991 into a broader anti-socialism. At the same time, modern conservatives are rabid fans of laissez-faire capitalism. What distinguishes socialism from capitalism? Mainly, the former is based on what’s best for the collective, for the greater good of society, while capitalism is based on individual greed (Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”), which in theory benefits all — but in reality doesn’t. In other words, as George Lakoff argues in his work on cognitive metaphor, liberals subscribe to a “we’re all in this together” world view while conservatives subscribe to a “you’re on your own” world view.
This individualistic, selfish conservative ideology has a long pedigree going back to Ayn Rand’s extreme egoism and even beyond, to the Social Darwinism that was used to justify extreme wealth and extreme poverty during the post-Civil War Gilded Age. American liberalism, by contrast, is associated more with collective actions such as the labor movement, the antiwar movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, etc. And today’s liberals are at the forefront of the movement to protect the social safety net, while conservatives want to privatize everything, i.e. put millions of individual Americans at the mercy of profiteers while enabling a small number of others to compile huge fortunes.
If I’m correct, Benjamin, then modern-day US liberalism DOES have at least one core principle, namely, we eschew selfishness and greed in favor of what’s best for the greater good of society. Conservatives, in contrast, put individual “liberty” and wealth accumulation above all else.
I agree that one of the major differences between conservatives and liberals can be expressed in the greed vs. altruistism paradigm. As I’ve stated before on Ben’s blog, I tend to view this as two competing evolutionary strategies, one of which is mired in stagnation and possible extinction, and the other offering the potential for adaptation, progress, and survival in a changing environment.
As an aside to this speculation, did anyone happen to see 60 minutes last night (11-19-2012)? They showcased a study by Yale University researchers on the possibility that “morality” was an inherited or instinctive trait in human infants. Here’s a link where you can view the segment:
To summarize their findings:
1. Infants as young as 5 months can recognize, and seem to be attracted to, or support, cases where someone provides assistance to another, and reject someone who hinders another.
2. However, infants of this age also seem to be able to distinguish between other individuals who are “like” or “unlike” themselves, based on certain simple criteria. The infants favored acts of altruism performed on behalf of “like” individuals, but also favored acts of hinderance towards those who were self-identified as “unlike” the infant.
3. Children up to the age of about 8 years, were likely to engage in selfish behavior; specifically, they would go out of their way to deny benefits to others, even if it meant that they received less benefits themselves.
4. Beginning around 8 years of age, children began behaving altruistically, reversing the previous trend and distributing benefits so that the greatest amount went to all, even if this meant they received a smaller share themselves. This was interpreted to be a behavior modification due to cultural influence, ie parental and educational.
The results could have been highly subjective, as little data was cited in the 60 minutes segment, however, if the observations are found to be true, then it appears that we are born conservative and raised to be liberal. This seems to be a direct contradiction of the often stated conservative meme: “If a young man is not a liberal, he has no heart. If an old man is not a conservative, he has no head.” Or perhaps we need to test more people, and see if they grow selfish again in old age?
Sounds interesting. I’d be reticent about interpreting he data too much along ideological lines. I could see the possibility of various ways of interpreting.
There is other research that complicates the matter. Infants supposedly can understand the perspective of another person. In one study, infants realized that other people couldn’t know what happens in a room when they aren’t in it, despite the infant being in the room the entie time. This would seem to support that infants are inherently empathetic and socially-oriented.
Then again, there is a ton of research out there. Humans have great capacity for different behaviors and have great variety with inborn preispositions.
I wouldn’t argue against what you posit as modern conservatism and modern liberalism. But I would argue for a larger context in which to debate the possible meanings of the post-Enlightenment left/right spectrum.
That is why I was considering traditional conservatism that preceded all modern notions of politics. Traditional conservatives were strongly focused on a collective worldview, specifically that of tightly-knit communities, pre-capitalist economies based on community relationships, and rigid social hierarchies with little meritocracy and social mobility.
In response to all of this, the Radical Enlightenment thinkers (beginning with Spinoza) came along. They formed the groundwork for modern liberalism by promoting a type of individualism free from oppressive collective governments and religions.
The reactionary conservatives saw the traditional conservatives as weak and the Radical Enlightenment thinkers as dangerous. So, they sought to replace the former by using some of the effective strategies of the latter. This is how modern conservatives took on a fundamentally liberal worldview.
