The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative

skepticOnce upon a time I was a conservative. No, really! I was! Seriously. In fact, I was a conservative – more accurately, I became a conservative – during the latter part of my undergraduate years and in graduate school in the early 70s, when the Vietnam War began to show some hope of finally winding down. (The details are not relevant, but suffice to say that I began to move to the right when I observed the vilification and slander to which returning American troops were sometimes subjected, something that rankles to this day.) I probably … perhaps … who knows? … would have remained a conservative. That I did not was due, not to my moving leftward, but to American conservatism moving rightward … to such a degree that it often becomes a self-parodying mixture of buffoonery and at least borderline neo-fascism alloyed with Ayn-Rand-Nathaniel-Branden-Robert-Nozick-Herbert-Spencer-I’ve-got-mine-Jack-so-to-hell-with-you libertarianism. This is a tragedy for me, personally. But the tragedy isn’t about me. It’s about the Nation. I am an explicitly avowed liberal Democrat now, but even that is a dangerous thing to be in the absence of a responsible, thoughtful, informed opposition. Lord Acton’s dictum applies.

There are many salient characteristics of contemporary – I say again, contemporary – conservatism that should be of most concern, but I will concentrate on two. The first is that contemporary conservatism – I’m going to keep repeating the adjective for emphasis because it’s important – espouses a pretty explicit nihilism with regard to anything like a social contract that binds the Nation as a whole and that prevents it from becoming what Eric Fromm long ago, in The Sick Society, called “a disorganized dust of individuals”. For many contemporary conservatives, the Nation is not an “us”. It is a mere collection of discrete “me”s that happen to be flying in formation. The only rights are individual rights, and those individual rights usually correlated with, at most, only the most tenuous corresponding fabric of social responsibility. Nowhere is this belief more nakedly evident than in the endless gun-control debate:  my right to own a gun carries with it no corresponding responsibility on the part of the government, acting on behalf and as the agent of the community, to restrict the type of gun I possess or the way I use it, even if the absence of such regulation means that the bodies of school kids end up being stacked skyward like the temples of Angkor Wat. In guns as in all else, my individual rights trump all social / communal considerations, and any assertion of the latter is deemed “socialistic” – often by people with, at most, only a Sunday-supplement understanding of socialism. So argue a multitude of voices in contemporary conservatism.

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Secondly, the result of this emphasis on individualism-gone-ninja is a view of society that resembles a vast Darwinian landscape of economic and political competition untempered by anything as bourgeois as rationality or intelligence – and least of all, again, responsibility to the community. Many contemporary conservatives do not believe in Darwinian evolution. But many of them are passionate practitioners of its Herbert-Spencerian socio-economic counterpart. The strong survive because – being the strong – they deserve to survive. And the corollary is no less true: if you are not one of the strong, then you deserve and must be content with your subordinate position in the socio-economic ecology. Hence contemporary conservatives’ opposition to national health care, and their desire to repeal the Affordable Care Act and put nothing in its place: workers’ dependency upon the corporation for health insurance and care ensures their hierarchical subordination to the corporation. (“I owe my soul to the company store” – Tennessee Ernie Ford.) Hence also contemporary conservatives’ opposition to increases in the minimum wage: poor workers are less independent of their corporate masters than marginally better-off workers. Hence contemporary conservatives’ opposition to unions: the Darwinian / Spencerian hierarchy of society and of the economy is threatened when the gerbils band together to give the t. Rex some serious competition. Hence the opposition of contemporary conservatives to any regulation of the financial industry – or, really, most kinds of regulation of most markets -- that has any significant bite: competition must be entirely unfettered.

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If you don’t watch The Newsroom, you should. In the very first episode, the main character, cable-news anchorman Will McAvoy, played with consummate virtuosity by Jeff Daniels, registers the following rant contrasting old vs. contemporary conservatism. (The McAvoy character is a self-described registered Republican, by the way.)

We sure used to be [the world’s greatest nation]. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed laws, struck down laws for moral reasons. We waged wars on poverty, not poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chest. We built great big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world's greatest artists and the world's greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence; we didn't belittle it; it didn't make us feel inferior. We didn't identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election, and we didn't scare so easy. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed. By great men, men who were revered.

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Problem is, the character of Will McAvoy is an old conservative, the kind of conservative I used to be, espousing the kind of conservatism that allowed Dwight Eisenhower, another old conservative, to take the lead in advocating for a project that would get him branded a “socialist” and “big-government liberal”, maybe even "RINO", today: the interstate highway system. During my old-conservative period and while a student at Wichita State University, I wrote an editorial column, “Looking Forward”, for the Wichita Eagle in Wichita, KS. The journalists and columnists I looked up to back then, and with whom I disagreed perhaps a quarter or even a third of the time – old conservatives did not consider honest disagreement in their own ranks tantamount to treason -- were people like William F. Buckley, William Rusher, Joseph Alsop, James Burnham, Claire Booth Luce, James Jackson Kilpatrick, and Mary Ann Glendon. We still have a few intelligent conservatives in that tradition, people like George F. Will and David Brooks. But mostly these days they – and we! -- are stuck with the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, Ingraham, O’Reilly, Coulter, Malkin (who wrote a book, In Defense of Internment, several years ago defending Roosevelt's executive order 9066 mandating the Japanese internment), Bachmann, and Palin. For the most part and with isolated exceptions like Will and Brooks, contemporary conservatives bear the same relationship to old conservatives that a woodpecker bears to a skilled finish carpenter.

In all fairness, there have been similar ... shall we say ... excesses of zeal on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum.  Being a liberal Democrat, however, I think that, in the interest of intellectual integrity, I must recuse myself from characterizing or assessing these.  But before doing so, I would recommend the following experiment. Before indulging too freely in the moral equivalency, everyone-does-it style of argument, I would invite you to make a comparison.  Watch O'Reilly, Hannity, Kelly, and Ingraham; then compare with O'Donnell, Hayes, Maddow, and Wasserman Schultz.  Compare them, not for the content of their ideas, with which you may vehemently disagree -- as I do, on occasion -- but for the tenor, the tone, the emotional temperature with which those ideas are expressed ... the "rationality coefficient", if you will. Note the difference.

At any rate, this is bad for all of us. In general, absence of an intelligent, thoughtful, sophisticated, informed, educated, nuanced opposition is bad for any political, economic, or social movement. Even liberal Democrats need the experience of “iron sharpen[ing] iron” (Proverbs 27:17) by encountering people who disagree with them. What is even worse is that a substantial segment of the American electorate evidently wants an unintelligent, unthoughtful, unsophisticated, uninformed, uneducated, un-nuanced conservatism as an alternative. (It is no accident that roughly the same percentage of the American-public-at-large and the Republican Party repudiate the theory of evolution: approximately half.) More and more it seems that “We the People” are once more doomed to rediscover the wisdom of that iconic quote from the “Pogo” comic strip: “We have met the enemy, and he is us”.

James R. Cowles

Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana

"When you say 'radical right' today, I think of these moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party away from the Republican Party, and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye." -- Barry Goldwater ("Barry Goldwater's Left Turn" by Lloyd Grove in The Washington Post (28 July 1994)

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