We Are All Liberals, and Always Have Been

Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory gained traction some years back. His ideas aren’t brilliant or entirely original, but he is a catchy popularizer of social science. Still, there is some merit to his theory, if there is plenty to criticize, as we have done previously. It is lacking and misleading in certain ways. For example, in talking about the individualizing moral foundations, Haidt has zero discussion of the personality trait openness.

That is the defining feature of liberal-mindedness. Openness is core to the liberal values of intellectuality, critical thinking, curiosity, truth-seeking, systems thinking, cognitive complexity, cognitive empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, tolerance of differences, etc. As an attitude, in combination with the individualizing moral foundations of fairness/reciprocity and harm/care, openness also powerfully informs major aspects of the liberal sense of egalitarianism and justice underlying social and political liberalism.

Openness represents everything that is unique in opposition to the binding moral foundations: ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity. Those other moral foundations, in being everything that openness is not, are what define conservatism, specifically social conservatism, and arguably are what makes conservatives prone to authoritarianism. One can think of authoritarianism as simply the binding moral foundations pushed to an extreme, such that the openness personality trait and the individualizing moral foundations are suppressed.

This is important for how the framing of the topic has been politicized. Haidt is a supposed ‘liberal’ who, in being conservative-minded, has made a name for himself by ‘courageously’ attacking liberalism and punching left, an old American tradition among pseudo-liberal elites. There has been an argument, originated by Haidt, that liberals are somehow deficient because of lacking conservative-minded values. But that is inaccurate for a number of reasons. The unwillingness to conform, submit, and fear-monger is in itself a liberal value, not merely a lack of conservative values.

Anyway, maybe not all values are equal in the first place. One study indicates, instead, that the binding moral foundations are not necessarily inherent to human nature and so not on the same level. The so-called but misnamed individualizing moral foundations are what everyone is born with. That is to say no one is born a conservative or an authoritarian. Instead, we are all come into this world with a liberal-minded sense of openness, fairness, and care. That very well might be the psychological baseline of the human species.

Yes, other research shows that stressful conditions (parasite load, real or imagined pathogen exposure, etc) increase both social conservatism and authoritarianism. But the evidence doesn’t indicate that chronic stress, as exists in the modern world, is the normal state of the human species. Would a well-functioning community with great public health, low inequality, a strong culture of trust, etc show much expression of conservative-mindedness at all? One suspects not. Certainly, traditional tribes like the Piraha don’t. Maybe physical health, psychological health, and moral health are inseparable.

In one sense, liberalism is a hothouse flower. It does require optimal conditions to thrive and bloom. But those optimal conditions are simply the conditions under which human nature evolved under most of the time. We have a threat system that takes over under less-than-optimal conditions. If temporary, it won’t elicit authoritarianism. That only happens when stressors never can be resolved, lessened, or escaped; and so trauma sets in. One might speculate that is not the normal state of humanity. It may be true that we, in the modern West, are all liberals now. But maybe, under it all, we always were.

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We Are All White Liberals Now
We Are All Egalitarians, and Always Have Been
We Are All Bleeding Heart Liberals Now

The role of cognitive resources in determining our moral intuitions:
Are we all liberals at heart?

by Jennifer Cole Wright and Galen Baril

The role of cognitive resources in determining our moral intuitions:
Are we all liberals at heart?

by Caroline Minott

Some researchers suspect that the differences in liberal and conservative moral foundations are a byproduct of Enlightenment philosophers “narrowing” the focus of morality down to harm and fairness. In this view, liberals still have binding foundation intuitions but actively override them. The current study asks the question: are the differences between liberals’ and conservatives’ moral foundations due to an unconscious cognitive overriding of binding foundation intuitions, or are they due to an enhancement of them? Since both of these conditions takes effort, the researchers used self-regulation depletion/cognitive load tasks to get at participants’ automatic moral responses. […]

When cognitive resources were compromised, participants only responded strongly to the individualizing foundations (harm/fairness), with both liberals and conservatives deprioritizing the binding foundations (authority/in-group/purity). In other words, automatic moral reactions of conservatives turned out to be more like those of liberals. These findings suggest that harm and fairness could be core components of morality – for both liberals and conservatives. While many believed in an innate five-foundation moral code, in which liberals would narrow their foundations down to two, we may actually begin life with a two-foundation moral foundation. From here, conservatives emerge by way of expanding upon these two-foundations (adding authority/ingroup/purity).

Reactionaries Seeking Reaction

The reactionary mind, to a large degree, is simply another way of speaking of conservatism; at least in Anglo-American society. That is separate from speaking of this being a reactionary age. Anyone can be pulled into reaction, but not everyone gets stuck in reaction. It’s the latter that is what it means to be a reactionary as an identity, rather than a passing state.

Yet we can narrow it down further. The most reactionary of reactionaries help us to understand what exactly is the modus operandi of the reactionary mind. As the name suggests, a reactionary is one who easily reacts and so is constantly in a reactive pose. This coincides, of course, with regressive politics; but it’s important to remember that reactionaries aren’t ideologically consistent.

It all depends on what they are reacting to. They don’t define themselves but are defined by their reaction. They are the shadow of liberalism, progressivism, and leftism; not to mention the denial and suppression of all that is traditional. There is no ultimate substance to the reactionary mind, much less a principled position. Like chameleons, they change with conditions.

Even that doesn’t fully get at what is going on. It’s not only that they react to anything and everything. That reaction is both their mindset and their entire worldview. They only understand reaction and so they also want to elicit reaction in others. They try to instigate reaction in general, to create a total shit-fest of reaction, because that pulls others into reaction where the reactionaries have the advantage.

Conservatives, on average, are more likely to be misinformed and spread misinformation; as compared to liberals. Yet it is not found evenly across all conservatives. There is a specific sub-type of conservative with a need for chaos. This is the reactionary extreme that is the most likely, in particular, to share fake news; along with a motivation to spread hostile political rumors and support negative behaviors toward politicians. They know it’s fake. That is the whole point. It is intentional disinformation, but not necessarily as propaganda.

The causal distinction appears to be conscientiousness. Those sharing fake news tend to be low in conscientiousness, a direct correlate to the need for chaos. But high conscientious conservatives are no more prone to this behavior than liberals. Interestingly, liberals in general are lower in conscientiousness and yet their liberal-mindedness seems to offer a protection against this reactionary behavior. Liberals, whether low or high conscientiousness, were not more likely to share fake news.

So, the defining feature of the reactionary mind is both their own reaction and the seeking of reaction in others. This goes to the old saying about wrestling with a pig. Both of you will get muddy, but only the pig will be happy. In the end, reactionaries are like the disobedient little boy who has come to believe that any attention is good attention. Maybe they didn’t get enough love as children.

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All that said, these chaos-loving conservatives are a bit perplexing, in making sense what is the reactionary mind. Conservatives, on average, have higher measures of conscientiousness. So, what does it mean for a conservative to be low conscientiousness? Conscientiousness is what makes conservatives love social order, what makes them good, submissive, and obedient workers, religious adherents, Nazis, etc. This relates to the conservative-minded need for closure, which in turn makes one “prone to embrace competitive conflict schemas” (Margarita Krochik & John T. Jost, Ideological Conflict and Polarization: A Social Psychological Perspective).

High conscientiousness not only predicts conservatism but also authoritarianism (Eric W. Dolan, Personality traits predict authoritarian tendencies, study finds). Both are also linked to extraversion and agreeableness, with the one trait they diverge on is neuroticism. In some ways, an authoritarianism is just the extreme expression of a social conservatism under stress; and one might expect that neuroticism rates increase with conservatives when under stress. For an example of stress, pathogen exposure and parasite load are correlated to both authoritarianism and social conservatism, probably mediated by the disgust response.

If it’s true that stress might increase neuroticism, it might also suppress conscientiousness and so unleash a need for chaos; or what from a liberal perspective seems like chaos. Social conservatives are people who are vulnerable to stress and so easily overwhelmed by it. But under less stressful conditions, they are able to manage stress and actually have a great talent for doing so. Their need for order, control, and predictability serves this purpose; up to the point it stops working. Potential authoritarianism as personality can quickly become manifest authoritarianism as behavior, as political action, power, and oppression.

Under chronic stress, everyone can have greater psychological reaction, social dysfunction, aggression, divisiveness, fantasy-proneness, magical thinking, odd beliefs, paranoia, xenophobia, stereotypical-mindedness, and mentally illness. The strongest form of this that can really mess up a society is high inequality that induces collective madness (Keith Payne, The Broken Ladder). But simpler factors can have an affect, even if only temporarily. Get liberals somewhat inebriated and, with their neurocognitive functioning compromised, they’ll fall back on speaking in the kinds of stereotypical thinking that is more common among conservatives.

The need for chaos is linked to social dominance orientation (SDO) and dark personality (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, sadism). And all of these certainly increase with severe and chronic stress, particularly high inequality. That is what we’ve been seeing in recent years, although the conditions have been worsening for decades. It’s been gasoline and a match throw on dry grass during a drought.

There also would be a strong resonance between the need for chaos and conspiracy-mindedness. This isn’t only a general mistrust and suspiciousness (Beth Ellwood, People with a higher conspiracy mentality have a general tendency to judge others as untrustworthy; Marius Frenken & Roland Imhoff, Don’t trust anybody: Conspiracy mentality and the detection of facial trustworthiness cues) but also a tendency to act conspiratorially (Karen M. Douglas & Robbie M. Sutton, Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire). Those who are untrustworthy project onto others, in assuming everyone is like themselves.

And all of that has everything to do with dark personality and SDO (Evita March & Jordan Springer, Belief in conspiracy theories: The predictive role of schizotypy, Machiavellianism, and primary psychopathy; Beth Ellwood, Machiavellian and psychopathic personality traits linked to belief in conspiracy theories). It is all mixed up. These are all the various derangements of the mind that crop up in a deranged society.

Like those spreading fake news having lower conscientiousness, those spreading conspiracy theories tend to be lower in agreeableness (Tim Christie, Study: Disagreeable people more prone to conspiracy theories). It’s the socially conservative mind switching to its reactionary dark mode, as defensive posture against perceived extreme uncertainty and potential threat. The willingness to share fake news might be caused by a total breakdown of reality discernment, specifically trust in authorities to discern reality. That makes perceived reality a free-for-all where every claim is equally plausible and it simply becomes a matter of confirmation bias.

What is fascinating is that the need for chaos is a corollary to the need for order. To the conservative mind, the only two options are order or chaos. It’s a black-and-white mentality. What conservatives fear more than anything is the breakdown of social order as, to their mind, it’s a breakdown of moral order. It’s an existential crisis of their very sense of reality, their sense of meaning. When desperate enough, they will do anything to reaffirm meaning, even if it’s invoking chaos. It’s related to the conservative proneness to fantasizing about violence, particularly redemptive violence; from overthrowing the government to hoping for the End Times (Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals).

Some have theorized that totalitarianism, what generally means authoritarianism, is caused by social isolation, loneliness, and anomie. These are common features of modern society with mass urbanization and industrialization, as exacerbated by high inequality and as results in social breakdown. Loneliness, by the way, is a predictor of the need for chaos (Camara Burleson, Need for Chaos and Predicting Radical Behavior in a Political Setting). Such conditions increase social conservatism in the population, even on the ‘left’, and this pushes social conservatism to extremes. Liberal-mindedness simply can’t function well when the conditions of health disappear.

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Don’t Cry for QAnon
by Daniel Cubias

Chaos Theory
by Amanada Darrach

The “Need for Chaos” and Motivations to Share Hostile Political Rumors
by Michael Bang Petersen, Mathias Osmundsen, & Kevin Arceneaux

Personality Type, as well as Politics, Predicts Who Shares Fake News
by Asher Lawson & Hemant Kakkar

Study finds conservatives with a need for chaos are more likely to share fake news
by Eric W. Dolan

Of Pandemics, Politics, and Personality: The Role of Conscientiousness and Political Ideology in Sharing of Fake News
by M. Asher Lawson & Hemant Kakkar

Low Conscientiousness Conservatives and the Desire for Chaos We further contend that behavior of low conscientiousness conservatives is motivated not only by vehemently promoting the interests of their group, but also by denigrating other rival groups. Such a staunch inclination to elevate one’s group at the expense of other political outgroups is an act of negative partisanship — a reality that has become increasingly common due to the exponential rise of intense political polarization since the start of the 21st Century (Abramowitz & Webster, 2016; Van den Bos et al., 2007; Westwood et al., 2018). As
conservatives generally score higher on social dominance orientation – a set of beliefs that acknowledges and supports hierarchical differences in society (Kugler et al., 2014) – they may be more likely to criticize other groups to defend their own (Jost et al., 2003). Conservatives in comparison to liberals are also more vigilant in perceiving social threats to their group (van Leeuwen & Park, 2009), which can further increase their tendency to actively denounce other groups and outgroup members. This desire to promote the status of one’s group at the expense of other groups and outgroup members can lead to a generally hostile mindset, labelled a “need for chaos” (Arceneaux et al., 2021). The need for chaos is described as a drive to disrupt and destroy the existing order or established institutions in an attempt to secure the superiority of one’s own group over others. Such a mindset is especially salient when dominance-oriented individuals feel they are being marginalized and rejected by the broader cultural environment (Arceneaux et al., 2021; Krizan & Johar, 2015; Twenge & Campbell, 2003).

Given the lack of orderliness, diligence, and self-control associated with low conscientiousness individuals, coupled with the high social dominance orientation and group loyalty among conservatives, we contend that low conscientiousness conservatives will be more likely to entertain beliefs and engage in behaviors that seek to cause chaos, as a means to defend their group. Indeed, existing research has shown that people are more willing to believe and share outlandish conspiracy theories when it helps them to achieve a positive image of their group, its dominance, and its existence (Douglas et al., 2019; Roberts et al., 2009). Likewise, the desire to cause chaos also leads to less support for outgroups such as immigrants, and a greater desire to increase one’s social status and alter the current power structure, especially when political polarization is rampant (Arceneaux et al., 2021; Van Bavel & Pereira, 2018). Consequently, we predict that the interaction effect of conservative political ideology and conscientiousness on sharing of fake news will be mediated by this desire for chaos.

Furthermore, recent research has highlighted that the dissemination of fake news is largely driven by people’s inattention to accuracy. Once accuracy beliefs are primed either implicitly or explicitly, individuals are relatively more judicious when it comes to the sharing of fake news (Pennycook, McPhetres, Zhang, & Rand, 2020; Pennycook et al., 2021). However, our proposed effect, where low conscientiousness conservatives share fake news due to an elevated desire for chaos, is indicative of a motivated process. Specifically, when low conscientiousness conservatives perceive fake news as a means of furthering their social goals (Douglas et al., 2017) and sowing seeds of destruction (Arceneaux et al., 2021), the accuracy of news stories should play a smaller role in determining their intentions to share such stories. In other words, people who pursue general destruction to defend their ingroup should indicate higher subjective assessments of the accuracy of fake news, as long as it serves the agenda of their group, which in turn will predict the sharing of such news. Thus, when motivated to believe false information as accurate, priming individuals with accuracy beliefs might not be enough to deter the spread of misinformation. Rather, such motivated individuals will perceive false news as subjectively more accurate and hence share falsehoods at a higher rate regardless of accuracy
primes.

What the Right Fears, the Left Desires

Let us throw out a simple observation with limited detail and analysis. This is a phenomenon that seems to define the reactionary mind. And so it is more often found on the American right-wing. But it can be observed in anyone who is pulled into reaction, including those reacting to reactionaries or otherwise immersed in the reactionary dynamic; a dynamic, by the way, that is inevitably authoritarian. Within the reactionary culture of American society, that can include much of the population to varying degrees. While this complicates matters, we will mostly ignore it for the time being, since we’ve already discussed it elsewhere.

We’ll briefly note the complication in the following and then move on. To put this in concrete terms, most Democratic elite and partisans tend towards the reactionary, if less strongly and blatantly than GOP elite and partisans. It’s nearly impossible to be involved in the polarization and propaganda of partisan politics without being at least somewhat reactionary — it’s almost a prerequisite. Still, there are vast differences of degree and it’s mainly those at the extreme end that we’re talking about. It is a specific category of person that falls into the full glory of the reactionary mind and embraces it as an identity (for details, see our writings on Corey Robin and the reactionary mind).

Here is the observation. Reactionaries only perceive the other side’s beliefs and views, values and principles as ideological, that only those other people’s ideologies are radical and extremist; that other’s politics are a religious faith, other’s political actions are nihilism and anarchism, other’s religions are cults and myths, other’s rhetoric is propaganda, other’s fears are moral panic, other’s behavior is mass formation, other’s governance is authoritarianism, on and on and on. Basically, those other people are bad or evil, whereas reactionaries are confident that they are on the side of Light and Righteousness. There is a lack of humility and introspection, mixed with projection and caricature.

This relates also to various ways that reactionaries can be dismissive of others. Another person’s information and evidence, experience and suffering is not fully real to them. The reactionary mind works by closing down and excluding. So, another group’s oppression and victimization is not only less real but less legitimate and important. This is why, among Americans, many white conservatives, white fundamentalists, and white males believe they are the most victimized people in the United States, maybe in the world; a view starkly disconnected from reality.

This is an old pattern. And, in Anglo-American culture, it really does usually divide according to Left and Right. It was the emergent conservatives, as reactionary counter-revolutionaries, who accused the political left of being nihilists following the American and French revolutions. Then shortly after that, it was the Southern aristocracy, in reacting to modernization, that accused Northerners of ideological ‘-isms’. And these reactionaries would repeat this rhetoric endlessly, as if it was the most damning of judgments. But the point is that kind of dismissive criticism has rarely been heard on the Anglo-American left.

Why is that? We originally didn’t plan to offer any analysis, but let’s point to some old themes of ours and share a cursory explanation. The fundamental reason for this difference involves moral imagination, symbolic conflation, social constructionism, and ideological realism (we have numerous posts on all of these). We could surely add to that list, if we gave it much more thought. Basically, the reactionary right requires their worldview to be conflated with reality, confused in the mind, buried in the unconscious, obscured from public gaze, and so placed above interrogation. There are many tools to achieve this end such as faux nostalgia, historical revisionism, and invented traditions; and so erasing the evidence of its origins in order to make something appear as if it was always that way.

