Richard Hofstadter wrote of pseudo-conservatives. Sam Tanenhaus has taken this idea up with his realist versus revanchist conservatives. In the time between these two thinkers, Henry Fairlie was a British journalist who lived in America for the last part of his life. He began his writing career before Reagan and Thatcher came to power. It is interesting to read Fairlie explaining conservatism in that earlier time, a conservatism that once was more trusting of government than capitalism.
Fairlie called himself a Tory, but his Toryism made him closer to a Democrat. American conservatives often trace their tradition back to Edmund Burke who was a Whig and he was a liberal for his time. Burke argued against British imperialism and for the rights of Catholics. This would be the equivalent of an American politician arguing against American imperialism while arguing for the rights of Muslims, a hard thing to imagine a Republican doing.
There is lots of ideological confusion. While Tea Partiers point fingers at supposed RINOs, another group of conservatives have taken the left’s criticism of false conservatism and made it their own. Many moderate Republicans have seen their party taken over by the Tea Party which is really just the inevitable result of the Southern Strategy. Conservatives liked how this strategy initially won them power, but they have come to question the price they paid for power.
Two books I’ve read this year offer moderate and moderating conservatism as true conservatism: The Founding Conservatives by David Lefer and Constitutional Conservatism by Peter Berkowitz. I don’t find their arguments overly convincing, but I just like that there are conservatives making such arguments. Of the two, Lefer makes the most original argument, partly basing his definition of conservatism on the example of John Dickinson. The only problem is that, if Dickinson is a conservative, most Republican politicians aren’t conservatives and many Democrat politicians are.
The other perspective is that of Corey Robin with his reactionary conservatism. He doesn’t see this as false, but as the real deal. He includes Burke among these reactionary conservatives. I’m sympathetic with this view. Burke after the French Revolution is like Reagan after the Cold War began, reacting not just to liberalism but more specifically their own liberalism or former liberalism. I suspect reactionary conservatives are often nothing more than liberals who become cynical about change? This makes them cynical liberals for sure. I don’t know that it makes them conservatives, reactionary or otherwise.
I must admit I’m fond of the notion of conservatism as moderation. However, this seems less about conservative ideology and more about conservative-mindedness. I’ve commented about the fact of American liberals being rather conservative-minded, defending what traditionalists once stood for. This distinction between conservatism and traditionalism is important, but maybe it has less to do with conservatism. Such things as moderation and radicalism seem less to do about specific ideologies. Robin is maybe wrong to solely identify conservatism with reaction.
I honestly don’t know what conservatism is or could be under different conditions. I’d like to believe in a moderate and moderating conservative. People sometimes ask what do conservatives seek to conserve? The main problem I have with Lefer and Berkowitz is that they have a limited knowledge of history. If you don’t know the past, you might repeat what is less-than-desirable but you also won’t know what could and should be maintained. This is how conservatives constantly fail or even actively threatens traditional.
This brings me to two other books: Liberal Beginnings by Andreas Kalyvas and Ira Katznelson and The Magna Carta Manifesto by Peter Linebaugh.
Conservatives like to make a misinformed distinction between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Progressive liberalism goes at least back to Thomas Paine’s “Agrarian Justice”, and it was Paine who inspired the US Constitution by suggesting Americans needed their own Magna Carta. Paine came of age when the enclosure movement was hitting hard those who were dependent on the commons. Besides food riots, one thing this led to is the first labor unions. The world during Paine’s life was the beginning of our modern political order.
Someone like Paine wasn’t simply attempting to create something new. He was trying to save what was being destroyed, the commons along with the rights of Englishmen. This relates to a long English tradition going back to the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forest. Liberalism arose not just in envisioning new liberties but in defense of old liberties. Such things as the commons are what modern conservatives would like to conveniently forget. Conservatives want to pick and choose what they want from the past and discard the rest.
A genuinely moderate and moderating conservatism would not be so blithe about the past. It isn’t just that they dismiss important traditions. They don’t even bother to learn the history that would inform them about why these traditions matter. I have a natural inclination toward moderation, but it seems to me that moderation can only exist to the degree that knowledge is embraced. I want to conserve what is good in the world because that is the first step to increasing the good.
If what goes for conservatism is somehow false, it is because it has become a hollow label.
My dad was watching a C-SPAN talk about the Ku Klux Klan. The speaker was James Madison who is a professor from Bloomington, Indiana. My parents are from Indiana which once was a major center of KKK activity. The Indiana Klan became its own separate organization at one point and it was very powerful:
“At the height of its power the Klan had over 250,000 members, which was over 30% of state’s white male population. The highest concentration was around the central part of the state. Klan membership was discouraged in some parts of the state; in New Albany, city leaders denounced the Klan and discouraged residents from joining. Other cities, including Indianapolis, were almost completely controlled by the Klan, and election to public office was impossible without their support. Street fights occurred in Indianapolis between the Klan members and minority groups. Statewide, estimates of native white male Indiana Klan membership ranged from 27 to 40%. “The Klan had a large budget, based on a percentage of membership fees and dues. With more than 50,000 dues-paying members in Indianapolis, the Klan had access to tens of millions of dollars. A large part of these funds went to helping the poor, but millions were also poured into bribing public officials, paying off enemies, purchasing weapons, and contributing to political campaigns.”
