Political Labels – Meaningless? Divisive?

I keep coming across the problem with political labels. I’m actually a fan of labels when they are used to accurately represent fundamental differences, but too often that isn’t how they are used. I probably don’t have much hope to disentangle that which has been intentionally tangled. Still, I can at least explain my own understanding of the entanglement.

First, there is a difference between European and American political histories. In Europe, conservatism has traditionally been supportive of government. In America, conservatism opposed the government because the government was founded on a liberal vision. So, American conservatism is radicalized and contradicts traditional conservatism. To speak of the conservative tradition in America is to speak of an idiosyncratic tradition. The American conservative tradition isn’t traditionally conservative. It’s more complex than that, but there is a basic truth to this explanation.

Second, there is a difference between mainstream politics and majority public opinion. America was inspired by a vision of populist liberalism, but the founding fathers were mistrusting of this vision and so they created a new entrenched ruling elite (rich white males, landed aristocracy, plutocratic owner class). So, American politics has an inherent conflict. The original vision that inspired the American Revolution has yet to be fulfilled. This puts conservatives in a weird position when they try to defend the American tradition. Are they defending the radically liberal vision or are they defending the ruling elite? In some sense, the two are so mixed that they can’t easily be separated. The founding fathers were liberal for their day and yet socially conservative compared to present society, especially in their favoring a hierarchical society built on slavery where most citizens are disenfranchised from voting and holding political office.

Third, about a century ago through lies and deception corporations gained the legal rights of personhood. At that time, there was a populist revolt against the capitalist oligarchy. But it didn’t last as the ruling elite quickly destroyed it and co-opted the rhetoric. With corporate personhood, the founding father’s plutocracy was turned into a corporatocracy. Yet it’s a corporatocracy that retains the external elements of America’s social democracy. Corporatocracy is what Ike was warning about when he spoke of the Military-Industrial Complex. The 20th century has been the history of that warning not being heeded. The result is that the entire mainstream political spectrum has been pushed toward the right (toward a fiscal conservatism defined by the plutocratic ruling class of business owners, CEOs, bankers, investors, lobbyists, and corporatist politicians).

Fourth, there used to be a left-wing and a right-wing in both parties. This changed when the entire country had a political switch over the past half century or so. The Democratic Party used to be strong in the South, but is now strong in the North. However, the Democratic Party still is strong with poor, minorities, and other disenfranchised demographics even in the South. And the Democratic Party has maintained both a left-wing and a right-wing (Democrats are almost equally divided between those who identify as liberals, conservatives, and moderates). The Republicans were the party of Lincoln, the leader of the Northern Aggression who forced the South to end slavery. Republicans were the party that defended government instead of attacking it. Republicans were called that because they believed in the ‘republic’ which is the government. Earlier in the 20th century, there were still many progressive Republicans like Eisenhower. But there was a purging of the left-wing of the GOP which has caused the conservative movement to become radicalized toward the far right, specifically the far right of social conservatives. This radicalization has, as research has shown, led the conservative movement to become strongly aligned with right-wing authoritarians (a specific label with a specific definition as used in research).

All of this together has led Americans to have a very confused sense of politics.

When polled: If Americans are given a choice between identifying as liberal, conservative or moderate, the majority chooses moderate. If Americans are only given a choice between liberal or conservative, the majority chooses conservative. However, when asked about specific political positions and policies, liberals and moderates are largely in agreement. What usually is defined as ‘liberal’ positions are supported by a majority of Americans.

So, there is an apparent contradiction between what Americans label themselves as and what Americans actually support. This is because for decades the word ‘liberal’ has been portrayed in very negative terms which the American public has internalized. Mainstream politicians and media pundits have increasingly portrayed liberalism as the far left which is obviously not the case since moderates and the majority agree with liberals. The political spectrum has been pushed so far to the right that the far left is almost entirely excluded from public debate. The vacuum left from the banishment of left-wingers has forced moderate liberals to fill that position on the left end of the spectrum.

The political center in Washington isn’t the political center of the American public. Most Americans are moderates, but most politicians are polarized in their rhetoric. Also, most activists are polarized as well. This leaves a moderate silent majority which is in fact the liberal silent majority. Most liberals are probably so silent because they don’t even know they are liberals.

On top of that, the majority of Americans don’t vote because America has a history of disenfranchising the masses (which was intentionally created by the founding fathers). Conservatives, like the founding fathers, don’t trust the masses and are suspicious of democracy because it gives power to the masses. The silent majority isn’t just silent but silenced. Our political system is technically a democracy (however imperfect and corrupt), but even admitting this fact is a concession conservatives are unwilling to make. Conservatives will say that we live in a republic, not a democracy. I find that funny since there is no inherent conflict between the two. Yes, we are a republic AND we are democracy. Anyway, there is nothing inherently good about a republic. China is a republic.

