A Conflict of the Conservative Vision

There is one popular framework of politics that I often think about. It is the basis of a book by Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions. I was introduced to it by my conservative father.

Sowell theorizes that the political right and left are defined by two distinct visions. Conservatives and right-wingers are supposedly adherents of a constrained vision. Whereas liberals and left-wingers are supposedly adherents of an unconstrained vision.

For some reason, this popped back into my mind on my walk this morning. Two thoughts occurred to me.

First, I’m not sure how accurate it is. I always feel the need to clarify that conservatism and liberalism are not necessarily the same thing as conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. This is one of those cases where that is an important distinction to keep in mind.

Sowell is most directly talking about psychological predispositions here. But he seems to be assuming that they are the same as ideological labels as expressed through ideological movements. I have severe doubts that this is the case, not to dismiss the strong correlation. I just think something gets missed in too simplistic of categories.

When I consider conservative politics, I don’t see a constrained vision at work.

Plutocratic paternalism is not a constrained vision. Neoliberal laissez-faire globalization is not a constrained vision. Neoconservative nation-building and neo-imperialism is not a constrained vision. Corporatist progressivism that dismisses the precautionary principle is not a constrained vision. Theocratic nationalism is not a constrained vision. A large militarized police/security state with heavily guarded borders is not a constrained vision.

Yet all of these things define the political right.

Sowell doesn’t really mean a constrained vision. I think even he knows that this is the case. What he actually argues for is constrained empathy, compassion, and morality. It is an attitude of me and my own, but me and my own can be quite unconstrained. A me and my own attitude would only be constrained, if it respected everyone else’s me and my own attitude. Obviously, that isn’t the case with the American political right.

The extreme version of the constrained live-and-let-live worldview are the anarcho-libertarians. And they tend to be left-wingers.

Conservatives don’t want to constrain their vision, their power over others, or their ability to act in large ways. What they want to constrain is having to concern themselves about the consequences and the externalized costs. They choose to constrain their sense of moral responsibility and social responsibility. So, in their worldview, a corporation should have the right to act unconstrained, which is to say they shouldn’t be constrained to the rights of workers, protection of the environment, etc. Instead, everyone and everything else should be constrained to their agenda.

This angle of responsibility brings me the second thought.

When I consider Jesus’ teachings, I can’t help but feel that whatever he was preaching it for damn sure wasn’t the ideology of the political right. I’m not saying it was liberalism either, just certainly not conservatism and even more certainly not right-wing libertarianism.

Jesus’ vision was as unconstrained as one could imagine. He was preaching about an unconstrained attitude of compassion and care. It was universal love for all of humanity. No limitations. No questions asked. Just help the needy and defend the weak. It wasn’t an overtly political vision, but in psychological terms it was the opposite of conservative-minded.

The only times Jesus spoke of constraint was when people sought to act without genuine moral concern for their fellow humans. In those instances, he would say such things as,  “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” But all this was saying was that people should constrain their hatred, bigotry, and judgment in favor of an unconstrained vision of love.

I’m forced to conclude that Sowell’s conflict of visions is something other than what it is portrayed as.

* * * *

Some additional thoughts:

The ideas of constraint and unconstraint aren’t objective categories. It depends on what they are being defined according to.

What kind of constraint or unconstraint and for what purpose? Who is implementing, controlling, and enforcing the constraint or unconstraint? Who is being constrained or unconstrained? Who is benefiting and who is being harmed? What are the costs, especially externalized costs, and who is paying for them?

To be fair, all of the confusion involved can’t just be blamed on conservatives. I only focused on conservatives because it is a way of framing politics that is particularly popular among conservatives.

In reality, liberals are no more consistently unconstrained in a principled fashion than are conservatives consistently constrained in a principled fashion. Many liberals might like to think of themselves as being more unconstrained than they actually are, but liberals aren’t anarchists or anything close to it. There are more things liberals seek to constrain than unconstrain.

I personally fall more on the side of unconstraint, but not the careless and mindless unrestraint that is prevalent in our society, especially as seen among the extreme defenders of laissez-faire capitalism. I’m certainly not critical of conservatism because of Sowell’s claim of it being an constrained vision, at least not when compared to my own principles and ideals. I wish conservatives were more constrained and supportive of constraint.