I notice the mention of Indianapolis as a stronghold. That is where Bobby Kennedy gave his moving speech where he told an unaware crowd about the death of Martin Luther King jr. He was warned about doing that because it was a crowd of black people and the police thought it might turn into a riot, and such worries are understandable given this KKK history.
My parents grew up in central Indiana which is precisely where the Klan was most concentrated.
Oddly, as the map shows, Southern Indiana had the weakest Klan concentration. In the quote above, it mentions that some parts of the state such as Albany at the Southern border actively discouraged the Klan. That is where my mom’s family originally lived when they came to Indiana from Kentucky. So, it is hard to blame the Southern influence on Indiana.
However, the first KKK headquarters in Indiana was set up in Evansville which is in Southern Indiana. Evansville is only a county away from where Abraham Lincoln lived as a boy and right next door to the county where the German Harmonists built their community, later to be bought and used by a Welsh socialist whose family was in the same social and political circles as Abraham Lincoln.
Anyway, none of that is the point of my bringing this up.
My dad is a conservative who grew up in conservative Indiana, right there in that heart of the former KKK. Now, that is what is known as red-blooded 100% American conservatism. My dad is a fairly typical American conservative or, as Todd Snider more fully describes it, “Conservative Christian, right wing Republican, straight, white, American male” (see below for the accompanying video). He is mostly a paragon of the WASP identity, although he has some genetics in him that aren’t Anglo-Saxon.
This show about the KKK was an eye-opener for him, but not in the way you might suspect. Listening to their activities, he realized they were largely a normal civic organization focused on charity work. The Second Ku Klux Klan gave money to churches, promoted public education, supported family values, etc. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if the KKK gave Christmas presents to orphans and helped old ladies across the street.
I told my dad that the KKK was basically the conservatives of their day and he agreed with me. Some months earlier, I had told him the exact same thing and he probably thought I was being unfair and mean. To most people, making a comparison to the KKK is about the same as making a comparison to Nazis.
We have a hard time seeing things for what they are or were. We put things into the context of our own time and judge them accordingly. That is problematic with something like the KKK which is easy to caricature and criticize with straw-man arguments. Most Klan members weren’t violent people who spent their every free moment thinking about how to oppress others. If anything is scary about the KKK, it is that completely normal people belonged to it and most of the time they did completely normal activities. They were good citizens, devoted husbands, loving fathers, and practicing Christians.
The KKK wasn’t necessarily all that different from any other number of civic organizations from that time. The Second KKK was even modeled on many of those other organizations:
“In an era without Social Security or widely available life insurance, men joined fraternal organizations such as the Elks or the Woodmen of the World to provide for their families in case they died or were unable to work. The founder of the new Klan, William J. Simmons, was a member of twelve different fraternal organizations. He recruited for the Klan with his chest covered with fraternal badges, and consciously modeled the Klan after fraternal organizations. “Klan organizers, called “Kleagles”, signed up hundreds of new members, who paid initiation fees and received KKK costumes in return. The organizer kept half the money and sent the rest to state or national officials. When the organizer was done with an area, he organized a huge rally, often with burning crosses, and perhaps presented a Bible to a local Protestant preacher. He left town with the money collected. The local units operated like many fraternal organizations and occasionally brought in speakers.”
Those civic organizations have interesting histories. The KKK was created partly in response to new immigrants, but many fraternal and community organizations were created by and for new immigrants. The Germans were well known for their organizations that were a thorn in the side of those who wanted to force the non-English to assimilate. The Germans, until WWII, had more or less successfully resisted assimilation and the KKK didn’t like that. These ethnic and/or populist civic organizations, German and otherwise, were sometimes closely tied to labor organizing, another thing the KKK would have not appreciated.
Interestingly, the Second KKK arose at the same time and for the same reasons fascist movements arose in Germany and Italy. In the US, Germans formed the German American Bund which supported Nazi Germany before WWII. Like the KKK, the Bund formed large marches in cities where Germans were concentrated. Fascism was in the air. The characteristics of fascism included reactionary populism, social conservatism, folk religiosity, patriotic nationalism, ethnocentric nativism, etc. Despite their differences, the KKK and the Bund were expressions of the same basic shift within society at that time.
These organizations weren’t evil incarnate. They were simply people trying to bring order back to what felt like the chaos of a changing society. Industrialization challenged every aspect of traditional communities and traditional religion. There was a mass migration of people from rural areas to urban areas, especially from the rural South to the urban North. The turn of the century brought new international movements of socialists and anarchists. Bombs were exploding in public places and assassination attempts, some successful, became more common. Corporations were becoming brutally oppressive. Fights and shootings broke out between unions, Pinkertons, police and sometimes even federal troops. Then WWI came along and totally shook up the social order, forcing diverse people into contact with another and overseas giving black soldiers their first taste of real freedom.
This was the culture war that formed the groundwork for the culture war of today. And like today it was a generational conflict. This was the era when the Lost Generation came of age. They were a generation that largely grew up in the cities, many of them born there and many others moved there as small children.