On the other hand, the action of the political left has typically been the opposite, to explore origins and analyze the development, to place things in context; and hence the reason the political left has long been closely associated with intellectuality, science, academia, and education. Between the conservative and liberal minds, this is the push and pull between two forces, what Lewis Hyde called Hermes of the Dark and Hermes of the Light, one that enchants and the other that disenchants. The liberal mind wants to bring things out into the open so that they can be analyzed, questioned, and doubted; or understood and appreciated. And this is precisely what conservatives fear, the grubby scrutiny of consciousness that Edmund Burke portrayed as a lecherous mob penetrating the palace and tearing away the queen’s clothing to reveal what should not be seen by prying eyes.

The ruling power of the reactionary mind and the conservative order can only operate by being hidden and protected. This is why the reactionary right fears the left as radical and extremist, nihilist and anarchist. There is a grain of truth to this. Consider that ‘radical’ means to get to the root of things and that is what the liberal-minded like to do, pull things up out of the dirt and into the sunlight. The conservative-minded rightly points out that this might kill the plant, but if it is a weed or invasive species we do want to kill it. And, if it turns out to be a desirable plant, we can always transplant it into the safety of a garden where it will be tended and watered. Contrary to reactionary obfuscation, the liberal mind seeks open-eyed clarity and discernment.

Even the accusation of nihilism hints at something genuine. It originally was a dismissive label and a slur used against revolutionaries, reformers, and radicals. But some far leftists in late 19th century Russia took it as a proud and honorable title; in the way some blacks use the ‘N’ word to take ownership of it and neuter it as a weapon. The Russian Nihilists were not a highly organized movement, similar to the present ‘antifa’ in the US (supposedly everywhere and yet can never be found), but they shared a common philosophy or attitude. To their understanding, nihilism meant that, although future solutions are unknown in the present, they could seek to eliminate the problems that obstructed the ability to seek and enact those potential solutions — like tearing a structure down to its foundation in order to rebuild or plowing a field to plant crops; that is to say creative destruction.

Unlike the false claims of nihilism as mere anarchistic terrorism, these Nihilists didn’t lack beliefs and values. Rather, what they wanted was an open public debate about beliefs and values, that nothing should be off limits. Their actions were pro-active. They embodied Hermes the Light who disenchants, but always with the purpose of re-enchanting (i.e., inspiring and enthralling) the mind with a different and better ideological frame of narrative and understanding. This is nothing unusual, as every major change necessitates this process of undoing, prior to re-creating. It depends on one’s perspective. To British reactionaries like Edmund Burke, the American Revolution ended up seeming like the chaotic nihilism of violent mobs. But, ironically, the American reactionaries, once they co-opted the revolutionary nation-building, saw it as the most wonderful thing.

There is a real distinction to be made between right and left, reactionary and non-reactionary. The political right is correct to an extent. The two mentalities really do diverge, even if a mutual dynamic lashes them together in their movements. This is what many soft-hearted and well-intentioned liberals fail to understand, in their desire for equality and their vulnerability to false equivalency. The two mindsets are not only different in degree but in substance and motivation — they are two worldviews foreign to each other. As rightism attempts to enclose the whole world within its ideological grip, leftism at its best points beyond itself to what is presently unknown. This is fundamentally nihilistic, whichever definition of that term one prefers, but essentially a broad and curious-minded openness toward undiscovered and unproven possibility.

Here is an even more important distinction. The reactionary right is drawn into essentialism and determinism, as related to ideological realism. This is the naturalistic fallacy. Like races and gender, social mindsets and political identities can be taken as reality itself; and so abstractions as labels can become reified. These are among the many things the political left seeks to undo and dispel, to disenchant. Think of the difference between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx. The former asserted an absolutist dogma, whereas the latter was more akin to the Russian nihilists in never having outlined any specific ideological system that would inevitably replace capitalist realism, as he also thought solutions couldn’t be determined beforehand. Leftism and liberalism, as such, are more markers of undetermined significance, pointing in a direction as yet unknown.

Those on the political left don’t need to dismiss the other side because leftism wants to weaken such boundaries of the mind and boundaries of social order, particularly boundaries of pseudo-tribalism, so as to imagine something else. In reality, none of us is actually left-wing or right-wing, conservative or liberal. These are social constructions, not reality; whether or not we deem them useful fictions. We are free to create something else and the suggestion that seeking not yet known possibilities is nihilistic is meaningless and irrelevant, an empty fear lashing out in the darkness. The leftist has less difficulty in admitting that their own politics are also an ideological worldview because it is only in admitting this that we can bring our biases and failures out into the open to be aired. What the right fears, the left desires.

The political left has less to defend, both in a practical sense and as an ideological project. This is why, in our own writings, we regularly take shots at all sides. In fact, we are often most critical of those who are most similar and most in agreement with us, and we regularly piss off people who might be perceived as being on ‘our side’. An example of this is our complaint against the corporate takeover of environmentalist arguments, in co-opting veganism as a political tool (e.g., EAT-Lancet). It’s precisely because we have been strident environmentalists for as long as we can remember that we take such offense at this movement being misused as propagandistic social control. The value of environmentalism, in our own liberal mind, is not as a social identifier of group identity. This is how we’ve ended up such a disloyal liberal in refusing to bow down to the DNC elite, AFSCME union leadership, or anyone else.

Group loyalty is not a defining trait of the liberal mind. It’s because of this resistant attitude toward group-mindedness that some describe trying to organize the political left as herding cats. It’s the strength and weakness of liberal-mindedness. Left-liberalism, rather than falling into strongly and strictly contained boundaries of us versus them, tends to expand and sometimes, sadly, splinter apart. But there is something impressive and worthy about the liberal mind. We’ve previously noted that white liberals are the first ‘group’ seen in American research to express a pro-outgroup bias, as opposed to identifying with those supposedly like themselves (i.e., other white liberals).

The reason is that most of those white liberals don’t take white liberalism as their group identity, in the way that do white conservatives, for they’ve opened and expanded the circle of concern. There is less sense of an other to project upon because the liberal potentially invites everyone, even those on the reactionary right, into belonging as members of a liberal society. Terms such as reactionary and progressive, left and right are relative, not absolute, labels and context-dependent, not essentialist identities; and so one day those terms will disappear while the human race will remain. Liberalism aspires to unity through diversity. The political right sees this pro-outgroup bias as leftist self-hatred that seeks to destroy all that is good about the white race, the Christian religion, and Western civilization. But, in the liberal mind, there is enough kindness and compassion to go around, along with enough resources if shared equally and fairly.

It’s a split between an attitude of scarcity and an attitude of abundance, between fear and love. To the left-liberal persuasion, we are all humans on a shared earth, we are all citizens of the world — the ancient dream of the Axial Age prophets. Those on the reactionary right, obviously, disagree in that they define themselves by what they oppose and exclude. As conservative Ronald Reagan pointed out, we might only be unified as a common human species when earth is attacked by a common enemy of space aliens; although simply the existence of space aliens, even if entirely peaceful, would be enough to elicit a reaction of fear from reactionaries. If and when that happens, the reactionary right will accuse those space aliens of everything that, in the past, they accused liberals and leftists (or Native Americans, blacks, Mexicans, Asians, Eastern Europeans, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc). Meanwhile, the political left will seriously consider and openly debate about whether space aliens should have the same freedom and rights, should be welcomed as fellow beings as part of a single shared galaxy or universe.

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Notes on terminology:

We don’t make an absolute differentiation in how we use the labels of left-wing, leftism, liberalism, and left-liberalism. Even ‘progressivism’, at this point, has mostly been subsumed within this political left matrix, although earlier last century there were conservative and right-wing progressives of the old school Whiggish strain (many of them imperialists, nativists, antisemites, eugenicists, xenophobes, racists, white supremacists, and fundies). But there is separate historical development of the ‘left’ and the ‘liberal. We’ve covered this information before, but we’ll rehash it here.

Since the French Revolution, the political left has been primarily associated with egalitarianism and similar concepts of fraternity, solidarity, camaraderie, and such. This is about what mutually unites and holds together an economic class or group of people (typically a large group), either formally organized (e.g., labor union), informally associated (e.g., a poor community), or otherwise allied through common vision, interests, and benefit. The desired goal is to escape false consciousness by developing class consciousness or group consciousness, the knowledge and awareness of the conditions that create the social world one was born into. For this reason, the idea of a leftist way of thinking has also become implicated in theories or understandings about what is interdependent, systemic, environmental, ecological, holistic, integral, intersectional, complex, etc.

The metaphorical ‘left’ has an ancient pedigree, such as the left-hand path; as opposed to a right-hand man, being in the right, and having rights. Liberty and hence libertarianism is about the individual rights that can be given or taken away by official and legal power; specifically and originally in terms of the right to not be enslaved, whether or not others are enslaved. Freedom, on the other hand, is more cultural and communal, such as belonging of a free people and being among friends. See: Cultural Freedom, Legal Liberty. The word ‘right’ might be etymologically related to Greek ‘arete’ as virtue, righteousness, pride, power, ability, etc; and maybe also related to words like regent, royalty, and rajah. One can sense why the right-wing became naturally identified with authoritarianism, social dominance, and rigid hierarchy. Whereas the connection to conservatism is more of a sociopolitical observation, since every authoritarian regime that has ever existed has been socially conservative, including Stalinism and Maoism.

Liberalism stands out as unique among these terms. Unlike conservatism, it’s earliest definition had nothing to do with governance, politics, political parties, social order, power structure, legal systems, social movements, and such. To this day, it maintains more of its basic meaning as a psychological predisposition, a behavioral mentality or attitude, a way of relating to or treating others, and how one inhabits or acts in the world; particularly, as measured in FFM openness, MBTI intuition and perceiving, and Ernest Hartmann’s thin boundary type. Most simply, liberalism always has carried the meaning of generosity of spirit, although conservatives argue that liberals are being generous with other people’s money. This spiritual generosity, of course, never was inherently and primarily about money; as it mainly suggests an attitude of loving-kindness, sympathetic understanding, compassionate action, moral concern, helpfulness, and forgiveness which may or may not be expressed through material resources, private or public.

This relates to how liberalism became described according to the religious notion of a bleeding heart, which means a good Christian who sacrifices for others; but as an accusation it implies one who cares too much or who wants to be (or wants to be perceived as being) a martyr. And that brings us to the crime of sympathizing with the enemy, foreigners, and other unwanted or dangerous outsiders; along with sympathizing with undesirables in general (e.g., the conservative perception of the dirty, lazy, criminal, poor, and all around inferior permanent underclass who are supposedly undeserving of sympathy) — anyone who is deemed ‘other’. This is why, during the Cold War, liberals were sometimes called fellow travelers, to judge them as guilty by perceived association with communists. There are endless associations along these lines, as the word ‘liberal’ has been around so along to accumulate a mixed history of meanings.

There is one other thing that is a new thought. In studying Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, the use of language comes up. Everyone uses metaphors and metonymies and they have immense power over the mind (see the literature on linguistic relativity). But the left-liberal tends to use such language openly and consciously; while the right-conservative does so obscurely or unconsciously. It’s partly a difference of whether our use of language is held lightly or tightly. That even applies to the language of left and right, a metonymical metaphor of the body politic. That is the point we made above about the left pointing beyond itself. Left-liberalism wants to disenchant the mind and there is no greater power of enchantment than word magic, particularly as memetic mind virus.

That is why those who complain the most about the left-right metaphor are typically those on the left, not those on the right. It’s amusing because in complaining they are demonstrating their leftist style of thinking, in not perceiving these words as representing essentialist and deterministic qualities that literally divide up humanity. Metaphors are either useful or not, but when useful they help clarify patterns that are otherwise difficult to perceive and talk about. At present, there is not yet an equally potent and effective metaphor to replace this one. And no such metaphor disappears without being replaced. That is why, despite our own criticisms of all of these terms, we go on using them. There apparently are no other good alternatives, not so far as we can tell. We could simply speak of egalitarianism in place of leftism and liberalism, but that word doesn’t have the readymade sense of meaning that most people easily grasp.

* * *

2/5/22 – Note on left vs right, liberal vs conservative:

As often repeated in this blog, reactionaries can co-opt anything. That is a complicating factor. Take the Nazis, as right-wing authoritarian (RWA) as they come, and combined with social dominance orientation (SDO) — they used any and all rhetoric as it was convenient, in typical realpolitik fashion. This included also using the rhetoric of leftism and progressivism, but they also used the rhetoric of conservatism, religion, and much else. One observer who visited Nazi Germany stated that Nazi rhetoric was incoherent, as they simply would say anything. But there is actually a coherent motivation within the reactionary mind, if one scrutinizes it closely enough and digs down into its underlying psychological structure. The reactionary mind is essentially a Dark Personality, defined by the Dark Triad (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism) or Dark Tetrad (plus sadism).

Rhetoric is largely irrelevant, at least at this level. You have to first determine someone is honest in their use of rhetoric before you can take their rhetoric at face value. One of the pillars of the Dark Personality is Machiavellianism, having to do with a lack of humility and a willingness to do anything to get ahead. This is closely associated with SDO, which is distinct from but often overlapping with RWA. How they are differentiated is, for example, their motivation for prejudice. RWAs will fear and hate those who are unable or unwilling to assimilate to the group identity and subordinate themselves to conventional authority, which is why RWAs are actually more flexible in simply wanting to be good followers, even in a liberal social democracy or a leftist state. SDOs, instead, fear and hate those who will attempt to assimilate because, in doing so, they threaten to undo the social order of hierarchy and inequality.

That said, later research does differentiate between two elements of SDO that must be measured separately (The Nature of Social Dominance Orientation, Arnold K. Ho et al). There are the full-on dominators who express old school bigotry like racism. That is SDO-Dominance (SDO-D). But that aspect is on the decline in the West since it is no longer politically correct in mainstream society and no longer allowed to be enforced in law. That is where SDO-Egalitarianism (SDO-E) comes in. Many SDOs are prejudiced in more subtle ways and with more subtle means. They simply want to enforce anti-egalitarianism itself. That kind of SDO might be find if a few black people become rich, just as long as most black people remain poor, and just as long as the plutocrats remain in power. The same would apply to other groups as well, such as a harsh attitude toward poor whites (e.g., DNC elites and DNC-aligned corporate media scapegoating poor whites for Donald Trump’s rise to power, despite the fact that his main supporters were middle class whites). The fear is that the repressed will rise up, but SDO-Es are less concerned about the exact demographics of the repressed.

Obviously, one can sense how the reactionary can be complicated and why it comes in degrees. But the full reactionary mind will be high in both SDO-D and SDO-E, will be high in both SDO and RWA, what are referred to as Double Highs — these are the worse of the worst, the most prejudiced and the most likely to become leaders of far right groups. But what about left-wing authoritarianism and dominance? That is one of the further complications, as indeed reactionaries can and will use any rhetoric. Josef Stalin is the greatest example of how a Double High will use Machiavellianism to gain power and rule. He didn’t actually care about communism, other than how it helped him rebuild the Russian Empire with a neo-feudal peasantry as forced labor. What stands out is that Stalinism was socially conservative, not socially liberal. That is the main point. Reactionaries can co-opt any rhetoric, but this is superficial. What they can’t ever fully co-opt is social liberalism itself as behavior and policy because that would undermine RWA and SDO.

This is shown in research where “dark personalities seem to have a particularly important impact on political extremism and election of politicians and political parties who are considered right- or left-wing” and yet simultaneously “narcissism and psychopathy were associated with political conservatism, whereas Machiavellianism was associated with low rates of liberalism (Jonason, 2014). The Dark Triad traits also correlate with conservative judgments such as capital punishment, gay marriage, and gun control (Arvan, 2013). […] Finally, dark personality traits have been shown to be associated with moral foundations that in turn are linked to conservatism. For example, Međedović and Petrović (2016) showed that Machiavellianism predicted both ingroup/loyalty and authority/respect, whereas psychopathy was positively associated with ingroup/loyalty” (Boris Duspara and Tobias Greitemeyer, The impact of dark tetrad traits on political orientation and extremism).

So, even when some left-wingers or rather some using left-wing rhetoric measure high in dark personality traits related to RWA and SDO, they also measure high in conservative traits. You will never find a dark personality with liberal traits because, by definition and by essence, liberal traits are the complete opposite of the Dark Triad/Tetrad, RWA, and SDO. This is why, in seeking to clarify, we speak of left-liberals as a distinct category because one could also argue that left-conservatives exist along with right-conservatives, but what one will never meaningfully find are right-liberals as the right-wing is defined to the degree it is not liberal, whereas the left is a bit less clear in its relationship to liberalism (there is a long conflict between leftists and liberals that has formed a legacy of confusion, although it is as much or more a conflict between old liberalism and new liberalism).

When we use the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ in this blog, we are always referring to motivations and not rhetoric. The strange phenomenon of left-conservatives doesn’t make sense beyond superficial rhetoric because conservatism inherently opposes the very substance and meaning of left-wing ideology. So, to refer to left-conservatives is simply another way of saying reactionaries co-opting left-wing rhetoric for right-wing purposes of RWA and SDO. This is useful knowledge, though, for intellectual discernment and intellectual self-defense. We are always using the past as a touchstone because, despite all of the confusion, there is a consistency of ideological distinction that goes back centuries. That is why it is helpful to put this in the earliest historical context. Right and left originally referred to the seating arrangement in the French Assembly. Supporters for the king sat on the right side of the king; whereas detractors, critics, reformers, and malcontents sat on his left. This basic kind of distinction remains true, no matter what is the power in question.

The French king was a Double High figure and so to support him meant to support a system that was based on high RWA and high SDO. There is only one way to be loyal to a strongman ruler who demands total obedience, only one position to be in when on the right. To be a right-winger means submission to some institutional system of authority and domination, be it political, social, economic, or religious. To be the king’s right-hand man is to do as one is told, to be a yes-man, to be a good follower and a good enforcer of submission. But there is potentially an infinite number of ways to be on the king’s left. That basic distinction remains true to this day, at least in a Western context (as left and right categorization may or may not apply to other cultures). In the United States, there is no established left-wing system, institution, or organization of respected authority that wields any significant power and influence. Even academia in universities is structured according to authoritarian bureaucracy and dependent on authoritarian corporate funding, which is the reason why egalitarian far leftists like anarchists are rarely employed as college professors and researchers. American leftists inevitably are forced outside of power because that is the nature of being a Double Low and Light Personality within any society dominated by Double Highs and Dark Personalities.