Centuries later, we’ve been experiencing other shifts. As reactionary conservatives further embraced liberal methods and rhetoric, liberals ended up reacting to the reaction. This caused liberals to defend some of traditional conservatism and split them further away from the left-wing. So, there has been a rightward shift of sorts that left the left-wing out in the cold.
One would be hard pressed to define American conservatism because it has two sources that are in conflict: one is the libertarian liberal impulse. This is a liberal impulse in the classical sense, but one gets in American conservatism is a particularly retrograde and myoptic form of that impulse. It is important to realize that most European conservatives as well as those of us in Asia see this AS liberalism, not conservatism or nationalism.
However, one would be terribly misguided not see the contradictory religious reactionary impulse in American conservatism, which has NOTHING to do with liberty and embraces the rhetoric only as a tactic and a way to maintain a coalition.
Only both “conservatism” and “liberalism” in the sense that Americans mean it strike many of us as somewhat conservative by nature. This is neither good nor bad in and of itself in my view, as liberals are generally trying to maintain something of the past vision of a more progressive society. One that in actuality never existed, and therefore this inverse Utopia isn’t that different.
But it is a MUCH more coherent notion of the greater good than that of American conservatism, which since Nixon has been a mixture of profoundly contradictory impulses. The culture warriors and libertarians being on the same side of the idle and using similar rhetoric proves this to my mind.
Anyway, I don’t think this answers your key question: but I think American conservatism is not properly speaking conservative, it is almost purely reactionary or retrograde liberalism.
Ah yes, you’ve hit the nail on the head! If there’s one word that describes the current state of the conservative movement right now, in general, it would have to be contradiction. I don’t have the knowledge of the history of liberalism and conservatism to compare today’s movements with the past, so all I can offer is my own snapshot view of the present. As Benjamin previously observed, conservatism is currently motivated by fear, and the current composition of the political right is a reaction to that fear. In order to bolster their falling numbers of voters, they have been forced to adopt and juggle an increasing number of conflicting and paradoxical points of view. Jesus vs. Ayn Rand, social darwinism (evolution) vs. creationism, pro-growth (capitalism) vs. change, pro-war vs. pro-life. To paraphrase W. Bush, they are a “Coalition of the Willfully Ignorant.”
The wheels are coming off, as this last election shows. When even the “average voter” can, without putting forth more than the usual minimal effort, penetrate the propaganda and sense the underlying conflicting interests, then conservatives have a serious problem. What scares me is that there are quite a number of very powerful, arrogant, and sociopathic billionaires out there with a potentially explosive case of cognative dissonance. Now that their attempt to buy the last election has failed, will they think twice before they invest humdreds of millions in the next one? One sobering fact: The entire cost of all of the political campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats in the 2008 election was less than one quarter’s worth of profit for Exxon-Mobil.
Your perspective is helpful. An international vantage point offers some of the larger context I’m always looking for. The problem with American culture, at least for native-borns, is that it can be so insular. American MSM (along with the education system) isn’t very helpful in infoming the American public about the larger world.
I get what you mean about American politics being conservative, both for conservatism and liberalism. This past century has involved a lot of defense of the status quo. I think this is because the larger world is changing so much. Also, this is because American politics is dominated by the elite who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
This is interesting to think about in light of my argument. In America both conservatism and liberalism originate from and in response to the liberal tradition, thus liberalism in a general sense forming the foundation and context of all of American politics. Maybe this is what exaggerates the conservative-minded status quo.
I really like how you stated your last point. American conservatism isn’t really conervative, rather retrograde or reactionary liberalism. That fits my theory that Reagan never stopped being a liberal nor left behind the Progressivism that fueled it. Reagan was a disgruntled liberal who, although becoming cynical, maintained the sunny optimism of Progressivsm. He was the first neocon president in that the neocons were originally Progressives who shifted the Progressive paradigm without giving up on the progressive ageda in a broad sense or at least not willing to let fo of the Progressive rhetoric.