I’m all the time advocating for the precautionary principle. That has to be the single greatest expression of genuine conservative-minded constraint. Yet it is political liberals who hold it up as a central value and standard, a guidepost of wise and responsible decision-making. If conservatives really gave a shit about constraint, they’d start with the precautionary principle.

I have an overall unconstrained vision, but certain conditions are necessary in order to have an actual functioning society that is as unconstrained as possible. Those conditions, in a very basic sense, are themselves constraints. The whole issue isn’t as binary as a conservative like Sowell would like it to be. The conflict of constrained versus unconstrained only exists in Sowell’s brain and in the brain of anyone who shares his view.

Many conservatives would consider me utopian in my desired unconstraint. I’m very much a leftist in my belief in human potential as being preferably unrestrained (as much as is possible), something conservatives tend to fear. I’m not seeking perfection, as conservatives suspect. I don’t even know what perfection means. That seems like another projection of the conservative mind.

What conservatives too often mean by constrained is that they don’t want to question their own assumptions. They want to take their beliefs as reality, and so constrain all of politics to their narrow view and all of society to their simplistic understanding. They want a rigid social order that constrains others to their worldview.

This connects back to my last post. Howard Schwartz, an author on liberty in American society, commented on that post. He pointed out that this kind of person is seeking stable essences for the purposes of psychological security. As I’d put it, they are constraining their own minds in order to lessen the stress and anxiety they feel when confronting cognitive dissonance.

My oft repeated position is that the world is complex. This is true, whether or not we like it. Constraining one’s beliefs about reality doesn’t constrain reality itself. I favor an unconstrained vision simply because only it can encompass that complexity. I also favor it because, as long as we have globalization, we better have a vision of social and moral responsibility that can match its scope.

Oddly, it is for this very reason I can simultaneously defend certain practical constraints to an even greater degree than is seen in mainstream American conservatism. I’m a cautious-minded progressive, a wary optimist.

36 thoughts on “A Conflict of the Conservative Vision

    • I actually don’t recall enabling reblogging. I set my blog up years ago. I’ve kept most of the same settings I’ve had since starting it. Anyway, I’m perfectly fine with reblogging. As long as I get credit for my own writing, it’s all good.

  1. Thing is, the political right seems to be creating all these rationalizations for one purpose – creating an aristocracy of rich people over the rest of society.

    • I basically agree.

      I don’t know Sowell. Maybe he is an honest guy and really believes in this distinction. Maybe his own conservatism is genuinely constrained in a principled fashion with a strong sense of moral and social responsibility. But likely not.

      I can speak for my own conservative father, though. He is a genuinely moral guy. Yet he is clearly divided and conflicted within himself. In many ways, he is a typical mainstream conservative and an average old white guy. So, I suspect he is representative of both what can be good and bad in conservatism.

      My father bought into a lot of the Cold War propaganda. I understand how that happens. It’s called propaganda for a reason. It is powerful stuff, way beyond mere rhetoric. Even many liberals of the older generation had their minds fucked up by that bullshit.

      He even grew up in a living model of Cold War Propaganda. His childhood hometown is Alexandria, Indiana. It was used as part of a propaganda operation. Alexandria was supposed to represent the ideal of the American Dream: a small, prosperous Midwestern factory town surrounded by farmland with, at the time, a thriving downtown. My father fondly recalls happy memories off smokestacks belching out pollution, because it symbolized progress for it was proof that people were making things, not just products being built but a great capitalist nation being built.

      When a conservative like Sowell (or my father) speaks of an unconstrained vision, what is being referred to is the ultimate Cold War boogeyman. Communism supposedly was the complete opposite of the above described vision of progress, although I’m sure children in Russia used to see smokestacks and also thought what wonderful progress was happening.

      Since Communism was unconstrained (with global aspirations, the US government had to force some constraint on them through military might. This ignores the fact the US worried about communists’ global aspirations because capitalists had their own global aspirations. Who was going to constrain the US? Certainly not American conservatives, if we are to go by their past and present behavior.