But even in the most liberal society and most well-functioning social democracy, there will always be left-wing critics who are forever pushing toward new and greater possibilities, just as conservatives and authoritarians will come to defend the established order, even defending a liberal and egalitarian order — another way in which leftism is partly distinct from a broad sense of liberalism. To be a leftist is to be forever dissatisfied with what is in imagining what might be. This is why the political left is an endless spur toward progress as there is no ultimate end to possibility, such that enacting one possibility simply opens up to further possibilities. That goes to the point that left-wing ideology is never limited to any single political system but, rather, opens up to diverse possibilities that includes what has not yet been fully understood, articulated, and envisioned. Leftism simply stands for possibility itself, which ironically is how leftists get identified as nihilists with a bad attitude because leftism first requires pointing out what is wrong, what is hobbling, crippling, and stunting potential. Possibility, to be sought and made manifest, must be freed from what seeks to limit and eliminate possibility. More than anything else, this is possibility-mindedness as openness, curiosity, exploration, wonder, hope, and optimism.

This possibility-mindedness, though, is not a blank slate for it is inherently motivated by a love of ever increasing egalitarian freedom — it represents the possibility and the potential that is seen as equally residing within everyone; the opposite of and opposing to ideological realism that constrains possibility by shutting down the radical imagination. Leftism shakes loose the calcified mind and identity. Liberalism is just one component of this, but an important component. It is the victory of leftism that liberalism has become the dominant paradigm that frames and defines everything, even the reactionary right; where each and every generation of conservatives is more liberal than the last, such that the average conservative today is to the left of the average liberal from a century ago. This has created a strange situation where the majority of Americans are left-liberals, even as the reactionary right continues to not only rule the government, economy, and media but also rule the public mind, public identity, and public imagination — rule by oppression.

Liberalism has been so normalized that classical conservatism is almost entirely buried and forgotten. One is hard put to find many contemporary American conservatives who openly and blatantly, fully and proudly defend the misogynistic, racist, eugenicist, genocidal, plutocratic, and imperialist conservatism from past centuries (e.g., a rigid caste system of aristocrats and peasants, of slaveholders and slaves, of colonizers and colonized, of the civilized and the primitive, of WASPs and ethnics, of native-borns and immigrants). Classical conservatism is now politically incorrect, even on the mainstream political right, so politically correct that it can’t even be acknowledged. This is why, among the educated and respectable classes, conservatives will often claim to be classical liberals (i.e., early modern liberalism). But, of course, the reactionary right’s understanding of past liberalism is extremely narrow and nostalgic, i.e., mostly false and misleading — they certainly don’t mean radical Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers: Baruch Spinoza, Denis Diderot, Marquis de Condorcet, Pierre Bayle, Giambattista Vico, Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc. Mostly, reactionary right classical liberals are looking to John Locke and Adam Smith; but Lockean land rights were earlier, not to mention more strongly and radically, defended by Roger Williams; and modern conservatives overlook the fact that Adam Smith, the leading light of capitalist thought, stated a free society wasn’t possible with high inequality, i.e., a Double High society.

So, amusingly, the reactionary right in selectively co-opting yesteryear’s liberalism and filtering it through nostalgic historical revisionism ends up having no inherent substance of its own, while the egalitarian left in abandoning or transforming old liberal positions is the creative force that again and again establishes the very substance that can be later co-opted. The right uses moral imagination to appear to have substance in hiding its lack of substance, in that the reactionary is forever defined not by what it is for but by what it is reacting against. And the left constantly leaves behind its own substance once it has been established, which can leave the impression of the left lacking substance, of being merely critical and antagonistic, destructive and nihilistic. Like the French left, the Anglo-American left came into being in opposition to a king and the entire authoritarian system of monarchy and aristocracy. The French were following the example of Anglo-American revolt, not only the American Revolution but also the earlier regicidal English Civil War that itself was influenced by the earlier radical class war of the Peasants’ Revolts, along with the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Anabaptist hereticism. All of this formed into a larger Western tradition of leftist politics that continues to oppose whatever powers that be, but not knee-jerk opposition for it is seeking to reform and re-create. What the left is seeking freedom from and hence freedom toward is always a moving target.

Biblical Justice

Shared responsibility, collective action, and intergenerational justice are core Biblical values. Certainly, moral concern for the least among us is as Christian as it gets. It’s strange how even most ‘conservative’ Christians, at least among American white Protestants, have come to embrace hyper-individualism such that they no longer recognize what traditional values look like.

It’s no accident that Black Lives Matter embraces this old time religion, as did the earlier Civil Rights movement. Blacks have higher religiosity rates than even conservative whites and, in a sense, take their religiosity more seriously as applied to their communities. American blacks have for centuries been steeped in the Biblical language of intergenerational justice, on earth as it is in heaven — the Promised Land!

This is one of the many ways that progressivism, liberalism, and leftism are more similar to premodern traditionalism. Conservatives, as reactionaries, are typically more concerned with the nostalgia of revisionist history and invented traditions; more than they are concerned with closely adhering to the actual traditional views and practices of the past. Reactionaries will attack all things leftist, even when they’re Biblically-based.

Still, among American whites who self-identify as conservative Christians, some do understand and so uphold the ancient commandment that the sins of our fathers (and mothers) do fall upon us, we the living generation. This is true of David Platt, “a bestselling author, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, and the pastor of McLean Bible Church (MBC), a huge and influential church located outside Washington, D.C.”

Platt has been preaching, as Jesus did, that we are morally responsible to others. But worse of all, along with pastor Mike Kelsey of the same church, he joined a Christian BLM march. The right-wing members of that church have lodged complaints and even sought state intervention into church affairs. These critics, however, don’t have the Bible on their side; even as they claim sola scriptura as their defense of conservative values. Platt stated:

“A disparity exists. We can’t deny this. These are not opinions—they’re facts. It matters in our country whether one is white or black. Now, we don’t want it to matter, which is why I think we try to convince ourselves it doesn’t matter. We think to ourselves, “I don’t hold prejudices toward black or white people, so racism is not my problem.” But this is where we need to see that racialization is our problem. It’s all of our problem. We subtly, almost unknowingly, contribute to it.”

We are responsible because we’ve inherited the privileges and oppressions, the benefits and harms. All of it is built into our social order and our institutions, including our churches, not to mention unconsciously internalized within our psyches and behavior (sins burned into our souls). We should act to make right what was done wrong simply because it is in our power to do so. And, if one is a Christian, one should also do it because God has commanded one to do it. The moral arc may eventually bend toward justice, one way or another, but we can align ourselves with moral righteousness and divine law or oppose it.

Of course, this can be understood in purely secular terms, as many of us do on the political left. But it is true that most Americans on the political left also were raised as Christians and still identify as Christians. It remains a largely Christian society all across the political spectrum. There might be a reason most younger Christians prefer the ‘progressive’ label. Maybe Christianity is finally returning to its Biblical roots.

* * *

This is an ongoing line of thought in this blog. There is something odd about the reactionary mind, particularly in its ability to co-opt anything (along with its ability to dismiss anything, so as to eliminate and erase what is inconvenient). That appears to be a defining feature of reaction. It’s not defined in and of itself but by what it opposes and excludes. And this antagonistic impulse defines everything about the reactionary mind.

This creates much confusion. The reactionary isn’t exactly or simplistically ideological in the conventional sense, although definitely ideological in the Althusserian leftist sense. The only core idea underlying it all is a demand for division and that always includes some form of rigid and entrenched hierarchy, either as already existing or as an aspiration (Corey Robin writes about this). It’s opposition to traditionalism is on this level for it has historically sought to replace traditional social order.

Yet conservatism, as a reactionary phenomenon, requires the legitimacy stolen from traditionalism. It does this by usurping the role of traditionalism, like fairies stealing human children by replacing them with fairies, or like a spectral cuckoo bird laying its eggs in the soft nesting material of the mind. So, it’s a form of indoctrination that gets people to internalize an alien and alienating ideology as a socio-cultural identity, to disconnect the dividual from lived somatic experience (related to Morris Berman’s thoughts in Coming to Our Senses).

This is far different from the organic ground-up development of traditionalism over centuries or millennia. Reactionary conservatism, instead, is an immediate response to a sense of existential crisis and societal breakdown. Yet it demands an appearance of continuity, in order to hide its true nature of reaction. This is because, in essence, it’s much more of a product of modernity than it would like to admit (see Karen Armstrong’s argument for fundamentalism as modern and often pseudo-scientific, whereas traditional religion often interpreted scripture less literally; i.e., more symbolically and imaginalistically).

The obfuscation and erasure of the past, of ancient tradition and intergenerational memory, of living organic culture. But, even if this impulse didn’t gain its full reactionary force until the modern age, an early form of it first appeared in the Axial Age (e.g., Plato as proto-reactionary). Much of this has to do with the living word of archaic authorization being replaced by literary scripture. Probably why this shows up in Protestantism to such an extent is because that is the first religion that embraced mass literacy, which of course happened in recent centuries.

Still, there is obviously something more to it than literacy, in spite of its key role. Consider the political left, specifically liberalism. Liberals probably have higher literacy rates than Protestants, along with a greater immersion in the literary experience of higher education and high culture. Yet liberalism, in being less reactionary, can be more accommodating to traditionalism by way of multiculturalism. This is also true in liberalism being able to tolerate conservatism in a way that conservatism can’t offer in return. Within the reactionary mind, there is a totalizing impetus. This is why conservatives typically espouse ideological realism in denying their own ideology is an ideology.

So, a reactionary conservative can never fully acknowledge as real or true that is different from their ideology. That would be involved with why they can’t respect traditionalism on its own terms but must force the idea of ‘traditionalism’ to serve non-traditional agendas and interests. The past can never merely be the past, within the reactionary mind. If a liberal opposes something about the past, they are open about it without quibbling (e.g., slavery). A reactionary-conservative, on the other hand, constantly dances around issues like historical racism. The essential potency of the reactionary mind is contained within what is hidden behind symbolic proxies. Traditionalism often serves this role of empty rhetoric, of scripted and staged culture war.

That said, all of modernity is reactionary to a large extent. One might go so far as to assert that the reactionary or the potential for it is inherent to post-bicameral consciousness, divided as it is against itself. So, yes, liberals too have the potential for becoming reactionary. The difference is that what we call a liberal is simply someone who doesn’t tend toward the reactionary, doesn’t fall into it as easily or strongly, and certainly doesn’t become stuck in it as their default mode. But the longer one remains within the reactionary attitude the more one will express the attributes of the reactionary mind:

Ideological realism, limited (or tightly scripted) moral imagination, restricted/narrow circle of empathy, tribalism (or rather pseudo-tribalism), groupthink, social conservatism (doesn’t necessarily or simplistically apply to economics), bigotry, chauvinism, xenophobia, hyper-patriotism, hyper-individualism, thick boundaries of ego-mind, divisiveness, dualistic thinking, dogmatism, symbolic literalism, authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, social Darwinism, elitism, inegalitarianism, stress, fear, anxiety, paranoia, purity-mindedness, etc. And, at the furthest extremes and in the most malignant form, there is the Dark Tetrad that overlaps much with the reactionary: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism.

One might note it is easier to get a liberal to become a conservative than the other way around. All that is required is continuous stress. Basically, one might argue, the reactionary is simply the unhealed traumatic scarring of stress overload. And in a highly dysfunctional and anxious society of high inequality, such as the United States, it’s not uncommon for Dr. Jekyll liberals and leftists to become Mr. Hyde conservatives and right-wingers. On a practical level, nearly everyone in the modern world is somewhere on the scale of the reactionary; all the more reason to respond with non-reactionary empathy and compassion.

Sadly. Amidst all the schizogenetic soul sickness, it admittedly is hard for traditionalism to be meaningfully appreciated. So, something like inter-generational justice becomes simply another political battlefield. If an Old Testament prophet or Jesus himself returned from the dead to preach a jeremiad about American moral failure, I’m fairly sure few conservative Christians would hear his words, much less heed them.

* * *

There is one major difficulty in all of this. Reactionaries, by nature, are chameleons. So, they can say or do something that completely contradicts what they’ve said or done before. And, if you try to pin them down, they might shapeshift on you. Just as they sometimes claim to be traditionalists they’ll also claim to be classical liberals, the real or original liberals, but at the same time they’ll assert they are conservatives and only those who agree with them are conservative. They can co-opt anything and everything. Making generalizations about them is fraught from the get-go.

One may make a convincing argument that reactionaries, in general, don’t grasp what traditionalism is all about. But that isn’t to say they won’t pick up pieces of traditionalism as convenient. And no doubt they are great mimics. It might not always be clear when one is dealing with a reactionary, at least not at first. But they eventually give the game away, if you’re paying close enough attention. The contradictions tend to become apparent quite quickly.

As the penultimate expression of schizoid modernity, the reactionary mind tends to operate in a state of unawareness. That is important to keep in mind. It’s not necessarily that those afflicted are necessarily being duplicitous and deceptive but that they genuinely can’t understand themselves or the reality tunnel they are trapped within. This is because their worldview and identity is defined by what they are reacting against, not defined by any principled beliefs and consistent ideas.

Words can take on a loose and shifting sense within the reactionary mind. Most conservatives, as reactionaries, may call themselves ‘traditionalists’ with total conviction and still not grasp what it means. Few modern people have ever had much, if any, experience of a traditional culture. That is because America, even in the colonial era, was never a traditional society. This social order and sociopolitical system is a modern invention of Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionaries. The traditionalist label simply becomes yet more rhetoric to be lobbed about.

Within this state of confusion, it’s not all that clear what reactionaries do or do not understand. If forced to be honest, most reactionaries on some level probably do get what is inter-generational justice and that it’s an ancient value, specifically within the Abrahamic tradition. But, like so many other moderns, they simultaneously know and don’t know many things. When it is self-serving (in applying to themselves or to those they identify with), they will strongly embrace intergenerational justice.

There are conservatives who still hold a grudge about the perceived injustice of how Southern whites were treated after the Civil War, as part of the Lost Cause mythos. And many reactionaries, mostly on the right but also some on the left, believe that inter-generational justice is a moral rationalization for Zionist Jews oppressing, persecuting, and killing Palestinians (mostly children) while stealing their land — all in the name of settler colonialism, apartheid, and genocide. For claims of such justice, blacks and Palestinians (or other low status groups) need not apply. This is inter-generational justice for me and mine but none for thee. The hypocrisy of it goes over their head.

That is a defining feature of the reactionary mind. Any of us who falls under the sway of this mentality is, for all intents and purposes, a reactionary. None of us is immune. The difference, though, for most of us is that, even if we temporarily go reactionary, we can pull ourselves out of that state and realize that isn’t a state we want to be permanently in. To be a reactionary proper is to lose the capacity to be anything else. It fully becomes one’s sense of self and reality. When that happens, one goes from one reaction to another. Listen to the constant fear-mongering of right-wing media and you’ll get an intuitive sense of what it would feel like to live in that worldview all the time.

* * *

Structural Racism Isn’t Wokeness, It’s Reality
Christians must not deny the full consequences of centuries of intentional, racist harm.

by David French

But on the core issues of American racism, Platt is biblically and historically right, and it’s his detractors who are biblically and historically wrong. These “conservatives” have placed a secular political frame around an issue with profound religious significance. They’ve thus not just abandoned the whole counsel of scripture, they’ve even contradicted a core component of the secular conservatism they claim to uphold. 

To understand the flaw in their argument, let’s first turn to biblical text. A pastor friend of mine recently reminded me of an intriguing and sobering story from 2 Samuel 21. During the reign of King David, Israel was afflicted with three years of famine. When David “sought the face of the Lord” regarding the crisis, God said, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house.” (Saul had conducted a violent campaign against the Gibeonites, in violation of a covenant made with the Israelites many centuries before.)

Saul was king before David, and God was punishing Israel years after Saul’s regime because of Saul’s sin. It was the next king, David’s, responsibility to make things right. And so David turned to the remaining Gibeonites and said, “What shall I do for you? And how shall I make atonement, that you may bless the heritage of the Lord?” 

The Gibeonites’ request was harsh—to hand over seven of Saul’s descendants for execution. David fulfilled their request, and “God responded to the plea for the land.” 

Note the underlying conception of justice here: Israel remained responsible for its former leader’s sins, and they were required to make amends. This is a consistent theme throughout scripture. I’ve referred to it before. In the book of 2 Kings, Josiah “tore his clothes” and “wept” when the high priest found the Book of the Law neglected in the temple. Why? Josiah said, “because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book.”

Josiah was far from alone. Daniel confessed the sins of Israel’s fathers. In the book of Nehemiah, the Israelites confessed the “sins and iniquities” of their fathers. In the book of Leviticus, God commanded the Israelites to “confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers.” 

The reason for this obligation of repentance and atonement is obvious. The death of the offending party does not remove the consequences of their sin. Those who’ve been victimized still suffer loss, and if the loss isn’t ameliorated in their lifetimes, that loss can linger for generations.

Let’s apply this more concretely, to the United States of America. Enforcing the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause and passing the Civil Rights Act was (and is) necessary to end overt, legal discrimination, but it was hardly sufficient to ameliorate the effects of slavery and Jim Crow. These effects are so embedded in our system that powerful people often perpetuate those structures even when they lack any racist intent at all. […]

So how is a Christian to respond? First, let’s go back to scripture and recognize that the obligation to “act justly” is intergenerational. If there is injustice that predates our personal power, it is still our obligation to do what we can to set it right. Second, when you see these racist structures at work, you recognize that you need sociology, history, and economics to help understand not just their reality, but their remedy.

“Sola scriptura” doesn’t tell us how we should zone our communities, district our schools, or protect civil rights. Indeed, there’s an entire Christian doctrine of common grace that teaches us that truth can come from many sources. Even those “conservatives” who resist David Platt likely understand this in their daily lives. Is it the case that we can rely on non-Christian wisdom in, say, military strategy, trade policy, and law enforcement tactics, but when trying to untangle the effects of centuries of racial oppression, the Bible alone will be our guide? 

