Traditional Conservative vs Right-wing: an example

This is a distinction that has fascinated me lately. I first thought about it when I read Henry Fairlie’s description of a traditional conservative in Britain. I realized that his view of a traditional conservative is what many right-wingers would call a ‘liberal’ or even a ‘socialist’.

Here is the example I just noticed (from the comment section of the article, The Future of America’s Working Class by Joel Kotkin):

pablo on Wed, 04/20/2011 – It might be cliche to sound the call of the “rich get richer while the poor get poorer,” or it might be anti-conservative to suggest that there’s a policy agenda that should speak to mobility. But, having spent time in places like Bangladesh, Indonesia, or Mexico, I can attest to the value of social mobility. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the notion of “freedom” to which we vigilantly cling as conservatives is best reflected by social mobility, or “opportunity.” The freedom to take risks and strive for a greater future, the freedom to take risks, fall flat on one’s face, and be able to pick themselves up again. Each of these freedoms is dependent on access to capital, healthcare, and education, and a social net to some degree – making the each of these – capital, health, education, and welfare – fundamentally conservative values, in as much as they support the most conservative value of all – freedom of social mobility.

A traditional conservative will support any social institution (public or private) that promotes and maintains social order and public good. A traditional conservative will emphasize the social/societal (both social responsibility and social benefit) over the isolated individual.

A right-winger, on the other hand, will do the opposite. However, in America, it’s confusing. During good times, many social conservatives will be drawn to right-wing rhetoric in blaming the poor and disenfranchised. But during bad times, many social conservatives begin to join the ranks of the poor and disenfranchised, and all of a sudden they remember the value of traditional conservatism. So, right-wing is the attitude a social conservative has toward other people’s problems and social conservative is the attitude a social conservative has toward their own problems.

The distinction here is the ideology of fiscal conservatism, ideology that too often contradicts the reality of implemented policies. Fiscal conservatives make big promises about a meritocratic society, but they refuse to take responsibility when their promises turn out to be pipe dreams. Of course, those making the promises are rarely the same people who suffer the consequences for their failure.

As another commenter noted:

theodion on Sun, 03/20/2011 – The most essential guarantees employed to justify capitalism are that your young children will have a much better life than you do, and in President Kennedy’s well known words “a rising tide lifts all boats” that means all of us benefits from the accumulation of capital funds. These guarantees ring hollow in a period of time in which the relative situation of the working people of the US is declining and its ruling class is in a position to appropriate a growing share of the nationwide revenue. My conclusion to what has occurred is that the connection among productivity and wages has been damaged.

For decades, promises were made. And it took decades to discover how false those promises were.

Here are some other comments that further the discussion:

 cosmopolitanprovincial on Thu, 06/03/2010 – However, your focus should have been on the government-directed economic policies of the past 30 years rather than wholly blaming the welfare state. When maufacturing started to disappear from this country the govt. line was: “let the factory fail, after all it’s a free market.” Contrast this with the recent multi-billion pound bailout of the banking and financial service sector, which ordinary working people are now going to have to pay back in taxes for the next couple of decades. When a recession affected the bankers and stockbrokers, suddenly the “free market” disappeared and state intervention was the order of the day. This speaks volumes about where govt. priorities lay.

This is a classic case of being anti-welfare only when it affects the poor. Yet when the rich or corporations need welfare, then it is happily dished out to the tune of billions.
 – – – 
John Mountfort on Thu, 06/03/2010 – Absolutely correct. This nonsense of blaming The Welfare State for the problem of the growing underclass is based on a ridiculous assumption that human beings are so plastic in their capacities that they can be expected to respond to every change, however traumatic or rapid… and if they don’t, it’s because of some imaginary failing, like a Welfare State that just sucked the virtue out of them by making life too easy. But out virtues are themselves a product of the most stubborn aspect of human nature: our desire to have things remain the same. One would think conservatives would understand that… but I guess that’s another reason why we have hypocrisy.

cosmopolitanprovincial on Thu, 06/03/2010 – Like someone else pointed out, nearly every northern European country has a much more generous welfare system than Britain but they don’t have the same social problems.

