Orderliness and Animals

There is another example that demonstrates the conservative mind. It comes from my parents, as did the last one I discussed. This one is also about the conservative relationship to animals.

My parents have a lovable fat cat, Sam. He is getting old and this requires more effort than it used to. This past year he was diagnosed with diabetes and he has to have an insulin shot twice a day, which makes traveling anywhere difficult.

There are always clear rules in my parents’ house, the way things are supposed to be done and what is not allowed. This was true when I was a kid. And it still is true for Sam who lives under their roof. One of those rules is that cats are only allowed on particular pieces of furniture, such as the furniture in the basement and footstools on the main floor. But Sam has a fondness for a couple of chairs he isn’t supposed to be on.

Just the other day he barfed on the chair. It’s a high quality chair that was expensive. My parents have had it for a long time and it matches the way they have their house decorated. The cat barf doesn’t seem to be cleaning up or else some of the dye came out of the fabric. This is unacceptable, as this chair is directly where they entertain guests.

I could see how upset my mother was. Sam then barfed in some other places as well. One of those places was a silk rug. My parents wouldn’t normally buy a rug that was made out of silk, but they didn’t realize that is what it was when they bought it. The barf came out fine with the rug, but it added to the stress.

This made me think of a couple of things.

My parents always threatened that any pet that caused too much trouble would be gotten rid of. They like Sam, as they’ve liked other pets we’ve had, but my parents aren’t bleeding-heart liberals. They wouldn’t feel the kind of sadness I’d feel by putting down an animal. They, in particular my mother, have a more practical view of pet ownership and death. Their attitude about such things is very much an expression of a thick boundary. It’s easier for them to cut off emotion, specifically as compared to my namby-pamby soft heart.

The other thing about the thick boundary type is the need for orderliness. My parents go to great effort to create and maintain an orderly house. Not just clean but but also well decorated, well organized, and generally well kept. Nothing broken or with a burned out light is likely to remain that way for very long. In the middle of a conversation, my mother will start wiping the counters that didn’t look dirty.

A pet, like a child, is a potential agent of disorder. My parents are fine with pets and children, as long as they are well-behaved. But a pet, in particular, is secondary to the home itself. A cat that adds to the good feeling of a home is allowed, but if the cat detracts it might quickly wear out its welcome.

My parents have an idea of what house and a home should be like. It’s a very specific vision built on a conservative worldview and conservative social norms. If you watch a Hallmark movie or an early black-and-white sitcom, you know the guiding vision of this conservative attitude, expressing a desire to fit in and be normal. Rules are put in place to ensure this is maintained.

None of this is a judgment of this conservative-mindedness. Nor is this the only way conservative-mindedness can be acted on. For some conservatives, a sense of loyalty to a pet such as a dog might override orderliness or else the kind of order considered the norm might be far different. My parents are filtering their conservative-mindedness through a particular middle class attitude, specifically as idealized in mainstream culture and as seen in mainstream media. A working class conservative, however, might conform to some other social norm, such as keeping religious paraphernalia in a particular way or having regularly cooked family meals. But however it is perceived and given form, one thing that conservative-mindedness strongly correlates with is orderliness.

What is clear is that, for conservatives, the social order is prioritized. This is true of both the larger sense of order in a society or as defined in ideological worldviews and the smaller sense of order in a personal living space or an office. Order is greater than the individual or, pushed to the extreme, that there is no individual outside the order. One way or another, individuals are expected to conform to the order rather than the structuring the order to conform to individuals. It’s the job of the individual to remain in the place allotted to them and to follow the role demanded of them; or else to work hard and compete for the opportunity to gain a new social position, which then would require new expectations and norms to be accepted.

On the other hand, a strongly liberal-minded person would have a less clear cut or more malleable sense of order. If the cat kept getting on furniture and barfing, the liberal-minded would tend toward arranging the house to accommodate the cat. Liberal-mindedness also correlates to a weaker sense of disgust and so occasional barf wouldn’t be as bothersome and distressing. Of course, it depends on how liberal-minded a person is. Many self-identified liberals aren’t strongly liberal-minded in all or even most ways, and so such liberals might take a more conservative-minded attitude about order and cleanliness.

This doesn’t seem all that important on a personal level. How someone wants to maintain their house is a personal issue, since it doesn’t generally effect others. Whether you have barfy animals in a cluttered house or the opposite, it is mostly irrelevant in the big picture. But these personal attitudes are inseparable from our social and political opinions.

This relates to an insight I had many years ago. The abortion issue isn’t about the overt issue itself. The whole debate is ultimately about the question of social order. Conservatives wouldn’t support liberal policies, even if it meant that the abortion rate would be lower than under conservative policies. The reason is that the social order about relationships, sexuality, and family values are more important than even the lives of fetuses.

Someone who gets pregnant, to the conservative mind, must suffer the consequences. It is irrelevant how actual people act in the real world, such that abortion bans lead not to fewer abortions but simply to an increased rate of illegal abortions. That is irrelevant, for those who are harmed by botched illegal abortions would be getting the punishment they deserve. If they were a good person, they wouldn’t be having sex when they don’t want kids. And if they were a good person who did have sex, they would take responsibility by allowing the pregnancy go to term and then raising the child. The conservative social order never fails, for it is individuals who fail the conservative social order, which in no ways disproves and invalidates it.

Order is at the heart of the conservative worldview. More than anything else, this is what motivates conservative-mindedness. Through the lens of a thick boundary, there is right and wrong that must be defended even at high costs. The greater the conservative-mindedness the greater the willingness to enforce those costs, even when it is personally harmful. Psychological research shows that a fair number of people, presumably the most conservative-minded, are willing to punish those who break social norms even when it doesn’t personally benefit the punisher. Maintaining the social order is worth it, within a certain worldview.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that few people are at either extreme of conservative-mindedness or liberal-mindedness. Most people want some social order, but most people also have clear limits to how far they will go in enforcing a social order. The average person can switch between these mindsets, to varying degrees and according to different situations.

That is true of my parents. As conservatives go, they are actually quite liberal-minded. Even though they strongly prefer order, they aren’t willing to enforce it at any costs. They have their breaking point where order would come to the forefront and be prioritized over all else, but they would have to be pushed fairly far before they got to that point. Sam would have to destroy some other pieces of furniture and cause other problems as well before they finally got around to getting rid of him, which at this age would mean putting him down. Plus, my parents have softened quite a bit with age and so have become more tolerant, one might say more liberal-minded. Still, this kind of thing bothers them in a way it would less likely bother someone much further up the scale on liberal-mindedness.

Plus, my parents know that I love Sam and would be heartbroken if they put him down. Family is important to conservatives. With that in mind, my parents realize keeping Sam around is a way to get me to visit more often. They are manipulating my soft liberal-mindedness, not that I mind.

The Reactionary Mind in a Reactionary Age

The reactionary mind has interested me as much, if not more, than the bicameral mind. Corey Robin was my introduction to the former, although maybe that credit should be given to Richard Hofstadter. Robin’s book on the topic was enlightening. But soon after reading it, I wished someone had also written book like it about liberals.

I’m not sure it matters, though. I’ve since come to the conclusion that conservatives and liberals are kin, existing on a continuum and even of the same essence, together forming a shared dynamic. I’ve even gone so far as to argue that we live in an all-encompassing liberal age and that, therefore, conservatism is just another variety of liberalism. Conservatism, for sure, is a particularly reactionary variety of liberalism. That doesn’t let liberalism off the hook. The reactionary mind is inherent within the liberal paradigm, a necessary consequence. Or here is another thought: Maybe the reactionary mind precedes both. That is a much more interesting line of thought.

The impulse to categorize people, according to ideologies or otherwise, goes back to the post-bicameral Axial Age. That era was when reactionary politics, such as among the Greek philosophers, first became apparent—and when rhetoric began to develop. Bicameral societies (and other pre-Axial societies), on the other hand, would have had no place for the reactionary mind.

Just some ideas rolling around in my head. My inspiration came from perusing some articles and blog posts about reactionary politics, specifically in terms of Corey Robin and one of his critics, Mark Lilla. I haven’t yet read any books by the latter.

I might note that Robin is a leftist of some kind who is critical of liberals as well as conservatives while Lilla is a (former?) conservative who dislikes what he perceives as the mob of Tea Party libertarians. So, as Lilla longs for the supposed moderate conservatism of yesteryear, Robin strongly argues that no such thing ever existed. On the other hand, someone noted that Lilla’s views may have shifted in his latest writings, undermining some of his past criticisms of Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism.

It should be pointed out that Robin is in good company in making his argument. There was a right-winger during the French Revolution who observed that conservatism only comes into existence after traditionalism is on the wane. That is to say conservatism isn’t traditionalism but a response to its loss, but then again liberalism is also a response to the same thing. The issue, in that case, being what is the difference between response and reaction.

It’s interesting to see these learned thinkers grapple with such issues. But my recent preoccupation with Jaynesian theory (and related views) has led me down other pathways. I wonder if the likes of Robin and Lilla aren’t probing deep enough or going back as far as they should (Lilla, though, might be looking at some earlier origins). Also, maybe they are constrained by their focus on political history and their omission of the truly fascinating research done in classical studies and the social sciences. There seems to be a particular worry and wariness about dealing with the messiness of psychology, i.e., the basic level of human nature that precedes and permeates all ideologies.

My basic sense, in reading some of the analyses and responses by and to Robin and Lilla, is that there is much confusion about the reactionary mind. What exactly is it? What causes it? And what purpose does it serve? The main confusion being its relationship to conservatism. Is there anything to conservatism besides reaction? For that matter, does or can conservatism exist outside of the liberal paradigm (and if not what does that say about liberalism in its relationship to the reactionary mind)?

The latter brings me to some thoughts from this past year, in watching the campaign season spiral into standard American psychosis. Why are liberals so prone to falling into reactionary thought, either temporarily or permanently? And when liberals permanently get stuck in a reactionary mindset, why it they so often if not always become conservatives or right-wingers (or else anti-leftists)? Just look back at liberals during the Cold War when liberals were among the harshest critics and most dangerous opponents of left-wingers. Or look at the study done on liberals after 9/11, those who saw repeated video of the attack became more supportive of Bush’s War on Terror. If liberals aren’t liberal when it really matters, then what is liberalism?

I’m also brought to questions about the moral imagination, the social construction of reality, symbolic conflation, and much else. I have no clear conclusions. Just wondering about what it all means and what it says about the world we find ourselves in, how we got here and where we might be heading.

More than anything, I wonder what all the reaction is about. We are dominated by reaction. Why is that? What is being reacted to? Reasons that reactionaries give change over time, from generation to generation, century to century, and yet the basic reactionary mindset remains unchanging, maybe for millennia. Is reaction inevitable? Or have earlier societies found other ways of dealing with change and uncertainty?