Certainly, Reagan was no conservative. My whole post hinges on this. For many American conservatives, Reagan embodies their sense of conservatism like no other. Reagan was originally a Progressive Democrat and a union leader. Later on, he helped pass one of the strongest pro-choice bills prior to Roe vs Wade, was the first president to invite an openly gay couple to stay overnight at the White House, and created the permanent debt through deficit spending despite raisig taxes numerous times.
This demonstrates the confusion and absurdity at the heart of modern American conservatism. Reagan may or may not be labeled as a reactionary conservative, but he was no conservative in a normal and straightforward sense.
This leads me to ask: What is the difference between a reactionary conservative and a disgruntled liberal or cynical progressive? Or is there no necessary difference?
You ask what is the difference between a reactionary conservative and a disgruntled liberal or cynical progressive, maybe just age or the size of one’s bank account.
I don’t know about the age part, but the size of one’s bank account would probably have some impact. It would depend, though, on how one grew one’s bank account in the first place.
As for Reagan, was he hired as a corporate spokesperson because he had become a disgruntled liberal and cynical progressive? Or did he become a disgruntled liberal and cynical progressive because there was profit to be made by doing so? Either way, once he had aligned himself with the interests of corporations, those interests became his own vested interests.
Reagan was an actor and so his political persona may have just been another character he played. I couldn’t say to what degree he had any genuine principles that were unchanging from the time he was a Progressive Democrat to the time he was a Neocon Republican. It’s possible that he would’ve advocated any positions that would have gained him money and power. Maybe he never gave it much thought. A lot of people aren’t very self-aware about their own motivations.
Pat Buchanan may be the closest thing to a conservative that exists in the US in the way it is defined in other countries. Generally, Neo-conservatives are liberals “who have been mugged by reality,” they admit this. Many of them weren’t even liberals, but Trotskyists who lost home in a Marxist solution. Paleo-conservatives threw that at them.
But a cynical progressives is almost a conservative in almost every way: I’ll be frank, look at Obama’s staff and his choices. It’s cynical “Change” and it looks like what the GOP would have done 10 years ago.
The problem in all this is the role of Baby-boomer specific views of religion and race that still dominate conservative thinking because those are illiberal.
I found myself nodding my head in agreement as I read your comment.
I wonder how many American conservatives would hold up Pat Buchanan as the model of real conservatism. I was wondering about something along these lines. The type of modern American conservatism that comes closest to what I call traditional conservatism would be compassionate conservatism which is motivated by religious tradition and favors government, so a close connection of the two such as either religious authority informing government or theocratically ruling government. For a while there, compassionate conservatism seemed to have gained the position of real conservatism; but economic issues undermined the agenda of compassionate conservatives.
How would you assess compassionate conservatism?
Thanks for the frankness. You’re making the argument that I’ve made before. As Republicans became the party of right-wingers, Democrats have become the party of basic conservatism. Many have noted that Democrats now support positions that once were Republican and sometimes once were to the right of many Republicans. For example, Nixon put forth a healthcare bill that was to the left of Obamacare. What gets deemed socialism now once was standard conservative policy.
This makes liberalism even harder to grasp. I’m not all that certain how closely aligned are the Democratic Party and the liberal movement. I have no idea where the liberal movement is these days, although the right-wing radicalism of the GOP makes many liberals at least temporarily fall in line with Democrats. I also wonder how liberal the liberal movement even is, especially the segment found in the Democratic Party. I suspect the average left-winger and maybe even the average right-wing libertarian is more liberal-minded than a liberal Democrat on certain typically liberal psychological traits (such as openness to experience).
Baby Boomers complicate all of this. It was only this past decade when Silents lost majority power in Washington and Boomers gained it. In another decade, Boomers will probably have lost majority power. That is when events will really get interesting.
More than one observer, myself included, has stated in recent years that with the entire US political spectrum shifting to the right, the GOP is now an extremist rightwing party and the Dems have taken over the center-right. This leaves an enormous void on the left. There are a few groups out there, like Occupy Wall Street, that are trying to fill it, but so far their impact has been pretty minimal.
The income inequality gap is larger today than it’s been in 80 years, and it’s likely to continue to grow. At some point one would think this would generate enough disaffection among the younger generation that some kind of populist movement on the left develops. But ours is a pretty conservative country, so who knows?