Another point is that Britain is the country which has followed the “American model” more than any other nation in Europe. Sometimes we “go further” than the US: for example, nearly all state schools here are soon going to be under the governance of private organisations, many of them profit-making corporations (some of them from America). Our postal service is also going to be privatised. Other European countries who have not followed this model so slavishly have not experienced the same crime levels or social problems that we in the UK have. Please bear in mind I am not blaming America for this, it is the decisions of UK politicians who are responsible. But the point is, whatever the problems are, it isn’t because there isn’t enough ‘capitalism’ in the UK. We are a very similar economy to the US, often with identical brands and stores available (McD/Subway/KFC etc. in every town in the land).

[ . . . ] Like John, I agree that it is disingenuous to blame the underclass for this crisis: it is not they who decided that their source of jobs was systematically wiped out or that houses would become unaffordable or that the only economy left was based around shopping and drinking. It is a complex issue, based around globalisation (where factory jobs are basically in China or India rather than Britain), and the main focus of the political elites being on the middle-classes.

“I’m a Republican because of social issues.”

The bars had just closed. She was a young attractive woman wearing a dress that accentuated her assets. She was probably a student at the local university with a bright future ahead of her. She was accompanied by a young man, also good looking and sharply dressed. They were having a discussion. As they sat down on a bench in the pedestrian mall, she said, “I’m a Republican because of social issues.”

Behind this young couple, another row of benches had other people on them. The couple didn’t seem to notice they weren’t alone as they were focused on one another. The other benches were all filled with mostly middle aged men. They were scruffy and for certainly they weren’t scantily clad as the young lady. Each of these men was alone on his respective bench, each laying down trying to get some sleep. Some of them probably heard the young lady’s comment, but none replied.

GOP Base vs Traditional Conservatives

There is some interesting data from Pew. I had looked at this data many times before, but in looking at it again I noticed a distinction within the conservative demographics which I hadn’t noticed previously. This distinction seems to at least partly explain why many moderate conservatives have left the GOP in recent years and why some of the most strongest conservatives are also the most critical of other conservatives.

What is interesting is which specific demographics most strongly support torture and the Patriot Act. It’s most particularly clear with the latter. Conservative demographic groups (Enterprisers, Social Conservatives, & Pro-Govt Conservatives) have the strongest support for the Patriot Act. That isn’t surprising, but what is surprising is which specific conservative demographic groups have majority support (Enterprisers & Social Conservatives) and which don’t (Pro-Govt Conservatives).

Let me explain.

Enterprisers are essentially neo-cons, neo-liberals, and (neo-) libertarians which demographically translates as mostly rich white males who have partisan loyalty to the GOP and who are the most loyal viewers of Fox News. Social Conservatives are essentially the fundamentalists and rightwingers in general which demographically translates as older whites who represent the other big chunk of Republican voters. Both groups are known to criticize the government for different reasons and yet both love the idea of a strong military (the military, rather than democracy, being the symbol of their ideal government). They may use pro-constitutional rhetoric in their criticizing the government, but ultimately they don’t take the constitution all that seriously when it comes to protecting human rights and freedom for all.

It’s telling that Pro-Govt Conservatives are the one conservative demographic group that doesn’t have majority support for the Patriot Act. That is a very telling detail. To be a conservative who actually believes in the government serving a positive function means to be a conservative who also genuinely believes in strictly adhering to the constitution and to the moral vision upon which this country was founded. This is the group that I consider as being ‘real’ conservatives in that they are more moderate and traditional (i.e., they believe in conserving social institutions such as government) compared to the radicalized element within the GOP. But these down-to-earth conservatives don’t get as much attention as they’re too reasonable. Also, despite being the most traditional of conservatives, they aren’t the base of the Republican Party. In fact, they are almost evenly split between Republicans and Independents (which is the same role the Liberal demographic group plays in the Democratic Party).