A further confusion is that many Americans, especially among conservatives, don’t understand the difference between a liberal, a socialist, a communist, and a fascist. It’s all one and the same to them. As I’ve already pointed out, the contemporary American liberal is actually a moderate and, I would add, a small ‘r’ republican (in that they support our republican government). Beyond that, a socialist isn’t a communist isn’t a fascist. Socialism is a broad category which gives power to individuals and to communities of individuals. To varying degrees, socialism can be found in many churches, local organizations, unions, etc. Communism and fascism, on the other hand, are specifically about governments. A communist government owns the means of production. And a fascist government is controlled by those who own the means of production. But the distinction is often blurred. For example, the Nazis were fascists who used socialism to label themselves while killing and imprisoning socialists as well as communists. If you were a socialist being killed or imprisoned by Nazis, you wouldn’t be comforted by the fact that Nazis labeled themselves as ‘socialists’.

Yet another confusion, especially among conservatives, is that libertarianism and classical liberalism is true conservatism. Now, that is a confusion of labels worthy of a propagandist. The original libertarians and classical liberals were radically liberal and not conservative in any sense. Some of them thought free markets were potentially beneficial, but they were also very wary of capitalism not constrained by the morality of public good. The first libertarians were labor movement socialists (which makes it all the more ironic that most self-identified libertarians today are mostly from the privileged upper class). The godfather of American libertarianism, Henry David Thoreau, criticized the capitalism of his day which is the very same 19th century capitalism that right-libertarians today like to romanticize. The original vision of America was described by Thomas Paine who was a classical liberal of the bleeding heart liberal variety. Even so, left-libertarians like Thoreau and radical liberals like Paine are today so far to the left that they are no longer even included on the political spectrum. Even militant secessionists get more media attention and mainstream respectability. Washington politicians are simply being good conservatives when they speak about overthrowing the government, but when a moderate liberal defends the moral justification of the government they get labeled as a far left socialist.

The confusions abound. Many people think of America as a Christian nation, but only a minority of Americans regularly attend church and atheists know more about the Bible than most who claim to be Christian. Republicans use fiscal conservatism as rhetoric, but when asked it’s self-identified liberals who state the most interest in balancing the budget. Tea Party supporters and many right-libertarians idolize the constitution, but some of these people have proposed repealing the 14th amendment just because they don’t like immigrants and they’ve sought to take away the rights from the working class by busting unions. It’s hard to know what to make of all this.

Even though I think of myself as a liberal, I don’t mean to just blame conservatives. When I read about traditional conservatism, I find elements of it quite appealing. I’ve always been mistrusting of radicalism and not just because the radicalism of American conservatives. I’m like Paine in that I want to believe in our democratic government. Paine would be disappointed to see our country becoming ever more fascist, but he would be quite uplifted by the fact that the government finally ended slavery which he wanted the government to do right from the beginning. I want to believe in America, including the government. In this sense, I’m ‘conservative’. But being this kind of a ‘conservative’ in America means that you’ll likely feel more at home with those who identify as ‘liberals’. As such, I praise conservatism even as I criticize conservatives.

I had no grand purpose in analyzing all these labels. I just wanted to explain my own understanding. I keep hearing the same muddled labels being argued about… which is annoying. I also find it annoying when someone claims the labels are meaningless, that the left/right dichotomy was created to divide and conquer. My problem is most people who think labels are meaningless seem to do so because of ignorance about the history of those labels. Yes, those in power do use tactics of divide and conquer, but they also use tactics of keeping the public so ignorant that they can’t make intelligent distinctions.

I feel harshly judgmental (which isn’t unusual for me), but that isn’t the point. Maybe those who think the labels have become meaningless are right. I don’t know if it matters. The labels themselves, of course, are just words. What matters is that which words are intended to represent. From my perspective, the loss of meaningful labels is the loss of meaningful discussion. What these labels represent is history. There is something sad about the collective forgetting of our collective past.

– – –

After writing the above, I had some further thoughts (surprise, surprise). I want to expand on a few points I made and maybe offer some corrections or clarifications.

I think the confusion of politics has always existed in America. It goes beyond the radicalization and polarization of the 20th century.

I was particularly thinking about political groups such as right-libertarians, objectivists, and anarcho-capitalists. I often consider these groups to be ‘conservative’ in the broad sense. Certainly, they are right-wingers. It makes me wonder what is the relation between conservatives and right-wingers. As I already pointed out, liberals and left-wingers often have very little in common. Many left-wingers choose not to identify as ‘liberals’ and many self-identified liberals disavow left-wingers. I’ve noticed similar dynamic can be found between right-wingers and conservatives (which, to an outsider like me, often appears as a conflict between those who emphasize fiscal conservatism and those who emphasize social conservatism).

The confusion in this area has two main aspects.

  1. Those on the right tend to conflate liberals and left-wingers and those on the left tend to conflate conservatives and right-wingers.
  2. If you go far enough to the right or left, you often end up around the same place: left-libertarians and right-libertarians, anarcho-syndicalists and anarcho-capitalists, etc.