* * *

Roads Not Taken: Mark Lilla on Political Reaction
By Daniel McCarthy, The New York Times

By Gabriel Sanchez, Opus Publicum

How Does the Mind of the Political Reactionary Work?
By Hans Rollman, Pop Matters

The Flight 93 Election
By Publius Decius Mus, Claremont Institute

“What’s it all about, boy? Elucidate!” – or – How To Avoid Huge, Shipwrecked Minds
by John Holbo, Crooked Timber

Here’s the most powerful (and chilling) case for Trump you’ll ever hear
By Damon Linker, The Week

Reactionaries In Our Time
By Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

Republicans for Revolution
By Lilla, The New York Review of Books

‘The Reactionary Mind’: An Exchange
By Corey Robin, reply by Mark Lilla, NYB

Contraception and Counterrevolution
By David V. Johnson, interview w/ Corey Robin, Boston Review

Wrong Reaction
By Alex Gourevitch, Jacobin

Lilla v. Robin
by Henry, Crooked Timber

Online Fracas for a Critic of the Right
By Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times

Mark Lilla’s Truly Awful Review of Corey Robin’s Book
By Andrew Hartman, S-USIH

Redefining the Right Wing
By Daniel Larison, The New Inquiry

Reactionary Minds
By Ari Kohen, blog

Conservatives and reactionaries
By John Quiggin, Crooked Timber

Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years
By Rick Perlstein, Rolling Stone

The Reactionary Libertarian
By A. Jay Adler, the sad red earth

Different Republican Responses to Changing Times

I know a number of Republicans who hate Trump. They are refusing to vote Republican because of this. Some are considering the Libertarian candidate or else not voting at all. I suspect some might even vote for Hillary Clinton, God forbid!

One Republican I know well is really struggling with what to do. He has voted Republican for nearly every election in his in adult life and, as far as I know, he always votes. He is an old school mainstream conservative.

I overheard a conversation he had with his brother. Like him, his brother is a lifelong Republican. But his brother has a different bent, such as his having defended social liberal positions. I guess he might be a Rockefeller Republican or something like that, although probably not as far left as a Theodore Roosevelt Bull Moose Republican. Both of them are more conservative on economic issues. They can agree on much, despite key differences.

The brother is even more put off by Trump. It sounds like he is going to register as a Democrat. I know the brother fairly well. He is on the city council in the small town he lives in, and he ran as a Republican. If he does switch to Democrat, that could upset many people who voted for him and that likely would be a big deal in a small town.

Trump isn’t just temporarily turning some away from voting Republican. He may be permanently driving away quite a few. The GOP will likely never be the same again. Goldwater eliminated most of the moderate and liberal Republicans. Now the few remaining will be gone. It will leave nothing but the authoritarian extremists, the hardcore partisans, and I suppose the establishment politicians who have nowhere else to go. I’m not sure what kind of Republican party that will be (or what kind of Democratic party as well, once all those former Republicans join).

I heard the first guy I mentioned above talk to another Republican, a Trump supporter. It was interesting. I could feel the tension of worldviews. The two of them have been acquaintances for decades, but they never were the same kind of Republican. Still, I couldn’t tell if even this supposed Trump supporter actually took Trump’s campaign seriously, as he seemed amused by the whole thing. I guess he is for Trump simply because he is entertaining and because he isn’t a Democrat.

All three of these Republicans are Christians (and all older white males). Yet they are of entirely different varieties. The Republican-turning-Democrat is a socially liberal Christian. The Trump supporter is more of a fundamentalist, unsurprisingly. The Republican who knows both of these other two is more centrist in his Christianity, a moderate conservative, although moreso in the family values camp.

In talking to the Trump supporter, this moderate conservative ended up defending the morally relativistic position that scripture can be interpreted differently in terms of views about such things as homosexuality. It was interesting to hear a conservative Christian make such an argument in opposition to a fundamentalist. Maybe the socially liberal brother has influenced his views.

Strange times. Even old white males and conservative Republicans aren’t immune to change.

Privilege of Being a Liberal

The hardest thing for garden variety American liberals to grasp is what a truly politicized and hateful place much of America has become—one long mean ditch ruled by feral dogs where the standards of civility no longer apply. The second hardest thing for liberals is to admit that they are comfortably insulated in the middle class and are not going to take any risks in the battle for America’s soul not as long as they are still living on a good street, sending their kids to Montessori and getting their slice of the American quiche. Call it the politics of the comfort zone. (Joe Bageant)

In my last post, I spoke of the thankless task of being a liberal. Now I’ll talk about the privilege.

One of the most obvious factors of the liberal demographic is its position in American society. Liberals on average are among the wealthiest and most educated of Americans. In their class privilege, they are only second to libertarians. On top of that, there is race privilege as well, since most liberals (like most libertarians) are white. All of this while living in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, a country that of course has had a white majority for centuries.

That is some major privilege. I don’t simply mean that in the sense of, check your privilege. This is also a privilege in the sense that offers resources and opportunities, maybe not unlike how some consider it to be a privilege to make a living as an artist or a privilege to live in a time of peace. Being a liberal is a rare and fortunate condition. Self-identified liberals represent a narrow spectrum of society. Most liberals are professionals in specialized fields. This is why one can accurately speak of a liberal class, not just a liberal movement or liberal ideology.

I know this personally, as a liberal among liberals. I don’t exactly live in the lap of luxury these days, as my lifestyle is now working class and severe depression is a constant struggle. Still, all in all, my life has been a thousand times easier than the majority of Americans.

I grew up in a middle class family, although our class status fluctuated a bit. My parents were highly educated professionals who ensured I got everything I needed growing up. I didn’t worry about anything as a kid, other than the typical kid stuff. My parents were teachers who were able to help me with my learning disability in a way few poor kids would ever be lucky enough to experience. At one point, I went to a wealthy suburban school where I got cutting edge help with my reading and memory issues—that suburb by the way is known for having been a sundown town that kept poor blacks out.

After that and while still young, my family moved to a fairly wealthy liberal college town. It’s where I live now, after having spent time elsewhere in the country. This town is fairly white and was even moreso when I was a kid. I had the privilege of being racially oblivious, as race issues didn’t negatively impact me nor did I have to see or recognize their negative impact on others. I lived in a bubble, a comfortable protected world. I didn’t have to worry about poverty, homelessness, underfunded schools, violence, crime, police brutality, racial profiling, school-to-prison pipeline, or any other crap that other less fortunate kids had to deal with.

It was an easy childhood, not that I realized it at the time. I could go where I pleased and do almost anything I wanted. It wasn’t always a happy childhood with my school problems, but damn it could have been far worse—and it is far worse for so many others.

As I said, I still live in this liberal college town. It’s a nice place to find oneself. There are plenty of jobs. Because of the university, research centers, hospitals and writers workshops, this community was barely touched by the economic recession and housing construction didn’t even slow down. There is a constant influx of state and federal funds supporting the good life we have here. Within walking distance of my apartment, there are numerous healthcare centers and public services, recreation centers and parks and trail systems, public and university libraries and also bookstores, museums and art galleries, and so much else. I’m surrounded by people who are economically well off and well educated. Even many of the bus drivers, taxi drivers, janitors, postal workers, bartenders, bakers, etc have college degrees. This is a hell of a town to be working class, even if like me you don’t have a college degree.

This is what it means to be of the liberal class. It’s not just college towns and wealthy suburbs. There are tech hubs like the Bay Area in California and Boulder in Colorado. There are other creative class cities like Portland, Oregon. There are the gentrified neighborhoods in all of the big cities. Then there are the expat communities abroad.

It’s not just the wealth, not just the resources and opportunities, not just the lack of overt racial oppression and other disadvantages. It’s a whole system of privileges and unearned benefits that makes the liberal lifestyle possible. This is what the liberal worldview is built upon.

Take health as an example. Most liberals take for granted being healthy. This is because most liberals spent their lives with access to nutritious food along with clean water and air, access to parks and recreation centers and gyms, and most importantly access to regular healthcare and dentistry. Liberals don’t have to worry about living in food deserts or having to travel long distances to find an emergency room for some untreated condition. This doesn’t just contribute to physical health but also to cognitive development. Consider major heavy metal toxic exposure—being free of this in childhood is no small privilege. Such toxicity, along with malnutrition and undernourishment, will stunt cognitive development and lower IQ, not to mention cause a whole host of physical and psychiatric ailments. And such illnesses and impairments can even be measured in terms of dollar amounts of lost income across the lifetime.

This isn’t to say no liberal has ever struggled and known hard times. I’m an example of that. I’ve dealt with learning disability and severe depression. I’m working class and at times have lived below the poverty line. Yet I almost always had the resources and opportunities to deal with my problems, no matter how hard they were. There were people around me to offer help or to lend me money. I’m certain that, if I had been born a poor minority, I would not have survived this long with what I’ve dealt with. I realize that, as shitty as my life can seem, I know little of what it means to struggle against impossible odds and feel like the whole world is against me. I understand just enough to realize how much worse life is for those less fortunate and advantaged.

It is a privilege to be a liberal and of the liberal class, even on the lower end of the liberal class. With privilege comes responsibility. No one born into this privilege earned it. Immense humility and moral obligation is in order. Instead of judging the less fortunate for doubting the liberal dream, liberals should seek to ensure all of their fellow citizens have similar access to resources and opportunities. Make that liberal dream a reality for everyone.

Thankless Task of Being a Liberal

As a liberal, I feel bad for liberals. It’s tough thing to be. There is so much going against you.

There is the long dark history of liberalism that left-wingers like to throw at you. Ya know, the whole Whiggish history of Manifest Destiny and the rest of the endless hypocrisy, from noble slaveholders espousing elegant pleas for liberty to the comfortable middle class explaining meritocracy to the poor. We liberals are known for failing our own ideals, not that left-wingers are any better nor right-wingers for that matter. But everyone likes to blame liberals in this age of supposed liberalism, whatever liberalism is supposed to mean, something even liberals have a hard time trying to understand.

Worse still, liberals are delicate hothouse flowers. We flourish under perfect conditions, blooming ever so beautifully and yet on such a rare occasion. We liberals hold great ideals and offer forth inspiring visions. We are dreamers of what others claim impossible. But our imaginations wilt under less than perfect conditions. Standing strong against adversity isn’t one of the strengths of the liberal constitution.

The medicine of our own hope turns to poison. We are supremely effective at self-sabotage, fully capable of switching from idealism to cynicism, willing to compromise with any evil for the “greater good.” We liberals know how to make the best of a bad situation, no matter how bad it gets. We just want everyone to get along.

We liberals can’t handle fear or even the slightest stress. When we experience cognitive overload or cognitive impairment, even mere imbibing of alcohol, our brains shift into conservative mode. Research has shown numerous examples of this. In order for liberalism to function, it requires perfect conditions and immense cognitive capacity.

I understand why so many liberals turn to snarkiness. It’s a defensive maneuver, an attempt to hold at bay all that brings the liberal down. But snarkiness ends up being as self-defeating as the rest.

What else is the liberal to do? If the liberal takes their own ideals seriously, so many others will mock them or dismiss them as being unrealistic. Liberals begin doing the same, arguing that the only way to defend liberalism is to give into the criticisms against liberalism. Maybe liberalism really is weak and pathetic, the liberal starts to wonder. Maybe we have to play the same corrupt game, if we want to win.

This is how the liberal dream slowly fades away. Liberals forget what was so great about the dream in the first place. Were we ever so naive to believe in it? With experience, we learn of the hollow rhetoric of politicians. Yet every once in a while the old inspiration hits us and for that moment we believe something else might be possible.

Yet even then, it’s challenging for us liberals to say what liberalism is or could be about. If we no longer had any excuses for failure, what would we do? If we fought hard for our principles and won that fight, what would the world look like? If the liberal vision were unleashed, what could be accomplished?