I’m reminded of my mom’s family since all of her grandparents were of the Lost Generation. Her paternal grandfather, Willie Clouse, was born in Spring Mill. At the time of his birth, it was an abandoned water-powered mill town which industrialization had made obsolete, especially since the railroad tracks had bypassed it. At age five, his family moved to nearby Mitchell which was a city that grew larger because of the railroad. As a young man, he followed the railroad jobs to Lafayette where my mom was later born. Born poor rural white trash, he had become a respectable working class man in the big city and his grandchildren would go to college.
I don’t know too much about his experiences during this time, but a lot of change was happening. The change probably seemed positive to him for it was all he knew. The older generation, however, was a lot less happy. Most of the founders and leaders of the Second Ku Klux Klan came from the generation before the Lost Generation and some from the generation before that.
The Lost Generation worked in factories as children or, in the case of Willie Clouse, he might have been working in the Mitchell Quarry where he was later working at when he got married. That generation had to grow up fast. They didn’t get much parenting or other supervision for their parents were working and extended families weren’t what they used to be back in the small towns. They also didn’t get much education.
However, because of their childhood labor, the Lost Generation had their own money and so weren’t dependent on anyone else. They were the first consumer generation. It was because of the competition of child labor that the KKK promoted public education. They thought it unfair that a grown man had a hard time finding a job because employers could simply hire a kid for a fraction of the cost. That is why the GI Generation grew up with such a relatively cushy childhood, no child labor and plenty of public education. The KKK helped make the Great Generation so great.
The Lost Generation didn’t know such greatness. They had their own world war, of course, but it was an ugly, violent and pointless war. Still, it made them the first generation of Americans to see the larger world. This created the expatriate community of artists and writers in Paris. They may have been a doomed generation, but they knew how to express themselves and they had clear opinions to be expressed. What they saw of America was, as Ernest Heminway wrote, “Broad lawns and narrow minds”. That was the description of the older generation who formed the Second KKK, an organization filled with all the respectable people of society: businessmen, police officers, judges, politicians, and most important of all lots of ministers.
The members of Lost Generation were many things, but respectable they were not. They were immigrants and the children of immigrants, hoboes and migrant workers, gangsters and bank robbers, socialists and anarchists, drunks on Cannery Row and Bonus Army veterans camped out in Washington, DC. The Lost Generation members of my mom’s family in Southern Indiana included moonshiners and moonshine runners. They were born into a rough world, lived rough lives and often had rough endings. They were what the KKK so feared, what the older generation saw as a threat to the American Way.
These younger Americans didn’t have respect for tradition and social order, especially not the young blacks and the young women who demanded equal rights, the women even gaining the right to vote in 1920. It was in this early twentieth century era when the NAACP was founded and when the IWW was organized. This is when the Triangle Factory Fire occurred and when the Scopes Trial took place. This is when the Russian Revolution succeeded and the Red Scare began in force. This was also a time of the largest wave of immigration in US history, specifically the first decade of the new century; and in response it was during this decade that the idea of the Melting Pot first appeared, assimilation no longer being seen as a natural process and instead as a forced action of melting the individual down into a collective American identity.
With the ending of rural life, it was the end of the independence of the small family farmer. Americans worried that men would lose their manliness and women would forget their place. The Boy Scouts were founded, national parks created, fishing and hunting promoted. The middle class life of domesticity and family was also put forth as an ideal. The nuclear family became the new national standard with clearly demarcated gender roles.
The Lost Generation tried to navigate this new society that was forming out of all this change. Maybe this is why so many of them aspired toward being great writers and artists. They were seeking to portray what society was and what it could be. From the Lost Generation, you had on one hand Grant Wood with his American Gothic and on the other hand Norman Rockwell with his illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post.
It was maybe inevitable that the KKK wouldn’t last. The new generation wasn’t going to embrace their vision of society, although racism would continue on in many new forms.
I wanted to write about this because I’ve been interested in that era for a long time. My dad just reminded me of it again with his telling me about what he had learned of the KKK. It got me thinking again of the Lost Generation.
History seems to go in cycles. In the generation theory of Strauss and Howe, my generation of GenX has played the same role as did the Lost Generation. In recent decades, we have found ourselves in a similar time of change. Instead of Prohibition, we have a War on Drugs. Instead of a mass wave of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, we have a mass wave of immigrants from outside Europe. Instead of the Great Depression, we have a Great Recession. Instead of Progressive Era reform, we get healthcare reform. Instead of a new generation of optimistic GIs, we have a new generation of optimistic Millennials.
With that in mind, I’ll offer you a song by Todd Snider who is on the older end of GenX. He was born in Oregon, the Northwest having once been another stronghold of white supremacy, nativism and the KKK. There were many sundown towns in the US, but Oregon was a sundown state into the 1920s. In the following song, Todd Snider explains his rejection of the social role the older generation had expected of him, instead embracing an alternative lifestyle:
My brother, Nate, and I were bicycling on Iowa’s country roads. We were on a day outing. We met in the Waterworks Prairie Park by the Iowa River, from where we traveled to a nearby town (Hills, Iowa) and then crossing Coralville Dam. On the way we passed farmland mixed with housing, and we talked as we cruised along. Healthy exercise and fresh air.