Now for a note about conservatism. I simply don’t grant that the dissenters’ objections to Platt are “conservative.” Right-wing, yes. Conservative? I object. Years ago, my friend Rod Dreher wrote that “the business of a conservatism with integrity is not to impose an idealistic ideological narrative on reality but rather to try to see the world as it is and respond to its challenges within the limits of what we know about human nature.”

I love that framing. Applied to race, it means that when we discern “the world as it is” (complete with understanding the structures that racists built) the policies a conservative might propose will be different than those of a progressive, in part because conservatives often (but not always) have a different view of human nature and human frailty than their friends on the left. 

In other words, a conservative might have a different conception of “what works.” Progressive-dominated institutions haven’t cracked the code. Can conservative ideas do any better?

Abstract Symbols of the Reactionary Mind

The reactionary mind is obsessed with reified abstractions translated into symbolic visions and causes. This is seen with Edmund Burke’s moral imagining of the overthrow of the French monarchy (nearly a rape fantasy of the queen), to which Thomas Paine noted his lack of concern for the actual people harmed by that monarchy (more concern for the plumage than the dying bird). The reality was irrelevant. The whole point of the wardrobe of moral imagination is to dress ideology in fancy attire, to cover up the ugly truths of power that otherwise would not be palatable.

This reactonary affliction can be found among most modern people to varying degrees. One can see this among partisans in both parties and viewers of corporate media, as shown in how constructed narratives dominate nearly all public debate, in the process of silencing majority opinion and real concerns. But the greatest comorbidity is conservative-mindedness and so the strongest symptoms are found among the conservative persuasion.

Conservatism is inherently reactionary as it is entirely defined by its reaction to liberalism, in having been born out of counter-revolution. It’s never been able to shake its origins. Even when liberals turn reactionary, they tend to do so by becoming more conservative-minded — think of the Clinton Democrats with their police state law-and-order, neocon war-mongering, etc. Political correctness too, whether of the liberal or conservative variety, is reactionary. Still, it’s not equal levels of the reactionary.

In one sense, the primary meaning of conservatism is the state of being more or less permanently stuck in reaction. For liberals, it is more often a temporary or partial state, more often in reacting to something particular. But American conservatives find themselves reacting to the entire liberal order upon which the country was founded. They sometimes even call themselves classical liberals as a reactionary throwback to a prior era, whereas conservatism by itself has no specific meaning, other than a general sense of loss and nostalgia that can be applied variously as circumstances require.

Part of the reactionary mind is an anti-intellectual bent. After all, right from the start, it was a complaint against Enlightenment thought. Yet it’s been forced to jerry-rig it’s ideological agenda out of the scraps left over from the Enlightenment project. So, conservatives will typically praise modern economics, technology, etc while acting suspect of the very scientific thought and institutions of learning that made it all possible.

This kind of anti-intellectualism is not found to the same degree on the American left, as the evidence shows (see: Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science). There is no Democratic equivalent to the proudly anti-intellectual President Donald Trump, no left-wing equivalent to the anti-intellectual Evangelical movement. It simply does not exist. No one is immune from the reactionary contagion, but neither is everyone equally vulnerable to it.

That is the reason conservatives, not liberals, have most strongly taken up Burke’s moral imagination. It’s the reason for the incessant pounding of culture war issues going back centuries. Culture itself becomes an abstract ideology, contrary to the traditional view of culture, what distinguishes reactionary conservatism from non-reactionary traditionalism. The one thing that the reactionary right borrows from traditionalism is some of its symbolism, such as their love of religious pomp, military display, etc; although, in chameleon-like fashion, the reactionary will just as likely borrow from the left as needed.

This reactionary ideology of culture gave birth to ethnonationalism and the nation-state, a modern invention that helped destroy and replace the ancien regime, even as it made claims on being its heir. Up until the world war era, most Europeans and Americans still didn’t identify primarily with the nation-state but rather with local communities and regional populations. It was a much more grounded experience of culture, as opposed to the Platonic ideal of European culture, white culture, etc sold by reactionary conservatives — their own brand of identity politics.

For example, conservatives will argue that social democracy is possible in Scandinavia only because of some vague concept of culture, as if culture is an unrooted and unchanging reality that forces itself upon us like an archonic power. Yet they can’t explain why much of Scandinavia, in being so successful now, was economically impoverished and culturally backwards in the 18th and 19th centuries. Northwestern Europeans who are presently among the tallest people in the world once were among the shortest because of poverty and malnutrition.

Scandinavians, compared to many other areas of the West like France and Britain, were slow to end feudalism, urbanize, industrialize, and democratize. The 20th century social democracy we argue about appeared rather late and abruptly. It would’ve been completely unpredictable based on observations of Scandinavian culture in the centuries prior. Cultural fatalism, as some fossilized essence of national character, is an abstract ideology detached from historical and human realities.

This focus on abstract cultural ideology is specifically to distract from concrete actions of political organizing and economic restructuring, policy reforms and political interventions. Some of those Scandinavian countries came to social democracy through large-scale labor movements, nation-wide strikes, and workers parties. Some conservatives counter by pointing out that Scandinavian-Americans have also done well with lower rates of poverty and inequality. What they leave out is those Scandinavian-Americans, like their kinfolk back in the homeland, enforced their culture of fairness and trust through concrete actions: populist revolt, farmer-labor parties, farmer co-ops, Progressive reforms, sewer socialism, etc.

The US states with larger populations of Scandinavian ancestry, nonetheless, never had a majority Scandinavian culture, as the majority tended to be German-Americans. Even then, the individual US states could only accomplish so much because they didn’t have the full power and autonomy of actual nation-states. This made it harder for them to establish the kind of social demcracies that took hold in Scandinavian countries. It was more complex and challenging to implement a nationwide strike within dozens of states across the entire continent of the United States, as compared to a nationwide strike in a country smaller than many US states.

Still, it’s impressive how far these Scandinavian-Americans, with the help of German-Americans, were able to get with leftist organizing and democratic reforms. Declaring their moral and political authority in 1873, the Minnesota Grangers stated: “We, the farmers, mechanics and laborers of Minnesota, deem the triumph of the people in this contest with monopolies essential to the perpetuation of our free institutions and the promotion of our private and national prosperity.” Like their brethren across the Atlantic Ocean, these ethnic Scandinavians meant business. No wonder they made sure to create societies with low poverty and inequality whereever they went. It isn’t some mysterious cultural quality detached from politics.

As with cultural fetishism, this same pattern of reified abstractions turned into symbolic fantasizing is seen with many other right-wing reactionary views, particularly when the reactionary goes full conspiratorial. So much of the anti-leftist Cold War propaganda was dependent on conspiracy theory because it’s effective as both narrative and distraction. It maintains its hold for many Americans. Think of the paranoid obsession with postmodernism and leftism, such as with Cultural Marxism and QAnon, often combined with antisemitism (e.g., Jewish space lazers causing wildfires) as was the case with Nazi Cultural Bolshevism and Jewish Bolshevism.

A conservative we are familiar with is always ranting about this kind of thing, but we know that he has never talked to or read anything by someone who advocates postmodernism or Marxism. We pointed this out to him and his response was that he knows what he sees with his own eyes. That is an odd claim. Nearly all of his views come from secondhand information as gained from Fox News, Wall Street Journal, Imprimis, The Epoch Times, etc. Mediated reality has replaced his directly experienced reality, to such extent that the corporate media has come to feel like “his own eyes.”

A new favorite of this particular conservative is the reactionary Jordan Peterson who, as a member of the Intellectual Dark Web, is one of the popular ‘critics’ of (neo-)Marxism. Keep in mind that, at his debate with Slavoj Zizek from a year and a half ago, Peterson admitted to having never read anything by Karl Marx. So, his knowledge was also secondhand or maybe further distant. That means maybe millions of Americans who got their anti-Marxist views from him and his larger influence are several times removed from any knowledge of actual Marxism.

But to the reactionary mind, all of that is irrelevant. They already ‘know’ Marxism without actually having to know any facts about Marxism or to personally know anyone who is a Marxist. What matters is the symbolism and, to the reactionary mind, all of the culture wars is a battle of symbols. This is the power of what I call symbolic conflation. The real issues under debate are something else entirely. The point is to use the wardrobe of moral imagination to hide the real issues behind symbolic issues, to protect the moral order as a sociopolitical force.

It’s also why conservatives latch onto AIDS and abortion as symbolic issues, since a disease or pregnancy can be portrayed as carrying its own moral symbolism as punishment. This supports their ideological realism for the punishment is made to appear like a natural and inevitable consequence of the moral sin to be punished. For a liberal to support the cure of the disease and to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place, that would untangle the knot of symbolic conflation in showing that the ideological realism was merely yet another social construction of social conditions, not divine reality or natural law.

This is demonstrated most clearly by the abortion debate, the first nut cracked in revealing the tender pulp of symbolic conflation. It quicky became obvious that the debate was never about facts or about lives, much less the facts about lives. Conservatives, when confronted by the data showing abortion bans on average increase the abortion rate, will unsurprisingly dismiss the data. But if one keeps pushing the issue, some conservatives will reveal their more honest opinion in baldly stating that, rhetoric of baby-killing aside, the moral concern is not actually about the lives of babies. Rather, it’s about the principle.

Listen to that. It’s about the principle, a principle abstracted from not only lived experience but abstracted from actual lives. It’s similar to the abstract nature of cultural ideology and culture wars in general. What makes this possible is the lack of concrete experience. Most of what conservatives know about Scandinavian social democracy, Marxism, postmodernism, etc is from right-wing media, not lived experience and personal relationships. That is the key component, in how right-wing media repeatedly hammers the very issues that are the most disconnected from the experience of their audience.

Theoretically, conservatives could simply seek out liberals and leftists in order to hear their views firsthand or maybe pick up a book written by such people. For example, an anti-choice activist could visit a family planning center to learn how preventing unwanted pregnancies prevents abortions and improves lives; or they could look at the data that, rather than being black-and-white, most Americans support both women’s choice in most situations while also wanting strong regulations of certain areas of the abortion issue.

But then, in the issue becoming concretely and personally real, the symbolic conflation would lose all symbolic power. The conservative realizes this Achilles’ heel and so, in keeping issues as abstract symbols, protect against this threat. This is why undeniably concrete issues like climate change and police shootings cause particular fear and anxiety to the conservative mind. It’s much more challenging to counter these with symbolic conflations, and hence a greater tendency to simple denialism.

That is partly what makes the American left different. Leftists criticize American-style inequality and poverty, class war and plutocracy, corporatism and neo-fascism because they experience it in their everyday lives and see it in the world around them, as leftists criticize the corruption and oppression of this banana republic because it is forced upon their experience, or as leftist criticize Christianity from the perspective of having been raised in it and surrounded by it in this Christian society. Because of this, leftists know capitalism and Christianity better than rightists know communism and atheism. In fact, the average American atheist has more knowledge about the Bible and Christian history than do most Christians.

So, for the left-winger, these problems of the right-wing social order aren’t symbolic issues, abstract concepts, and distant realities. They can’t be avoided, as long as one remains in this country. Such concrete experience and factual knowledge is less prone to reactionary fantasizing and symbolic conflation. That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of reaction on the left, more than is desirable, but not to the same extent, not even remotely close to being equivalent. Partly, this is because the American left-wing mostly overlaps with liberalism, specifically liberal-minded traits that are pretty much defined by not being reactionary. Left-wing ideologies are fundamentaly about egalitarianism and it’s difficult to be for egalitarianism while against liberal values of freedom, openess, compassion, tolerance, and fairness.

That said, the liberal-minded might find it harder and harder to hold out against the reactionary over time. Mediated reality might quickly become the norm and the rise of deep fakes might rock the world. It’s not clear that liberalism will survive this onslaught on reality. All of American society could become ever more reactionary. The symbolic style could become more of a force on the political left. Consider how the Black Lives Matter movement gained majority support of Americans, including white Americans, through social media where videos of police brutality was shared. That is an example of mediated experience changing perception and public opinion.

The resuts may be positive in this case if it eventually does lead to police reform. But once we come to rely on media in this fashion for collective action, and as media technology advances, we could become ripe for reactionary fear-mongering and manipulations. Unless we find a way to democratize media, particularly the internet, but also democratize the larger society and economy, it might be a rough time ahead. If we become more divided and isolated, unmediated reality could become a rarity.

At present, it’s hard to imagine our plutocratic society even further dominated by corporate media and tech companies that would not become full-on reactionary, with liberal-minded leftism disappearing or becoming so distorted as to be dysfunctional. The craziness of media-fomented QAnon movement, already having infiltrtated Congress (in more than one way, legally and illegally), might be a sign of the future to come for the entire political system and society. Cultural experience, abstracted from concrete experience, might come to look more like a media echo chamber. Never before seen group identities will be constructed and we might become ever more dissociated and dislocated.

The Fate of the GOP

“In no partisan spirit I contend that the Progressive movement began within the Republican Party. It rapidly advanced its control, shaping policies of state administrations, and stamping its impress upon national legislation as a distinctly Progressive Republican movement. And upon this fact in recent political history I appeal to Progressive Republicans everywhere to maintain their ogranization within the Republican party.”

Robert M. La Follette, La Follette’s Weekly Magazine, Volume 4 (1912)

Here are some thoughts on the historical origins, present state, and future potential of the Republican Party. Besides those like Cindy McCain and Mitt Romney, there have been waves of moderates, conservatives, and traditionalists (not to mention neoliberals and neocons) leaving the Republican Party or otherwise pulling away from partisanship (along with big biz taking its money elsewhere, at least for the time being). It most clearly began with Donald Trump’s nomination and first presidential campaign. The news media, at the time, reported on many Republican leaders who spoke out against Trump or even spoke in favor of the Democrats. Trump, as a demagogic opportunist, was able to takeover precisely because the GOP was the weakest it had been in more than a century; and Trump would only weaken it further.

It was a dissolution that, in Republicans gaining victory and wielding power, would worsen. The previous fractures in the party broke wide open and have become a gulf, such that a large number of former officials from the Bush administration are now disavowing their ties to the party: “Kristopher Purcell, who worked in the Bush White House’s communications office for six years, said roughly 60 to 70 former Bush officials have decided to leave the party or are cutting ties with it, from conversations he has been having. “The number is growing every day,” Purcell said” (Tim Reid, Exclusive: Dozens of former Bush officials leave Republican Party, calling it ‘Trump cult’). Others like Reagan Republican Joe Scarborough had left a couple of decades ago, presumably already having seen George W. Bush taking the party in an undesirable direction, maybe in having set the stage for the right-wing reactionary takeover of the party that was completed with Trump’s reign.

With the attack on the Capitol, QANON conspiracists in Congress, and GOP’s continued defense of Trump, yet more Republicans have been disgusted and demoralized, some finding appeal in Biden’s nostalgic call for the norms of established institutions and the normalcy of respectablty politics (no matter that this rhetoric seems hollow to many others). This is how the GOP might fully become Trump’s party, as the last of the anti-Trumpists leave and so cause further concentration of the extremists within an ideological homogeneity and insular echo chamber. And it’s not limited to GOP leadership abandoning ship. Recently, tens of thousands of voters have changed their Republican Party affiliaton — over 10,000 in some individual swing states like Arizona (Reid Wilson, Tens of thousands of voters drop Republican affiliation after Capitol riot), possibly causing them to swing toward the Blue for a long time to come.

Consider the Mormons who, according to a 2010 Gallup survey, “are both the most Republican and the most conservative of any of the major religious groups in the U.S. today” (Frank Newport, Mormons Most Conservative Major Religious Group in U.S.) — more Republican and conservative than white Evangelicals? Dang! Yet Mormon partisanship was already weakening by then: “Mormon support for the Republican ticket dropped from 80 percent in 2004 and 78 percent in 2012, to 61 percent in 2016, even as most other Christians moved further to the right, according to Pew” (Alex Thompson & Laura Barrón-López, Mormons rejected Trump as blasphemous. Now he likely can’t win without them.), although not entirely true as many Christian groups have moved left in recent years, the main exception being white Evangelicals — the latter being a key element of the ‘Ferengi’ minority demographic (Polarization Between the Majority and Minority). By the way, the Mormon vote has played a pivotal role in swing states like Arizona that lost more 10,000 Republicans, which might be why Joe Biden flipped that once stalwart Republican state.

So, the Republican base becomes smaller and narrower, louder and more threatening — the ‘Ferengi’ fringe. That is combined with the realignment that happened over the past half century, with the GOP now having taken the rightward path to its furthest endpoint, over a cliff. In living memory, there once was a large wing involving a combination of black Republicans and log cabin Republicans, progressive Republicans and liberal Republicans; even pro-choice Republicans. The last remnants of this held on into the ’80s, until they were squeezed out by the changes of media deregulation, ideological polarization, and rabid partisanship. Before that happened, the Republican Party of Eisenhower and Reagan used to include the likes of Hillary Clinton, Arriana Huffington, Thomas Frank, Cenk Uygur, etc — major names now in the Democratic Party or in leftist alternative media.

The religious right ‘moral majority’ always was a myth — even limiting it to the religious, such demographics have always been mixed and often holding views different from the religious minority of white Evangelcals. This is the reason for the necessity of the Wirthlin effect and symbolic conservatism, specifically the powerful wedge of the culture wars, as Americans are operationally liberal (i.e., actual positions and policies supported). Republicans couldn’t win elections without this rhetorical con game. The very people promoting the claim of a right-wing ‘moral majority’ knew they were lying. Rather than being a majority, it was explicitly anti-majoritarian. That was the whole point, to use empty rhetoric and political power to force a false narrative, to win by havng declared that they’d already won and then having convinced the media and political elites to repeat this spin — with some help from FBI’s COINELPRO that silenced opposition in the decimation of the political left, such as the assassination of Fred Hampton (combined with the string of other assassinations: MLK and Malcolm X, JFK and RFK).