What is liberalism? And what would happen if we liberals took it seriously? If liberals don’t fight for liberalism, who will? Then again, if most liberals fought hard and fought to win, would they still be liberals? What if, instead, liberalism isn’t what it appears to be?

Why are there so few liberals at the bloody frontlines of the battle for justice and freedom, so few liberals in ghettos, prisons and refugee camps? Why does liberalism usually only attract those living comfortable lives? Why is it so often that the first thing liberals are willing to sacrifice is their own liberalism?

These are the questions liberals should ask. Few will. This is the shame of being a liberal.

Who Are the American Religious?

I was looking at polling data for the religious. Just minor curiosity, on this Sunday morning.

Like the rest of the population, the overall US trend is toward progressivism and liberalism (I wonder what the trend is in other countries and across the world). One poll from Beliefnet was done in 2008.

Beliefnet Poll: Evangelicals Still Conservative, But Defy Issue Stereotypes

It’s probably a little out of date, as the results of demographic shifts are quickly changing and becoming more apparent. In the intervening years, progressives have increased among Evangelicals, although many others have left Evangelicalism. More broadly, religious progressives now outnumber religious conservatives.

Anyway, what interested me was the following section from the above link:

“In some ways, the survey reveals evangelicals to be quite conservative: 41-percent said they were Republican compared to 30-percent who were Democrats; 47-percent said they were conservative versus 14-percent who said they were liberal. Almost 80-percent said they attended church weekly or more than weekly and 84% said the Bible is the “inerrant word of God.”

“Generally speaking, however, evangelicals ranked traditionally progressive or Democratic causes as more important than traditionally conservative or Republican ones. Twenty three percent said their views had become less positive about Republicans, twice the number who said they’d soured on Democrats, though half of respondents said they had become less positive about both parties. Almost 60-percent said they favored a more progressive evangelical agenda focused more on protecting the environment, tackling HIV/AIDs, and alleviating poverty and less on abortion and homosexuality.”

That mirrors the same confusion of labeling confusion as found in the general population. This weird phenomenon creates problems in interpretation. It is rare to see the self-identification data clearly compared and contrasted with public opinion data.

Still, this is far from an unknown social reality, as far as it concerns academic researchers.

Political Ideology: Its Structure, Functions, and Elective Affinities
by John T. Jost, Christopher M. Federico, & Jaime L. Napier

“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”

It interested me to see this same type of thing in the religious polling. But it isn’t surprising. Confusion abounds, especially when it comes to politics on the left.

By the way, the following are links to some of the data on changes in the religious demographic(s), especially among the younger generations. I’ve seen much of this data over the years. There is a shift that has been happening for a long time. It’s nothing new, but it’s good to keep in mind.

Survey | Generations at Odds: The Millennial Generation and the Future of Gay and Lesbian Rights

Young Evangelicals in the 2012 Elections
by Sojourners

Are Millennials Killing Off the Religious Right?
by Amanda Marcotte

More than half of evangelicals oppose cutting government funds for poor, survey shows
by Electa Draper

Survey shows diversity in political opinion among mainline Protestant clergy
by Mary Frances Schjonberg

Evangelicals Are Changing Their Minds on Gay Marriage
And the Bible isn’t getting in their way.
by Jim Hinch

Young U.S. Catholics overwhelmingly accepting of homosexuality
by Michael Lipka

Millennial Christians Are More Socially Progressive Than You Might Expect, Shattering Some Conservative Stereotypes
by Emma Cueto

Why Pope Francis is Polling The World’s Catholics
by Jack Jenkins

If Vatican conservatives are so afraid of gay rights, young Catholics aren’t going to wait around
by Zach Stafford

Young Christians Are Fleeing Evangelicalism—And Here’s Why
by Eleanor J. Bader

Politico: Catholic Republicans Have a Pope Problem
by Courtney Coren

Poll: Americans Prefer Gay President To Evangelical Christian
by Alan

How evangelicals won a war and lost a generation
by CNN


“Why are you thinking about this?”

“Why are you thinking about this?”

That was the question my father recently asked me, in relation to thoughts I had about books I was reading. The moment I heard the question, I realized he had asked me that question many times before, when discussing other topics.

I’m a naturally curious person. It isn’t that I don’t think about the reasons for my curiosity, but I wouldn’t think about it in the way that my father’s question was intended. His question felt defensive, and I realized that I often sense that defensive quality whenever I bring up a new set of ideas to my father. I’m so used to it, though, that I don’t normally give it much consideration. It’s usually just in the background.

My father has been my intellectual sparring partner for my entire life. He taught me how to think more than anyone else. This is significant for a number of reasons.

Most importantly, he is a conservative and I a liberal. So, my own thinking has naturally fallen into the grooves of this ideological dialectic. I’m incapable of thinking of liberalism and conservatism as separate phenomena. My relationship to my father is the ground for my experience of liberalism’s relationship to conservatism. This obviously gives a slant to my views. My liberalism is forever the son’s challenge to the father and hence to all things patriarchal and paternalistic.

This relationship is well established between my father and I. We each know our roles. When he asks me for my reasons, he isn’t just being generally defensive, but specifically toward something. There is something, as I see it, that conservatives will seek to defend before all else. I’ve previously called it symbolic conflation (also, see here, here, and here). It is the linchpin of the social order.

When I go off on my questioning obsessions, I’m wiggling that linchpin. I know it and my father knows it.

I may pretend that isn’t what I’m doing, for sake of good relations, but the fact of the matter is that I find myself a disturber of the peace in the Hobbit’s Shire. Like Bilbo Baggins, I’m not intending to be a radical revolutionary, a mean-spirited malcontent, or a mischievous troublemaker. I resisted my fate, as best I could, but to no avail. A disturber of the peace becomes such for somewhere along the way his own peace was disturbed. My mind and soul is disturbed by forces I neither comprehend nor control (some would call it ‘depression’), and so I act accordingly. It is what it is.

No one chooses to see the linchpin. But once seen, it is hard to unsee, no matter how disturbing.

Researchers have even shown that people will sometimes go to great effort not to see something. A study was done on different patterns of eye focusing. There was some image that didn’t fit into a person’s worldview or else didn’t fit into what they deemed acceptable, and as I recall the researchers were specifically dividing people according to ideological categories.

What was found was that certain people would look all over the room while conspicuously not looking at the one place where that image was located. So, they weren’t looking at it, but at some level they had seen it in their peripheral vision and were unconsciously recognizing its presence by actively looking all around it. This is a cognitive blindspot, not a lack of physical ability to see, just a lack of conscious willingness and desire to perceive.

That is how I think conservatives deal with symbolic conflations (conservative-minded liberals deal with it in the same way). They spend immense energy defending what they will never directly acknowledge. That is why the structure of the psychological dynamic is so important, where the symbol is conflated with reality. The symbol, as such, represents and obscures. The conservative knows and doesn’t know what the symbol means. The conflation is so tricky that even most liberals have a hard time untangling the knot or even realizing there is a knot to be untangled, and that is the conflation’s primary purpose, to hide the soft underbelly from probing daggers.

The conservative’s task is much easier for the reason that most liberals don’t want to untangle the knot, to remove the linchpin. Still, that is what conservative’s fear, for they know liberals have that capacity, no matter how unlikely they are to act on it. This fear is real. The entire social order is dependent on overlapping symbolic conflations, each a link in a chain, and so each a point of vulnerability.

A symbolic conflation both represents and replaces what is unspoken, both distracts from and obscures what is hidden. It is a fluttering bird luring the predator away from the nest. My mind was brought back to these thoughts not just because of my father’s question, although the question helped focus my mind. Seeing the fluttering bird of his question, my attention was drawn to the trajectory from which it was fleeing.

What started all this was my reading about shame (along with guilt, honor, etc), the topic that elicited my father’s question. It so happens that conservatism and liberalism are key to my thoughts about shame, although I had not immediately stated so to him, but still he sensed the implications.

The issue of shame is a sore spot where conservatism and liberalism have, from their close proximity, rubbed each other raw. It is also a site of much symbolic conflation, the linchpin like a stake in the ground to which a couple of old warriors are tied in their ritual dance of combat and wounding, where both are so focused on one another that neither pays much attention to the stake that binds them together. In circling around, they wind themselves ever tighter and their tethers grow shorter.

Stepping away from that predictable struggle, I found myself wondering about what is outside the proscribed boundary of polarized consciousness. In my specific inquiry here, my mind slipped down a side path that runs parallel to well-tread ruts. Exploring shame caused me to wander afield, as the subject is new territory for me, and in wandering I found myself following this new trail of thought. As often happens, I discovered something of interest along the way.

I was led back to an author and a book with which I’m already familiar, but I was now able to see it in new light. The book in question is Trickster Makes the World by Lewis Hyde. I had forgotten how much the author discusses shame and I have to say it is one of the better books on the subject that I’ve so far read. Here is what caught my attention. A few sections I recognized as territory from my own maps of symbolic conflation. Hyde’s cartographic descriptions of this emotional terrain, however, uses trickster mythology (instead of ideological predispositions) for the map’s legend and scaling.

In the first passage that got me excited, Hyde shows the relationship between shame, the body, and the social order. He writes that (pp. 169-170),

“[A]n unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.

“Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman). This substituting of one thing for another is called metonymy in rhetoric, one of the many figures of thought, a trope or verbal turn. The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. To begin with, there are always larger stories going on— about women or race or a snake in a garden. The enchantment of those regularly repeated fables, along with the rules of silence at their edges, and the assertion that they are intuitively true— all these things secure the borders of the narrative and make it difficult to see the contingency of its figures of thought. Once the verbal tricks are invisible, the artifice of the social order becomes invisible as well, and begins to seem natural. As menstruation and skin color and the genitals are natural facts, so the social and psychological orders become natural facts.

“In short, to make the trap of shame we inscribe the body as a sign of wider worlds, then erase the artifice of that signification so that the content of shame becomes simply the way things are, as any fool can see.

“If this is how the trap is made, then escaping it must involve reversing at least some of these elements. In what might be called the “heavy-bodied” escape, one senses that there’s something to be changed but ends up trying to change the body itself, mutilating it, or even committing suicide…”

I loved his explaining of this metonymy as a bait and switch. It is a brilliant analysis of how symbolic conflation operates. Hyde unpacks the confusion and in its place offers clarity.

The visceral language he uses is powerful. Symbolic conflation sounds too abstract. The actual experience really is to be snared in a trap. The body, as being spoken of here, isn’t a mere metaphor. What makes it so compelling is that the imagined gets identified with the body, with specific parts and specific functions of specific bodies. One feels this in one’s own body and so at the most basic level of one’s sense of identity and reality.

So much falls into place once this is understood. I’m forced to think more deeply about my own previous speculations and understandings. I sense how this touches upon the beating heart of symbolic conflation. A symbol is always rooted in the imagination with the taproot running deep into visceral experience, the body being the dark soil in which it grows. It is in our telling of stories that this visceral experience is brought to life and made personally real. A story is about meaning, but it is a meaning more of emotions than of ideas.

I’m also brought back to thoughts of reactionary conservatism. Is Hyde specifically pinning down the fluttering wings of the reactionary conservative? Has he devised his own snare to entrap the reactionary conservative in action, like a camera set up to snap a picture of a wary beast in the deep wilderness? If so, what is the precise relationship between reactionary conservatism and symbolic conflation that is captured here?