Iowa is one of the best states in the country for bicyclists, including professionals wanting to train, which is why there is such things as Ragbrai here (my brother has been biking a lot in preparation for that particular event). The reasons Iowa is great for biking is because of how the roads were planned in mostly square sections that goes back to the earliest settlements and farmland (Iowa was the first state or one of the first to be planned out in this manner). This type of planned community structure and civic infrastructure is part of the Midwestern DNA, unlike the haphazard (and litigation-prone) metes and bounds system that defined the early development in the South (legal problems with land ownership were behind Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln’s family leaving Kentucky).
The other thing Iowa is known for are all these small towns that are regularly situated in the counties, even in rural areas. Many of these farm towns have died out or are in the process of dying, but many of them still survive. The surviving farm towns, besides the county seats, have often had to reinvent themselves or else become ghosts of their former selves. Even with the rural population drain, the massive road infrastructure is maintained because it is required for the movement of farm equipment and farm produce.
One of the results of the rural population drain is that many of the young have left. Those left behind are older and getting older every year. These small towns are typically filled with fewer young families, especially as the family farms have been bought up by large corporations.
This has created many small communities with little sense of the future. The old people there remember the way things used to be. They fear and resist change, but in doing so they are typically unwilling to invest in the future. Some of these towns essentially collectively commit suicide because the problems they face are so great and no one wants to take responsibility to invest in the next generation that is likely to move away. It is a vicious cycle of self-destruction or else, in some cases, an unavoidable downward spiral.
The shrinking populations have a cascade of effects, but let me first describe how it used to be.
Iowa counties were designed so that any farmer could drive his horse-drawn wagon to the county seat and back in a single day. The Amish living here still travel by wagon, and under these conditions their traditional communities thrive. Counties are relatively small, but many counties used to have a number of towns where basic needs to could be regularly taken care of. In a typical town, there would be such things as grocery and farm supply stores, farmers’ markets, gas stations, repair shops, public schools, public libraries, etc. These were very civic-minded places, somewhat modeled on the New England ideal of local democracy.
The heart of the counties are the county seats where the courthouses and such are located and where parades and fairs are held, but the heart of communities used to be the public school and the downtown. The pride of any decent-sized town was the local high school football or baseball team. However, to save money, many of the small schools have been shut down and replaced by centralized larger schools where kids are bussed in from far away. This has had a terrible impact on these traditional farm communities. All that is left of many of the remaining towns are the houses surrounding a now mostly emptied downtown with a few struggling businesses. The Walmarts have put the final nail in the coffin of most of the small downtowns.
This has been true all across the Midwest. My dad grew up in Alexandria, Indiana. It was once declared Small Town USA. In the decades following the post-war boom era, factories have closed down or laid off workers. My uncle has remained their because of his love of the place, but he struggles to make money with his dentistry business. Most of these small towns used to have dentists and doctors with offices in the downtown, but rural residents these days typically have to travel a lot further than they used to just to get basic healthcare, if they get it at all.
To make matters worse, meth addiction has become an epidemic in the rural Midwest. Meth is a drug that grows amidst desperation, spreading that desperation further like weeds that even Roundup can’t kill. The best options available in such a desperate environment is to work at the slaughterhouse or work at Walmart or else work multiple jobs trying to support your family which leads you to be tempted by meth to give you that extra boost when you have no energy left. Of course, you can also go into the meth making business itself as meth can be cooked up easily in any kitchen or trailer.
Desperation also breeds politicians like Steve King. He is congressman of a district in western Iowa, the epitome of everything I describe. That district has the oldest average age of any population in the entire country. The reason Steve King is such an asshole is because he represents ornery old people who live in dying towns where there is absolutely no hope for the future. You have to have pity on a population so distraught that they would repeatedly vote for someone like Steve King. That is a group of people begging to be put out of their misery. They are angry at a world that has left them behind and they have every reason to be angry, even though in their anger they embrace a demagogue who can’t and won’t solve their problems.
These aging rural folk mostly come from farm families that have farmed for generations. They are the last of their kind. In many cases, their family land has been sold and their children have left them. Society no longer has any use for them and so they have no use for society. The shrinking few of the next generation that have stuck around aren’t following in the family tradition of being independent farmers. Jefferson’s yeoman farmer vision of America is a thing of the past. These last rural holdouts embrace reactionary politics because they are fighting for a lost cause. Only in fiction are lost causes ever noble.
Reactionary politics doesn’t result in constructive and sustainable policies. Fiscal conservatism becomes the rally cry of communities in retreat, communities full of people who have lost faith in anything greater that can be achieved. Building and maintaining town infrastructure is something that is done when it is seen as an investment that will one day payoff. To the reactionary mind, though, all change is seen as loss and destruction, even when it involves basic maintenance and simple improvements. Normal government functions become battles to be endlessly fought against. Local democracy can’t survive under such conditions, and so the remnants of civic-mindedness devolves into struggles for power. If the only self-respect in one’s view is resistance and refusal, it will be seized with a death grip.
Nate and I were discussing some of this on our jaunt about the countryside.