Both the left-wing and right-wing in America have some origins in classical liberalism (because America has its origins in classical liberalism). My complaint is that the right-wingers often want to claim classical liberalism for themselves. I’ve argued that classical liberalism has more in common with the left than the right. Ignoring the two wings, it’s obvious that liberalism in general has its origins in classical liberalism, although much has changed since the time of classical liberalism. On the other hand, one would have to make a major stretch to argue that contemporary conservatism overall has much to do with classical liberalism. Right-wingers make a simple mistake in assuming that classical liberalism automatically means minarchism or anti-statism. The early classical liberals, prior to the American and French revolutions, were against the governments of the time because those governments were monarchies with state-sanctioned religions. But they weren’t against all government in principle. For damned sure, classical liberalism isn’t just another name for anarchism.

That said, I must admit that I’m not an expert on classical liberalism. I think some right-wing ideologies have a case for their origins in classical liberalism, but they don’t have a case for sole possession of classical liberalism nor as the rightful inheritors, the official standard-bearers of all classical liberalism. When they attempt to make this argument, they discredit themselves with their own arrogant self-righteousness. I’m willing to share classical liberalism with them, but I won’t allow them to eliminate the liberalism from classical liberalism.

Here is what I see as the source of the confusion about classical liberalism. I’ve noticed two diverging tendencies within the founding generation of America. Both were liberal relative to the monarchy they were collectively opposing, but one was more liberal than the other. Some of the founders wanted a ruling elite based class, education and property. These founders were successful in implementing this vision to varying degrees in federal and state laws. Opposing them, were those who agreed with Paine which largely included those not a part of the ruling elite (Paine himself was born into the working class). Paine’s vision inspired the American Revolution, but was shoved to the side once the American ruling elite was freed from the British ruling elite. Paine was a radical liberal in the tradition of social democracy and so that meant that Paine was a classical liberal who didn’t hate government. He realized that a democratic government was the only protection from a new ruling elite. And many of the other founders feared democracy because they realized it limited their own power as the ruling elite while empowering the average person (i.e., the ‘mob’).

So, the right-winger today who self-identifies as a classical liberal tends to be in the American tradition of a capitalist ruling elite (plutocracy) that opposes other ruling elites (such as monarchies and often government in general) while simultaneously opposing the vast majority of citizens who potentially could oppose their own position of ruling elite. They see themselves as part of a meritocracy and so believe that they, unlike others, have earned their position as the ruling elite. However, it’s a bit misguided to call this classical liberalism. Classical just generally refers to the liberalism prior to the 20th century. Paine absolutely was a classical liberal. He was definitely liberal for politics of his day and his vision is still radically liberal by today’s standards. The right-wing founders were liberal in wanting to replace a monarchy with a republic, but they were conservative in wanting to maintain a ruling elite. I find it almost disingenous to call people classical liberals who feared giving people basic freedom and human rights. Paine wanted everyone to be absolutely and equally free, but many of the founders didn’t want to end slavery or give voting rights to all citizens because they believed maintaining their own freedom necessitated limiting the freedom of others. That is a very distorted and uninspiring notion of classical liberalism.

Many right-wing libertarians to this day find themselves in this conundrum of simultaneously praising and fearing freedom. Many right-wing libertarians and minarchists are fine with any constraints on freedom that help maintain their position of power and the social order that upholds it (e.g., strong border control and military). They like capitalism (or rather their version of big business corporatism) even if it means (or because it means) undermining democracy and disempowering those of the lower classes (e.g., union busting, Citizens United). This attitude may have elements of classical liberalism in terms of rhetoric, but it is also a response of wanting to deny the unadulterated and unrestrained vision of classical liberalism as proposed by Paine. Even though it seemed relatively liberal a couple centuries ago, this right-wing ‘classical liberalism’ is extremely conservative compared to the present leftwing ideologies that seek to free and empower all people of all classes and races. I prefer my classical liberalism taken straight and not watered down.

Unlike most of the founders, Paine was a genuine progressive. It is interesting to note that progressivism isn’t always or entirely aligned with big government and with liberalism. Some of the founders who wanted to maintain the status quo of a ruling elite (meaning they were afraid of Paine’s populist progressivism) were for that reason also for having a strong central government. Paine didn’t disagree with having a strong central government, but he wanted it to be balanced by localized grassroots democracy. The ideal of progressivism existed at the beginning of America’s political tradition. Progressivism and populism have tended to gone hand in hand. In the Populist Era a century later, Paine’s vision was reawakened but it served both socially conservative agendas (e.g., religious revivalism, Prohibition) and socially liberal agendas (e.g., feminism)… and, oddly, it often was the seemingly social liberal feminists who were promoting the socially conservative agendas such as Prohibition. Still, at the heart of it, there was the same basic impulse that motivated Paine. The Populists were progressive in that they believed by making changes in the social order the average person would be empowered to change themselves. It’s the ideal of grassroots democracy, of direct political action.

Once upon a time, the Republican Party was the progressive party. Republicans ended slavery and maintained the union, created the national park service, built the interstate highway system, created the EPA. Et Cetera. These aren’t inherently liberal or conservative issues. Maintaining the union was maintaining the status quo and protecting the social order, both conservative impulses in a fundamental sense (although they’ve come to be identified with contemporary liberals). Conservative used to mean ‘conserving’ such as conserving land and resources by creating national parks and by creating the EPA which protects (i.e., conserves) the environment. Even unions aren’t inherently liberal. Maintaining living wages for workers maintains social order and ensures a healthy community and stable families (all of which are issues central to conservatives) which is why Catholic communities have also tended to be union communities.