Bill Moyers, in discussng how the Republicans took over through anti-democratic tactics like gerrymandering, gives a bit of historical background to the “founding of the Moral Majority” (as part of an interview of Davd Daley, Republicans Admit They Lose When Elections Are Fair and Free). “Thousands of religious conservatives gathered in Dallas, Texas, to launch what is now the most influential base of the Republican party. Ronald Reagan running for the Republican nomination, spoke to them. And one of the most influential Republicans of the past 60 years was there. Paul Weyrich was his name — right-wing Catholic, brilliant strategist, outspoken partisan [who] founded the Heritage Foundation, founded the Moral Majority, on and on and on. He really was an architect of the Republican domination today.”

Moyers then shared “a brief excerpt” of his speech and added that, “It brought cheers from those religious conservatives.” Weyrich, without shame or a sense of hypocrisy, stated: “Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome — good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” This was part of the Republican rhetorical attack on government in order to take over government, based on a demented ideology that democratic governance, public good, and the social compact were irrelevant or worse than irrelevant, a threat to their ambitions for unrepresentative power.

To put it in historical context, consider the original moral majority, the religiously-motivated American Revolutionaries. In having “read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack,” according to 86 year old Captain Levi Preston (as interviewed by Mellen Chamberlain in 1843), “what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should” (Spirit of ’76). This may have been an unlearned populism, but it was bluntly democratic. Those rough-hewn working class radicals, carrying on the old tradition of religious dissent from the English Peasants’ Revolt and English Civil War, knew how to deal with aspiring tyrants like Weyrich. Keep in mind, that was old school evangelicalism. The mention of Watts’s Psalms and Hymns refers to the popular preacher who articulated the conflict between church and state, in challenging religious monopoly and religious tests, a public debate that earlier had enlivened Oliver Cromwell’s army (J. F. Maclear, Isaac Watts and the Idea of Public Religion).

As for Weyrich’s theocratic machinations, Trump’s personality cult, in gaining the zealous support of white Evangelicals, is the culmination of this dark faith; and it may seem to be going down in flames. Nonetheless, this might not mean the GOP is in terminal decline; but it guarantees that, if it survives, it will be radicially and permanently transformed — that brief period of a coherent conservative movement (or rather it’s rhetorical narrative as portrayed in corporate media) won’t be coming back anytime soon, if ever. Republican Senator Ben Sasse, under threat of censure by some Nebraskan Republicans, stated that, “The anger has always been simply about me not bendng the knee to one guy. Personality cults aren’t conservative. Conspiracy theories aren’t conservative. Lying that an electon has been stolen, it’s not conservative. Acting like politics is a religion, it isn’t conservative” (Former GOP Lawmaker Now Dedicated To Fighting Misinformation).

Others, in having left the GOP, have also had harsh words. “The Republican Party as I knew it no longer exists. I’d call it the cult of Trump,” said Jimmy Gurulé, one of those former Bush officials who could accept blatant lies, illegal wars of aggression, mass innocents deaths, and torture prisons but Trump’s Twitter tirades went too far (Tim Reid, Exclusive: Dozens of former Bush officials leave Republican Party, calling it ‘Trump cult’). “If it continues to be the party of Trump, many of us are not going back,” threatened Rosario Marin, yet another one of these respectable Bush cronies. “Unless the Senate convicts him, and rids themselves of the Trump cancer, many of us will not be going back to vote for Republican leaders.” These Republicans hold to a nostalgic image of respectability, real or false, that once was taken seriously in the mainstream but has now been entirely discredited. Was there ever a time when American conservatism was not at least a bit crazy and dangerous? That is questionable from a leftist perspective, but it’s understandable why many conservatives long for a return to what they perceive as pre-insanity Golden Age, a time when they weren’t mocked and ridiculed.

One could debate what is or is not conservative or what it should be, but this isn’t the first time that conservatism found itself in the dumps, as likewise happened in the early 20th century. Then, following World War II, conservatism became respectable again (or at least put on a good act) because of Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr., and that was carefully achieved by ruthlessly banishing the right-wing fringe and conspiracy nuts, even if that simply meant pushing a cleaned up version of Bircherism, racism, and fascism. The point is conservatism was once solidly part of the mainstream, and it wasn’t that long ago. Some argue that an honorable conservatism is essential, whereas when dishonor sets in it becomes perilous to all of society.

“I don’t think conservatism can do its job in a free society in opposition to the institutions of that society,” said conservative Yuval Levin, “I think it can only function in defense of them. And a conservatism that becomes anti-institutional looks like a mob attacking the Capitol, which I don’t think is where anybody wants to end up” (interview by Ezra Klein, An Appalled Republican Considers the Future of the G.O.P.). It is never conservative to tear down institutions, not even liberal (or pseudo-liberal) institutions like universities, and especially not public institutions. [Actually, an argument could be made that conservatives have always attacked institutions, in that conservatism orginated as a modern ideology and reactionary backlash in opposition to the failing traditional institutions of the ancien regime that proved their unworthiness by having allowed liberalism and leftism to take hold; and so conservatives sought to eliminate and replace traditional institutions, an inherently destructive act and, in creating something entirely new, quite radical at that; but we’ll avoid that complication for our purposes here — for more on this view, see posts on the reactionary mind and reactionary conservatism.]

In the prelude to Klein’s talk with Levin, a book is briefly mentioned — Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy. It was written by a Harvard Political Scientist, Daniel Ziblatt, who “shows […] that democracies live or die based on how responsible their conservative parties are.” Klein says that, “In particular, the question is whether the center right quarantines the anti-democratic far right, in which case democracies tend to live and thrive, or it allies with them, in which case, the far right often takes over and democracies often fall. We are in that kind of moment right now.” If that is true, we are in trouble. Conservatism is inherently a reaction to liberalism — always has been — and so it acts as the shadow to liberal society. And so conservatives are closer to this darkness in either holding it in check or becoming possessed by it. The latter seems to be the case for the United States in this demagogic hour at the dawn of a new millennia. The burning flame of moral imagination as dark fantasy and ideological realism is powerful and, for that reason, potentially dangerous and destructive — as attested, again and again, by history (consider the Nazi conspiracy theory of Cultural Bolshevism and Jewish Bolshevism resurrected as the American conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism).

If the GOP is no longer able to pretend to be a respectable conservative party and can no longer uphold a mainstream conservative movement, then what is it or where is it heading? It could become even more of a right-wing reactionary party, maybe devolving to a third party, where its platform would be entirely defined by conspiracy, xenophobia, ethnonationalism, etc; maybe things much worse like fascism and eugenics. Or it could reverse course toward the progressvism of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower (or even Richard Nixon); before the GOP became exclusively anti-liberal. This might be more of a conservative, capitalist-friendly, and paternalistic progressivism as seen previously, but one that made room for liberal tendencies and democratic proceduralism. Progressivism originally was understood as democratic reform from within the system to defend against leftists, partly by stealing the thunder of leftist demands and promises, which was TR’s strategy (Capitalists Learning From Socialists).

That was at a time when liberalism was clearly distinguished from leftism, as reactionary rhetoric hadn’t yet fully conflated the two as a singular slur. “Many of the men who call themselves Socialists to-day,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his autobiography, “are in reality merely radical social reformers, with whom on many points good citizens can and ought to work in hearty general agreement, and whom in many practical matters of government good citizens well afford to follow” (see other TR quotes in Capitalists Learning From Socialists). His brand of progressivism was as conservative as it came, quite nationalistic and imperialistic, but he drew inspiration from the political left. To put this in context, the progressive era saw many Klansmen, Evangelicals, and Mormons supporting child labor laws, universal public education, Social Security, and much else — social conservatives and Republicans having helped pave the way for Teddy’s fifth cousin, progressive Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to create the New Deal and, following it, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. One can’t help but be reminded that Donald Trump won election to the presidency through explicitly progressive rhetoric that was in certain ways to the left of Hillary Clinton’s platform (Old School Progressivism).

Also, don’t forget that it was the Republican Party that introduced progressive taxation and defended it for a long time, at a time of extremely high tax rates on the rich. Also, Eisenhower said that liberalism was the way to run government, although he believed conservatism was the way to run the private economy; while Nixon spoke positively about liberalism, passed the EPA, and pushed for a basic income. We are presently experiencing a right-wing populist backlash with weak leadership that has splintered the political right, but we might return to that prior era of early-to-mid 20th century when strong progressivism and moderate liberalism was considered the framework for both parties, the center of the politcal spectrum, and the moral majorty of public opinion. Conservatism existed back then as well, but it was chastened and moderate, forced into a secondary role in public debate and forced into making alliances. This allowed conservatives to do serious and frutiful soul-searching, the kind of soul-searching that many conservatives find themselves returning to as they’ve become homeless and out of power.

The Republicans will likely be out of power for a generation, assuming they ever regain power. That was the prediction of William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their generations theory about the Fourth Turning. Back in the 1990s, they foresaw a period of crisis, as they theorized typically happens every 80 years (in a cycle of 4 generations). Through destabilization or destruction, the crisis shows the weaknesses and failures of institutions. That was effectively demonstrated, symbolically and practically, in the insurrectionist attack on the Capitol building; an event that, if the overruning of the Capitol police had happened mere minutes earlier, numerous Congressional leaders could have been held hostage, injured, and killed (Vice President Mike Pence was being targeted as well); and it turns out that individuals within the institutions created to prevent such a dangerous situation may have been complicit in instigating, planning, and/or allowing the attack. That is a crisis that would’ve been hard to have imagined decades ago. What Strauss and Howe argued would follow the period of crisis would be a period of institutional rebuilding within society. That will be an opportunity for the political right to rebuild itself as well, maybe from the ground up.

* * *

Further Reading:

  • To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party
    by Heather Cox Richardson
  • When Republicans Were Progressive
    by David Durenberger & Lori Sturdevant
  • Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics
    by Michael Wolraich
  • Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP
    by Mary C. Brennan

Conserving America’s Radical and Revolutionary Vision

What does it mean to be a ‘conservative’ in a country like the United States? What does it mean to conserve? What is it we might conserve? America was founded on protest, on riot, revolt and rebellion, some of it peaceful but much of it not peaceful in the slightest. Besides the American Revolution, there was the War of Regulation, Shays’ Rebellion, and much else, such as the later Coal Wars, Battle of Athens, and on and on. Americans have never ended their confrontational demands of freedom, even as we speak with yet another protest challenging abuse of power.

The classical liberalism that both liberals and conservatives often claim was given fullest expression in the American tradition from the words of Thomas Paine, the most radically left-wing of the founders. He is the only one of the main founders to directly demand a democratic government, not to mention he was a deist heretic and worst still advocated for what was the equivalent of a universal basic income with his citizens’ dividend. It was Paine who named this country, “the United States of America,” and the closest we’ve come to his radical vision was the Progressive New Deal.

Also, Paine had an honorary citizenship from France and called himself a citizen of the world. Then again, some of the other founders also had honorary citizenships of France and called themselves citizens of the world. Many in that generation had radical aspirations of global revolution, far beyond mere nation-building. Some of them hoped America would be an inspiration to further revolt. In fact, many rebellions were inspired. That legacy, if nothing else, has been conserved in the memory of humanity. That makes sense as it was Paine who argued that America never was an ethno-nationalistic project, since even when he wrote his revolutionary tracts the majority in several colonies were not English and not even British. America was to represent a new multiculturalism based on universal human rights.

Ignoring Paine’s religious hereticism and that of Jefferson, Franklin, Ethan Allen, and Thomas Young… which is a lot hereticism to ignore… even if we proclaim Christianity as the one true faith of American society, which of the over 4,6000 sects of Christianity in the United States get credit and privilege? And if we are to genuinely conserve Jesus teachings and example, we’d have to be as radical as he was in challenging accumulated wealth and challenging claims of authority, including the rule-obsessed and literal-minded fundamentalism of religious authority as Jesus did with the Pharisees and Sadducees. That would mean we’d have to treat far better the least among us, including the sick, homeless, prostitutes, etc. Instead of an elite, it would be the meek who would inherit the earth, those who are poor and trampled upon, those who are most child-like.

One might add that Jesus himself was a heretic, in a long tradition of Jewish heretics. There has always been a strong heretical impulse that splintered the Christian tradition, right from the beginning. This is maybe because Jesus never set to found a religion and so left no official organization, doctrine of beliefs, set of rules, methods of practice, etc. So, if Christianity is a product of heresy, blossomed in a diversity of heresy right from the start and maintained that heretical tendency ever since, then what does it mean to conserve Jesus’ ministry that opposed conserving what came before? Can one conserve heresy and the heretical mindset that motivated it?

We’d even have to take note of how Jesus paid zero respect to family values and follow his lead in his having told someone about their father to let the dead bury the dead and at another time declared that he came to turn family against each other. Jesus preached a universal love and compassion that extended far beyond kinship, far beyond all social identities such as race, ethnicity and nationalism. Anyway, if we are to ignore Jesus, which family values would we conserve? The nuclear family is a modern invention that is as unconservative as can be according to historical standards of family values. The notion of family used to be connected to a complex traditional culture of community and commons, but such a culture has no place in modern American society.

As for traditionalism as the heart of conservatism, the most traditional societies in America, those with the greatest claims on an established tradition are the Native Americans, some of which inspired the division of power that was adopted into the US constitution. In their existing as separate legal nations, they remind us of the federalism this country was based upon. Yet we still don’t honor the legal and constitutional promises made to them. If we want to be reminded of what conserving the traditional could mean, we’d need to relearn traditionalism from the few remaining American people who haven’t yet fully destroyed their traditional cultures, haven’t yet entirely sacrificed their ancient identities in worship of Mammon.

On the most basic level of all, let’s consider the main enemy of conserving traditionalism against change. It is capitalist realism that eliminates and replaces all that is traditional while devouring the world we’ve inherited. Instead of conservation of the environment, instead of caretaking for God’s Creation, instead of being morally responsible to future generations, we sacrifice the common good and leave nothing to be inherited as we inherited what was left to us. Is nothing sacred? What about the most conservative impulse of all, the precautionary principle that would lead us to not be so careless and wasteful, so morally indifferent and psycopathically destructive.

There is a further way in which modern American conservatism finds itself in a tricky relationship with traditionalism. Prior to the rise of reactionary conservatism in post-revolutionary era, the ancien regime was based on a sense in which social realities laid claim upon the individual. Everyone was defined by kinship, community, and the commons; by an entire network of relationships, obligations, and commitments; and a profound sense of place that rooted one in a shared social reality.

Modern American conservatism is a far different beast, in its being intertwined with capitalist realism. Instead of what claims the individual, it is about what the individual claims. The individual is defined by what they own, what or who they control, including subordinates below them in the capitalist order such as employees. Most of use never think about how strange that is, how unusual, how extremely different from most of the historical past. This is also the sense of modern ethno-nationalism. There is the demand to claim a country as an identity with mapped boundaries. In the pre-modern world, especially the ancient world, sociopolitical boundaries were much more blurred, overlapping, and shifting. People could be claimed by multiple social identities, depending on the context as identity was inseparable from particular relationships. There weren’t the abstract identities that moderns cling to.

If we seek to conserve what has claimed humanity for most of existence, we must forego our modern claims of identity that seek to force themselves onto the world and so reshape that world. To conserve would mean to some degree return to a sense of being claimed by the other, by the world. It would mean asking what we owe, who we are responsible to. An attempt to return to such a worldview would be a radical act. That is where we find ourselves now, having to choose either the reactionary or the radical. And the radical potentially takes more seriously and treats with more respect the traditional.

Other than unjust privilege, cruel oppression and rigid hierarchy, what is actually conserved by so-called ‘conservatism’ in American society? What can conservatism possibly mean other than convenient rationalization for whatever rhetoric is useful to the powerful at any given moment? But maybe conservatism could be more than that, if we were to take seriously the value of conserving what is of value. Imagine for a moment that American conservatism actually meant something other than defending a fantasy of power and instead was a guiding moral vision. Imagine if conservatives actually fought to conserve what mattered most.

Now that would be truly radical, maybe even revolutionary — radical as going to the root, revolutionary as a cyclical return. Let us return to the roots of the greatest of social, moral and political visions of American society, the founding vision that inspired more than any other. That would be worth conserving. In that case, we radicals could be conservatives. Maybe the only way to be meaningfully conservative now is to be radical enough to deeply consider the claims made upon us by the demands of conserving. The reactionary can mouth empty words, but traditionalism is forever lost to the reactionary mind. They are opposites. We radicals should make the case for conservatism.

* * *

8/12/20 – An additional thought:

“It is an ancient custom to resist tyranny… And our history goes on further to say, that when another of their Majesties the Kings of England tried to infringe upon those rights, the people armed, and told him that if he did not give them the privileges of Englishmen, they would compel him by the point of the sword… Would you not rather govern a country of spirited men, than cowards?”

These are William Davidson’s words at his 1820 trial for attempted assassination of the violently authoritarian Prime Minister and his cabinet that would end in his public execution. Basically, it’s a more wordy way of saying, Liberty or Death!

Harriet Tubman was well known for espousing such thoughts when asked about the possibility of being caught for she would likely have been tortured to death. Davidson ended his speech with the simple statement that, “I can die but once in this world.” Tubman also made that same argument. It’s an ancient sentiment, once cherished by diverse groups, from Stoics to eary Christians.

Indeed, resistance toward tyranny is an ancient custom. In the Anglo-American tradition, it goes back to the English Civil War and the Peasants’ Revolt, among other historical examples. It is a worthy tradition upon which the United States was founded and upon which generations of Americans have drawn inspiration in hundreds of revolts and protests over the centuries.

We are a rebellious people not to be oppressed easily, so one would like to believe. Let us remember, celebrate and honor our ancient customs, along with keeping the memory alive of those who fought to bring us the rights and freedoms we now prize and enjoy, even as they are constantly threatened by ever new authoritarian rulers.

Two Views of Present Christianity

First, everyone can be skeptical of science, including of course scientists themselves — after all, scientists are skeptics by profession. But skepticism pushed toward extreme denialism is mostly limited to the political right, some scientific issues standing out (e.g., climate change). And general distrust of science is broadly and consistently found only among religious conservatives.

This is a point that was made by Chris Mooney in his research showing that there is no equivalent on the political left — as far as I know, not even among the religious left. For example, the smart idiot effect is primarily found on the political right, such that knowledge really does matter to those on the political left (research shows that liberals, unlike conservatives, will more likely change their mind when they learn new info).