Nixon wouldn’t have a chance today’s Republican Party, he would be considered too liberal. He had a plan for the 2nd Administration that included not only comprehensive health care reform that was indeed to the left of President Obama, but also a guaranteed national income to replace welfare as we know it, well to the left of Bill Clinton. But then Watergate happened.
I agree with you about Pat Buchanan, I’ve admired him for a long time, but some refer to him as a populist, so a distinction is drawn between conservatism and populism. He and Ralph Nader have a lot in common, Nader interview Buchanan on C-Span last summer and there was very little on which they disagreed. The only thing I remember was about the influence of large corporations.
Can’t one be both a conservative and a populist? My sense of compassionate conservatism is that it seeks credibility through populism. Fiscal conservatism rarely if ever can gain such populist credibility. Much of the Tea Party’s credibility came from framing the entire political debate in the populism of a religiously reformist strain of social conservatism, such as seen with Glenn Beck. Many of the fiscally conservative right-wing libertarians were wary of what the Tea Party quickly became, and it should be noted that the Libertarian Party never has had a large populist following.
Yes, one can be both a conservative and a populist, Buchanan is the obvious example. But his brand of conservatism is far different from the other disparate elements of the extreme right-wing each of which has tried and failed to dominate the Republican Party. They each offered some sort of alternative to George W. Bush’s policies which brought us to the brink of disaster, but none of them were very convincing. While the Tea Party presented itself as a grass-roots populist movement (and many in it still consider it that), it was in fact the brain child of Dick Armey who used it to further corporate interests. The opposite of Buchanan would be Mitt Romney in my opinion.
Pat is part of a tradition of conservatism that is older than much and while his rhetoric is populist, he policies aren’t that. Populism to my mind is more about rhetorical stances than ideological or even temperamental differences. There are left, right, and center populists worldwide just as there are left, right, and center elitists in the way they talk. Buchanan is admirable if given a few problematic polemics.
One motivation behind this post is I want to be fair to conservatives. I’m trying to take seriosuly the argument that there actually exists or has existed a specific social phenomena or principle-based worldview fundamental to human nature that could accurately be described as “real conservatism”.
With this intention, I’ve hypothesized a traditional conservatism. But this hypothesis has the problem of either being so general as to be vague or so specific as to not have ny universal truth value. Besides, my hypothesis would hardly satisfy the average modern American conservative in their search for a real conservaism that would be applicable to contemporary politics, economics and culture.
Many have sought to define conservatism, both onservatives and non-conservatives alike. Is there any principle, belief or value that all or most proposed definitions agree upon? To broaden it even further, conservatism as a basic concept has existed for centuries and has been applied to diverse movements and societies. Across all movements and societies across history, is there a commonality to all the people and groups who identified as or were identified as ‘consrvative’?
I’m asking this as a neutral inquiry with no preconceived conclusions. If this were studied scientifically somehow, what might be discovered? Some research has been done. For example, conservatism has been shown to not be the same as authoritarianism, even though American conservatism as a movemet has become correlated with authoritarianism (apparently through intentional alliances) which goes a long way in explaining reactionary conservatism. But carefully controlling for authoritarianism, what would be the underlying conservatism across national populations? Assuming an underlying conservatism could be found, would it also be discernable within the most isolated and traditional of tribal societies?
This would be an awesome project, especially if it included studying liberalism and other ideologies as well. It would be similar to the National Geographic study of global human genetics. The main challenge to this project of studying ideologies is that I suspect not many conservatives would be interested, since it would probably be deemed as part of the vast left-wing conspiracy.
Benjamin: Where has conservatism “been shown to not be the same as authoritarianism”? Though I grant that they’re not synonymous, they certainly have much in common. (See John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience for a good brief on this.)
In any case, a broader study of the topic, international in scope, would indeed be awesome. Why don’t you take it on?
If you do, you might want to consider how *power* figures into all this. It seems to me that conservatives more than liberals — in any culture anywhere — tend to align themselves with power: military power, financial power, religious power, gender-based power, any sort of hegemony deriving from the status quo. Liberals, in contrast, tend to identify with the underdog and be resistant to such power.
Btw, you’ve written insightfully on this blog about Jonathan Haidt’s book and so I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned it in this discussion.