In conclusion:
The liberalism of America’s past gets claimed by many American conservatives today.
And the conservatism of America’s past becomes identified with Americans labeled as liberals today.
But the radical left of America’s past and present usually gets forgotten and ignored.

– – –

I just finished writing another post that is in some ways a continuation of what I wrote above:

Is Classical Liberalism Liberal?

By the way, this is a topic I’ve grappled with often. This post is a summarization of analysis I’ve made and data I’ve gathered in previous posts:

Divide and Conquer

Here is something I never understand.

Every time I hear someone talk about “Real Americans” it’s almost always a Christian conservative (such as Sarah Palin”. Why is this “Divide and Conquer” mentality so appealing to many conservatives? And why does it seem so repulsive to most liberals?

The only answer I’ve found is the research of Bob Altemeyer. He found in the US Right-Wing Authoritarianism correlates to social conservatism and Christian fundamentalism. In communist countries, the bigots tend to be communists. In fascist countries, the xenophobes tend to be fascists. But, in America, this same type of person tends to be a socially conservative Christian. Why?

I understand the power of group mentality especially in terms of fundamentalism, but still I just can’t get my mind around it. There is this obvious conflict between what Jesus did and said and what right-wing Christians too often do and say. Shouldn’t all Christians, even conservatives, be against such bigoted xenophobia and fear-mongering?

Many right-wing Christians will ask: What would Jesus do? But why do so few right-wing Christians ask this question when they walk past the homeless guy sleeping on the cold sidewalk? Why do so few right-wing Christians ask this question when confronted with undocumented immigrants who are trying to escape a country that has become violent because of the US War on Drugs? Why do so few right-wing Christians ask this question when they hear drum-beating and flag-waving propaganda for yet another war?

My problem isn’t that Christians fail to live up to Christ’s example but that so few even try. Still, their not trying doesn’t stop them from being righteous towards the failures of others.

I don’t know what Jesus would do, but I do know that Jesus wouldn’t be a right-wing Christian.

US: Republic & Democracy

I keep noticing a particular belief among a certain kind of rightwinger. What they say is that the US government isn’t a democracy but a republic. I’ve seen this stated thousands of times in blogs and comments around the web.

I wonder what is the source of this claim. The fact that it keeps being repeated by so many people makes me think it’s a talking point often heard in conservative media. There is one thing that is obvious to me about this phenomenon. These people didn’t learn this idea by looking up the term ‘democracy’ in a dictionary or an encyclopedia or even Wikipedia.

Half of the statement is correct and half of the statement is false. The US government is BOTH a democracy AND a republic. To be more specific, the US government is a representative democracy and a constitutional republic. What these rightwingers fail to understand is that there are multiple definitions of democracy and multiple definitions of republic.

Even going back to Greek society, there was vast difference between Spartan and Athenian democracy. Sparta was a representative democracy with a political system that was divided. Athens was more of a direct democracy where even the lowest citizen could participate. The US is a bit of both these. The US is like Sparta in the following ways: representation instead of direct democracy, divided government, and a professional military. The US is only like Athens in one way: any citizen can participate and potentially become elected into government.

The only place where direct democracy operates in the US very partially is on certain major issues of local governance that are decided by citizen vote. I suppose also that jury by peers could be thought of as a watered down or constrained version of direct democracy. Still, the vast majority of the government is representative and the ‘mob’ of the citizenry has little direct influence.

The rightwingers are arguing that democracy is solely defined as direct democracy or, as some call it, mobocracy. But they are simply wrong. Their ignorance amazes me. Let me demonstrate by considering a random definition from a mainstream dictionary. I did a search and this is the top result (after Wikipedia):

Merriam-Webster, definition 1, part b (emphasis mine)
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/democracy

a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections

Here is the confusion. Rightwingers are taking the following part of the definition as if it were the whole definition:

Merriam-Webster, definition 3

capitalized : the principles and policies of the Democratic party in the United States <from emancipation Republicanism to New Deal Democracy — C. M. Roberts>

Basically, it comes down to a simplistic play on words. These rightwingers are trying to make an argument that the Republican party is the party of real America, the party that represents the emancipation Republicanism of the founding fathers. The problem is that this argument is so simplistic as to be inane. There is absolutely no conflict between a constitutional republic and a representative democracy. US democracy is constrained by being indirect and by having the govt divided. Furthermore, US democracy is constrained by the constitution (and the constitution is responsive to the democratic process, i.e., amendments).

There are a few basic confusions.