      On the other hand, my father has slowly moved more in the direction toward a genuinely constrained vision, in the libertarian sense. He always had a libertarian tendency, but it was held in check by the dominance of neoliberalism and neoconservatism in the conservative movement. He is beginning to take his own constrained vision rhetoric seriously.

      Still, they merely points to the fact that even for conservatives support for a constrained vision is highly situational and provisional. I’m sure almost anyone will support a constrained vision, under the right conditions. But there obviously is nothing inherently constrained about mainstream American conservatism. Constraint or restraint aren’t their core principles, even though it is central to their rhetoric.

      I nonetheless support any conservatives like my father who now are taking this issue seriously. More power to them. May the mainstream liberals also wake up from the bullshit rhetoric and Cold War propaganda of mainstream media and politics. More power to all of them. I’m ready to move on to more important issues, like dealing with the real world problems we are facing.

      Yet we still have to worry about those who want to create “an aristocracy of rich people over the rest of society.” It does hearten me that some business-minded conservatives like my father are beginning to appreciate the extent of corporatism and crony capitalism in our country. But none of that matters as long as my father continues to vote Republican, and so supporting for the very people who promote the lies and rationalizations.

  2. Everything the political right seems to do these days is about making the already very rich even more rich.


    If it’s taxes, it will always be about lowering the capital gains taxes and the top brackets because they are “job creators” (do they actually believe that)?

    If it’s spending, anything that benefits society will be opposed. It would seem the only appropriate use of government is for military spending and to transfer the wealth of society to the corporate sector.

    Pretty much any law that benefits society will be strongly opposed.

    There seems to be a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance and outright hypocrisy when justifying the transfer of wealth of society to the richest.

    • Here is something that caught my attention yesterday:


      Sarah van Gelder: “Daniel, your magazine, The American Conservative, includes scathing critiques of U.S. overseas wars, of the use of torture, and of corporate power. So what makes your magazine a conservative publication instead of a progressive one?”

      Daniel McCarthy: “Well, Pat Buchanan is one of our founders. Mr. Buchanan was very critical of the kind of liberalism embedded in corporate culture and of trying to export American institutions to the world at the barrel of a gun.

      “There’s always been a conservative critique of both big business and crony capitalism, and also of what President Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex. The American Conservative magazine represents that strain of conservatism.”

  3. On that note, there seems to be a core group of “true believers” that will probably take their beliefs to their death bed.

  4. Here is something that relates to the conflict between rhetoric of constraint and the reality of unconstraint:


    State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki: “As a matter of long-standing policy, the United States does not support political transitions by nonconstitutional means….”

    AP journalist Matt Lee: “Sorry. The U.S. has—whoa, whoa, whoa—the U.S. has a long-standing practice of not promoting—what did you say?…”

    Psaki: “Well, my point here, Matt, without getting into history—”

  5. The issue is that the conservatives do not “want” to end the corporate state.

    Maybe the paleoconservatives do, but they are a marginalized exception that cannot get a large part of the vote. They have their own issues, like their racial superiority views. They generally tend to be very similar to Unz.

    Modern mainstream conservatism by contrast seems to be more about promoting the business conservative mentality, Social Darwinism, and the Tea Party type rhetoric.

    • What gets labeled as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ in the mainstream isn’t particularly meaningful, especially in terms of the two party system. If we are talking about mainstream politics, then neither party wants end the corporate state. Also, neither party represents most Americans… nor do the respective parties represent conservatives and liberals.

      There are lots of marginalized exceptions from both sides of the political spectrum. But if you add up all the exceptions, it becomes an exceptionally large part of the population that is being marginalized. Race issues aside, most Americans agree about many issues, such as taxing corporations at a higher rate (i.e., progressive taxation).

  6. The issue here is that for the ones that vote, it does not make a difference what they think – they are voting for the status quo. For the ones that don’t vote – even worse because they are losing out on their democracy (although in some cases, the Republican Party has actively suppressed their vote, so I guess they should not be blamed for that one).