I’ll return to those questions, but first let me explore further into what Hyde has written about. In the next passage, he explores a historical context for one particular trickster mythology, Hermes of the ancient Greeks (pp. 206-207):

“[Norman O. Brown] therefore proposes this parallel: just as Hermes acquires a place alongside Apollo in the course of the Hymn, so in the course of the sixth century the “Athenian industrial and commercial classes achieved equality with the aristocracy.” That equality was not easily won; it required the resolution of a whole series of differences. In the aristocratic era, wealth came from herding and farming the soil; in Athenian democracy those sources of wealth still existed but were increasingly challenged by a craft economy and commercial exchange with strangers. Agrarian aristocracy was organized around hierarchical kinship ties; Athenian democracy retained such ties but added a new ethic of equality symbolized by the fact that many political positions in Athens were filled by a lottery in which all citizens could participate, regardless of family or status. Most important, the emerging cosmopolitan democracy brought with it a “new ethics of acquisitive individualism [that] conflicted with the traditional morality which the Greeks called Themis— the body of customs and laws inherited from the age of familial collectivism.” The older morality took any deviation from “the archaic form of commerce by mutual exchange of gifts” to be an immoral thieving (even what we would now call fair trade was taken to be robbery). In short, during the sixth century, a world organized through kin relationships and a collective ethic of gift exchange gave way to a world in which hierarchy could be periodically revised and social relations were increasingly articulated through the individualist (which is to say, thieving) ethic of the marketplace.

“As for those who were excluded or marginalized, we should remember that, in a society where the dominant values are kin ties and agrarian wealth, those whose identity is bound up with trade are typically consigned to a subordinate place in the order of things. They are, so to speak, “low caste” (as they have been historically in India, where merchants and artisans fall into the lower two of the four varnas). If, in the Greek case, such people hope to place themselves on an equal footing with the warriors and family farmers of ancient days, they will have to subvert that order and reshape it on their own terms. Such, Brown argues, is exactly what happened: the “regime of the landed aristocracy was overthrown, its agrarian economy yielding to a new economy based on trade and handicraft industry, its political oligarchy yielding to the politics of ancient democracy.” The Hymn reflects that change: “The theme of strife between Hermes and Apollo translates into mythical language the insurgence of the Greek lower classes and their demands for equality with the aristocracy.”

“Brown’s claims cover a lot of ground and his talk of class conflict gives off an air of retrospective Marxism, but the [Homeric] Hymn itself, however we fit it into actual Greek history, sets up a tension in accord with the one that Brown suggests. There is little doubt that in the classical period Hermes is associated with artisans, merchants, and thieves, and the poem itself makes it clear that some kind of “outsiderness” is at issue, and that Hermes hopes to change it.”

Right there! That is key. The described “outsiderness” brings us directly to the doorstep of the reactionary conservative, as understood by Corey Robin. Before I get to that, let me add the paragraph that immediately follows the above (p. 207):

“To effect that change he has, as I said earlier, a method by which the excluded can enter a group, change its structure, and give themselves a place at the table. A whole range of cunning tricks makes up this method, but its underlying structure is quite simple: no matter what he does, Hermes is either an enchanter or a disenchanter.”

I would note and emphasize that this touches upon the Burkean roots of reactionary conservatism.

Edmund Burke was one of those outsiders (in his case, raised a Catholic in Ireland) who sought “a place at the table” of the English ruling elite. He didn’t want to overturn the table and certainly not to take an axe to it. His attitude was that of the emerging middle class challenging the weakening traditionalism of the ancien régime. It was the same basic pattern that played out two millennia before in ancient Greece.

It is interesting to think of the reactionary conservative in his role as trickster. He is seeking to redefine his position and remake the social order, of course in his own image. The reactionary rhetoric being used is tricksy, for it generously borrows from the political left in order to undermine the political left. The reactionary conservative seeks to usurp the liberals role as challenger to the status quo and simultaneously to remove the teeth of radicalism, leaving the left without any real bite.

Enchanter and deceiver. The trickster may free you but at a cost of enslaving you to something else. He hypnotizes you with a story and makes you drowsy with a song, he puts you under the sway of an archetype and delivers you into the control of an unseen power.

This is what the reactionary conservative does with symbolic conflation, not to claim that this is how conservatives understand their own actions, as this process happens mostly within the unconscious, the territory of the imagination and the playground of the trickster. Reactionary conservatives end up deceiving both others and themselves, a mutually-afflicted magic spell of misdirection and mystification.

Edmund Burke the progressive reformer becomes Edmund Burke the reactionary conservative. Was there an actual change of character or was his real character revealed?

Is the reactionary mode of being the trickster lying in wait within the liberal mind? Do liberals simply fall prey to their own fears and dark thoughts? If Burke hadn’t felt shame in his outsider status that he tried to hide by gaining social position, might he have avoided falling into this reactionary stance of pulling up the ladder behind him? Why is it so often that the challenger to power who is the one most fearful of challenges to power and so most reactionary to any further unsettling of the status quo?

With this in mind, Hyde does offer further context, in which he describes two aspects of the trickster (pp. 208-209):

“Depending on which way he is moving across the threshold, I call him Hermes of the Dark or Hermes of the Light. Hermes of the Dark is the enchanter or hypnagoge who moves us into the underworld of sleep, dream, story, myth. This darkening motion is a precondition of belief; with it Hermes delivers you to one of the gods and puts you under his or her spell. He dissolves time in the river of forgetfulness, and once time has disappeared the eternals come forward. Hermes of the Dark is the weaver of dreams, the charmer who spins a compelling tale, the orator who speaks your mother tongue with fluid conviction.

“Hermes of the Light is the disenchanter or awakening angel who leads you out of the cave. There the bright light prepares the ground for doubt. There he kills and roasts the sacred cattle. He dissolves eternals in the river of time, and when they have disappeared, the world becomes contingent and accidental. Hermes of the Light translates dreams into analytic language; he rubs the charm from old stories until they seem hopelessly made up and mechanical. He walks you inland until you stop dreaming in your mother tongue.

“Hermes himself is neither one of these alone but both at once. He is neither the god of the door leading out nor the god of the door leading in— he is the god of the hinge. He is the mottled figure in the half-light, the amnigoge who simultaneously amazes and unmazes, whose wand both “bewitches the eyes of men to sleep and wakes the sleeping,” as Homer says in the Iliad. I sometimes wonder if all great creative minds do not participate in this double motion, humming a new and catchy theogony even as they demystify the gods their elders sang about. Pablo Picasso had that double motion, disturbing classical perspective while presenting a strange new way of seeing, one so hypnotic it shows up decades after his death on billboards and children’s printed pajamas. Sigmund Freud had that double motion, dragging slips of the tongue into the daylight, or “explaining” Moses, while simultaneously retelling the old story of Oedipus in a manner so compelling that, decades after his death, Ivy League literary critics can’t get it out of their heads. Or there is Vladimir Nabokov: if you think his deft language magic is serious, you’re wrong, and if you think it’s just a game, you’re wrong.”

Hermes of the Dark and Hermes of the Light. The latter might be thought of as the liberal mind in radical mode. The former would then be the liberal mind in reactionary mode, what is known more simply as conservatism, it likely being redundant calling a conservative reactionary.

Hermes isn’t one or the other. He is both the enchanter and the disenchanter.

This is how I see liberalism in this liberal age. I suspect that ultimately the radical and the reactionary are the two archetypal roles of the trickster, as they get expressed in post-Enlightenment modernity. Hermes the enchanter puts the linchpin in place and hides its location. Hermes the disenchanter is the liberating force that wiggles the linchpin or even pulls it out, but only to put it back in at another location. The trickster shifts, not destroys, the boundary.

The great minds of any age play both roles in an act of creative destruction. They learn from the problems and weaknesses of the old vision. They then replace it with an even more powerful reality tunnel, a cognitive trap that will be even harder to escape, whether or not that was their intended result.

This is how we must understand conservatives. The best conservative thinkers and leaders were able to accomplish this magic trick. They offered something new and convinced so many that it was always that way. Conservatives are first and foremost enthralling storytellers, drawing us into their narratives, sometimes even against our better judgment. They don’t just redefine conservatism, but the entire political framework and the entire historical foundation of thought. They proscribe the perceived reality of what was, what is, and what must be.

This obviously isn’t how conservatives think of themselves, and that is the entire point. What they do has so much power for the very reason that it doesn’t correspond to what they say. The closer you watch the more you will be thrown by the sleight-of-hand.

I’ll allow Corey Robin to explain this from his own perspective, as written in his book The Reactionary Mind (pp. 42-43):

“Whether in Europe or the United States, in this century or previous ones, conservatism has been a forward movement of restless and relentless change, partial to risk taking and ideological adventurism, militant in its posture and populist in its bearings, friendly to upstarts and insurgents, outsiders and newcomers alike. While the conservative theorist claims for his tradition the mantle of prudence and moderation, there is a not-so-subterranean strain of imprudence and immoderation running through that tradition— a strain that, however counterintuitive it seems, connects Sarah Palin to Edmund Burke.

“A consideration of this deeper strain of conservatism gives us a clearer sense of what conservatism is about. While conservatism is an ideology of reaction— originally against the French Revolution, more recently against the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies— that reaction has not been well understood. Far from yielding a knee-jerk defense of an unchanging old regime or a thoughtful traditionalism, the reactionary imperative presses conservatism in two rather different directions: first, to a critique and reconfiguration of the old regime; and second, to an absorption of the ideas and tactics of the very revolution or reform it opposes. What conservatism seeks to accomplish through that reconfiguration of the old and absorption of the new is to make privilege popular, to transform a tottering old regime into a dynamic, ideologically coherent movement of the masses. A new old regime, one could say, which brings the energy and dynamism of the street to the antique inequalities of a dilapidated estate.”

When I first read this book, Robin’s theory was disconcerting. I had previously been taken in by all of the confusing rhetoric. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of any of it. I couldn’t figure out what conservatism even meant or was supposed to represent. Like most Americans, the obfuscation was a powerful force in obstructing clear thought. But what if, as Robin suggests, conservatism is in some sense the complete opposite of what it pretends to be? That is a truly radical possibility.

The one part of his theory that is most intriguing is something I already pointed out. According to Robin, conservatism is and always has been driven by outsiders. That is what gives it such a dynamic quality, as opposed to its proclamations of traditionalism. In speaking about “populist currents,” he states that they “can help us make sense of a final element of conservatism.” As he elaborates (pp. 57-58):

“From the beginning, conservatism has appealed to and relied upon outsiders. Maistre was from Savoy, Burke from Ireland. Alexander Hamilton was born out of wedlock in Nevis and rumored to be part black. Disraeli was a Jew, as are many of the neoconservatives who helped transform the Republican Party from a cocktail party in Darien into the party of Scalia, d’Souza, Gonzalez, and Yoo. (It was Irving Kristol who first identified “the historical task and political purpose of neoconservatism” as the conversion of “the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.”) 41 Allan Bloom was a Jew and a homosexual. And as she never tired of reminding us during the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin is a woman in a world of men, an Alaskan who said no to Washington (though she really didn’t), a maverick who rode shotgun to another maverick.”