The original meaning of ‘republic’ was simply a government that wasn’t a monarchy. The difference between a monarch and a president is that the former represents himself or represents the ruling elite and the latter theoretically represents the whole population and the country as a whole. As far as I know, this doesn’t require a constitution. The term ‘republic’ just basically means that the leader can’t simply act on whim and must be held accountable to the law like everyone else, but these laws aren’t necessarily the same as a constitution. A constitution is similar to laws, but the difference is that a constitution is what all other laws are based upon and that they must remain basically unchanged. Most republics probably tend towards declaring constitutions, but a strong legal system independent of the leader can serve the same purpose as a constitution. A constitution is just a safeguard in case the legal system fails. The constitution, of course, has no power in and of itself. Still, it’s powerful in being a symbolic mission statement of a society.

Let me now share part of the definition of ‘republic’:

Merriam-Webster, definition 1, part b(1)
http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/republic

a government in which supreme power resides in a body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by elected officers and representatives responsible to them and governing according to law

That serves as an equally good definition of a representative democracy.

Two things come to my mind: 1) Henry Fairlie’s definition of a Tory; and 2) rightwing rhetoric about ‘mobocracy’ and ‘real Americans’.

So, how did Henry Fairlie define a Tory? The Tories support the British government… which includes the period of monarchy. The Tory has faith in government in general for the reason they mistrust capitalism controlled by the wealthy elite. The government represents the people or at least the country, but capitalists have no inherent loyalty to anything besides profit. I think this represents the basic distinction between conservatives and liberals in the US. Conservatives mistrust government and instead trust capitalism. Liberals have a basic faith in government while being wary of capitalism. This is demonstrated by how Democrats show stronger support for even Republican presidents than Republicans show for Democrat presidents. Liberals trust the government even when they don’t have one of their own in power because they see government as being greater than either party.

This brings me to the second point. Liberals also have more basic faith in the American people and human nature in general. Liberals believe humans are inherently good or at least have the inherent predisposition towards good. Conservatives believe that people need to be told what to do by traditional authorities (i.e., religious leaders) and by those who are seen as having earned authority (i.e., successful/wealthy capitalists). Conservatives talk about ‘real Americans’, but they don’t mean the average American. What they’re talking about is the specific group they belong to: fundamentalist Christians, ‘white culture’, etc. So, their notion of ‘real Americans’ is very narrow. The liberal notion of a real American is more broad and I doubt most liberals would even deny conservatives as being real Americans. Just look at the Democratic voters who evenly divide between identifying as liberals and conservatives (according to the 2005 Pew data: Beyond Red vs Blue).

I’d also point out that it’s because of conservatives mistrust of people and government that they emphasize the constitution so much. That is why they tend to think of the constitution as an unchanging document akin to a religious document such as the Ten Commandments. Conservatives trust principles and beliefs, traditional values and institutions; whatever they perceive as a living and unchanging tradition of their particular in-group. Democracy, even though ancient, isn’t a traditional part of Christianity and so not a traditional part of European culture. Greek ideas which inspired the Enlightenment Age were reintroduced to Europe from the Middle East and so Greek ideas are considered suspicious.

My main point in all this is just that it’s odd to see rightwing constitutionalists denying the very democracy that was created by the founding fathers. There are argument rests on the fact that when some of the founding fathers were using the term ‘democracy’ they were often referring to only direct democracy, although not always (Thomas Paine seemed to have meant something more broad when he wrote about ‘democracy’). Apparently, many of the founding fathers used the term ‘republic’ to mean representative democracy. However, in the modern world, the term ‘democracy’ is more commonly used for both direct and representative forms. The rightwingers using narrow definitions from a couple of centuries ago and dismissing modern meaning of words is rather pointless. The meanings of words change. That is just the way the world works.

Like it or not, the US government is a democracy. If (some) rightwingers for some strange reason wanted to get rid of democracy, they’d be forced to get rid of the republic itself which is built on the political process of democracy (voting, representation, etc). I’m assuming rightwingers don’t want to do this. So, why do they continue with the ignorant argument that America isn’t a democracy? Is it intentional ignorance in that there being ideoligically divisive in what they see as a battle that must be won at all costs, the battle of defeating liberals and Democrats? Or is it just passive ignorance of people who never read anything (including dictionaries and encyclopedias) outside of conservative media?

– – –

US: Republic & Democracy (pt 2)

Just Punish; Don’t Try to Help or Understand

Here are two videos that show the problem with extreme rightwing thinking. When the world is seen through absolutist morality, everything becomes black and white and every person becomes either good or evil. Taken to the furthest extreme of fundamentalism, this attitude becomes a Manichaean vision of Cosmic War.

It’s what led someone like Bush to think he was on a mission from God and that fighting the terrorists was a crusade. It’s an attitude that doesn’t allow for compromise and makes bipartisanship impossible. If you think Obama is a Commie, a Nazi and/or the Anti-Christ, you don’t seek agreement with the person who you believe is destroying all that is good in America and in the world. This attitude goes back to the beginning of modern movement conservatism. Barry Goldwater, who believed in an unchanging Law of God, said:

“I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
(source: “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics”, Richard Hofstadter)

What is interesting about this kind of statement is that it resonates with what Muslim terrorists preach.

I was impressed that the guy at the 5:00 mark made a very intelligent and insightful point while everyone else was just trying to turn it into yet another partisan story. I’m always shocked when someone who is actually fair and balanced gets on Fox News.