The role religion plays is in magnifying this difference between ideological tendencies.

Not All Skepticism Is Equal: Exploring the Ideological Antecedents of Science Acceptance and Rejection
by Bastiaan T. Rutjens, Robbie M. Sutton, & Romy van der Lee

To sum up the current findings, in four studies, both political conservatism and religiosity independently predict science skepticism and rejection. Climate skepticism was consistently predicted by political conservatism, vaccine skepticism was consistently predicted by religiosity, and GM food skepticism was consistently predicted by low faith in science and knowledge of science. General low faith in science and unwillingness to support science in turn were primarily associated with religiosity, in particular religious conservatism. Thus, different forms of science acceptance and rejection have different ideological roots, although the case could be made that these are generally grounded in conservatism.

Study: Conservatives’ Trust In Science At Record Low
by Eyder Peralta

While trust in science has remained flat for most Americans, a new study finds that for those who identify as conservatives trust in science has plummeted to its lowest level since 1974.

Gordon Gauchat, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studied data from the General Social Survey and found that changes in confidence in science are not uniform across all groups.

“Moreover, conservatives clearly experienced group-specific declines in trust in science over the period,” Gauchat reports. “These declines appear to be long-term rather than abrupt.”

Just 35 percent of conservatives said they had a “great deal of trust in science” in 2010. That number was 48 percent in 1974. […]

Speaking to Gauchat, he said that what surprised him most about his study is that he ran statistical analysis on a host of different groups of people. He only saw significant change in conservatives and people who frequently attend church.

Gauchat said that even conservatives with bachelor’s degrees expressed distrust in science.

I asked him what could explain this and he offered two theories: First that science is now responsible for providing answers to questions that religion used to answer and secondly that conservatives seem to believe that science is now responsible for policy decisions. […]

Another bit of surprising news from the study, said Gauchat, is that trust in science for moderates has remained the same.

Here is the second point, which is more positive.

Religious conservatives are a shrinking and aging demographic, as liberal and left-wing views and labels continually take hold. So, as their numbers decrease and their influence lessens, we Americans might finally be able to have rational public debate about science that leads to pragmatic implementation of scientific knowledge.

The old guard of reactionaries are losing their grip on power, even within the once strong bastions of right-wing religiosity. But like an injured and dying wild animal, they will make a lot of noise and still can be dangerous. The reactionaries will become more reactionary, as we have recently seen. This moment of conflict shall pass, as it always does. Like it or not, change will happen and indeed it already is happening.

There is one possible explanation for this change. Science denialism is a hard attitude to maintain over time, even with the backfire effect. It turns out that even conservatives do change their opinions based on expert knowledge, even if it takes longer. So, despite the evidence showing no short term change with policies, we should expect that a political shift will continue happen across the generations.

Knowledge does matter. But it requires immense repetition and patience. Also, keep in mind that, as knowledge matters even more for the political left, the power of knowledge will increase as the general population moves further left. This might be related to the fact that the average American is increasingly better educated — admittedly, Americans aren’t all that well educated in comparison to some countries, but in comparison to the state of education in the past there has been a dramatic improvement.

However you wish to explain it, the religious and non-religious alike are becoming more liberal and progressive, even more open to social democracy and democratic socialism. There is no evidence that this shift has stopped or reversed. Conservatism will remain a movement in the future, but it will probably look more like the present Democratic Party than the present Republican Party. As the political parties have gone far right, the American public has moved so far left as to be outside of the mainstream spectrum of partisan politics.

We are beginning to see the results.

Pro-Life, Pro-Left
by Molly Worthen
(see Evangelicals Turn Left)

70 percent of evangelicals now tell pollsters they don’t identify with the religious right, and younger evangelicals often have more enthusiasm for social justice than for the culture wars

Trump Is Bringing Progressive Protestants Back to Church
by Emma Green

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, some conservative Christians have been reckoning with feelings of alienation from their peers, who generally voted for Trump in strong numbers. But at least some progressive Protestant churches are experiencing the opposite effect: People have been returning to the pews.

“The Sunday after the election was the size of an average Palm Sunday,” wrote Eric Folkerth, the senior pastor at Dallas’s Northaven United Methodist Church, in an email. More than 30 first-time visitors signed in that day, “which is more than double the average [across] three weeks of a typical year,” he added. “I sincerely don’t recall another time when it feels like there has been a sustained desire on people’s part to be together with other progressive Christians.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests other liberal churches from a variety of denominations have been experiencing a similar spike over the past month, with their higher-than-usual levels of attendance staying relatively constant for several weeks. It’s not at all clear that the Trump bump, as the writer Diana Butler Bass termed it in a conversation with me, will be sustained beyond the first few months of the new administration. But it suggests that some progressives are searching for a moral vocabulary in grappling with the president-elect—including ways of thinking about community that don’t have to do with electoral politics. […]

Even if Trump doesn’t bring about a membership revolution in the American mainline, which has been steadily shrinking for years, some of the conversations these Protestant pastors reported were fascinating—and suggest that this political environment might be theologically, morally, and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions.

Southern Baptists Call Off the Culture War
by Jonathan Merritt

Indeed, disentangling the SBC from the GOP is central to the denomination’s makeover. For example, a motion to defund the ERLC in response to the agency’s full-throated opposition to Donald Trump failed miserably.

In years past, Republican politicians have spoken to messengers at the annual meeting. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed the group, Vice President Dan Quayle spoke in 1992, and President George W. Bush did so in 2001 and 2002 (when my father, James Merritt, was SBC president). Neither President Bill Clinton nor President Barack Obama were invited to speak to Southern Baptists during their terms. Though Southern Baptists claim not to be affiliated with either major party, it’s not difficult to discern the pattern at play.

Vice President Mike Pence addressed the convention this year, which may seem like the same old song to outsiders. But there was widespread resistance to Pence’s participation. A motion to disinvite the vice president was proposed and debated, but was ultimately voted down. During his address, which hit some notes more typical of a campaign speech, a few Southern Baptists left the room out of protest. Others criticized the move to reporters or spoke out on Twitter. The newly elected Greear tweeted that the invitation “sent a terribly mixed signal” and reminded his fellow Baptists that “commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.”

Though most Southern Baptists remain politically conservative, it seems that some are now less willing to have their denomination serve as a handmaiden to the GOP, especially in the current political moment. They appear to recognize that tethering themselves to Donald Trump—a thrice-married man who has bragged about committing adultery, lies with impunity, allegedly paid hush money to a porn star with whom he had an affair, and says he has never asked God for forgiveness—places the moral credibility of the Southern Baptist Convention at risk.

By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle.

For more than a decade, the denomination has been experiencing precipitous decline by almost every metric. Baptisms are at a 70-year low, and Sunday attendance is at a 20-year low. Southern Baptist churches lost almost 80,000 members from 2016 to 2017 and they have hemorrhaged a whopping one million members since 2003. For years, Southern Baptists have criticized more liberal denominations for their declines, but their own trends are now running parallel. The next crop of leaders knows something must be done.

“Southern Baptists thought that if they became more conservative, their growth would continue unabated. But they couldn’t outrun the demographics and hold the decline at bay,” said Leonard. “Classic fundamentalist old-guard churches are either dead or dying, and the younger generation is realizing that the old way of articulating the gospel is turning away more people than it is attracting. “

Regardless of their motivations, this shift away from a more culturally strident and politically partisan stance is significant.

As the late pastor Adrian Rogers said at the 2002 SBC annual meeting in St. Louis, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”

Rogers may have had an inflated sense of the denomination’s importance, but the fact remains that what happens in the SBC often ripples across culture. In Trump’s America, where the religious right wields outsized influence, the shifts among Southern Baptists could be a harbinger of broader change among evangelicals.

The divide between the religious and the rest of the population is smaller than it seems. That is because media likes to play up conflict. To demonstrate the actual views of the religious in the United States, consider a hot button issue like abortion:

  • “As an example of the complexity, data shows that there isn’t even an anti-abortion consensus among Christians, only one Christian demographic showing a strong majority [White Evangelical Protestants].” (Claims of US Becoming Pro-Life)
  • “[A]long with most doctors, most church-going Catholics support public option and so are in agreement with most Americans in general. Even more interesting is the fact that the church-going Catholics even support a national plan that includes funding for abortion.” (Health Reform & Public Option (polls & other info))
  • “[M]ost Americans identify as Christian and have done so for generations. Yet most Americans are pro-choice, supporting abortion in most or all situations, even as most Americans also support there being strong and clear regulations for where abortions shouldn’t be allowed. It’s complicated, specifically among Christians. The vast majority (70%) seeking abortions considered themselves Christians, including over 50% who attend church regularly having kept their abortions secret from their church community and 40% feeling that churches are not equipped to help them make decisions about unwanted pregnancies.” (American Christianity: History, Politics, & Social Issues)

Whatever ideological and political conflicts we might have in the future, it won’t be a continuation of the culture wars we have known up to this point. Nor will it likely conform to battle of ideologies as seen during the Cold War. The entire frame of debate will be different and, barring unforeseen events, most likely far to the left.

* * *

As an additional point, there is another shift that is happening. There is a reason why there feels to be a growing antagonism, even though it’s not ideological per se.

The fact of the matter is “religious nones” (atheists, agnostics, religiously non-identifying, religiously indifferent, etc) is growing faster than any religious group. Mainline Christians have been losing membership for decades and now so are Evangelicals. This is getting to the point where young Americans are evenly split between the religious and non-religious. That means the religious majority will quickly disappear.

This isn’t motivated by overt ideology or it doesn’t seem to be, since it is a shift happening in many other countries as well. But it puts pressure on ideology and can get expressed or manipulated through ideological rhetoric. So, we might see increasing conflict between ideologies, maybe in new forms that could create a new left vs right.

Younger people are less religious than older ones in many countries, especially in the U.S. and Europe
by Stephanie Kramer & Dalia Fahmy

In the U.S., the age gap is considerable: 43% of people under age 40 say religion is very important to them, compared with 60% of adults ages 40 and over.

If nothing else, this contributes to a generational conflict. There is a reason much of right-wing media has viewers that are on average older. This is why many older Americans are still fighting the culture wars, if only in their own minds.

But Americans in general, including most young Evangelicals, have lost interest in politicized religion. Christianity simply won’t play the same kind of central role in coming decades. Religion will remain an issue, but even Republicans will have to deal with the fact that even the young on the political right are less religious and less socially conservative.

Convoluted Conservative-Mindedness

The conservative-minded are a unique species with their high conscientiousness, thick boundaries, love of orderliness, and narrow focus; weakness for authority, submission to fear, and disgust toward impurity. They have a preference for the known, certain, familiar, and acceptable; although with an odd relationship to the larger world — their literalist beliefs often set against scientific facts and their simplistic nostalgia often set against any genuine historical accounting. That is a quick summary from a biased liberal perspective, but this isn’t far from their own self-descriptions.

From a study in 1980, conservative (and presumably W.E.I.R.D.) high school students “regarded themselves as more conventional, responsible, dependable, orderly, neat, organized, successful, and ambitious.” No doubt this self-assessment is fairly accurate, as many studies have shown in comparing conservatives with liberals. The trait conscientiousness is the hinge upon which the conservative mind swings, combined with the trait openness being locked down. When considered in the fuller context, this disposition can lead to mixed results as demonstrated by the sometimes convoluted thinking of the conservative mind. If there isn’t a rule, norm, guideline, direction, law, protocol, or authority to tell them what to do and not to do, the strongly conservative-minded can become confused and frozen in inaction. Helpless as little children.

The liberal, on the other hand, gets in trouble for not simply doing what told or expected to do with very real consequences such as higher rates of addiction. Because the law says not to use an addictive drug that might be all the more reason to try drugs to find out for oneself — Nancy Reagan’s message “Just Say No” sounds like a challenge. It’s similar to why, shortly after my mother told me as a child to not stick anything in outlets, I stuck a paperclip into an outlet. It was a shocking lesson about electricity that forever emblazoned on my young psyche the wisdom of maternal authority, not that it caused my foolhardy liberal personality to be any more obedient. This might explain why I’m such a liberal loser for surely I’d be more successful in life if I just could do what I was told.

Liberals learn from experience and sometimes suffer and die from experience. But at least liberals are more likely figure it out for themselves and maybe discover something new in the process. Not helpless children, although one might see high openness and low conscientiousness as being differently abled. Anyway, it’s more fun and exciting to learn through experience. When my young nephew asked my brother if he could shove a matchbox car up his butt, I like to think my nephew was just being a good liberal trying to think outside the box. It is a valid question he asked. When you start to think about it, there are all kinds of places a matchbox car could be shoved, limited only by the openness of one’s imagination. And who knows what might happen until you try. After all, speaking of butts, as Sarah Silverman asked, how is “the next milk” supposed to be discovered?

Conservatives simply take things on faith and act accordingly. They are less likely to do illegal drugs because they are illegal. They are less likely to stick something into an outlet (or into their butt) when told not to by a parent. Such thoughts would likely never cross their minds in the first place. They will be good citizens, good workers, good Christians, good Nazis, or whatever else is upheld by social norms. High conscientious conservatives will be effective and efficient, industrious and hard-working, ambitious and successful… that is within the constraints of the social order. Outside of those constraints, though, they are lost sheep looking for the herd.

At times, there can be a refreshing directness to conservative thought. But that isn’t always the case. Because of reactionary tendencies, the conservative mind can wind around in strange machinations and rationalizations, such as seen with conservative political correctness. It’s the “Faceless Men” aspect of the reactionary mind that never can be straightforward about what it is about, and I’ve come to suspect this exists within every conservative. Even in the more moderate variety, the conservative mind can go round and round. I must admit I find it fascinating.

One doesn’t have too look at the extreme examples such as evangelicals justifying their support of Donald Trump. Let me describe a situation involving my mother, an old school conservative who is no fan of Trump. But before I get to that, let me explain exactly what is represented by her conservatism.

My mother is conventional in thought and behavior, just wanting to go along to get along. Even if there was an authoritarian takeover of the country, she wouldn’t join the freedom fighters but instead would simply keep her head down, although she might also try to do the morally right thing in small ways as long as it didn’t bring her any negative scrutiny or otherwise threaten her life and lifesyle. She means well and genuinely acts accordingly, but it simply isn’t in her to defy authority or to act foolhardy, not aspiring to be the next Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The moral acts she does such as volunteering are motivated by their being part of a system of hierarchical authority, in this case a Christian church, telling her that is what she is supposed to do. I suppose that, if she belonged to an evangelical church instead of a mainline church and if everyone she knew including the preacher supported Trump, she likely would have gotten in line to vote for Trump no matter her personal opinion. After all, she strongly defended Sarah Palin and it is a small step from that to where the GOP is now.

My father, less traditionally conservative, almost voted for Trump just to spite Hillary Clinton. What ultimately stopped him from voting Trump and so maybe stopped him from swaying my mother to follow suit was the sense of social judgment that would follow, as most of his immediate family and many of his friends, church members, etc aren’t Trump supporters — even if that imagined social judgment was limited to the confines of his own mind. They now live in this liberal college town where the conservatives here are likewise more liberal-minded. But if they had remained in the conservative Deep South and had still been attending a highly conservative church, my parents might have voted for Trump because that is what so many people around them would have been doing.

Social situation means everything to the conservative sensibility, in their sensitivity to social pressure and persuasion. My parents achingly long to fit in, to belong, to be accepted, to conform. Because of this, they are highly malleable in their views, depending on the community they happen to be living in at any given period of their lives. When younger, they became surrounded by liberals and went through an extreme liberal phase (my father claims my mother used to be pro-life). This left a permanent imprint on their children, my brothers and I who span from liberal to left-wing, not having changed over our lifetimes. Yet my parents’ have swung back and forth from outwardly conservative to outwardly liberal, as their social group shifted. This happened multiple times for my parents as they moved to diverse kinds of communities.

That is perfectly normal behavior for the conservative-minded. If my parents had spent their entire lives in a liberal community, in submitting to local social order and conforming to the local social norms, they simply would have always identified as liberal and would have never known otherwise. I suspect many self-identified liberals (along with many self-identified ‘centrists’ and ‘moderates’), specifically partisan Clinton Democrats, would measure higher on conscientiousness and lower on openness (as compared to voters who are independents, third partiers, left-liberals, progressives, etc), which is how the Democrats have become the new conservative party since the GOP went full hog reactionary right-wing. Conservative-mindedness, like many psychological tendencies, is relative and context-dependent, existing as it does along a spectrum within a particular place and time. No one, however low they might measure, is entirely lacking in conscientiousness (or openness) without being severely dysfunctional. That is how most traits operate, in serving some necessary or useful function, typically being problematic only at the extremes of either end.

With that wordy introduction out of the way, let me get to the recent situation with my mother (for background, see two earlier examples: here & here). It really amused me because it was one of those moments I could see the gears moving in her conservative mind.

The context at present is this liberal college town where recycling for many liberals might be genuine environmental concern or might be mere virtue signalling but for my parents it is simply an act of conforming to local social standards. All of their neighbors weekly put out their recycling bins along the street and my parents might be embarrassed to be the only people in the neighborhood to not do so. Recycling is what good liberals do in a good liberal town and, to that extent, my parents play the locally expected social role of the good liberal. It’s the conservative-minded thing to do. But at times the socially expected behavior isn’t entirely clear, making the conservative uncomfortable and distressed.

The city government picks up some recyclable material but not all. Since Iowa has a five cent refund on cans, my parents collect those in separate bags to take back to the store. This past week, they took the cans with them when they went shopping. For some reason, the machine that takes returns wouldn’t take a certain brand and my mother couldn’t find on the label where it showed they have a refund value. This really bothered my mother and she didn’t know what to do. It didn’t seem so complicated to me. I honestly don’t care about the refund and, after all, they were mostly my cans that I paid for. I gave mother some suggestions, such as putting them by a dumpster and letting a homeless person take care of it, but she said that it was illegal to put things in a dumpster that isn’t yours. That is true and yet, to my liberal mind, irrelevant.

Here was this situation where the normal rules, processes, and laws didn’t allow a straightforward course of action. So, my mom brought the cans home and fretted over the situation. She was about ready to throw them in the trash because, to her conservative mind, that would be a more appropriate response than the less conventional options I suggested. I eventually solved the problem for her in a way that isn’t relevant for my telling this anecdote. The solution wasn’t complicated and the cans got recycled.