This outsider element is key to probing beneath appearances. It gets down to the visceral feeling behind conservatism, the gut-level pull of its language and imagery. “Conservatism,” he continues (p. 58),

“has not only depended upon outsiders; it also has seen itself as the voice of the outsider. From Burke’s cry that “the gallery is in the place of the house” to Buckley’s complaint that the modern conservative is “out of place,” the conservative has served as a tribune for the displaced, his movement a conveyance of their grievances. 42 Far from being an invention of the politically correct, victimhood has been a talking point of the right ever since Burke decried the mob’s treatment of Marie Antoinette. The conservative, to be sure, speaks for a special type of victim: one who has lost something of value, as opposed to the wretched of the earth, whose chief complaint is that they never had anything to lose. His constituency is the contingently dispossessed— William Graham Sumner’s “forgotten man”— rather than the preternaturally oppressed. Far from diminishing his appeal, this brand of victim-hood endows the conservative complaint with a more universal significance. It connects his disinheritance to an experience we all share— namely, loss— and threads the strands of that experience into an ideology promising that that loss, or at least some portion of it, can be made whole.”

This brings me around to the original issue. Loss is a powerful emotion and so it is a site of symbolic conflation, where the trickster can play his tricks. Loss speaks to everyone and it is a truly amazing trick to make loss symbolic of power itself, of position and privilege (pp. 58-59):

People on the left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as money or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be a loss of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small. Even so, it is a loss, and nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess. It used to be one of the great virtues of the left that it alone understood the often zero-sum nature of politics, where the gains of one class necessarily entail the losses of another. But as that sense of conflict diminishes on the left, it has fallen to the right to remind voters that there really are losers in politics and that it is they— and only they— who speak for them. “All conservatism begins with loss,” Andrew Sullivan rightly notes, which makes conservatism not the Party of Order, as Mill and others have claimed, but the party of the loser.”

But what is loss? It is primarily a feeling. Once elicited, many stories can be woven around it, both hopeful and disempowering, both beneficial and malign. Loss by itself, however, has no inherent meaning.

Loss is a wound, an opening and an openness to meaning. In portraying the listener as the wounded, the rhetorician and storyteller puts the listener in the position of vulnerability and fear. If one is wounded, someone must have done the wounding and so there must be an attacker toward which requires a defense or a counter-attack. The loss points an accusing finger to a thief and a criminal, someone undeserving and dangerous, a taker rather than a maker, a destroyer rather than a creator.

The trickster is as much about what isn’t there, silence as much as sound, which is why loss resonates so deeply here. Loss signifies something and yet refuses to settle on a single significance. It makes us uncomfortable, to sit too long alone in that throbbing ache. We seek to fill the emptiness with meaning or yet more emotion, anger or shame, hatred or longing, or else fill the silence with the sound of speaking, our own voice or that of another.

Loss is elusive, always shifting, hence its trickster quality and reactionary persuasion. We are willing to be deceived by anyone who will tell us what our loss means, who will give us a story to help us forget, if only temporarily.

Lewis Hyde also touches upon this theme of loss in Trickster Makes This World (pp. 287-288):

“Like the heap of stones over a grave, the symbol that stands for a thing that has been lost (not “Krishna” but “Krishna-gone”) belongs to an odd class of symbols. We cannot “read through it” to its sense, because what it stands for is missing. It operates not as a point of entry into meaning but paradoxically as a breeder of multiple meanings. That is to say, when we try to find the sense of one of these “symbols of loss,” we discover only senses that we ourselves bring to it, and we can easily bring new ones each time we approach. (A famous example is Thoreau’s remark in Walden: “I long ago lost a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle dove, and am still on their trail.” A hundred and fifty years after this line was written, what one notices is not that its readers have slowly settled on its true meaning but that meanings have proliferated each time someone looks at it.) Symbols of absent things draw interpretive minds the way the flute music draws the gopis. If multiple meanings are what you want, a lost hound is a better breeder than any real Fido. Krishna erases the mundane, then erases himself, and these removals— precisely because they do not declare— open the field for human beings to spin out endlessly their sense of what has happened.”

A symbolic conflation always points elsewhere, assuming it points anywhere at all. It is an empty signifier, for it can never mean what it claims, can never be as it seems. It sends one’s mind in circles, chasing what is not there, a shadow cast from somewhere else, and like a shadow it is defined by a lack of substance. It is the shape of an empty space, a sense of an absence. It is an aporia in the narrative, an elision between meaning and the meaningless.

I’m always enticed by what is missing, unspoken, ignored. My father’s question attracted my attention not because of some answer it was pointing toward, but because it seemed to point away from something else, maybe another question. That is the same basic reason that has obsessed my mind about symbolic conflation. It feels like there is no end to insights to be mined, for the trickster multiplies meaning. The trickster can always disenchant. Our minds can be freed of the binds that tie us down and tangle up our every thought.

Still, taken at face value, my father’s question is a serious question. Why do I focus on what I do? I ultimately don’t know.

It reminds me of my habit of always looking down as I walk. My father, on the other hand, never looks down and has a habit of stepping on things. It is only by looking down that we can see what is underneath our feet, what we stand on or are stepping toward. Foundation and fundament are always below eye level. Even in my thinking, I’m forever looking down, to what is beneath everyday awareness and oft-repeated words. Just to look down, such a simple and yet radical act.

Looking down is also a sign of shame or else humility, the distinction maybe being less relevant to those who avoid looking down. To humble means to bring low, to the level of the ground, the soil, humus. To be further down the ladder of respectability, to be low caste or low class, is to have a unique vantage point. One can see more clearly and more widely when one has grown accustomed to looking down, for then one can see the origins of things, the roots of the world, where experience meets the ground of being.

This is also of the trickster. One can learn a lot about people by looking at their shit and sifting through their garbage, all that is metaphorically and literally rejected and repressed, tossed away and thrown aside. The greatest of insights are gleaned this way. Those who know shame are given the opportunity to know what gets lost and hidden in the muck of shame. Toiling in the dirt and grime, they can dig up what was buried, now decaying, and in the hole dug they can plant seeds to grow.

Where sun and earth meet is the liminal space of the fertile.

As Hyde explains (pp. 179-180):

“In this world, in trickster’s world, life and death are one thing, not two, and therefore no one gets rid of death without getting rid of life as well. You get no seeds at all if the sunlight is too pure ever to mingle with the muck of the rice paddies. You get no seeds if shit never enters the New Palace. And because there is always a hunger seeking for those seeds, whenever humans or gods move to purify life by excluding death, or to protect order completely from the dirt that is its by-product, trickster will upset their plans. When purity approaches sterility, he will tear a hole in the sacred enclosure and drop a dead pony on the virgin weavers, or strew his feces under the Sun Goddess’s throne. In the Legba story we saw that trickster can create the boundary between heaven and earth, threatening the gods with dirt until they retreat into the distant sky; here we see that once such a boundary exists trickster can abrogate it, importing dirt into the exalted halls until some of heaven’s wealth is loosened and the earth is fertilized, the sun reborn.

“I am, of course, reading this Japanese story rather literally. While it is a nature myth for an agrarian culture (those seeds are actually seeds, and that pile of shit should properly be called manure), the images resonate at other levels as well. If dirt is “matter out of place,” if it is what we exclude when we are creating order, then this and other stories about tricksters and dirt must also speak to the sterility that hides in most all human system and design. The models we devise to account for the world and the shapes we create to make ourselves at home in it are all too often inadequate to the complexity of things, and end up deadened by their own exclusions.”

That is why the world needs skeptics and contrarians. Those who don’t just ask why but also why not. Sometimes the windows need to be opened to let the musty air out and the sunshine in, circulation and merging of the elements. A balancing, a coming to equilibrium.

To play this role, however, is difficult. For the outsider to succeed in forcing change to what is inside is likely to find himself then being on the inside. A window being opened, the opportunity of entry beckons and, with entry, comes promises of inclusion. This is how the trickster transmutes shit into gold, a turtle of the earth into a lyre for a god. And in this is found the secret link between the trickster and the cultural hero, between the bastard child and the prodigal son.

The trickster often finds himself having become domesticated and respectable. The trick of change is as much a trick played on himself as on others. “Such may be the frequent fate of radical change-agents,” states Hyde (pp. 224-225), “to be coopted, outflanked, and contained by the larger culture, to be brought up short of a full apocalyptic reallotment.” He continues,

“But what exactly are the options? A remark by Claude Lévi-Strauss offers a way to imagine the possible fates of those who threaten a group with fundamental change. Lévi-Strauss contrasts two types of societies: “those which practice cannibalism— that is, which regard the absorption of certain individuals possessing dangerous powers as the only means of neutralizing these powers and even of turning them to advantage— and those which, like our own … adopt what might be called the practice of anthropemy (from the Greek emein, to vomit).” The latter eject dangerous individuals; they leave them in the woods, or build special jails to cut them off from the group and keep them isolated. In short, groups can either expel or ingest their troublemakers. The most successful change-agent avoids either fate and manages to stay on the threshold, neither in nor out, but short of that difficult balance the next best fate may be to be eaten, to be incorporated into the local myth.

“Let us say, then, that the Homeric Hymn to Hermes records an incorporation; it is an after-the-fact record of a disruption that has been contained and re-presented as something Zeus “had in mind all along,” not an apocalypse. Trickster’s disruptions are always potentially apocalyptic, but in this case they are converted into manageable mischief. For apocalyptic action, one needs turn to Monkey disrupting the Taoist immortals or to the medieval Loki after whose disruptions the Norse gods are not reborn in Scandinavia but supplanted by Christianity.

“The Hymn is not so apocalyptic and that may be the more common case. It is what might be expected when an outsider penetrates the group: at some point there must be an understanding, a series of compromises that formalize the move, a negotiated living together. In this case the terms are to a large degree set by Hermes, but they do not upset the entire order of things; the order adapts to contain the introject, the foreign thing it has swallowed, and at that point we should divide the “domestication” plot into two forms. It is one thing to submit to an old set of house rules, quite another to enter a house that you yourself have helped to build.”

The reactionary conservative gets assimilated. This is how each generation of conservatives inexorably shifts ever leftward. Over a long enough period, conservatives becomes more liberal than even the liberals of the past.

The ultimate secret of all symbolic conflations contrived by the conservative mind is simple, that there never has been a conservative tradition. The voice of conservatism is but an echo of the liberalism that came before. A reactionary can only rearrange, never create anything new. Yet, in rearranging, the next stage of radicalism is made possible.

The reactionary asking the radical why merely provokes the radical to ask their own questions. These further questions the reactionary cannot answer.

* * * *

By the way, I’m not clearly speaking of absolutely distinct categories. I probably could have explained that better.

I don’t see any reason why a person couldn’t be a radical liberal at one point and a reactionary liberal at another. My speaking of both as liberal was my way of speaking to that possibility. Maybe everyone has the potential for each, and understanding that is our only defense against the extremes.

These are roles more than they are fundamental identities. I wanted to state this more overtly so as to not allow for any confusion.

In talking about my father, the context is a relationship. These roles always exist in particular relationships. As such, I’m only a radical to the extent that I’m relating to someone playing the role of a reactionary, my father in this case. Ditto for what I perceive as my father being a reactionary, a role he is playing in relation to me. These are situational and hence contingent roles, although people have a way of trying to make such roles permanent.