    • The problem is that the two parties agree with each other more than they agree with the majority of American public. Voting for either of the main parties will lead to the same basic results. Yet successfully electing candidates from any other party is nearly impossible. The two parties, along with the corporate-owned MSM, control the entire political process. Then, as you say, throw the massive amount of voter disenfranchisement on top of that. The only way you can blame the American people for any of this is simply that they haven’t yet started a revolution to attempt to put into place a functioning democracy, in place of our present banana republic.

  7. I’ve agreed with that assessment. Contrary to the popular portrayal as the parties being diametrically opposed, they agree more often than not:

    – The wars and use of drone assassinations
    – Assault on civil liberties
    – Limited (if any action on global warming)
    – Massive military budget

    – Neoliberal economics
    – Assault on the middle class through free trade
    – Dismantling of the welfare system
    – Privatization of the common good
    – Low taxes for the rich
    – No regulation on finance

    In other words, what they seem to disagree upon is maybe social issues. That is not to say that there are differences. Under the Democrats, the decline will be slower. But it will still happen.

    • Even on social issues, the differences are not extreme. Mainstream Democrats lag behind the average American on many aspects of progressive social liberalism.

      Take marijuana legalization, as an example, which required changes at the local level. I think the only reason that the war on drugs is on a decline is because it’s become so unpopular. People are just tired of it, as they were with Prohibition and the Vietnam War. Even politicians don’t really want to support it, but they just don’t know how to easily pull out of the whole mess.

      It isn’t the political process that leads to changes in this country. It’s just eventually everyone gets tired of doing the same failed thing over and over again. But the one thing we don’t know how to deal with is the failed democracy itself. It would be nice to solve problems before they become utterly demoralizaing failures that cause so much widespread harm. We are constantly in reactionary mode in this country.

    • What we have in America is soft authoritarianism.

      This country was founded on plutocracy. But it was a plutocracy that learned the lessons from the mistakes of the previous British plutocracy. The American plutocracy knows one thing and knows it well. They can fuck over the American public endlessly and push the masses right up to the edge, just as long as they always pull back at the last moment.

      The British plutocracy played chicken with the colonists, assuming that mere power would force the people back in line. They were too proud to back off when they had a chance.

      American plutocrats, on the other hand, have no pride to defend. All they care about is pure power and all that goes with it, from privilege to wealth. The entire world could laugh at them and they just don’t give a fuck. They aren’t seeking to be a respectable aristocracy. They are authoritarians with a light touch, a class of demagogues with pretty words.

      It’s a game to them. They enjoy seeing how far they can push it, before relenting once again when the masses start getting restless. It’s just when the public is ripe for revolution that the ruling elite will throw them a bone, whether social security or a supposed healthcare reform. They are always testing their limits to see how far they can go.

      The American plutocracy is the most effective police state that has ever existed. The Nazis were pathetic in how crude they were in wielding power. Even the Chinese authoritarians have nothing on the American variety.

      The oligarchy in this country has made an art form out of power. They have created an entirely new form of authoritarianism, so duplicitous in design that most Americanns don’t even realize how oppressive it is. Until someone seriously challenges it, they’ll never know how far the ruling elite will go to keep their power.

      That is the beauty of it. They have taken bread and circus to a whole new level. It never occurs to most Americans to challenge the status quo. The mass media keeps them sated and mindless.

      Still, if welfare ended tomorrow and the prisons were suddenly emptied, we’d have a revolution almost instantly. On some level, everyone knows that. You play the game and maybe you’ll be all right, but if you don’t you could be one of many who ends up in prison. This keeps the public in a constant state of division.

      Bread and circus combined with carrot and a stick. On top of that, there is the most advanced propaganda system that has ever been devised. Most of the public never quite catches on that there is no real distinction between big gov and big biz. It’s all a puppet show, the division of powers, the separation of public and private, the two party system… all a mesmerizing puppet show. The corporate media puts on the best show on earth, and politicians are our favorite superstars in the largest fake reality tv show ever.

      It’s pure brilliance. It’s a tricky game to play, though. One of these days, the plutocracy might accidentally push too far and not be able to pull back at the last moment. It’s a delicate balance.