Is O’Reilly clueless? If addicts are successfully treated, drug demand decreases. If drug demand decreases, the drug black market decreases. If the drug black market decreases, drug trafficking across the border decreases. If drug trafficking decreases, violence against Americans decreases. Conservatives need to look at real data. Dealing with drug addicts directly is more successful & cheaper than dealing with the results afterwards. Like abstinence only education, the Drug war is a failure.

Conservatives need to think of this the way they think about guns. Not all countries with high gun ownership rates have high gun violence rates. A large percentage of gun violence is from illegal guns and so illegalizing or more tightly controlling gun ownership doesn’t by itself solve the problem of gun violence. Similarly, in countries where drugs are legal and where there are easily available drug addiction programs, drug use and addiction are lower than in the US.

Conservative Critics of Conservatism

I’ve been very critical of conservatism this past year and have spent much time doing research. My motivation isn’t that I hate conservatives or think they’re ‘evil’ (well, some of them are obviously not nice people and possibly psychopaths, sociopaths, or Social Dominance Orientation types: Limbaugh, Cheney, Rove, Murdoch, Ailes, etc; and there are, of course, the Right-Wing Authoritarians who are the unquestioning followers that I’ve written about many times). I do get irritated and it’s not unusual for me to vent that irritation, but ultimately I desire to understand. My irritation isn’t knee jerk hatred for anyone who isn’t liberal. In fact, I can at times be quite critical of liberals as well, but the failings of liberals tends to just depress me.

Anyways, in my desire to understand conservatives, I have found that the best critics of conservatives are those who consider themselves conservatives. I’ve been reading a few books by such conservatives: Conservatives Without Conscience by John W. Dean (originally intended to be written with Barry Goldwater before the latter became sick and died), Crazy for God by Frank Shaeffer (his views have helped me understand the religious right), and Bite the Hand That Feeds You by Henry Fairlie (which I discovered because the author was mentioned in an article in reference to Joe Stack’s suicide manifesto). The last book is by a British conservative which means most US conservatives wouldn’t accept him as one of their own, but I think his views on conservatism are some of the most insightful I’ve come across. I love Fairlie’s notion of a Tory. My understanding is that Toryism is connected with conservatism in Britain, but in the US Toryism seems more similar to the Democratic party. Another book I’m thinking of buying is Take Back the Right by Philip Gold (which I came across in reading Conservatives Without Conscience).

I keep coming across these rare independent-minded conservatives. I decided to keep a list for reference which is the reason I’m writing this post. Besides those already mentioned, here are some other conservative who have criticized conservatives (and often paid the price for dissent): Bob Inglis, David Frum, and Bruce Bartlett. I should also include William F. Buckley jr who criticized the radical right and helped kick them out of the mainstream conservative movement (only recently has this radical element been invited back in with the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the Koch brothers). Let me make special note of Ron Paul who is the only recent Republican politician who has openly and strongly opposed the misuse of power by Republicans.

I respect anyone who is independent-minded, whether liberal or conservative. I don’t entirely agree with what these critical conservatives believe, but I find myself in more agreement with their more intelligent or at least more moderate version of conservatism. It’s interesting that David Frum who was the Bush speechwriter who came up with “Axis of Evil” would lose his job at a conservative think tank for pointing out the obvious. Dissent is not allowed in the present GOP and dissenters are punished. So, my respect for people like Frum (no matter how much I may disagree on particular issues) is well deserved. These dissenters are the future of the conservative movement (after the movement self-destructs).

I’ve been a bit critical of Barry Goldwater because it has seemed to me that he helped the conservative movement become radicalized. Afterall, it was Goldwater who wrote (and which is often quoted by radical rightwingers): “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” I’m sure I disagree with Goldwater on many issues, but in reading Dean’s book I’ve come to understand why Goldwater is worthy of respect. Goldwater wasn’t trying to radicalize the conservative movement. He was trying to bring conservatives back to what he considered traditional political values. Dean’s book has been helpful, especially in relation to Bob Altemeyer’s research which Dean references heavily. I found it interesting that Dean’s description of a “conservative with conscience” would, in at least moderate form, fit the description of many liberals which made me think of Fairlie’s description of the Tory conservatism being most similar to the Democrat party.

However, there was one aspect of Dean’s description that stood out (p. 71): “Freedom always trumps order and safety when government needs to weight them.” Two things occured to me. This statement represented the seed of radicalism that exists even within the moderate conservative in the US. Conservatives aren’t very conservative in the sense of actually wanting to conserve. They want to be “free”… which brings me to my second point. Such an ideal of freedom is rather ideological. Liberals value freedom as much as conservatives, but liberals desire different freedoms and don’t use as much ideological rhetoric in defending those freedoms. The conservative often lacks understanding of complexity. Freedom from one thing tends to put people under the constraint of another thing. So, to the extent that one is free from government, other institutions and organizations will have greater power they can impose. If the government doesn’t regulate religions and corporations, they will (as they do in some countries) impose their power upon the public. There is no absolute thing called freedom because it’s a relative concept, an abstraction that we judge according to.