I’ve written about this before. If you look up the term ‘authoritarianism’ in the search box of this blog, you should be able to find multiple posts that discuss the research. I’m familiar with the various books on the topic such as the one you mention and some others that go into more detail. Some studies have specifically measured both conservatism and authoritarianism. As I understand it, there might be some crossover between the two, but maybe not as much as some might suspect.
Part of the problem is that the conservative movement is only partly correlated to the psychological traits of the conservative predisposition. This is forever a complicating factor. The social and psychological are related, but must be considered separately. For example, some mainstream liberals would measure lower on certain liberal traits than some right-wing libertarians. Usually when I speak of liberalism, I mean liberal-mindedness in the psychological sense.
I do this because I’ve discovered too many different definitions of liberalism in the political sense. Psychology is the only way I’ve found for getting at the fundamental level of motivation and behavior. But we shouldn’t limit our attempt of understanding political movements to mere psychology. Conservatism as a movement in America certainly is authoritarian or rather has elements of authoritarianism along with sub-groups of outright authoritarians.
Still, we should be careful in discussing this because America is an odd duck. What is true to American conservatives might not be true to conservatives in other countries.
The power aspect you bring up is on target. It would necessitate more clarification about what this exactly means and how it plays out. Nonetheless, I would suspect that this relates to why the conservative movement is prone to aligning with or being taken over by those who test more strongly on authoritarian traits.
Ah, yes, Jonathan Haidt. I have enjoyed discussing his ideas. They make for a great jumping off point. There is no particular reason I didn’t bring him up. I’ve just discussed him so much in the past that maybe it didn’t seem necessary. There are a lot of relevant things I could bring up, including the research on authoritarianism I mentioned above.
This post was mostly an expression of a general thought motivated by nothing more than perplexity and curiosity. Just chewing the cud.
I think both liberals and conservatives could credibly be accused of some degree of authoritarianism, the question is who is doing it. The conservatives bristle at the idea of government mandates, for example the Affordable Care Act which requires everyone to have some form of health insurance, while the liberals have no problem with that. Its hard to define American Conservatism today, which is in part why they lost this election. The Republican primaries proved that it is not a cohesive and unified force in American politics. All of the candidates who ran had a different agenda, the only thing they had in common was defeating President Obama. There are probably two major forms of Conservatism in America today, social and fiscal. Ron Paul calls himself a conservative (albeit a Libertarian), was very interested in a sound monetary policy especially as regards the Federal Reserve, yet he had no interest in dictating what two consenting adults can do in private. Rick Santorum, on the other hand, wants very much to tell consenting adults–including women–what they can and cannot do in private, yet he voted consistently with liberals on programs to help the poor. I think his record is a reflection of the Catholic theology he embraces. So its not to easy to define American conservatism today, the various factions are often at war with each other.
Yes, those who measure high on authoritarian traits can be found in all kinds of places and so can those with social dominance orientation. People who like power (along with those seeking submission to power) will look for power anywhere they think they can gain it (or submit to it). Even so, research shows that they are disproportionately found among certain groups. You can find every trait imaginable in every group imaginable such as finding liberal traits among some Republicans and conservative traits among some Democrats, but you wouldn’t find them equally in all groups. It’s this disproportion that interests me because it seems to give hint to a pattern or an underlying cause.
By the way, authoritarianism only clearly associates to social conservatism as I recall. However, fiscal conservatism would probably correlate to social dominance orientation. The attraction of authoritarians and social dominance orientation types is the reason why social conservatives and fiscal conservatives are aligned, although this alignment isn’t found in some other societies. Communist countries have tended to be socially conservative. The problem with fiscal conservatism is that it seems too often to be vaguely defined as fiscal responsibility, responsibility being largely a subjective rather than objective assessment.
The war part is of much interest to me. This means that the alliances are breaking. There is no inevitable connection between social conservatives and fiscal conservatives nor between authoritarians and conservatives. It all is very much dependent on situational factors which are at present changing as our entire society shifts with demographics and such, not to mention increasing impact of global shifts.
Yes, the alliances are breaking. You could see that following the highly acrimonious Republican primaries. None of the losers heartily endorsed Mitt Romney, their endorsements of him were mediocre at best, and none that I can recall ever went on the stump with him. Now they’re all trying to distance themselves from him.