  8. Basically everything they have done is a rather crude effort to rationalize transferring more and more money to the rich.

    The question becomes how far can they push? The Great Depression? Worse?

    The New Deal I suppose was a “bone” of sorts, although it lasted only until the Reagan Revolution when the USSR was in decline.

    One very serious impact of advancing technology is that there are more opportunities for unscrupulous people to use it.

    • Here is the tricky part.

      The American ruling elite use the rhetoric of democracy, freedom, and liberty to promote their soft authoritarianism. That isn’t an easy thing to do.

      Also, the American public has come to take that rhetoric seriously. It’s a double-edged sword. One day, the American public may actually demand a society that lives up to the rhetoric.

      Technology does give more power for propaganda and other manipulations. On the other hand, it makes the game of power more complex. People simultaneously have more information and more minsinformation than ever before.

      In some ways, it is an entirely new game. The methods of the past may no longer be as effective as they once were. I don’t doubt the ruling elite will be innovative in the newest most technologically advanced methods, but there will be a learning curve and plenty of room for dire mistakes.

      Soft authoritarianism has grown and is becoming ever less soft, at the same time the demand for democratic reform has grown.

      The ruling elite are forgetting the lesson learned so long ago. They are slowly moving from soft authoritarianism back toward the old forms of crude power. Mass incarceration may have been their biggest mistake, especially as the targeted populations of minorities are the fastest growing demographic.

      The ruling elite may have painted themselves into a corner. They likely will get desperate and ever more violent, and then go down the path of the British empire toward the colonists.

  9. https://symptomaticcommentary.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/the-theses-on-feuerbach-and-the-collective-boot-strap-problem/

    There are moments in your life when you admit a deep and abiding doubt. A doubt that renders a key point in your theoretical framework for a positive politics, well, mute. I have written on the politics of confluence–that ideas and material developments have to develop concurrently, and reaching certain capacities before the ideas are there leads things to stagnate (see the development of the compass in China)

    “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.”

    [ . . . ]

    The harder question to ask is was the last half-century of debate and gains Pyrrhic in nature. Have we really uncover the weight of history here enough to be truly revolutionary? What would that mean?

    This is a boot-strap problem. We expect to pick ourselves up, but why should something that doesn’t work in individuals and that liberals and leftists rightly mock, be different collectively if we assume both individual and collective consciousness is contextualized by the present?

    [ . . . ]

    IF we assume our context is the limit to the our thought, produced by our alienation from our relations between each other and also our relations between our labor and its product, then we are incapable of changing the world by re-conceiving it, and Marxists in practice have ALWAYS ignored this by focusing on the working classes standpoint in the world and its concept.

    But if one can’t pick oneself up by one’s bootstraps alone, why on earth would be be able to do it just by banding together? I realize I risk a part-to-whole fallacy here, but the historical evidence seems to be that human is the subject of human history only in so much as conceptualizing that history, but our ability to break from the weights of the past and be truly revolutionary may actually be what happens at the moment when our agency is seems obvious but the weight of past developments has already moved us forward in its haphazard and lumbering way.

    However, if we accept “History informs everything and determines nothing” as Adam Philip’s tells us, then what do we make of Marx’s thinking about a human agency’s relationship to history? What if it is worse than we think. In this I return to Freud, “not that the historical facts [of our lives] are not true, but that the telling of them might be prone to simplification, and particularly when they are at their most devastating.”

    This has been something that is possibly devastating to my world view in a positive sense, and perhaps it is time to let it ripple through. History is the judge of ideas, and it seems to have found our ideas wanting.

    • This view by Skepoet is thoughtful and humble. It resonates with my own wonderings and doubts.

      There are two aspects.

      First, there is the ideas angle.

      Do ideas matter? Do ideas have power to potentially cause or inspire genuine change and even radical transformation?

      I think they do. But I suspect that there is more to ideas than we understand. We are fairly limited in our awareness and insight. We tend to see ideas in a superficial way.

      My view is that we don’t possess ideas, but the other way around. Ideas possess us.