How my mother and I perceived this situation had everything to do with conservative-mindedness versus liberal-mindedness. The reason my mother has never stuck anything inappropriate in an outlet or in her butt, as far as I know, is the same reason she couldn’t resolve this seemingly minor conflict. To her conservative mind, this was about appropriate behavior and there were no guidelines to follow. But to my liberal mind, the possible options were multitudinous. I’ll worry about what is illegal when there is good reason to worry such as a cop driving by, no different than my only having been concerned about what happens by sticking something into an outlet after I got shocked.

There can be a simplicity about liberal-mindedness, not that it always lead to happy and beneficial results, as I can attest. In comparison, the obsessive and excessive worrying of conservatives can seem perplexing, at least to the liberal, but it makes perfect sense to the conservative mind.

Shadows of Moral Imagination

“Until the day breaks and the shadows flee…”
– Song of Solomon 2:17

“The moral imagination,” Russel Kirk wrote, “aspires to the apprehending of right order in the soul and right order in the commonwealth.” He resurrected the Burkean moral imagination and maybe modernized it in the process. Jonathan Leamon Jones, similar to Gerald Russello and William F. Byrne, argues that Kirk’s moral imagination wasn’t modern but postmodern in its mistrust of metanarratives, including those of mainstream conservatives and radical right-wingers (others such as Peter Augustine Lawler go further in declaring that all of “conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism.”).

Modernity is always the frame of the reactionary mind, as conservatism in operating within the liberal paradigm can’t help but be an endless response to and borrowing from liberalism. The attempt to speak for the pre-modern inevitably leads to a post-modern attitude, even as modernity remains securely in place. There is no ‘pre-modern’ and ‘post-modern’ without the modern that defines and frames it all.

Such is the case with the development of moral imagination, but as a consciously articulated notion it took form in conjunction with the mature rise of modernity. The French Revolution symbolized the end of the ancien regime. Edmund Burke wasn’t postmodern, that is for sure, since modernity was only then taking hold. And moral imagination has its roots in the distant past. One important difference to keep in mind is that Kirk’s moral imagination, as opposed for example to the reactionary imagination of a conservative-minded classical liberal like Jordan Peterson, included the social or sociological imagination (Peterson is so post-post-modern that he is all the more modern for it). Burke did speak of the social, but of course he lived long before social science and social constructivism. “I contend that,” Jonathan Leamon Jones writes,

“Kirk, as a figure more concerned with culture than politics, attempted to negotiate his conservatism as a denial of the “autonomous self” and as an acceptance of the social construction of life (guided by, in his case, religious and socially traditionalist norms developed over extended periods of time). What is shared with Lyotard is that his postmodernism rejects the “grand narratives” of liberalism (such as “autonomy” and “progress”) as well as collectivism (such as fascism, socialism, and communism). Even so, Kirk is grounded in what might be termed a metaphysical master narrative, one of divine interaction with humanity. And because human beings are sinful and severely lacking in knowledge, their statements about the world can only be provisional, subject to revision and circumstance.”

Burke was a professional politician of a partisan variety. Kirk was not, as he was more wary of formal politics, it ironically being in part because of his own interpretation of Burkean moral imagination that he avoided following Burke’s political example. It was Kirk’s moral imagination as a conservative that actually allowed him to vote for those who didn’t identify as conservative, since his moral imagination allowed him to put moral character and personal concerns above both narrow ideological dogmas and lockstep political partisanship.

Where Kirk resonates with Burke is maybe along the line of the Burke’s denial of natural law as a human-imposed abstraction that risked idealism and radicalism. This is an attitude that he shared with John Dickinson’s worldview of Quaker constitutionalism (a constitution not as a paper document, espoused dogma, or mission statement but as a living pact between God and a specific people). Natural law has been cited by conservatives in making claims of traditionalism, but it was used even more persuasively and powerfully by radicals and revolutionaries seeking divine authority above human law.

One might note that Burke came from a family that was originally Catholic whereas Kirk converted to Catholicism as an adult. And one might note that both Burke and Dickinson were educated by Quakers. The commonality between Catholicism and Quakerism is the heavy emphasis on the social, specifically the social imagination as expressed through social theology and social action, including social activism. The moral imagination ultimately is a social imagination, overlapping with what some simply call culture or what Daniel Everett describes as the dark matter of the mind (i.e., the sociocultural unconscious). The social component isn’t only about what defines imagination but also what constrains or focuses it. Enculturation as with conversion is all about moral imagination, as are social control measures from propaganda to perception management.

To continue with Jones’ analysis: “Kirk sought to guide the reader to that place where he made his “home” – the small, local networks of associations that echo Burke’s well-known “little platoons” of society. Set against the “modern” in ways at once superficial and philosophical, such guidance was placement in an uncertain yet transcendently-grounded “postmodern” time and place.”

This is where, I’d argue, Burke lost the thread of his own narrative. With the French Revolution, his fevered rantings and detached fantasies about distant royalty had nothing to do with human-sized “little platoons” at the local level of comunity, certainly nothing to do with the lived experience and real world concerns of the average person in France or England — as Thomas Paine put it: “He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird.”

A major point Paine made was that modernity had destroyed those “little platoons” and that the remnants of that loss required moral re-imagining to compensate for what was stolen for that loss was intentionally caused by those who gained from it. Those in power had intentionally and actively targeted the destruction of those “little platoons” (the communities and commons of feudalism) and on the rubble they built the British Empire.

This created an insurmountable problem for the burgeoning conservative mind. Burke’s moral imagination had become untethered since, for whatever reason, he lacked Paine’s urgent sense of the living memory of the disappearing past. Maybe that is because Paine, in having come to the colonies as Burke never did, saw with his own eyes the Indian tribes living within their “little platoons” and so this concrete experience that no longer could be found in England ensured that Paine didn’t get mired in idealistic fantasies and ideological abstractions. In speaking of common sense, Paine was turning to the common past and gave voice to the most powerful vision of moral imagination of his generation.

Kirk’s moral imagination is the perception of others as moral beings as part of a moral community. That much I agree with and so would the likes of Thomas Paine. It is reminiscent of a distinction I often point to. Germanic freedom embraces this kind of moral imagination whereas Latin liberty does not, as freedom is etymologically related to friend and means being a free member of a free people whereas liberty originally meant just not being a slave in a slave-based society. This concern over a moral community is where Burke’s moral imagination met Paine’s common sense, not that either of them saw the connection.

Kirk’s ultimate failure as with Burke’s was a too limited imagining of moral imagination in that over time conservatism despite all its protestations to the contrary had shackled itself to ideological dogmatism and so denied the radical challenge (radical, etymologically-speaking, as going to the ‘root’) of moral imagination as it operates in the human mind and human society, an unwillingness to follow negative capability into the dark unseen realms of the collective psyche. In relation to the likes of Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, I might argue that Burke and Kirk were comparably superficial thinkers which is not entirely their fault since, in being products of a specific place and time, they both lacked education in such fields as linguistic relativism, anthropology, social constructivism, consciousness studies, etc; although Kirk seems to have had a broader a liberal education.

These two had an intuitively astute sense of the moral imagination while lacking the cognitive frame to fully and consciously articulate it, such is the sense I get from reading their writings and reading about their lives. In the end, there is something lacking and dissatisfying about the conservative constraints placed not just on the enactment of moral imagination but on its very definition and explication. Before beginning to explore it, moral imagination in these earlier texts had already been made into something small and manageable. In constructing a moral imagination into something usable for the modern conservative mind, maybe a few important parts get left and forgotten on the shop floor.

In looking for what has been lost, let’s return to the issue of modernity. For all that post-Enlightenment modernity gets blamed, the seeds of modernity including autonomous individuality and vast meta-narratives were planted during the Axial Age. The entire civilizational project following the Bronze Age has been a suppression and retooling of the moral imagination. According to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, earlier humanity was fully immersed in the moral imagination such that it was their entire lived reality, even to the point that the imagination was taken for (superimposed upon) reality and this imagination spoke to them in clear voices. The archaic moral imagination is no longer part of our paltry consciousness with ego boundary-walls that keep it all safely contained and controlled, such that the gods no longer are even a small inner voice to be heard at all.

For all its florid and flaunted fantasizing, Burke’s moral imagination is a pathetic, weak creature that is chained, beaten and starved if not yet fully subdued and domesticated. Burke wonders how moral imagination might serve us, but for archaic humanity they served at the behest of moral imagination. Burke’s censures of radicals was the replaying of Plato’s banishment of the ancient poets whose wild and unruly more-than-human imaginings threatened that aspiring civilizational order. Revolution wasn’t caused by a lack but by an excess of moral imagination, as it had become unleashed from millennia of oppression. Burke felt the necessity to philosophize about this fearsome moral imagination in order to safely put it back in its cage and then to lock the door to that Burkean wardrobe.

What Burke’s moral imagination and Kirk’s conservatism touched upon but never quite grasped is that Eric Hobsbawm’s invented traditions didn’t merely replace but were used as weapons to destroy and dismantle the traditions that came before, erasing the living memory of them from the the public mind. Conservatism, as a modern phenomenon, is a non-traditional tradition (within the liberal tradition itself that is the paradigmatic framework dominating and defining all of modernity). As such, conservatism inherently is a reactionary persuasion and there is no way to escape this for all the attempts at philosophical diversion and special pleading. There is no going back for the revolution, once begun, can’t be stopped. Moral imagination is a living fire that consumes the world and remakes it. And conservatives have played a key role in radically creating something entirely new.

Paine’s radical liberalism acknowledges the dire situation of tragic loss, not getting deluded in the process by nostalgic fantasies. And so Paine’s moral imagination seeks to engage the world rather than evade the situation. Kirk, in his friendship with the sociologist Richard Nisbett, maybe comes closer to seeing what Paine was pointing toward, the loss of community. But what Kirk didn’t understand is what community once meant, not just in the near past but centuries earlier. Consider the Jeffersonian freedom proclaiming each generation’s right to self-governance which seems like a radical and revolutionary ideal of the Enlightenment but in actuality was built on the Anglo-Saxon (and Scandinavian) tribal tradition in Britain, as written laws and constitutions were as abstractly modern as was ethno-nationalism and colonial imperialism. Jefferson was invoking the traditional moral imagination of a once free people and, such as his referencing the fight against Norman invasion, was quite explicit about it.

Burke ran up against this issue. He struggled to admit the problems of colonial and corporatist imperialism and to admit the impotence of his moral imagination in dealing with those problems, stating in a 1783 speech about the British East India Company that, “it is an arduous thing to plead against abuses of a power which originates from your own country, and affects those whom we are used to consider as strangers.” This caused Burke to switch back and forth between progressive reformer and reactionary counterrevolutionary, at one moment criticizing empire and at the next reverencing its authority, at one moment defending the rights of corporations and next demanding a corporation be put under government control. Moral imagination, however it was dressed up, offered little guidance for making sense of the radical character of imperialism that was forcefully remaking the world. Rather than inducing moral clarity in Burke’s mind, the only thing moral imagination made easy was moral rationalization.

Kirk had an idiosyncratic take on conservatism, and such idiosyncrasy is common among conservatives because of the underlying reactionary impulse. Kirk’s conservatism wasn’t easily defined. It was a mindset, temperament, attitude, tendency, or even just a mood. He sometimes spoke in Catholic terms of a canon which simply means an argument made, one argument among many and so not conclusive. This conservatism was a supposed “negation of ideology,” a claim that is never convincing for anyone who has given much thought to the topic. The real issue, as I describe with symbolic conflation, is that the power of conservative ideology is precisely dependent on it being hidden. This is the purpose of obfuscation to which Burke applied moral imagination and Kirk found it likewise useful. Burkean moral imagination uses the mental wardrobe to veil the tender naked skin of truth, to keep it from the prurient eyes of the conscious mind and the harsh glare of Enlightenment thought. This is political ideology transformed into a vague and shifting theology of mysticification.

Right-wing ideologues, interestingly, are always attacking ideology because only other people’s beliefs and values (and not their own) are ideological — this kind of anti-ideological ideology goes at least back to the 1800s, such as the defense slaveholders used against the -isms of the North: abolitionism, feminism, Marxism, etc (and yes Lincoln was friends with all kinds of radicals such as free labor advocates and there was a Marxist in Lincoln’s administration). Moral imagination when cut off from ideological worldview (in Louis Althusser’s sense) becomes an ideological realism that closes down the mind, as the eyes are drawn to the shadows cast on the cave wall.

Related to this, Kirk wrote that “a conservative impulse, if denied intelligent leadership and moral imagination, may be diverted banefully into ideological fanaticism.” Not quite right. Moral imagination is never denied for it is always present, if typically below the threshold of consciousness. Between Burke and Paine, the disagreement wasn’t over being for or against moral imagination but about what kind of moral imagination and to what end. Paine’s complaint was that Burke’s horror fantasies were abstractions of suffering disconnected from the real world experience of living humans. Kirk was less guilty of this, so it seems to me. Being a professional politician muddied Burke’s thinking, a problem Kirk tried to avoid in maintaining a more philosophical position.

Some have talked about moral imagination and more generally about the mind in terms of closed vs open, constrained vs unconstrained, thick boundary vs thin boundary, and similar categorizations that loosely correlate to conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Both serve purposes for the survival of the species and the functioning of society, but to be trapped in either one is problematic. Flexibility is the key, although this is a biased position for flexibility is a trait of the latter and not the former.

I’ve made the argument that the liberal mind can only operate during times of peace and tolerance. And this relates to how the liberal mind can allow space for the conservative mind in a way that is not possible the other way around, which is why liberalism can only operate under optimal conditions. And maybe liberal-mindedness is more common among tribal people with their low stress lifestyles, indicated by relaxed attitudes about sexuality among most hunter-gatherers. Consider my favorite example the Piraha who are extremely laid back and anti-authoritarian, disregarding hierarchical authority altogether.

This has to do with the circle of concern and the capacity to empathize. We can only empathize with those we perceive as moral beings, as humans like us. This is determined by our moral imagination. It is unsurprising that Edmund Burke, a professional politician operating in fear during a revolutionary era when his beloved British Empire was under threat, had a severely constrained attitude that did not only disallowed him to experience more openness toward others but made it hard for him to even imagine that such openness could be a part of human nature. His conservative-minded imagination excluded liberal-mindedness from his conception of moral imagination. We never know moral imagination in general for we can never step outside of our own moral imagination which typically is shared by those immediately around us.

What has changed over time is the expansion of moral imagination. Even those who identify as conservatives today are more liberal-minded than those who identified as liberals in the early 1800s, a time when liberals were divided over issues such as slavery. Much of what Burke complained about as dangerously radical has since become mainstream thought, even among conservatives today. Thomas Paine’s moral imagination won the struggle over hearts and minds, even as the struggle over Paine’s politics lags behind.

That is how it always happens, the revolution of mind preceding the revolution of society and politics, sometimes the one preceding the other by centuries. Heck, it took the Axial Age revolution of mind a couple of millennia to more fully take hold. And I might add that moral imagination in how we understand it as part of an intentional civilizational project (as opposed to an implicit experience of social reality) began with the Axial Age, as it was in the late Axial Age that religion and politics began to be thought about in explicit terms and as distinct categories, coinciding with the invention of rhetoric proper. Burke’s openly philosophizing about  and questioning the modern moral imagination demonstrated how far that millennia old revolution of mind had gone.

In explaining this phenomenon, Kwame Anthony Appiah notes that the arguments for something being right, true, or necessary become common knowledge long before public opinion and political will emerges to cause change to happen (such that most of the arguments against slavery used during the Civil War were widespread and well known prior to the American Revolution). It can take a long time for a society to assimilate new ideas and implement new ways of thinking, but eventually a change is triggered and the once unimaginable quickly becomes the new reality. Then as memory fades, the altered status quo dominates the collective moral imagination, as if it had always been that way.

We project our moral imagination onto reality without giving it much if any thought. No matter how philosophical we get about it, moral imagination can’t be disentangled from our experience of being in the world and being in relation with others. It is the substructure of our entire sense of reality. Our ideas about moral imagination are as likely to delude us as to enlighten us about how our moral imagination actually operates. That is because moral imagination is the territory of rhetoric and rationalization. It’s the stories we tell so often that we no longer realize they are stories, making us ripe for indoctrination and propaganda. But there is nothing inherently sinister about it, as this is simply the process of enculturation that is the basis of every society that has ever existed.

An early philosopher on moral imagination was Blaise Pascal. I don’t know that he ever specifically spoke of ‘moral imagination’, but he wrote extensively about morality and imagination. He appears to have been ahead of his time in many ways, having been born more than a century before Burke (some conservatives claim the both of them as ideological ancestors). Maybe his writings influenced Burke for it is highly probable that Pascal’s writings would have been familiar to many well educated English-speaking individuals in the 18th century. Pascal was one of the earliest thinkers to take seriously the impact of modernity, Jack Sherefkin claiming that he was “the first to face and express the experience of living in this new universe without center or limits.”

Sherefkin goes on to say that, “Most pre-modern societies identified with and felt a part of an orderly, purposeful universe. That is no longer believable. We now find ourselves lost in an infinite universe.” The ancient experience of reality was unraveling and so moral imagination was let loose. Pascal lived during the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution because of the radical ideas (e.g., socialism) that emerged at the time. I’ve often thought that what Burke most feared wasn’t the foreign threat of the French Revolution but the homegrown tradition of British radicalism. It was the English, not the French, who first had the idea of beheading a king in order to establish a revolutionary ideal of social and political order. What Burke couldn’t admit was that, long before his birth, revolution and regicide had become established as part of the British moral imagination.

There is an interesting anecdote about the power of moral imagination. “During his final illness,” Mark Malvasi writes, “Pascal often refused the care of his physician, saying: “Sickness is the natural state of Christians.” He believed that human beings had been created to suffer. Misery was the condition of life in this world. His was a hard doctrine.” It’s similar to Burke’s view of the British Empire and monarchy for, though he could imagine reforming it, he couldn’t imagine a world without it. To Burke, imperialism and monarchism was the natural state of the British; despite the fact that both were foreign systems imported by the French Normans.