The fact that traditional conservatives (traditional in the larger historical sense) are the least supportive of the Republican Party says a lot about what has become of the party that supposedly represents ‘conservatives’. It also explains a lot about why traditional conservatism is ignored in America. The GOP doesn’t care about traditional conservatives as much because it isn’t their base. These conservatives are the poor and working class people. Unlike the wealthy Enterprisers, they don’t have lots of money to donate to political campaigns. And, unlike the upper middle class Tea Party supporters, they don’t make for entertaining media coverage. These people are too busy just trying to get by and going by the media you would hardly know they existed.

Related to this, I was comparing conservatives between the parties. It might surprise some people to see how many conservatives there are in the Democratic Party. In particular, poor minorities living in the South are extremely conservative and yet loyal Democrats. Rightwingers like to argue that only liberal Democrats want big government for social issues, but government being involved with social issues has always been a traditional conservative position. Why are liberal Democrats defending the traditionally conservative role of the government as an institution upholding social order and the public good? Maybe because it’s in the nature of liberals in general to defend the powerless when attacked by the powerful.

So, what exactly is traditional conservatism?

Here is a very good explanation/description:

Conservative? Americans Don’t Know the Meaning of the Word
Guy Molyneux

True conservatism is a philosophy committed to conserving– conserving families, communities and nation in the face of change. Committed to preserving fundamental values, such as accountability, civic duty and the rule of law. And committed to a strong government to realize these ends. What passes for conservatism in America today bears only a passing resemblance to this true conservatism. It worships at the twin altars of free enterprise and weak government–two decidedly unconservative notions.

Real conservatism values security and stability over the unfettered free market. In Germany, for example, it was the conservative Otto von Bismark–not socialists–who developed social insurance and built the world’s first welfare state. Today conservatives throughout the world–but not here–endorse government-provided national health care, because they recognize public needs are not always met by the private sector. And they see a role for government in encouraging national economic development.

A true conservative movement would not ignore the decay of our great cities, or see the disorder of the Los Angeles riots only as a political opportunity. Nor would they pay homage to “free trade” while the nation’s manufacturing base withered. Nor would a conservative President veto pro-family legislation requiring companies to provide leave to new mothers, in deference to business prerogatives.

Traditional conservatives champion community and nation over the individual. They esteem public service, and promote civic obligation. They reject the “invisible hand” argument, that everyone’s pursuit of individual self-interest will magically yield the best public outcome, believing instead in deliberately cultivating virtue. Authentic conservatives do not assail 55 m.p.h. speed limits and seat-belt laws as encroaching totalitarianism.

Finally, a genuine conservatism values the future over the present. It is a movement of elites to be sure, but of elites who feel that their privilege entails special obligations. The old word for this was “stewardship”–the obligation to care for the nation’s human and natural resources, and to look out for future generations’ interests.

Such conservatives would not open up public lands for private commercial exploitation, or undermine environmental regulations for short-term economic growth. They would not cut funding for childrens’ vaccinations, knowing that the cost of treating illness is far greater. And a conservative political party would never preside over a quadrupling of the national debt.

In America, then, what we call conservatism is really classical liberalism: a love of the market, and hatred of government. Adam Smith, after all, was a liberal, not a conservative. As the economist Gunnar Myrdal once noted: “America is conservative . . . but the principles conserved are liberal.”

American conservatives have often celebrated the country’s historically “exceptional” character: the acceptance of capitalism and the absence of any significant socialist movement. Curiously, though, they often miss their half of the story: the absence of a real Tory conservatism. What Louis Hartz called America’s “liberal consensus” excluded both of the great communitarian traditions–ain’t nobody here but us liberals.

True conservatism’s weakness as a political tradition in America is thus an old story. When values confront the market here, the market usually wins. In recent years, though, conservative social values seem to have been eclipsed. Many of today’s conservatives are really libertarians–proponents of a radical individualism that has little in common with conservatism.