      The power of ideas to change is the fact we don’t control them. Yet that is also the power of ideas to trap us. Sowell’s thinking might be an example of an idea (a conceptual framework) trapping him. Our reality tunnels are built out of thought.

      Second, there is the main issue Skepoet brings up, the boot-strap problem.

      I definitely think the boot-strap theory is absurd when applied to individuals. Then again, I think our entire obsession with hyper-individualism is absurd.

      I hadn’t ever thought about what the boot-strap theory might mean on a collective level. But now that it is brought to mind I realize that it is an important consideration. I have thought along these lines before, although not in these exact terms.

      I think our views of individuality warp our thinking about everything. I strongly lean toward the view that individuality itself is a false ideology. There is no such thing as an individual. We are social animals at every level of our being. There is no way to separate an individual from the interdependent collective reality in which he lives and breathes.

      So, I doubt the problems of individual change can say much about the problems of collective change. The two have nothing to do with each other. Individual change is impossible because individuals in a basic sense don’t exist. If we define collectivity as merely being the sum of individuals, then we have created our own problem by our definition of reality.

      The paradigm itself is the problem.

    • Ideas do seem to be powerful. Also, changes in ideas seem to precede changes in social and political orders. Ideas change slowly and at times imperceptibly. For example, it required centuries of rare individuals discussing the moral and social problems of slavery before any real challenge to slavery could take hold in slave societies.

      Did the ideas cause that change? If not, were they symbolic of the deeper forces that did cause that change? In that case, what are those deeper forces that ideas signify? When we speak of ideas, what are we really talking about?

  10. I have become increasingly convinced that the “bootstraps” and “mobility” myths are perpetuated by the very wealthy to keep the rich themselves in power and to keep the middle class from asking the hard questions that they need to be asking.

    The reality is that the the US fares very poorly compared to the rest of the developed world when it comes to metrics like social mobility.

    Part of the reason why the myth is so effective is that within the US< there seems to be a high tolerance for inequality. It's almost like the American people want to believe in the lies that they are told. That is for perhaps historical reasons, but also perhaps because the culture seems to promote a certain degree of authoritarianism?

    Either way, it's got to change because there are serious consequences if nothing happens. Not just for the US, but for the whole world.

    • Older societies are built on older traditions, obviously, that predate the extreme manifestations of Enlightenment individualism. Those older societies have a stronger foundation of a social conception of humanity. The US is one of the few countries in the world that was so powerfully impacted and shaped by Enlightenment thought, to such an extent that earlier traditions of thought have almost entirely been eclipsed.

      This has been America’s strength and weakness. Our government’s ability to take the lead in the world partly comes from the dynamic quality of our society, but dynamic is just another way of saying unstable or unsettled. The future of this country is hard to predict because it could easily shift in so many directions, unlike older societies that have more set patterns of social custom and political tradition.

      Boot-strap ideology is a myth. Yet we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. Myths are some of the most powerful forces around. Just because it isn’t objectively real, similar to the social construct of race, doesn’t mean its consequences aren’t objectively real. Myths are created because they serve a purpose, which isn’t to say that is a constructive or sustainable purpose that serves the needs and interests of most people.

      Some questions follow: Are we able to create a new myth that will better serve us as a society? Or could a new myth emerge somehow if the right conditions are put into place? What makes a new myth, a new guiding vision possible?

  11. To me, the danger is believing in a myth despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    – Bootstraps
    – America’s social mobility
    – The right denies global warming
    – The idea that the corporate state is responsible for living standards
    – Government “never” does anything right
    – Society is a meritocracy
    – The idea that the wars waged abroad are for spreading freedom
    – The war on civil liberties will keep society safe

    Then there’s the various bizarre right wing conspiracies like Obama being a Kenyan nationalist (seriously?).

    The issue seems to be that the scientific method seems to have skipped a large part of the population.

    Society doesn’t need “myths” – it needs open minded people who are open to the realities of the world.

    • I understand what you are saying. There is that danger, people believing what is not real and so disconnecting them from what is real. But there is also a positive potential in that, when one’s reality is not so nice and one seeks to envision a new possibility.