There is what has been called the banality of evil. It’s what blinds us to evil in normalizing it, often by way of the slow boiling frog effect. Describing his own experience and observations as a German during the Nazi rise to power, Milton Mayer shows how moral imagination operates:

“But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next.”

What is so shocking about the Nazi regime is how normal life continued to be for the average German, right up to the point when war began. Nazism slowly became apart of the German moral imagination. This was only possible because there had been a long history that had already embedded authoritarian tendencies, anti-semitism, and such within the German psyche. The veneer of a free, democratic society kept obscure this dark underbelly. There was never a right moment for a German like Milton Mayer to revolt against German Nazism, as there never was a right moment for a British subject like Edmund Burke to revolt against the British Empire.

The same goes for Americans today with the American Empire. It has become inseparably a part of American identity, largely because American culture emerged from the British Empire with its moral imagination of White Man’s Burden and Manifest Destiny. It doesn’t matter that most Americans find it impossible to imagine their society as an empire. The relationship between collective imagination and objective reality tends to be tenuous at best, specifically in such a vast society that requires a vast meta-narrative.

Moral imagination is as much or more about what it denies than what it affirms. This includes how the moral imagination denies the claims of any competing moral imagination. As such, American conservatives deny the moral imagination of Native Americans and Hispanics whose traditional relationship to the land is far older than the ideological abstractions drawn and written on paper that American conservatives are mesmerized by. Most Mexicans are a mix of Spanish and Indigenous ancestry. With a long history of traveling ranch workers and migrant farm workers, the moral imagination of Latinos in North America is rooted in a profound living memory that can’t be erased by legal and ideological abstractions. Well into the 20th century, Mexicans continued to freely cross the ‘border’ as their ancestors had been doing for centuries or millennia before there was any border. This demonstrates the absolute polarized conflict and contradiction between conservatism and traditionalism. The conservative mind is enthralled by imagined abstractions such as lines drawn on maps, no matter what is asserted by traditional authority of local organic communities.

Consider an even more contentious issue. Abortion has become a defining feature of modern American conservatism. But abortion wasn’t a central concern, even for Christians, until quite recently. In fact, abortions used to be quite common. Not that long ago, any American woman could find a local doctor who would perform an abortion (my great great grandfather was a rural abortion doctor). Even when there were some laws about abortion, they were rarely enforced and everyone in communities knew doctors performed abortions. Abortion is a practice that has early origins in Anglo-American and English society. One can go back even further in reading about how common was not only abortion but infanticide and exposure in much of the ancient world. Sickly and unwanted babies were a potentially dangerous liability prior to modern medicine and the modern welfare state.

If conservative moral imagination is supposed to be about tradition, there is no ancient established social norm about abortion. So, what is the moral imagination about for an issue like abortion? Conservatives often say it is about the sanctity of life. But that is obviously bullshit. Countries that ban abortions have higher rates of abortions, albeit illegal, than do countries that don’t ban them. This is because liberal policies effectively decrease unwanted pregnancies and so eliminate much of the need for abortions. As often is the case, there is a severe disconnect between moral imagination and moral realities. In the end, moral imagination is about social control in enforcing a particular moral order. It’s not that babies shouldn’t die but that loose women who get pregnant should be punished as sinners for that is the divine decree within the moral imagination of contemporary conservatives — such a god-tyrant still haunting the imaginations for many on the political right even after their formal religious faith is lost or weakened.

This fundamentalist deity, as with all of fundamentalism, is a modern invention. As with conservatism in general, fundamentalism didn’t exist prior to modernity. The reactionary mind that provokes this re-imagining only comes into being once the traditional power and authority of the ancien regime was in decline, and that ancien regime experienced its fatal blow centuries before the modern American culture warriors decided to obsess over sexuality. Burke had more of an insight into this. He clearly demarcated moral imagination and natural law, not mistaking the one for the other, as he didn’t believe in natural law. What Burke admitted that many modern conservatives won’t is that moral imagination is built on human customs accruing over time, not on divine commandment decreed at the beginning of time. Burke was a devout Christian but at a time when fundamentalism hadn’t yet fully formed.

Moral imagination isn’t about the world itself, rather about our place in the world. As the world shifts, so does our moral imagination and the entire context for what we are able to imagine. It is a constant process of forgetting about what came before. Living memory is a flame in the darkness and imagination is the shadows on the cave wall. The most radical act of imagination may not be in imagining something entirely new but remembering something forgotten in order to see what was unseen, which happens when moral imagination turns back toward the source of light. It is only in emerging awareness that we can challenge the stories that possess our minds and then tell a different story that speaks more honestly about our shared origins. How we imagine the past determines how we imagine all else.

* * *

Hume’s Theory of Moral Imagination
by Mark Collier

David Hume endorses three statements that are difficult to reconcile: (1) sympathy with those in distress is sufficient to produce compassion toward their plight, (2) adopting the moral point of view often requires us to sympathize with the pain and suffering of distant strangers, but (3) our care and concern is limited to those in our close circle. Hume manages to resolve this tension, however, by distinguishing two types of sympathy. We feel compassion toward those we perceive to be in distress because associative sympathy leads us to mirror their emotions, but our ability to enter into the afflictions of distant strangers involves cognitive sympathy and merely requires us to reflect on how we would feel in their shoes. This hybrid theory of sympathy receives a good deal of support from recent work on affective mirroring and cognitive pretense. Hume’s account should appeal to contemporary researchers, therefore, who are interested in the nature of moral imagination

Why We Think They Hate Us: Moral Imagination and the Possibility of Peace
by Robert Wright

It’s about “the moral imagination”—a term that has been used in various ways but, in my usage, refers to the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of other people, especially people in circumstances very different from our own. I argue that the moral imagination naturally tends to expand when we perceive our relations with other people as non-zero-sum and to contract when we perceive those relations as zero-sum. […]

In general, when a religious groups sees its relations with another religious group as non-zero-sum, it is more likely to evince tolerance of that group’s religion. When the perception is instead of a zero-sum dynamic, tolerance is less likely to ensue. (For an essay-length version of the argument, see this article, based on the book, that I wrote for Time magazine.) The moral imagination, I contend, is involved in this adaptive process. […]

Moral Imagination

The way hatred blocks comprehension is by cramping our “moral imagination,” our capacity to put ourselves in the shoes of another person. This cramping isn’t unnatural. Indeed, the tendency of the moral imagination to shrink in the presence of enemies is built into our brains by natural selection. It’s part of the machinery that leads us to grant tolerance and understanding to people we see in non-zero-sum terms and deny it to those we consign to the zero-sum category. We’re naturally pretty good at putting ourselves in the shoes of close relatives and good friends (people who tend to have non-zero-sum links with us), and naturally bad at putting ourselves in the shoes of rivals and enemies (where zero-sumness is more common). We can’t understand these people from the inside. […]

[T]he point is just that the ability to intimately comprehend someone’s motivation—to share their experience virtually, and know it from the inside—depends on a moral imagination that naturally contracts in the case of people we consider rivals or enemies.

In other words, we have trouble achieving comprehension without achieving sympathy. And this puts us in a fix because, as we’ve seen, some people it is in our profound interest to comprehend—terrorists, for example—are people we’re understandably reluctant to sympathize with. Enmity’s natural impediment to understanding is, in a way, public enemy number one.

It’s easy to explain the origins of this impediment in a conjectural way. Our brains evolved in a world of hunter-gatherer societies. In that world, morally charged disputes had Darwinian consequence. If you were in a bitter and public argument with a rival over who had wronged whom, the audience’s verdict could affect your social status and your access to resources, both of which could affect your chances of getting genes into the next generation. So the ability to argue persuasively that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance would have been favored by natural selection, as would tendencies abetting this ability—such as a tendency to believe that your rival had no valid grounds for grievance, a belief that could infuse your argument with conviction. And nothing would so threaten this belief as the ability to look at things from a rival’s point of view.

In dealing with allies, on the other hand, a more expansive moral imagination makes sense. Since their fortunes are tied to yours—since you’re in a non-zero-sum relationship—lending your support to their cause can be self-serving (and besides, it’s part of the implicit deal through which they support your cause). So on some occasions, at least, we’re pretty good at seeing the perspective of friends or relatives. It helps us argue for their interests—which, after all, overlap with our interests—and helps us bond with them by voicing sympathy for their plight.

In short, the moral imagination, like other parts of the human mind, is designed to steer us through the successful playing of games—to realize the gains of non-zero-sum games when those gains are to be had, and to get the better of the other party in zero-sum games. Indeed, the moral imagination is one of the main drivers of the pattern we’ve seen throughout the book: the tendency to find tolerance in one’s religion when the people in question are people you can do business with and to find intolerance or even belligerence when you perceive the relationship to be instead zero-sum.

And now we see one curious residue of this machinery: our “understanding” of the motivations of others tends to come with a prepackaged moral judgment. Either we understand their motivation internally, even intimately—relate to them, extend moral imagination to them, and judge their grievances leniently—or we understand their motivation externally and in terms that imply the illegitimacy of their grievances. Pure understanding, uncolored by judgment, is hard to come by.

It might be nice if we could sever this link between comprehension and judgment, if we could understand people’s behavior in more clinical terms—just see things from their point of view without attaching a verdict to their grievances. That might more closely approach the perspective of God and might also, to boot, allow us to better pursue our interests. We could coolly see when we’re in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone, coolly appraise their perspective, and coolly decide to make those changes in our own behavior that could realize non-zero-sumness. But those of us who fail to attain Buddhahood will spend much of our lives locked into a more human perspective: we extend moral imagination to people to the extent that we see win-win possibilities with them.

Given this fact, the least we can do is ask that the machinery work as designed: that when we are in a non-zero-sum relationship with someone we do extend moral imagination to them. That would better serve the interests of both parties and would steer us toward a truer understanding of the other—toward an understanding of what their world looks like from the inside.

Nietzsche on Truth, Lies, the Power and Peril of Metaphor, and How We Use Language to Reveal and Conceal Reality
Brain Pickings

Two centuries after Pascal, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, examined the difference between the intuitive and the logical mind, he ends by considering the tradeoffs between these two orientations of being — the rational and the intuitive — as mechanisms for inhabiting reality with minimal dissimilation and maximal truthfulness:

There are ages in which the rational man and the intuitive man stand side by side, the one in fear of intuition, the other with scorn for abstraction. The latter is just as irrational as the former is inartistic. They both desire to rule over life: the former, by knowing how to meet his principle needs by means of foresight, prudence, and regularity; the latter, by disregarding these needs and, as an “overjoyed hero,” counting as real only that life which has been disguised as illusion and beauty… The man who is guided by concepts and abstractions only succeeds by such means in warding off misfortune, without ever gaining any happiness for himself from these abstractions. And while he aims for the greatest possible freedom from pain, the intuitive man, standing in the midst of a culture, already reaps from his intuition a harvest of continually inflowing illumination, cheer, and redemption — in addition to obtaining a defense against misfortune. To be sure, he suffers more intensely, when he suffers; he even suffers more frequently, since he does not understand how to learn from experience and keeps falling over and over again into the same ditch. He is then just as irrational in sorrow as he is in happiness: he cries aloud and will not be consoled. How differently the stoical man who learns from experience and governs himself by concepts is affected by the same misfortunes! This man, who at other times seeks nothing but sincerity, truth, freedom from deception, and protection against ensnaring surprise attacks, now executes a masterpiece of deception: he executes his masterpiece of deception in misfortune, as the other type of man executes his in times of happiness. He wears no quivering and changeable human face, but, as it were, a mask with dignified, symmetrical features. He does not cry; he does not even alter his voice. When a real storm cloud thunders above him, he wraps himself in his cloak, and with slow steps he walks from beneath it.

Blaise Pascal on the Intuitive vs. the Logical Mind and How We Come to Know Truth
Brain Pickings

Pascal argues that our failure to understand the principles of reality is due to both our impatience and a certain lack of moral imagination:

Those who are accustomed to judge by feeling do not understand the process of reasoning, for they would understand at first sight, and are not used to seek for principles. And others, on the contrary, who are accustomed to reason from principles, do not at all understand matters of feeling, seeking principles, and being unable to see at a glance.

He considers what mediates the relationship between our intellect and our intuition:

The understanding and the feelings are moulded by intercourse; the understanding and feelings are corrupted by intercourse. Thus good or bad society improves or corrupts them. It is, then, all-important to know how to choose in order to improve and not to corrupt them; and we cannot make this choice, if they be not already improved and not corrupted. Thus a circle is formed, and those are fortunate who escape it.

Blaise Pascal on Duplicity, Sin, and the Fall
by William Wood
pp. 137-139

The Imagination Bestows Value

The preceding analysis raises an important question. If the heart produces immediate moral sentiments, and if those sentiments are both true and compelling, then why does anyone ever act immorally? Why do we not always act in accordance with our sentiments? Pascal’s response to this question leads back to his famous critique of the imagination. Even though our moral sentiments have the felt sense of truth, according to Pascal, we are also strongly motivated to believe that our imaginative fantasies are true. If it is the heart that responds to the perceived value of moral goods, it is the imagination that bestows value on them in the first place. As a result, even though we do respond immediately to moral goods, we typically perceive those goods only after they have already been filtered through a haze of imaginative fantasy. Without repeating the discussion of the imagination in Chapter 2, recall that, according to Pascal, the imagination can “fix the price of things” and so invest moral goods with value. Moreover, “Imagination decides everything: it creates beauty, justice and happiness which is the world’s supreme good” (L44/S78).

Pascal’s account of the socially constructed imagination reveals that he is not just an ethical intuitionist but a social intuitionist. A social intuitionist recognizes that people are “intensely social creatures whose moral judgments are strongly shaped by the judgments of those around them.” While moral intuitions may be innate to everyone, social intuitionists claim that people acquire most of their particular moral intuitions through custom and habituation — that is, through their participation in thick cultural webs of moral practice. Once again, although social intuitionism currently enjoys pride of place among empirically oriented moral psychologists, there has been no recognition that Pascal is an early advocate of its key claims. Social intuitionists often look for inspiration from David Hume, or even Aristotle, without ever recognizing that Pascal is an even closer cousin to their own work. Moreover, Pascal is able to wed a social-intuitionist ethics to a full-blooded account of moral and axiological realism, something that contemporary social intuitionists often find themselves unwilling or unable to do.

Both the imagination and the heart are cognitive and affective faculties. The heart intuitively grasps moral and spiritual goods, and perceives moral beauty (L308/S339). Yet it is also an affective faculty associated with loving and desiring. Like the heart, the imagination also unites various cognitive and affective functions into a single faculty. In its cognitive aspect, the imagination allows us to form mental representations. These representations include theeveryday images by which we inwardly grasp the things that we perceive with our external senses. In its affective dimension, the imagination bestows value on goods. Although Pascal does not directly speculate about how the heart and the imagination would work if human beings had not fallen, it seems clear that the heart should perceive moral goods accurately, leading us to love and desire them according to their true value. Similarly, the imagination should also correspond to the world as it is, and supply us with accurate mental representations. In both cases, there should be no conflict between what is true and what we find beautiful. A moral agent that is not fallen would accurately perceive the beauty of spiritual goods and would love them as a result.

Instead, after the Fall, the imagination has become a “proud power” that oversteps its bounds and creates moral value independently, setting “the same mark on true and false alike” (L44/S78), and the heart has become “hollow and foul” (L139/S171). The sinner rejects the sentiments of the heart — the seat of conscience — and instead acts on the basis of the false, self-serving fantasies of the imagination.

Although Pascal usually focuses on the way we excessively magnify the value of our own selves, any object may be imaginatively invested with more value than it can bear: one may build up a fantasy about a commodity (a new car, for example), a specific self-understanding (of oneself as being just the kind of dashing person who would drive such a car), or some other pursued goal (making enough money to buy the car). The possibilities are endless. In each case, however, the perceived value of the object sought is a function of how it is imaginatively construed.

Although Pascal recognizes that the imagination is central to the moral life, his thought challenges the sometimes facile claims of contemporary narrative ethicists and those who would look to the “narrative imagination” for moral renewal. Pascal reminds us that the imagination is not just the locus of individual creative genius and speculative possibility. It is also a socially constructed repository for the (often immoral) dispositions and values of the wider world. Far from being the initial launching pad for moral critique, the imagination is often itself the faculty most in need of such critique. Furthermore, Pascal would remind us that reorienting the moral imagination is no simple matter. Certainly it is not just a matter of reading the right novels or passages from scripture, imaginatively identifying with the right moral exemplars, or trying to dream up new possibilities for moral community. Because the imagination is socially constructed, reorienting the imagination requires something like a massive program of counter-habituation, comparable to becoming a native member of a wholly new society. In short, reorienting the imagination would require something that looks quite a lot like an ongoing program of religious conversion. Pascal therefore sounds an important note of caution about the moral possibilities of imagination.

* * *

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
Poised on a Knife Edge
The Haunted Moral Imagination
A Phantom of the Mind
The Fantasy of Creative Destruction
Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals
Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine
Orderliness and Animals
On Rodents and Conservatives
Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical
The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
Lock Without a Key
On Truth and Bullshit
Sincere Bullshit
Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs
Race & Racism: Reality & Imagination, Fear & Hope
Racial Reality Tunnel
Race Is Not Real, Except In Our Minds
Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation
Symbolic Conflation & Empathic Imagination
Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination
Foundations and Frameworks
The Iron Lady: The View of a Bleeding Heart
A Conflict of the Conservative Vision
Avatar: Imagination & Culture
Our Shared Imagination
The Way of Radical Imagination
Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With
Vision and Transformation
The Master’s Tools Are Those Closest At Hand
Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions
A Neverending Revolution of the Mind
The World that Inhabits Our Mind
Beyond Our Present Knowledge
Revolution and Apocalypse
To Imagine and Understand
Fantasyland, An American Tradition
Memetic Narratives of War and Paranoia
Cold War Ideology and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers
The Living Apocalypse, A Lived Reality Tunnel
The Elephant That Wasn’t There
Stories: Personal & Collective
The Stories We Tell
The Stories We Know
A Compelling Story
A Storyteller’s Experienced Meaning
A Story of Walking Away
Conscious Dreaming, Conscious Self
Dark Matter of the Mind