He lives in one of those small towns, West Branch. It used to be a very thriving town since the railroad used to pass right through the middle of it, but the tracks have been pulled up and it has partly become a bedroom community of Iowa City (where the University of Iowa is located and where I live). West Branch is the boyhood home of Herbert Hoover, the 31st US president. There is a federal park there that includes Hoover’s boyhood home and some other original buildings, and the park brings in some money into the town.
Having been in West Branch for many years now, my brother has gained an inside view on what goes for small town life these days. His town lacks the desperation of some towns as there are jobs to be had in the larger, more prosperous cities nearby. I doubt there are many people left in West Branch who make a living by farming their own land. Still, the old families remain and they try to maintain their grip on their community.
This plays out in a number of ways. The older generation resists improving anything for fear that it will attract more people to move into town. They’d rather let the town crumble than risk it growing into something new, prosperity and hope for new generations be damned. Others in town, often newcomers like my brother (and all families are newcomers who haven’t been there for generations), want to improve the town for they are mostly young parents and young professionals who are hopeful about the future.
It is a battle of the old power elite against the rising of a new generation. The old power elite consists of a group of families that have had immense influence. They hold many of the political positions and they treat the volunteer fire department like a private club. These families are represented by a generation of old white guys, many of whom are in their 70s. They are known as the ‘Dinosaurs’. The mayor died last year. Some of the older city council members don’t have have many years left before retiring, going senile or dying. It is a government run by nepotism and cronyism, a typical good ol’ boys network.
West Branch is a perfect example of fiscal conservatism. There is always money for the fire department, of course. It is the pride and joy. Otherwise, there is never money for anything and there is great resistance to raise taxes. Even when a federal grant was available, they wouldn’t take it to fix the sidewalks. Part of the reason was because the federal government has requirements about how work is contracted out which means they couldn’t use their typical practice of cronyism. So, the sidewalks go on crumbling.
The local government is governed by those who don’t want to govern. They see their sole purpose is to obstruct progress and maintain their control, and they have been very good at achieving this end.
For some reason, the city government likes to give public property away. They gave away the city park to the Herbert Hoover National Park because they didn’t want to spend the money to maintain it such as keeping it mowed, but now every time they want to have a public event at the former city park they have to get permission from the local representative of the federal government. They were donated a large old building and the property it was built on, a former retirement home as I recall. The land was worth $100,000 and the building was worth a $100,000. They gave it to one of their cronies for $5,000 which means the city took a loss of $195,000 and that is a lot of money for such a tiny town. Their justification was that this crony sometimes did volunteer work for the city. I wish someone gave me $195,000 when I volunteered.
They don’t like the idea of public property. I guess it sounds too much like communism. If they could give the entire town away, they might consider it as long as it went to a member of one of the old families. As libertarians like to say, government is the problem. These Dinosaurs are taking seriously the idea of shrinking their local government so much that it can be drowned in a bathtub. Some might call that self-destruction, but they would consider it a victory.
Like many conservatives, they see salvation in big business. The West Branch city council gave TIF agreement to a company with the promise that they would hire 100 residents. The company didn’t live up to their end of the deal when they laid off some people, but they gave the excuse that it wasn’t their fault because of the economy. So, the city council extended their TIF again. Only after the company broke their promise a second time did the city council revoke the TIF. Meanwhile, the city loss massive amounts of money in the taxes not paid.
If you add up all the money the West Branch government has given away or lost, it might add up into the millions. However, whenever any citizen group or committee seeks to do anything productive, the city council and the mayor will claim there isn’t enough money. That is fiscal conservatism for you.
The government of this town does the absolute minimum that it can get away with while keeping taxes as low as possible for town residents. They can get away with this partly because they live in the same county as the more prosperous Iowa City which means they get more county funds than they pay in county taxes. All of this pays for the public schools in town and helps pay for other basic maintenance. All that the West Branch government has to concern itself is that its few streets have their potholes filled and the snow plowed in the winter. The sewers probably need replacing and water pipes break every so often, but the infrastructure works well enough most of the time. The neat thing about infrastructure is that once it is built it can be neglected for decades before it becomes so big of a problem that it can no longer be ignored and shunted off onto the next generation.
A town like West Branch is a metaphor for our entire country. Like the rest of the country, it isn’t a bad place to live. The old white guys in West Branch government are like the old white guys in government everywhere else. This old political elite is part of a very large generation, the Baby Boomers (although the oldest of them are Silents or on the cusp), who have held onto power so long because they were followed by an extremely small generation, GenXers.
Many people, especially conservatives, like to idealize rural life. These days, though, rural life goes along with a lot of dysfunction, the side effects of globalized capitalism. Nearly everything is being concentrated into ever growing corporations, farms being no exception. Small independent farmers and business owners are becoming a rare species, the family farm and business rarer still. With factory farming, the land is being farmed even more intensively which means even less sustainably. I often doubt that we are on the road to long-term prosperity. It can feel that we are as much fighting against so-called ‘progress’ as we are looking for a progress worth fighting for. It is hard to blame old rural people for lashing out at a world they no longer understand.