Anyway, it is irrelevant how an individual self-identifies. Labels can be misleading. What is important isn’t that my father prefers the label conservative and that I’ve tended toward the liberal label. There is nothing inherently reactionary or radical in a label.

None of this involves judgement of character. Neither role is morally inferior or superior. These are social realities and must be understood on those terms. They exist only in relationship and only as a singular inseparable dynamic. For me, this isn’t just a dynamic in my relationship with my father, but a dynamic of ideas in my head, what can feel like an internal division and conflict that gets processed by way of an external relationship.

In short, I can’t blame my father for how I experience my father. My response to his question remains my response. My purpose isn’t to objectively prove intentions and motivations. I’m limited to my own intuitive abilities to suss out meaning, an endless process.

These are thoughts I’m playing around with. When the personal is involved, it can make it easier to ground one’s thoughts, but it also can mire one in other kinds of confusions. That is what I was trying to indicate near the beginning of this post, when I spoke of the dynamic between my father and I. It truly has shaped my view of politics. Through this, I gain certain insights, but those insights no doubt have many biases and constraints.

This is the reason I find value in connecting my personal insights to the writings of others, to give me perspective. I’ve been developing these kinds of ideas for many years now. This represents some of my most original thought. My initial understanding arose out of my experience. My later readings have helped to give shape to this understanding.

As my understanding has developed, I’ve come to a more nuanced view of ideology and labels. This post represents one further step in the development of these ideas and insights.

* * * *

As a side note, I mentioned directly above that this is some of my most original thought.

I’m speaking of symbolic conflation. I came to that insight entirely on my own. In fact, I coined the phrasing of ‘symbolic conflation’, as I hadn’t seen it described by anyone else. Lewis Hyde comes close in his use of metonymy, but that doesn’t fully capture my meaning.

The insight slowly emerged from years upon years of discussions with my parents. So much of my political understanding goes back to my family relationships. The original inspiration was a single observation.

A highly emotional and divisive issue of politics is abortion. It has in some ways been the most central theme of the culture wars, connecting together so many other threads in a way that is hard to disentangle.

I presented my parents with the data that countries that ban abortions don’t decrease and, in some cases, increase the rate of abortions. This is to say that on average banning abortions does increase the abortion rate.

This undermines the entire rationalization of the socially conservative position. But my parents were unfazed by this challenge to the heart of their ideological system. I experienced similar refusal to confront these basic facts from other conservatives as well.

By their own logic, social conservatives shouldn’t support banning abortions. Doing so, according to their way of thinking, increases the killing of babies. The only way to protect life is by not making it an issue of shame and fear, by giving women many choices and resources. All of this prevents unwanted pregnancies in the first place and hence prevents most women from even needing to consider abortion.

This is common sense. Yet I’ve never met a conservative who is able and willing to morally and rationally confront this challenge. It hits too close to a nerve. Pull on that thread and the whole thing might unravel.

This is how I came to my original thoughts on symbolic conflation.

Now, having read Lewis Hyde, I realize that it was no accident that I first came to this understanding because of an issue like abortion. It is a highly emotional issue that take the body as an ideological battlefield. An ideology, as some see it, isn’t just about political opinions, but an entire worldview. When ideology is grounded in bodily experience, this creates the possibility of what I observed and what Hyde describes.

Lakoff sees the family as a fundamental metaphor for politics. That seems to be the case, but maybe that is because family relations are so personal and visceral. A mother gives birth to and breastfeeds the child. Parents hold, caress, and at times punish the child. Families live in and share the same physical space.

Hyde points in this direction with some of his examples, such as a mother telling her daughter a story of shame when her first menstration came. As Hyde explains, this is about creating and enforcing social boundaries. The first boundary ever created is the bond with the mother.

In future writings, i’d like to explore the relationship between shame and symbolic conflation.

I’ve recently come to realize how important shame is to so many aspects of human experience and society. I sense that shame might be core to every symbolic conflation. Both shame and symbolic conflation are about wanting to keep something hidden. Or rather shame is the experience of the failure to keep something hidden or the fear that such failure is likely, and that fear will never go away as long as the symbolic conflation is in place.

I’d also like to connect this to my thoughts on race and racism, along with some similar issues related to our collective past of colonialism, slavery, and genocide. Specifically, I’d like to connect this to my thoughts on the perplexing issue of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. The study of ignorance, agnotology, would also be the study of what is hidden, both to public and private awareness. All of this connects to ideas I first came across in the writings of Derrick Jensen, ideas about the victimization cycle, silencing, dissociation, splitting, doubling, etc.

Shame is the one of the most primal defense mechanisms. When I see shame in operation, I know something of the greatest of importance is being protected. People will kill and die for shame.

In thinking along these lines, Hydes book reminds me that with shame we touch upon the sacred. This is at the heart of what it means to be human. It isn’t just about conservatives and the conservative moral order. I wish to tread lightly, for we are all implicated.

A Phantom of the Mind

Liberalism often gets defined narrowly. This is true at least in mainstream American politics, by which I mean the present dominant society with its dominant frame.

It isn’t just conservatives and right-wingers misrepresenting liberalism, as seen with the arguments of Russel Kirk (also, consider Thomas Sowell, whose view of conservative constrained vision is similar to Kirk’s conservative claim of balance, both arguing against the imbalance supposedly expressed by liberal and left-wing extremism). Even certain kinds of liberals will fall into the same trap. Take for example the strange views of Jonathan Haidt.

This wasn’t always the case. In earlier 20th century, liberalism was praised widely by major politicians (including presidents) in both of the main parties. What this implies is that liberalism was seen more broadly at the time.

Consider Eisenhower’s words when he stated that, “Extremes to the right and left of any political dispute are always wrong,” and that “The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.” Yet, in speaking of extremes, he saw liberalism as part of the moderate and moderating middle:

So that here we have, really, the compound, the overall philosophy of Lincoln: in all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with the peoples money or their economy, or their form of government, be conservativeand dont be afraid to use the word. And so today, Republicans come forward with programs in which there are such words as balanced budgets, and cutting expenditures, and all the kind of thing that means this economy must be conservative, it must be solvent. But they also come forward and say we are concerned with every Americans health, with a decent house for him, we are concerned that he will have a chance for health, and his children for education. We are going to see that he has power available to him. We are going to see that everything takes place that will enrich his life and let him as an individual, hard-working American citizen, have full opportunity to do for his children and his family what any decent American should want to do.

Even in his brand of fiscal conservatism, he advocated for the wildest fantasies of progressives (unions, social security, etc) and defended a top income tax bracket at 91%. It is obvious that what he considered conservative back then would be considered liberal today. He was much further to the left than today’s Democratic Party. So, his moderate middle was also much further to the left than it is at present.

What stands out to me in Ike’s worldview is how he perceives liberalism. Political ideologies in the US get defined by governance and economics, which he sees as the territory of conservatism but not of liberalism. Instead, liberalism is at essence about people. Liberalism expresses the human quality of a good society. In that society is created by and for people, liberalism is an atmosphere that permeates the concerns for the public good. It is the broader guiding vision, the moral standard for our shared humanity.

* * * *

Let me return to the narrow view of liberalism. I came across a Clark L. Coleman who argued for the position of Russel Kirk. He writes that,

Kirk’s point is that conservatism is based on a balancing of numerous principles that society accepts as social goods. For example, we balance the need for law and order with the desire for individual liberty. We balance the desire to propagate our Christian heritage, and the benefits of having a religious populace, with the desire for religious freedom and the wariness of the problems of having an established state church. We seek equality under the law, but temper that with the recognition that institutions (church, marriage, military, et al.) must be exclusive to some degree to accomplish their missions. We desire the strength that nationalist feelings produce, but recognize that they lead to a warlike nation if untempered by other concerns, etc. A kind of Aristotelian moderation is central to conservatism.

Whatever that may describe, it isn’t the actual existing tradition of mainstream American conservatism. So, what is he describing? I really don’t get the argument being made. Obviously, this conservatism is envisioned as an ideal state, rather than the mundane reality of politics as it is. But what purpose does that serve? If this conservatism doesn’t accurately describe most self-identified conservatives, then whose conservatism is this? Is it just a conservatism for detached intellectuals, such as Kirk?

Anyway, Coleman goes on to offer the other side. He explains what forms the basis of everything that isn’t conservatism, most especially liberalism:

In contrast to conservatism, liberalism is an ideology in which a particular concept of “fairness and equality” is the principle that trumps all others; libertarianism is an ideology in which “individual liberty” is the principle that trumps all others; and Marxism is an ideology in which a certain definition of class struggle is at the center of all policy decisions and all analyses of the world. Empirical evidence to the contrary means nothing to ideologues; telling them that their One True Principle is insufficient to analyze all public policy would require them to undergo a complete change of world view.

I’m not familiar with the details of Kirk’s views. I don’t know if this is a fair and accurate presentation. But I do know it is a common view among conservatives, specifically more well-educated conservatives. It is even found among conservative-minded liberals such as Jonathan Haidt, who sees conservatism as a balance of values in contrast to liberals as inherently imbalanced and hence prone to extremism.

This argument is a rhetorical trick, so it seems to me. It’s a strategy of the Cold War. The 20th century was a conflict of ideologies. Those ideologies can be labeled and categorized in various ways, but this version of conservatism gets safely removed from the entire ideological debate. It is a declaration that conservatism is above and beyond all discussion and disagreement. This is a stance of refusal to engage.

I felt irritated by that argument. It felt dishonest. In response to Coleman, I expressed my irritation by saying that, “If conservatism isn’t an ideology, then neither is liberalism. Only an ideologue would make an argument that one is an ideology and the other not. That would be a classic case of projection. It isn’t helpful to make caricatures of and straw man arguments against opposing views, attitudes, and predispositions.”

Coleman responded in turn with a defense that touches on the heart of our disagreement. He writes that, “Your comment does not engage my explanation at all. Kirk’s definition of ideology was standard until the common usage became fuzzy. It is not a caricature or straw man.” He is accusing me of not engaging because I don’t accept his premise, but I don’t accept his premise because it is an unproven assumption.

That is intriguing. Coleman is so confident that his view is right. He claims that it was only later that “common usage became fuzzy”. Even many other conservatives would disagree with that claim. This would include Eisenhower, who began his presidency the same year Kirk published The Conservative Mind. Of course, the likes of Kirk and Coleman would simply assert that anyone who disagrees with them aren’t True Conservatives, a pointless assertion to make but it sure does end debate.

* * * *

Both Eisenhower and Kirk were arguing for balance and against extremism. It was something in the air at the time. Across the political spectrum, many Americans were seeking  a new vision  to unify the country in the post-war era. For certain, conservatives like Kirk didn’t have sole proprietorship of this early Cold War attitude. It was the frame of mainstream debate at that time, rather than simply being one side of the debate.

For a while now, I’ve been trying to disentangle the mess of American political ideologies and labels. It’s been on my mind going back at least to the early Bush administration, at a time when I was studying the social science research on personality types and traits, but my questioning has grown stronger in recent years. I began to articulate a new understanding of what liberalism and conservatism mean, both attitudinally and historically (also demographically). I was forced to think more deeply and challenge my own previous assumptions, because the data I was looking at indicated a much more complex social reality.