My dad, like many other conservatives, has argued that conservatism is simply traditionalism. How he describes traditionalism is anything that has been proven to work. This is obviously problematic. Who proved it? How did they prove it? Besides those proposing the proof, who accepted this proof as irrefutable? Who gets to judge the agenda and results by which a tradition is determined to have worked?
Every tradition has proven itself to work at least temporarily in particular situations. Even liberalism is a tradition that has proven itself to work. Anything that lasts some period of time has worked in the sense of maintaining its own survival during that time. Even invasive species work quite effectively which is the reason they become invasive, even if they destroy the environment in the process and eventually bring their own doom through overpopulation.
Ideologies working in this sense is just Social Darwinism. Working doesn’t necessarily mean producing better results but eliminating competitors, even if those competitors produce better results. A traditional hunter-gatherer tribe has proven itself to work in maintaining a particular lifestyle and culture for millennia, but modern capitalism proves itself to work better in that it can destroy all previous traditions. What is left out in this standard of what works is that of sustainability. What is proven to work in a limited sense may not prove to work in other situations or over long periods of time.
Anyway, there is an endless variety of traditions that proven themselves to work. But they don’t all work toward the same results. Slavery has a longer history of proving itself to work than anti-slavery, but that is no reason to go back to slavery. Slavery works so well that it has been impossible to eliminate for there is still slavery and near-slavery going on in the world, even within modern capitalist economies.
This is where it gets tricky for the conservative. They have one very specific tradition in mind, but it isn’t a tradition with a long history of proving itself to work. Monogamy, for instance, hasn’t proven itself to work. Nor has heterosexuality since no society has ever existed without homosexuality; in fact, homosexuality works so well that it has spread widely as a behavior observed in species all over the world and so obviously offers some kind of survival value such as reinforcing social bonds among the same sex.
When liberals point out what has been proven to work, conservatives suddenly become defensive. Conservatives ultimately don’t know why they believe what they believe. The problem with conservative-mindedness is that it doesn’t promote self-questioning and self-awareness, rather it promotes self-denying submission.
Conservatism isn’t about what works per se, but about declaring what works. In this sense, what works simply means what is true, because I said so. It works to the extent that conservatives can force it onto all of society and destroy or undermine all other possibilities. Conservatives, therefore, find themselves in a difficult position when their conservative agenda no longer seems to work.
This evolutionary biology geek would argue that in a changing environment, clinging to “what has worked” doesn’t predict what will work in the future, and can in fact mislead a group to adopt a strategy which is almost by definition guaranteed to fail in the long run. Conservatives in some respects seem to be trying to return our social and fiscal enviroment to a past state in which their policies were more successful, rather than developing new strategies to fit a changing situation. Of course, as you point out, this often involves simply declaring (via propaganda) that the environment is not changing and getting fearful people to buy into their safe and comforting point of view. Climate change is an obvious example.
Because of change, it is easier being a liberal in psychological sense. Liberal-mindedness is partly measured by openness to experience and those who identify as liberal tend to measure higher on such traits. Openness is about being interested in and curious about the new and different which in extreme form can lead one to embrace change for the sake of change.
The conservative, on the other hand, constantly find themselves fighting against a changing world. This is why there are so many angry, ranting people on the right. The further problem for conservatives is that they aren’t even good at objectively assessing the past. Often conservatives are simply trying to maintain their own beliefs and fantasies.
The odd thing about reactionary conservatism relates to this. In trying to maintainwhat never was, the reactionary conservative ends up promoting radical change. The Reagan Revolution, for example, was as at least as radically transformative as the New Deal. Reagan didn’t bring us back to some idealized traditional past. His globalized trickle-down laissez-faire economics has undermined traditional culture for it promotes destabilizing change.
He New Deal has become part of the American tradition o a compassionate society. It is even traditonal in my dad’s sense as it proved itself to work on a basic level. It accomplished decreasing poverty and economic inequality along with many related social problems. It did all ths while not creating a permanent debt. It took Reagan’s attack on the New Deal to create our present permanent debt. So, the Reagan Revolution as the paragon of conservatism has proven itself not to work in that it isn’t economically sustainable, despite Reagan having created a temporary boom through Keynesian deficit spending on the military.