      Were the colonists in America really free? They had come to think of themselves as free, because the British government was distant and early on was fairly weak. Still, the colonies were a brutal society by modern standards. If we modern Americans were suddenly put into their position, we wouldn’t interpret it as freedom.

      Yet that is the myth that had come to dominate their society. It was because they believed in it so strongly that they reacted so badly to the British government challenging that myth. The British government told the colonists that they were still subjects of the Crown and the colonists said that they weren’t. It was too myths that went head to head, and only one of the myths could win.

      The colonists then declared themselves independent, whatever that is supposed to mean. In reality, the new citizens of this new country in many ways had fewer rights and certainly higher taxes than they had before. Also, because only a few percentage of early Americans could vote or hold public office, those higher taxes were no more representative than they had been under British rule.

      One myth defeated the other myth, but either way it was still just a myth. Nonetheless. That myth of freedom has inspired every democratic reform and populist movement since in this country. We have sought to make that myth a reality. Slavery was ended and blacks are now treated as full legal persons. The voting franchise was finally given to most of the population. Other basic civil rights have since become the norm.

      American’s pretending freedom was real had great power to make it ever more real. We are still far off from a fully free society, but a lot closer than the country was in centuries past.

      At the same time, the rhetoric of freedom has been used to prop up soft authoritarianism. However, the more the demagogues and propagandists use the rhetoric of freedom the more the American people believe in it and demand it be made real. Slowly but surely freedom has expanded, so far. Progress, however, is not guaranteed.

  12. The issue right now is that the myths are being used by the very wealthy and other special interests. The goal is to get people to act against their own interests and for the benefit of the very rich.

    So far, particularly among working class whites, that has been an incredibly successful strategy. It has also left the younger generations intensely cynical about the prospects for the future.

    I think that increasingly, hoping for “real” democracy is like hoping for real communism, an ideal that probably is not possible given the flaws of human nature. Perhaps it could happen on a local level or in smaller communities, but in large societies, it does not happen.

    Even in the more egalitarian nations like the Nordic nations or Switzerland, it arguably is far from “real” democracy.

    • I think we often have unrealistic expectations. This cause us to be unrealistically critical.

      We treat the ideal of freedom or democracy as if it were some absolute final result to be achieved. But it is a highly relative and subjective concept. It means different things in different contexts, depending on what it is being compared to.

      In a sense, the colonists were quite free in many ways, relative to most people in the world at the time. Certainly, British citizens back in England were experiencing a lot more oppression than the colonists. Freedom in that context didn’t mean so much as having a lot of civil rights as it simply meant a distant government that mostly left the colonists alone.

      But relative to modern social democracies, that doesn’t seem all that great of a free society. Most of the colonists were living rather desperate lives of poverty, violence, disease, etc. They were early on free of distant imperial oppression while still experiencing quite a bit of local oppression from the colonial ruling elite (some combination of aristocracy, plutocrats, and theocrats). It was minarchist oppression, the right-wing libertarian’s utopia.

      Relative to that minimalist freedom, we are presently living in immense freedom. Yet relative to our visions of the most ideal utopian societies, our present society seems like a dismal failure. If you are black or a woman, you are more free than a black or woman was a couple of generations ago.

      That is nothing to dismiss. It is real. The problem is when we define real according to the standard of perfect. Freedom has steadily been increasing for centuries. I see no reason it won’t steadily increase for centuries more into the future.

      We are too impatient. We either want total freedom now or it is all a failure and impossible. Maybe slow incremental change isn’t so bad, even if not entirely satisfying in our desire to see radical change in our lifetimes. Slow and steady wins the race, so the moral of the story goes.

      Maybe democracy is more of a vision we move toward than it is a final end result. Our society is more democratic than it was in the past. That much is clear. I’d like to believe that progress will continue, one way or another.

  13. I see 2 separate problems here:

    1. The ruthlessness of the very wealthy
    2. The apathy and arguably, gullibility of the average person

    Perhaps a third might be that culture has built up a certain “inertia” of sorts that is going to be hard to overcome.

    The average person is not really that free. There’s a set path for society, there’s a set path that they have to follow to maintain their lives. Perhaps technology can solve some of those problems in the future, but it might also crate new ones.