It is because Coleman and Kirk take a dogmatically ideological stance that they can’t deal with this complexity that refuses to conform to narrow categorical boxes. I didn’t want to fall into the same trap. I want to fully understand various positions on their own terms, even if not on their own rhetoric.

My own views have shifted a lot over time. More recently, I’ve been moving toward the almost the mirror opposite of the Kirkian position, without even knowing that was what I was doing (as I have little direct familiarity with Kirk’s writings):

It seems to me that liberalism isn’t inherently or inevitably opposite of conservatism, at least in American politics. Conservatism has become conflated with the right-wing in a way that hasn’t happened on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is still a clear sense of distance and disconnection between liberalism and the left-wing for the Cold War turned the left-wing into a scapegoat that liberals felt compelled to disown or else be attacked as commies and fellow-travelers. Liberals have instead for the most part embraced the role of the middle, the moderate. I’ve even sensed that liberals have taken up the role of the traditionalists in defending the status quo which is what traditionalists did in the past. I’ve speculated that conservatives or at least reactionary conservatives attack liberals for the same reason they attacked traditionalists in earlier times. Left-wingers are the revolutionaries and conservatives have become the counter-revolutionaries, meanwhile liberals have sought to moderate between the two.

Much of my thought has been driven by social science research. I’ve sought to make sense of the insight that, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (Skitka et al). That indicates an aspect of the broadness of liberalism. The ease of the liberal-minded to switch ideological positions points to something fundamental to liberalism itself and hence something lacking in conservatism. The liberal worldview is able to cover a larger area of ideological terrain. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it demonstrates how little conservatives understand the real weaknesses of liberalism.

One political philosopher that has forced me to rethink even further in this direction is Domenico Losurdo. He is a Continental European left-winger and a critic of American liberalism. His book on the counter-history of liberalism is challenging for any American, for the framework of his thought can feel alien and perplexing.

In my first analysis of his views, I ended up conjecturing that, “Maybe liberalism is more of a worldview than an ideology, a worldview that happens to be the dominant paradigm at the moment. As such, everything gets put into the context of and defined by liberalism.” I elaborated on this point later on, in a discussion with C. Derick Varn (AKA skepoet), the person who introduced me to Losurdo’s work:

In response to Losurdo, I’ve played around with a broader definition of ‘liberalism’ than even he offers. I see ‘liberalism’ in some ways as the ultimate product of the Enlightenment, the basis upon which everything else is built, the ideology everything else is defined according to or against.

Liberalism isn’t an ideology in the way conservatism, libertarianism, Marxism, etc is an ideology. No, liberalism is the ideological framework for all of those ideologies. It is the paradigm of our age.

This connects to why I don’t see conservatism as the opposite of liberalism. Instead, I see conservatism as the opposite of leftism. Liberalism is both the center and periphery of modern politics.

I’m not sure any ideology has yet fully challenged the liberal paradigm. So, I’m not sure any ideology has yet freed itself from liberal taint. We’ll need something even more radical than the most radical left-wing politics to get the thrust for escape velocity.

Now, that is turning Kirkian thought on its head. And I did so without even trying. My purpose was simply to make sense of evidence that had been perplexing me for years. This conclusion emerged organically from a slowly developing line of thought or rather web of thoughts. It makes sense to me at the moment. It has great explanatory power. Yet like anything else I offer, it is a tentative hypothesis.

* * * *

It is now more than a half century since Kirk wrote about his views on conservatism.

It is true that back then, prior to the Southern Strategy, conservatism was a more moderate political movement and may have played more of a moderating role. However, that is most definitely no longer the case, which implies that Kirk’s view of conservatism was historically contingent, at best. He failed to find the heart of conservatism, whatever that may be.

Still, even in the context of the 1950s, it would be hard to take conservatism as some genuinely non-ideological framing of and balance between the ideological extremes. Conservatism, as Corey Robin argues, has always had a central element of reactionary extremism. Or, as I’ve often said, there is a good reason American conservatism is linked to, rooted in, and identified with classical liberalism rather than classical conservatism or classical traditionalism.

My approach is influenced by a larger view. Both larger in terms of historical time and larger in terms of spectrum of positions. The historical is particularly important to my understanding, and I find myself pairing the historical with the etymological. In a comment from a discussion about liberal bias and the meaning of liberalism, I explored some of the background:

If we look at the history of the word ‘liberal’, it didn’t originally relate to an ideology. The original meaning was related to freedom (liber). The earliest use of it was in terms of “liberal arts”, i.e., free inquiry. Another early use was in terms of a free person, i.e., not a serf or slave or indentured servant. In modern history, the main meaning of ‘liberal’ has always directly referred to being liberal-minded: not literal or strict; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms; etc.

Even in its earliest use, ‘liberal’ meant the same as we mean it today such as being free from restraint, the main difference being that only after the Enlightenment did it take on a more clearly positive interpretation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people would use liberal in the sense of being free of bigotry or prejudice which has the exact same meaning today. All of these basic meanings haven’t changed over the past centuries since it was first used in 1375. It was only in the mid 19th century that liberalism became a politicized term, long after classical liberalism had become a defined ideology. Limiting liberal to a single ideology is a very recent phenomenon and one that has never been agreed upon since a number of ideologies have been labeled as ‘liberal’.

Conservatism, as a descriptive word applied to people, is a much more recent term. It is for this reason that conservatism has a much more narrow context of meaning than liberalism. So, conservatism always has been defined in contrast and reaction to liberalism, specifically within the parameters of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.

* * * *

An issue that has been gnawing at mind for longer than almost any other single issue is a particular inconsistency in conservative thought. I’ve come to call it symbolic conflation, which is just to say that conservative identity uses symbolic rhetoric that obscures its own real meaning and purpose.

This isn’t meant as a dismissal, but more as a sociological assessment. As I argue about symbolic conflation, it plays a far different role in society than does the liberal approach. I tend to see conservatism and liberalism as psychological predispositions and social phenomena. They are patterns of cognitive behavior, both individual and collective. “Liberals,” in challenging conservatives, “want to loosen up the social order, but they don’t want to pull out the lynchpin.” As I further explain:

This is why liberals can be more conservative than even conservatives, moderating the extremes. The reason conservatives rule to the extent that they do so is because liberals allow them.

Social order is a strange thing. It would seem even stranger that conservatives take social order for granted more than do liberals. I suppose this is the case because for conservatives social order always has to largely play out on the level of unconsciousness.

None of this is meant directly as a criticism of conservatism. Conservatism can be used in the service of beneficial social orders just as easily with destructive social orders. The deal conservatives and liberals have is the following. Liberals won’t do an all out assault on the symbolic conflation that holds social order together and conservatives will incorporate liberalism into the social order so as to strengthen it. Whether this is a good deal, whether this is symbiosis or codependency (certainly not opposing ideologies in a simplistic sense) is another matter. I offer it just as an observation and analysis of how society seems to operate.

In thinking about this inconsistency, I realize how it connects back to the Kirkian theory of conservative balance. It also occurs to me that this goes back to Edmund Burke. The critics of Burke complained about his inconsistency, something I’ve discussed before. That is important since many conservatives, Kirk included, have seen the Anglo-American conservative tradition as having its roots in Burkean politics. Kirk is using Burke’s claim of balance as a defense against inconsistency:

[O]ne who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.

I guess Kirk isn’t necessarily offering anything new.

* * * *

Going by Coleman’s explication, there are two basic ways of thinking about ideology.

The first definition is as a system of beliefs (or ideas). But that isn’t what Kirk’s conservatism is concerned with.

That brings us to the second definition which, “roughly, is a set of one or two principles from which an adherent attempts to see all of life, and which he refuses to broaden even when empirical evidence indicates that his one or two principles are insufficient for deciding correctly all the great matters of life.” Ideology, in this second sense, is directly related to the ideologue as in a true believer who is dogmatic, narrow-minded, and rigid.

The problem with that view is that what is being described is precisely liberal-mindedness. By definition, liberalism is generosity of mind and spirit. Conservative’s are being haunted not by some dark shadow cast by liberal ideals, but by their own imaginings. They project their own fears onto all other ideologies, while denying their own ideological culpability.

If one thinks too long on all of this, conservatism begins to seem like smoke slipping through one’s fingers. Burke was a progressive reformer who belonged to the party on the political left, but was remembered by most for his reaction against the French Revolution. He never settled into principled position that defined his politics. By his own admission, his politics was the shifting of a boat on an ocean.

All in all, Burke was more like a mainstream Cold War liberal reacting to (real and perceived) enemies of the state and of the status quo. Maybe Kirk himself was just another one of those liberals being pulled by fear. Maybe that is what Anglo-American conservatism has always been about.

That reminds me of the quote by Irving Kristol. He said that a neo-conservative, the central form of modern American conservatism, is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” There are a number of things interesting about that.

First, he defines neo-conservatism using the same Burkean argument as Kirk, as here described:

an ideology but a “persuasion,” a way of thinking about politics rather than a compendium of principles and axioms.[12] It is classical rather than romantic in temperament, and practical and anti-Utopian in policy.

Second, I sense genuine insight in the admission that conservatism has its origins in liberalism. The liberal in reacting to fear becomes a conservative, but conservatism as such only exists in the reaction. That fits the social science research about liberalism.

It’s possible that, as Corey Robin theorizes, all of conservatism is defined by reaction. The supposed mugging could be literal or metaphorical. The point is that the conservative is responding to something with fear, even if it is only in their own imaginings. Some people find themselves temporarily in reaction while others get permanently stuck. The latter are what we call conservatives.

Permanent reaction is a strange way to live one’s life, for reaction isn’t anything in itself. An independent non-ideological conservatism is a phantom of the mind.

Who was Ronald Reagan? And what was the Reagan Revolution?

When Reagan was a Democrat, he was a union leader, socially liberal Hollywood actor, starry-eyed liberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending FDR New Deal supporter, big government public welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.

And then when Reagan became a Republican, he instead was a union opponent (although still able to get labor union support to get elected), socially liberal political actor, starry-eyed neoliberal progressive, anti-communist, pro-capitalist, ultra-nationalist, big-spending permanent debt-creating militarist, big government corporate welfare state promoter, and patriotic cold warrior.

Nothing fundamentally changed about Reagan, as he admitted. He liked to say that the Democratic Party left him. This is in a sense true as Democrats turned away from their racist past. Other things were involved as well.

I’d say that his shifting attitude about the New Deal welfare state was more situational, as many white Americans were less willing to support a welfare state after the Civil Rights movement because it meant blacks would have equal access to those public benefits. Reagan probably was always a racist, but it remained hidden behind progressivism until black rights forced it out into the open. Even his union views were more of a situational change, rather than an ideological change, for the Cold War reframed many issues.

The combination of Civil Rights movement and Cold War were a powerful force, the latter helping to make the former possible. The Cold War was a propaganda war. To prove democracy was genuinely better, the US government suddenly felt the pressure to live up to its own rhetoric about civil rights. Black activists pushed this to their advantage, and many whites in response went from liberalism to conservatism. This created a strange form of conservatism that was dominated by former progressives turned reactionary, which in some ways just meant a reactionary progressivism that hid behind conservative rhetoric.

This is how Reagan went from a standard progressive liberal to the ideal personification of reactionary conservatism. Yet he did this while politically remaining basically the same. Reagan didn’t change. The world around him changed. There was a society-wide political realignment that went beyond any individual person.