I don’t think it is all doom and gloom, though. There are still plenty of small independent farmers fighting the good fight. Some have gone organic in looking for a niche market to make enough profit. There has been a growing market for locally grown produce. If the Amish can thrive in this modern society, there are far from being without hope. Besides, even small towns like West Branch have their up-and-coming young generation looking to the future rather than the past. overwhelmed as they may seem by the old folk.
We typically look to the big cities on the coasts in determining the winds of change, but there remains a significantly large part of the US population living in rural states and not all of them are aging reactionaries. Driving through Iowa, one still sees plenty of progress. Many rural people gladly embrace new technology such as putting up wind turbines or renting their land out for those who put up wind turbines and beneath these behemoths the cows graze. Iowa is a leader in wind energy and most data shows the state doing relatively well compared to the rest of the country. The rural states to the west of the Mississippi fared extremely well even during the economic downturn. The economy could entirely collapse and there still will be a demand for corn, soy and wheat.
More important to my mind, I would note that the Midwest has been for a very long time one of the breeding grounds for progressive, populist and even radical politics. That fiercely independent spirit remains, even if the older generation has forgotten about it. If I were too look for the direction this country is turning toward, I’d probably look to a state like Wisconsin. The battles of local politics can be as inane as national politics, but I think the local politics might have more impact than we realize.
“While the disparity between the free-wheeling philosophy of the market and the reality of coercive capitalism has long been known, the last four decades have sharpened it. Partly because of the rise of an aggressive defense of untrammeled markets in the name of liberty, partly because of the assault on the welfare state and social democracy. For some on the left, today’s disparity between libertarian theories of the market and the reality of capitalism proves that the idea of the free market is a simple ideological mystification. “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” takes a different tack: it tries to show that the practice is built into the theory, that it is not elided there but embraced.
“[ . . . ] the libertarian defense of the market—while often treated as a source of tension on the right because it conflicts with the conservative commitment to stability and tradition, virtue and glory—is in fact consistent with the right’s reactionary project of defending private hierarchies against democratic movements from below.”
I’d also recommend checking out another article in The Nation by Corey Robin:
Considering ideological predispositions, there is one study I came across that I’ve never focused on before. I realized it allows for useful perspective on a particular distinction and on general confusion.
The study had to do with what people focus upon. The conclusion of the results was that conservatives spend more time focusing on that which they perceive as negative whereas liberals spend more time focusing on that which they perceive as positive. Now, that is beyond interesting.
It makes sense according to other research.
Conservatives are shown to on average have a higher fear/disgust reesponse. It’s easy to see this just by observing politics where conservatives often have long lists of all the things they are against. This was obvious with the Tea Party. It can lead liberals to calling them obstructionists.
Liberals, on the other hand, tend to be drawn toward the new and different, toward possibility and change. Liberals often push visions of hope wtih optimism and expectation about what good can be achieved. This was heard particularly in Obama’s first campaign. But conservatives see it as naive and moreso dangerously naive.
Liberals point out the positive results being blocked by conservatives. And conservatives complain about the negative results they fear from the agenda liberals push.
This made me wonder about the debate on the nature of conservatism. Is conservatism most fundamentally about defending tradition against change? Or is conservatism more primarily motivated by reaction to what it is against?
This could appear like simply a difference of emphasis, but it is an emphasis that might make a world of difference. A difference of emphasis could cause a drastic difference in political behavior and policy. This is what Corey Robin argues in his theory of reactionary onservatism. He actually argues that it goes past just emphasis, and he makes this argument by pointing how contemporary explanations of conservatism don’t fit the actual ideological history of conservatism.
What is intriguing about Corey Robin’s argument is that I don’t think he is claiming or even implying that conservatives are necessarily trying to be deceptive. Most conservatives probably believe the narrative told of conservatism as traditionalism.
The disconnect maybe just comes from the typical human challenge of self-awareness and self-understanding. Often, outsiders have more perspective to objectively assess a group or movement. This would be true for liberals as well, and I’d love to see a non-liberal write an equally compelling analysis of liberalism.
I have no desire to repeat Corey Robin’s argument here. Instead, I’ll follow a recent line of thought I’ve had about popular entertainment. What many see as liberal entertainment I’d argue is actually conservative in the reactionary sense. Two examples of this are film noir and action movies.
The argument for these genres being liberal is that authority figures often aren’t the heroes, sometimes the authority figures are challenged by or even disrespected by the heroes who not unusually are lone vigilantes. Furthermore, these movies often glorify what traditionalist-identifying conservatives claim to be against: sex, violence, etc.
The argument for reactionary conservatism, however, brings forth an explanation that seems to be confirmed by the study I mentioned above. These movies are conservative precisely for the reason that they are obsessively focused on all the issues that cause conservatives to feel fear or disgust. They are being invoked in presenting a sense of moral order or the need for renewal of moral order, even if only manifest in the hero fighting the good fight or standing by his personal principles.
This is where the confusion is brought to the surface. At least for conservatives, the best way to see what they are about is by looking at what they are against. Film noir and action movies probably will tell you more about conservatism than even the most scholarly tome written by a conservative thinker.