    I keep going back to this essay because I don’t see anything better out there:

    The issue I see is that the concept of the scientific method has skipped most people – or they’ve opted for ignorance over knowledge.

    • I agree with your two problems and the possible third. But I don’t see them as new. They’ve always been a major factor of humanity and society. The only thing that has changed has been technology, which alters how they get expressed.

      Nonetheless, freedom has steadily increased over the generations and centuries, despite these problems. Change is usually slow. Other than the occasional revolution, change has always been a gradual process. I doubt this slow but steady progress is going to stop, assuming civilization doesn’t collapse because of something like environmental catastrophe.

      It always seems like nothing will ever change, until it does. Slavery continued for centuries, despite all the people who argued against it and fought against it, until it finally ended. Then many of the same problems of racial oppression continued in other forms, despite all the political organizing and activism, until the Civil Rights Act. Nothing changes, until something changes, and then that is the new norm that we slowly grow dissatisfied with.

      For all the racial problems, blacks today are better off than blacks during Jim Crow. And blacks during Jim Crow were better off than blacks during slavery. At some future point, blacks will be better off than blacks during this age of drug wars and mass incarceration.

      I understand how such slow change doesn’t feel good enough. Racism itself never seems to go away, even if the results of it change. Still, it is objectively better, even if not as great as we wish it were.

      The problems you speak of are related to human nature or rather one particular expression of an aspect of human nature. People have been struggling with these issues for millennia. It doesn’t seem helpful to judge all of society based on a narrow slice of human history.

      The world that is our reality right now would have seemed like a utopia just a couple of centuries ago. We take so many progress for granted. We don’t appreciate how much has been achieved in such a relatively short period of time, historically speaking. More social betterment has happened in our lifetime than happened in the first 50,000 years of human evolution. That is fucking amazing!

      Maybe we should try to understand what made such massive and rapid progress possible. I don’t mean to be a Pollyanna. Obviously, humanity is facing some immense and mostly self-created problems. The point I’m trying to make is that we should spend as much time learning from our successes as from our failures. There are plenty of successes to learn from.

  14. There’s no assurance that the long-term trends will be positive.

    The global rise in inequality over the past few decades is good proof of that for example. Will there be another New Deal? Or will society regress into something far worse -a feudal society? That’s the real question.

    Society is going to end up either like 1984 or something like Star Trek.

    • There have never been any assurance that long-term trends would continue. Yet they have so far. Progress has never depended on assurances of progress. It just happens. The changes temporarily go up and down, but they have mostly trended upwards across the generations, centuries, and millennia (excluding ecosystem health, which worries me more than any issues of politics or whatever).

      Inequality is bad. I know all about that. Still, it is good to keep one thing in mind. Inequality has risen partly for the simple reason that upper classes have grown. There are more super wealthy people. That rise in wealth, however, doesn’t mean that there are more people per capita than ever before or that poverty is worse than ever before. It’s just that the lowest classes haven’t shared as much of the increased wealth.

      That is bad, but as problems go that is far from being one of the worst. I worry more about the environmental impact on the poor, with pollution, unclean water, and destruction of traditional lifestyles and diets. Even a democratic utopia wouldn’t mean much if the biosphere was collapsing and there was a mass die-off of species, including humans.

      All in all, I don’t feel overly drawn to either pessimism or optimism. Most likely, society will end up somewhere in between 1984 and Star Trek. A little bit of both, rather than the extremes of either.

  15. You are referring to a scale of centuries, here.

    Yes, conservatism is in long-term decline in this regard. The bigger problem that I see is what lies ahead.

    We are running at high speed towards the worst mass extinction event since the end-Permian mass extinction here. That in particular is a serious problem.

    The other is that there seem to be no moral restraints on the very rich either – they will literally take us to oblivion if they can make money off it.

    • Th most significant change is technologicsl. New possibilities have been created. New ways of have been created to do greater good than ever before or else greater destruction. This is magnified further by the global population being so immense and growing.

  16. I’d be inclined to agree. There’s also the greater potential for damage that society may not easily recover from.

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