Fairlie’s Tory doesn’t desire freedom at all costs. The Tory instead desires to conserve. Unlike present US conservatives, the Tory tries to avoid radical change. It’s for this reason that the Tory is suspicious of capitalism and of concentration of wealth outside of the government. The government serves the public good, but capitalists have no such requirement. Even though the government may fail in its responsibilities, the government at least is obligated to attempt to live up to its responsibilities. The capitalist, on the other hand, doesn’t even have to pretend to be concerned about the public good. Also, capitalism tends to change quickly and so isn’t a dependable source of public good. Economies go up and down, CEOs and entire businesses come and go… but a government (like a church) is a permanent fixture. In a constitutional democracy like the US, the government is intentionally designed to be inefficient. This is a good thing considering the most efficient government is fascist. Centralization of power is dangerous and that is why our government has a division of power, but the only thing that keeps power from being centralized in any single corporation is that the government disallows monopolies from forming. Without regulation, capitalism (as it presently functions; I’m not speaking about theoretical ideals of capitalism) will tend towards the accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. The constitution limits the power of the US government, but transnational corporations aren’t limited by any constitution.

As such, US conservatism which values capitalism and religion more than it values government doesn’t seem very conservative. Where are the Roosevelt conservatives who believed in conserving the environment and in conserving natural resources? Where are the Lincoln conservatives who believed in maintaining the Union at all costs? Despite my respect for Ron Paul, what is the point of running for political office on the platform that government is the problem? Going by the examples of recent conservative presidents (from Reagan to Bush jr), it seems that to run the government according to the ideology that government is a failure only helps to create a failing government. American conservatives don’t seem to trust the democratic process. I’ve even noticed a recent trend of conservatives denying that our political system is even a democracy. These conservatives want to treat the Constitution as if it were the Ten Commandments.

I sometimes get confused between the conservatives proclaiming freedom and the conservatives who act like authoritarians. When neoconservatives use libertarian rhetoric, it becomes extremely confusing and it’s hard to know when the libertarian rhetoric is genuine. Certainly, Reagan and Bush jr were no libertarians even though they gladly used such rhetoric to win support. However, there are those who overtly claim to be libertarian and yet it’s not clear that they are. Rupert Murdoch is an avowed libertarian who has been on the board of the Cato Institute which is a libertarian think tank, but if Murdoch is a libertarian then it’s become a meaningless word. This pro-capitalist big business libertarianism is a strange creature. Even Rand Paul, the son of the great Ron Paul, is quick to defend big business as he did with the BP oil spill (even while the actions of BP had led to the destruction of local small businesses). So, this is freedom? Whose freedom?

This is where the US conservative has difficulty in seeing clearly, even when they are otherwise critical. A British conservative like Fairlie has more insight in some ways than even someone like Dean who knows the Republican party from the inside. I want to understand US conservatism. I sometimes think I even wish to be convinced, to be won over. I want to believe that a moral version of conservatism can still exist in contemporary American politics. I genuinely respect and even agree with some conservative values. If those particular values were central to the conservative movement (in place of the present authoritarianism and radicalism), even a liberal like me could possibly be persuaded to identify as conservative. I most definitely could be a conservative according to Fairlie’s view of Toryism. Maybe it’s my own (non-radical) ‘conservative’ inclination that makes me feel so critical of the far right in the US.

I read an interesting analysis that compared liberals and conservatives in the US. The person was pointing out the different ways the two sides perceived Communism. Conservatives believed Communism was a massive threat. This implied that these conservatives, oddly, had great faith in the possible success of Communism in taking over the world and yet little faith in the strength of democracy. Liberals, on the other hand, tended to agree with Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” The liberal has great faith in democracy and so trusts in the democratic process which he believes should never be sacrificed. A conservative like Dean seems to want to move in the direction of the liberal, but it’s not clear that he is willing to allow himself to do so. Like a good American conservative, he defines freedom in terms of being free of government, but our government is a democracy which protects our freedom. Even when our government fails in its duties, the liberal has faith in the democratic process, has faith in American culture, in American institutions, in the American public. The liberal doesn’t see the government as inherently in opposition to freedom. To get back to the analysis of Communism, the person who made the analysis said that he, as a liberal, always knew Communism would fail in that authoritarianism will always fail. The liberal seems more conservative in that the liberal is more concerned about conserving: conserving government institutions, conserving the democratic process, conserving civil rights, conserving the environment. Conservatives are the opposite in wanting to (often radically) return to some idyllic past that may never have existed.