I’ve written about this topic quite a few times before. I don’t have any grand insights to add to my previous commentary. I just find myself constantly perplexed by American conservatism.
One particular thing keeps coming back to my mind. America has no tradition of traditional conservatism. This has been more or less true going back to colonial times, but definitely true at least by the revolutionary era. The Europeans who immigrated to America mostly came from traditionally conservative societies and communities, although modern liberalism was already beginning to take hold in certain countries such as Britain and the Netherlands. The important part is that these people were usually leaving traditional conservatism behind on purpose, sometimes even being forced to leave by the defenders of traditional conservatives of their homelands.
The Enlightenment eventually led to the demise of traditional conservatism in the West. What replaced it was reactionary conservatism. This took hold earliest in America because there was no other conservatism to compete with it. But what exactly is this reactionary conservatism? Is it even conservative in any basic sense?
Traditional conservatives were the strongest opponents of classical liberalism, most specifically laissez-faire capitalism. Modern conservatives have come to embrace many of the major issues that classical conservatives opposed. Conservatives no longer even promote conserving such as the precautionary principle which goes back to the origin of the word itself.
They don’t resist change, but react against it. In reacting, they oddly end up embracing so much of what they reacted against. There is no core set of beliefs or values to reactionary conservatism. It just depends on what they happen to be reacting against at the moment?
Being predisposed to the liberal worldview, it doesn’t bother me that liberalism lacks any core principles. I’ve always thought of liberalism as more of an attitude, a mindset. Liberalism is all about changing with the times, all about embracing the new and different. But that isn’t how conservatives think of conservatism… which makes reactionary conservatism a very odd beast.
Am I not fully grasping what conservatism is all about? Maybe I’m doing what conservatives tend to do by pushing the idea of the idea of a genuinely conservative conservatism of the past. Maybe conservatism has always been reactionary. If one were to seek an origin of conservatism, one would have to look to the most traditional of societies which are hunter-gatherer tribes. Even the traditional conservatism that existed when the revolutionary era came was far away from tribal societies.
All of civilization was built on largely liberalizing forces. The merging of cultures and syncretizing of religions in such civilizations as the Roman Empire. Civilization is fundamentally liberal in bringing local people into an increasingly cosmopolitan world.
By following the strands of conservatism back in time, do we find a beginning point of conservatism? Or does the entire idea of conservatism simply unravel?
I have a basic question that connects to many related questions.
Anyone who has an answer(s), please share.
Does being illiberal or even anti-liberal inevitably mean being conservative?
Or to reverse it:
Does being conservative mean being illiberal or anti-liberal?
Basically, the question is:
Are liberal and conservative completely opposite categories, inherently oppositional even?
Are they mutually exclusive?
* * *
I know of conservatives who are relatively liberal-minded and liberals who are relatively conservative-minded.
Are such people contradictions? Are they misguided?
When a liberal uses illiberal methods, are they still being liberal and can what they achieve through such illiberal methods actually be liberal in essence or in purpose?
Former progressives who became the first neoconservatives, at what point did they stop being liberals? Or were they ever really liberals?
When Reagan was the president of a union (Screen Actors Guild), was he a liberal or was he merely a conservative responding to the liberal social scene of Hollywood during a relatively liberal era? When he attacked commies in the union, was he acting as a liberal or as a conservative? Is Obama a liberal even though he is seemingly more conservative than Reagan on some issues? Should we call Reagan a liberal now because the spectrum has shifted so far right? How can Reagan’s Emersonian optimism be considered conservative? Since today only liberals have majority support for compromise, what does that make Reagan who was often one of the strongest proponents of seeking compromise?
What about Goldwater who started movement conservatism and who introduced Reagan to the GOP? In later years, Goldwater attacked right-wingers and considered himself a liberal. How could Goldwater have called himself liberal when he is the one who helped push the spectrum so far right?
Many right-wingers have taken claim of ‘classical liberalism’, some even going so far as saying that their right-wing version of ‘classical liberalism’ is the original ‘liberalism’ and so the only real ‘liberalism’. Are they at least partly correct? Are right-wing classical liberals (or at least some of them) more liberal than the Democratic neoliberals and those who support them? If some right-wingers have embraced liberalism to varying degrees and many Democrats have forsaken liberalism to varying degrees, where does that leave liberalism itself?
Who gets to decide who is or who isn’t a liberal, who is or who isn’t a conservative?
Are such labels merely relative? Do they or don’t they have any fundamental meaning?
What does it centrally mean to be liberal? What essence of liberalism can’t be sacrificed in order to maintain a basic and meaningful identity as a liberal? Is speaking of a true ‘liberal’ just to fall into the trap of No True Scotsman fallacy? If ‘liberal’ is just a relative label with no fundamental meaning, what is the point of using it besides simply satisfying the desire for a group identity?
* * *
Let me return to my original question and put it another way.
Does a conservative in a liberal society automatically have to be against that society? Or is there a way for a conservative to maintain his conservatism in a liberal context without merely being a reactionary? What does being a conservative mean in the modern world where everything traditional has become forgotten, obscured, obsolete, deligitimated or simply unpopular? If conservatism has become an entirely reactionary phenomena, what does that make liberalism in response: anti-reactionary, non-reactionary or what?