Still, it wasn’t just a party realignment with the old racist Southern Democrats switching loyalties to the Republicans. There was that, but also more than that. Many old school Democrats, even those outside of the South, changed party identification and voting patterns. Prior to the shift, many Republicans would praise liberalism (from Eisenhower to Nixon) and there was room for a left-wing within the party itself. After the switch, all of that was replaced by a mix of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, an alliance between economic libertarians and war hawks. So-called conservatism became a radical and revolutionary force of globalization.

The deeper shift involved not just to the political spectrum but the entire political framework and foundation. Everything shifted and became redefined, as if an earthquake had rearranged the geography of the country to such an extent that the old maps no longer matched reality.

One major change is that the noblesse oblige paternalism of the likes of the Roosevelts (TR and FDR) simply disappeared from mainstream politics, like Atlantis sinking below the waves never to be seen or heard from again. Politics became  unmoored from the past. Conservatism went full reactionary, leaving behind any trace of Old World traditionalism. Meanwhile, liberals became weak-minded centrists who have since then always been on the defense and leftists, as far as the mainstream was concerned, became near non-entities whose only use was for occasional resurrection as scapegoats (even then only as straw man scapegoats).

Two world wars had turned the Western world on its head. Following that mass destruction, the Cold War warped the collective psyche, especially in America. It’s as if someone took a baseball bat to Uncle Sam’s head and now he forever sees the world cross-eyed and with a few lost IQ points.

As with Reagan, nothing changed and yet everything changed. The Reagan Revolution was greater than just Reagan.

* * * *


He may be the patron saint of limited government, but Ronald Reagan started out as a registered Democrat and New Deal supporter. An F.D.R. fan, the Gipper campaigned for Helen Gahagan Douglas in her fruitless 1950 Senate race against Richard Nixon and encouraged Dwight D. Eisenhower to run for President as a Democrat in 1952. While he was working as a spokesman for General Electric, however, his views shifted right. “Under the tousled boyish haircut,” he wrote Vice President Nixon of John F. Kennedy in 1960, “is still old Karl Marx.” By the time it actually happened in 1962, Reagan’s decision to cross over to the GOP didn’t come as much of a surprise. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” he famously said. “The party left me.”


Giller said Reagan endorsed the presidential candidacies of Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 as well as that of Nixon in 1960 “while remaining a Democrat.” [ . . . ]

Historian Edward Yager, a government professor at Western Kentucky University and author of the 2006 biography Ronald Reagan’s Journey: Democrat to Republican, said Reagan “was registered Democrat from the time that he voted for FDR in 1932, when he was 21.”

Yager said he’s never seen copies of the voter registration cards, but noted “virtually all the sources that refer to” Reagan’s party affiliation indicate that he was registered as a Democrat and that “he has two autobiographies in which he refers to his voting for FDR four times, then for Truman.” Reagan was a Democrat, added Yager, even when he voted for Dwight D. Eisenhower.


Interestingly, Ronald Reagan himself did not always espouse the firm anti-government beliefs that eventually came to define Reaganism. As a young man, Reagan was actually a Roosevelt Democrat. The Reagan family only survived the Great Depression because Jack Reagan, young Ronnie’s unemployed father, was able to find a job in one of the New Deal’s work-relief programs. A few years later, Ronald Reagan found himself admiring Roosevelt’s leadership of America’s World War II effort to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. (Reagan joined the military but performed his wartime service in Hollywood, acting in American propaganda films.)


Reagan was a New Deal Democrat. He joked that he had probably become a Democrat by birth, given that his father, Jack, was so devoted to the Democratic Party. The younger Reagan cast his first presidential vote in 1932 for Franklin Roosevelt, and did so again in the succeeding three presidential contests. His faith in FDR remained undimmed even after World War II, when he called himself “a New Dealer to the core.” He summarized his views in this way: “I thought government could solve all our postwar problems just as it had ended the Depression and won the war. I didn’t trust big business. I thought government, not private companies, should own our big public utilities; if there wasn’t enough housing to shelter the American people, I thought government should build it; if we needed better medical care, the answer was socialized medicine.” When his brother, Moon, became a Republican and argued with his sibling, the younger Reagan concluded “he was just spouting Republican propaganda.”













To Become Radical in a Time of Change

I’ve identified as a liberal, ever since I was old enough to think about such things. My liberalism means a number of things. I’m most fundamentally psychologically liberal, and so it is a personal sensibility and identity. But I’m also socially and culturally liberal, which is the basis of my worldview and the way I relate to others. As far as ideology goes, I’m broadly liberal in supporting democracy.

All combined, I don’t know how not to be liberal. It is my fate. It is the core of my being.

I’m consistently principled in my liberalism. It isn’t about party politics. For this reason, I’m more radical than and more critical of what goes for liberalism in the mainstream. Also, my radicalism has increased over time. I’ve become more radical precisely because of my liberalism. I’m not radical by predisposition. It’s just that, according to my liberal values, radicalism naturally follows as a moral response to present conditions in our society.

I see no way of genuinely being liberal without becoming radical. I’d rather be a moderate, if I lived in an ideal world and a just society. But I have to deal with this world I was born into.

This puts me into an odd position. I defend my liberalism because it is core to who I am, for good or bad. I understand the complaints against liberalism and often agree with them. My values of liberalism are what make me critical of the liberalism I see that contradicts those values. Much of what gets called liberalism doesn’t seem liberal to me, by any fundamental sense of the word, at least to my liberal mind.

What got me thinking about this is the recent Ferguson protests. Because of social media, I’ve been more connected to the local activist community. This led me to get more involved than I normally am, at least in recent years. There aren’t many blacks in this small Midwestern liberal college town (Iowa City), but there presence is significant enough. We have one of the highest racial disparities for arrests in the country. The local rallies and marches have been organized by the blacks who live here, most probably being college students.

I’ve been closely observing events and discussions. I’m always curious about what things signify at a deeper level.

This town is atypical in many ways, including the type of black living here, especially in terms of activists. There are poor blacks here, often referred to as “those people from Chicago”. But I’m not sure about the backgrounds of the local black activists, probably less likely to have come from the most impoverished inner city neighborhoods. What has stood out to me, in interacting with them, is how lacking in radicalism they are, as far as I can tell so far. Their demands seem completely in line with a simplistic identity politics narrative. Most of the local radicals, instead, are white (see here and here). One local left-winger I’ve been talking to does know of one black radical in a nearby city, Cedar Rapids, who is critical of identity politics… but he apparently hasn’t yet spoken out publicly.

I know black radicals are protesting in other cities and doing so vocally. I know black radicalism has a long established history in this country. Yet the black leadership, just like the white leadership, is typically moderate. Most of the protest messages play right into the mainstream racial narrative.

What I also have noticed is the absence and/or silence of other minority perspectives in this town (with 17.5% total minority population, about equal parts black, Hispanic, and Asian; along with a small percentage of other non-white races/ethnicities). I’m not sure that these non-black minorities are actually being silent or just getting lost in the noise. There are some Native Americans in the area with, for example, the nearby Meskwaki settlement (not a reservation, for they bought the land); although there are fewer in Iowa City. More significantly, there is a fairly large Hispanic community around here.

As far as I know, no minorities besides blacks were involved in any of the local organizing around recent events. These other minorities aren’t being heard or even acknowledged. The organizers said they were creating one particular rally as a safe place for black voices. But what about a safe place for Hispanic voices? Where is the solidarity among the oppressed? Why do blacks dominate the narrative even when there are also other minorities impacted? Hispanics are regularly targeted, profiled, harassed, brutalized, and killed by police. Why do the voices of Hispanics get ignored not just by the mainstream media but also by mainstream activists, both white and black?

This is how identity politics ends up dividing and isolating people.

Like poor whites, Hispanics don’t fit the mainstream racial narrative. Part of the reason is because Hispanics aren’t a race. They are split between those who identify as black and white. Yet they also experience all the same problems blacks experience. As far as that goes, there are more whites in poverty and these are concentrated in specific ethnic populations that have been in poverty for centuries. They also are part of the permanent underclass that has existed for longer than the social construction of race as it developed out of colonial thought.

There has always been state violence, social control, and a permanent underclass. All of that existed long before racism, long before a racial order, long before racialized slavery. But race gets conflated with everything in American society. It is the metaphorical hammer with which everything looks like a nail. Racism is a real problem, and yet few understand what it really means. Our language is too simplistic and our knowledge too lacking.

Class divisions and oppression preceded race issues. Racism was created to serve old class divisions and social control, not the other way around. Racism is built on and dependent on classism. There is no way of getting around that fact.

Racial ideology obscures more than it clarifies. Certain poor white populations have rates of social problems and incarceration as high as any poor minority population. There is no monolithic white population. Many of these poor white populations have always been impoverished and isolated, but they haven’t always been considered white. The legacy of their questionable whiteness persists. They also are victims of an oppressive racial order. For all intents and purposes, the poorest isolated rural whites aren’t ‘white’ in how the mainstream media uses that word in contrast to ‘black’. They don’t fit into the story that typically gets told about American history.

The territory between Hispanics and poor whites is a nether region in the American psyche. It is also a growing sector of the society. Poverty, of course is growing at present. Also, as the minority-majority emerges, the most quickly growing demographic is that of Hispanics. I suspect it is this shift that is throwing the social order off keel. Hispanics, in their communities, embody the full range of the racial order. No other population in the US is like that. Hispanics aren’t just a threat to WASP culture but to the entire racial order and its concomitant racial narrative. Blacks fit nicely into American understanding of race. The Civil Rights movement can be made sense of without challenging the racial status quo. This is why blacks can never represent an equivalent threat to mainstream society and the dominant class.

That is what so many activists don’t understand. And, as long as they are committed to the racial narrative, they will never understand. This is also what keeps the typical black activist and leader from a truly radical vision. This is what disconnects so much of black activism right now from the message Martin Luther King, jr. was preaching near the end of his life. There are important black radicals to be found, such as Angela Davis, but the mainstream doesn’t pay them much attention, at least for the time being.

What many have noted is that racism arose in a particular context and has been tangled up in other factors. The twin forces of modern history has been the racial order and the capitalist order, i.e., racism and classism. Capitalism, however, was a unique brand of classism that didn’t previously exist. It formed out of colonialism and globalization. We are experiencing the results of a centuries old project. The racial aspect evolved during that time and continues to evolve. A new racial narrative no doubt will form, but it won’t be what we can expect based on the past.

A shift is happening. We have to look at the clues to see what this means. We can’t simply force new challenges into old narratives and think we’ve got it all figured out. Mainstream rhetoric and bourgeois politics aren’t helpful.

I don’t know what this shift is. I’ve been following the trends for more than a decade now. I see a shift or shifts happening, but heck if I know what it all adds up to. What I do feel sure of is that it will be a game changer.

This is what draws my mind in the direction of radicalism. We need new thinking and language, new narratives and visions, new ways of organizing and forcing change. We meed to get to the root of what is happening. We need to harness this change with new understanding, rather than being harnessed by our own ignorance.

We are beyond the hope of minor reform. Activism needs to become radical again. Our complacency will not last, whether or not we are ready for what comes next. We might as well embrace change with open arms for change already has its grip on us.