In conclusion, I’m still searching for a worthy form of conservatism that could exist in America. The emphasis in that statement is on the “searching” part. I’m trying to imagine what a truly moral conservatism would look like, but the reality of present conservatism makes it difficult. Bob Altemeyer’s research shows that authoritarianism strongly correlates with conservative ideology in the US (specifically social conservatism). Nonetheless, he is careful to point out that authoritarianism isn’t identified with rightwing ideology and can at times become linked with leftwing ideology. So, in theory, an egalitarian conservatism that actually seeks to conserve should be possible, even in the US. Prior to the Southern Strategy, the Republican party wasn’t dependent on the wedge issues of race and religion. Even during Reagan’s administration, intelligent people were drawn to the Republican party (actually even making the average IQ of Republicans of that time higher than Democrats… which is the complete opposite now). I’m eager for the Republican party to destroy itself in its increasing radicalization because the quicker it does the quicker it can begin to return to sanity. I hope I live long enough to see a new conservatism rise out of the ashes.

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* As a note, I should add an additional category of critical conservatives. Similar to the libertarians and minarchists, there are the anarcho-capitalists who are critical of mainstream politics in general. For example, the anarcho-capitalist Stephan Molyneux makes criticisms using the exact same kind of data that is used by the liberal environmentalist Derrick Jensen. However, many anarcho-capitalists (like many rightwing libertarians) can tend to be more ideological than critical-minded… meaning their criticisms are extremely limited and biased. Anyways, it seems quite a few anarcho-capitalists are wary about being identified with conservatism and prefer to think of themselves as independents. In my opinion, the more moderate mainstream conservative-leaning independents (or independent-leaning conservatives) like Dean are maybe on average more intellectually respectable in their analyses (having less tendency towards extremes in their beliefs and ideas).

* As another note, I thought of some other conservatives I could add. I just watched Nader do an interview of Napolitano. The latter seemed to express what I’d consider genuine civil libertarianism. I’ve also heard John Stossel make a very lucid libertarian argument for legalization of drugs and as I recall he made that argument on Fox News. A third example is Shep Smith who is on Fox News as well. This makes me wonder to what extent Rupert Murdoch might genuinely believe in libertarian values or what libertarianism even means to someone with so much wealth and power. Anyways, these people (Napolitano, Stossel, and Smith) represent an authentic conservative impulse within mainstream conservatism, but still I wonder. Who listens to them? Who among the conservative leadership takes them seriously? It was interesting to see how critical Napolitano was of Republican politicians and judges. Does the intellectual rationality of Napolitano truly balance out the anti-intellectual radicalism of Glenn Beck? Between Napolitano and Beck, which one has more influence over the views of the average conservative? If I had to guess, I’d say Beck has had the most influence recently for sure. When people speak of conservatism as a movement, who exactly are the main representatives and leaders? The reason I wonder is because when I listen to someone like Napolitano I can’t help but think that certain of his conclusions would be more similar to the views of liberals than to the views of conservatives.

Rightwing Paranoia Detached from Reality

Tea Party protesters believe the American public is paying more in taxes even though under Obama 95-98% of Americans paid less in taxes this year.

Gun rights activists protesting on park land say Obama is trying to restrict their gun rights even though it was Obama who signed a bill allowing guns to be carried in parks and on trains.

Self-Enclosed Stories, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

I often watch the videos of Stefan Molyneux. I highly admire some of his insights, but I’m also highly critical of the conclusions he bases on these insights. Here is a very high quality video he just made to which I have a mixed response.

He tells a compelling story. It’s not unlike the story told by Alex Jones and other right-leaning libertarians. Stefan is essentially an intelligent conspiracy theorist which I don’t mean as an insult. It’s just an apt description.

I have a cynical nature with a bit of intelligent paranoia thrown in. I’m quite fond of criticizing the government and the established system of modern civilization. So, I resonate with the general attitude of questioning as seen with Alex Jones or in a less bombastic way with Stefan Molyneux. I resonate, but I also feel repulsed by a tendency towards fear-mongering. At worst, this kind of fear-mongering leads to a dark sensationalism as portrayed in the above video.

My own sensibility is not any less dark, but I lean leftwards away from this rightwing way of portraying a cultural narrative. I’m not sure exactly what the difference is. Liberals seem less prone to use overt emotional persuasion/manipulation. A particular kind of right-leaning libertarian makes progressive leftwingers such as Michael Moore seem like moderates.

Noam Chomsky is no less critical of the government than Molyneux, but Chomsky would never make a video like the above. As another example, Derrick Jensen easily competes with Molyneux on the level of cynical analysis of our present society… and, yet, there is a difference. What is this difference?

Both Chomsky and Jensen have a more open-ended analysis. They’re less likely to come to an absolute conclusion, less likely to tell an ideological narrative. Derrick Jensen explicitly says that no ideology is right, no single answer will solve our problems. Molyneux, however, is selling a specific ideology: anarcho-capitalism. So, the story Molyneux is telling leads to a specific ideological vision of how society should be.

In this, I sense something like naivette. Molyneux believes in his ideological vision. He has faith in the theory of anarcho-capitalism even though there is no real-world evidence supporting it.

The story told by Stefan Molyneux and by Alex Jones could be true. I have a strong suspicion that parts of it are true. My worry is that there are elements of truth mixed in with massive amounts of speculation. Alex Jones is particularly bad about ungrounded speculation, but even the more moderate Molyneux dangerously courts with the paranoid vision. The specific danger I see is that stories have a way of becoming self-enclosed worldviews which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.