On a related note, what is the relationship between conservatism and traditionalism? Corey Robin discusses this in his book, The Reactionary Mind. Looking back over these past centuries, some of the people who most effectively attacked traditionalists were conservatives. If modern conservatives aren’t traditionalists, whether or not they are overtly antagonistic to it, then what are they?
I’ve often wondered about the role of liberalism. 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.
Has this caused liberals to lose their sense of a coherent identity? By disconnecting from the left-wing, did liberals cut themselves off from their own roots? By teaming up with neoliberal Democrats, have liberals permanently sullied their reputation?
* * *
I ask about all of this as someone who used to identify as a liberal, but has stopped doing so, at least for the time being. As a label, is ‘liberal’ even worth trying to save from all the conflation and confusion? Has it lost all useful meaning? I’ve noticed a number of books written this past decade that attempt to ressurect the original or core meaning of liberalism. Is it a lost cause? Or, even if not entirely lost cause, is it worth the effort? Some have taken a different tack by calling themselves ‘progressives’ instead. Is that any better, any more useful, any more clear in meaning?
Liberals have been attacked both by conservatives and right-wingers on one side and by left-wingers on the other side. Does liberalism merely mean center-left? Isn’t there so much more to liberalism than merely not being on the right? Left-wingers don’t just attack liberals. Many of them have also attacked social democrats and municipal socialists. To me, liberalism can include all forms of liberal-minded versions of left-wing ideology or policy. I suspect that certain more radical left-wingers don’t dislike liberalism per se, rather they dislike the liberal-mindedness whether in service of mainstream politics or left-wing politics. Many left-wingers can be quite conservative-minded, research even finding that communists in communist countries measured very high on Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Also, keep in mind how easily socialist rhetoric was used in service of fascism, even convincing some left-wingers to support it.
I suspect the fundamental issue isn’t so much ideology and more to do with attitude. Someone holding Lockean ideas in the 18th century was liberally challenging the status quo, but someone today holding Lockean ideas is illiberally defending the status quo. Maybe an ideology can’t in and of itself be considered liberal or not, rather how it is held and for what purpose. Even though relatively speaking all modern politics is liberal compared to a millennia ago, it would be far from useful to call a modern right-winger a liberal.
I gave up on labeling myself liberal because of the confusion. However, the confusion was intentionally created by those hoping people like me would abandon it. I’m essentially letting them win, not only letting conservatives win but also letting the conservative-minded left-wingers to win. The conservative-minded, whether on the right or left, have for the time being won the battle of defining the terms. I could try to fight back in defense of ‘liberalism’, but I’m not sure I want to. Am I wrong for giving up too easily?
“As usual the conventional wisdom here is wrong. Liberal didn’t become a bad word because conservatives started attacking it. They’ve always attacked us. Liberal became a bad word because, unlike in that wonderful West Wing clip, liberals started running away from it.
“Liberals started calling themselves “progressives” instead. A truly short-sighted decision. Did they think this would make it stop? Probably not, and they probably didn’t care at the time. Bullies don’t back down when you run away and change your name. Bullies back down when you stand up and say, “Yeah, I’m a liberal. Problem?”
“And of course this whole “progressive” label is now being attacked by right-wing bullies like Glenn Beck. It’s needlessly muddled the debate about things like progressive tax rates. ”Oh, it’s a progressive tax rate. And progressive means liberal. So, I’m against that, I guess,” says the conservative making $50,000 per year.
“Progressive tax rates aren’t liberal. They’re what Adam Smith advocated for in Wealth of Nations. They make sense. (Okay, so maybe they are liberal then, but that’s beside the point.)
“Anyway, I started thinking about this again, partially because of that Lawrence O’Donnell post I made and partly because of what my conservative friend in Ohio said to me at the end of his message:
“I have always been a registered republican. I will never agree with liberals but I will be voting democrat from here on out.”
“This is a guy who works as a policeman, a protector of the people, paid for by the people, and who believes that people have a right to band together and collectively bargain for their livelihood. And yet he also believes that he will never agree with liberals. At least one of these statements does not belong!
“This is our fault. We have lost control of what the word liberal means because we haven’t defended it, and when you don’t stand up for yourself, you can’t blame people for thinking your ideas are not worth standing up for.”
* * *
By writing this post, I don’t mean to argue for liberalism or to dismiss any genuine criticisms. I’m truly just questioning. I was wondering about the relationship between political liberalism and psychological liberal-mindedness (partly in response to my previous thoughts about my parents who are self-identified conservatives and yet are relatively liberal-minded in many ways, less so than myself though).
If one is strongly liberal-minded, why not simply call oneself a ‘liberal’? Why do we let others define the terms we label ourselves with? It seems obvious to me that liberalism should automatically imply liberal-mindedness. In my mind, to the degree someone isn’t liberal-minded is the degree to which they aren’t a liberal, and to the degree someone is liberal-minded is the degree to which they are a liberal. Political liberalism is simply the attempt to manifest liberal-mindedness in the real world of political action.
Part of me wants to defend liberalism in this way, but another part of me feels like there isn’t any point in trying. I remain undecided.