Hard as it is to believe – hard as it is for even me to believe – there was once a time when I was a conservative. I was quite conservative all the way through my undergraduate years, during the time when I was writing a weekly column “Looking Forward” for the Wichita Eagle and Beacon newspaper in Wichita, KS, all through graduate school, and for a brief time even after my wife Diane and I moved to Seattle from Boston. I even voted for Ronald Reagan … twice. No more. In fact, for most of the Seattle years – we moved here in 1989 – I have been moving to the left with vertiginous speed. You can now locate me, ideologically, somewhere to the left of Elizabeth Warren, most likely in Bernie Sanders / Kshama Sawant territory.
Obvious question … Why?
The short answer is Fear … or, rather, not fear on my part, but rather my revulsion at today's fear-fueled conservatism. What goes by the name of conservatism today – not during my callow youth at Wichita State and Tulane Universities, but today – is, to an extent unprecedented in my lifetime, motivated and energized by fear. In fact, the only thing shared by the conservatism of those days and what goes under the name of conservatism today are the words “conservative” and “conservatism”. Again, the begged question: Why? And again, the short answer: the conservatism of the previous age – it seems that long ago! – was a conservatism that was intellectually agile, informed, sophisticated, thoughtful, articulate, urbane, capable of self-critique, and … well … witty. Even winsome! It was the conservatism of people like William F. Buckley, William Rusher, James Jackson Kilpatrick, Mary Ann Glendon, Joseph Alsop, etc., all of whom – and this circumstance speaks volumes! -- should properly have the description “the late” before their names, were it not for stylistic repetitiveness. This was the conservatism of the National Review and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (though ... and I hope I'm wrong here! ... ISI seems to have lately succumbed to the contemporary tendency among conservatives to think with its institutional limbic system rather than its cerebral cortex). There are still such conservatives around – George F. Will and David Brooks come to mind – like anomalous Cretaceous fossils inexplicably embedded in Upper Cambrian strata. But for the most part, today’s conservatism is the fear-driven, xenophobic conservatism of the Fox News zoo of O’Reilly, Hannity, Limbaugh, Ingraham, and Kelly and the APAC conservatism of … well … APAC. (Both zoos – APAC and Fox – share animals, you see.) And any time the likes of Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, and Michele Bachmann can be listened to by members of the party of Lincoln with respectful silence, brow-knitted frowns, and head-nodding seriousness, you know the political toilet has backed up someplace and disgorged the contents of the septic tank into the GOP's bathroom. Furthermore, whereas, as I said, the earlier conservatism was capable of self-examination and –criticism, today’s conservative knee-jerk reflex seems to be doubling down on their initial irrationality through sheer repetition … Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi … etc. Given that contemporary conservatism is primarily fear-driven, what are contemporary conservatives afraid of? Well, let me count the ways …
First of all, the issue is really not fear per se. Even “paleo-conservatives” were afraid of, e.g., the old Soviet Union. For a time – this was when I was in my early teens – they feared the “bomber gap”, then the “missile gap”. I am old enough to remember both – and that both proved fantastical. Then they feared “creeping socialism” – which, again, proved to be a fever-dream. But both fears of that day were rational: if the USSR had achieved decisive military superiority, there was genuine cause for grave concern. So let’s acknowledge up front that fear can be a rational, even life-saving, response to a demonstrable and empirically verified threat. But today’s conservatives fear “the little man on the stair” who “wasn’t there again today”. Herewith a few examples:
o Marriage equality
As one might expect, Cal Thomas is on record as opposing gay marriage, both as a matter of eschatology and as a matter of public policy and of constitutional law. I cite his attitude and position because Thomas’s attitude is pretty typical, and is anomalous only by virtue of its honesty and transparency: Thomas is a conservative evangelical Christian who sincerely believes that the Nation should be run according to biblical principles – the conservative evangelical take on biblical principles, of course! – in preference to the US Constitution, which mandates government neutrality in matters religious and theological. The overwhelming majority of conservative opposition to marriage equality is rooted as deeply in conservative evangelical Christianity as Thomas’s, but others are more coy and dissembling when it comes to justifying their opposition. In all such cases, however, the fear is that somehow – just how is never specified – allowing people of minority sexual orientations equal opportunity for civil marriage – I repeat: civil marriage, since the “free exercise” clause is still on the books for religious marriage – will somehow eventuate in the dissolution of the Republic and in sexual predators abducting kids into the shrubs for unspeakable purposes … a function that presumably should be left to the clergy.
Just how deep and visceral conservatives’ fear on the immigration issue is may be fairly measured by Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s calling out of the State’s National Guard to play sentinel along the Rio Grande against massive, bloodshot-eyed, slavering hordes of … teen and pre-teen kids from Central America, most of whom, judging by still photos and video clips, seem not to have been accompanied by adults. One can only presume that Perry knew that he was siccing trained soldiers with automatic weapons, Abrams tanks, Stryker vehicles, and jet fighters with JDAMs onto a group of children. But maybe not. Maybe he forgot. I guess we should be thankful that Perry was not in the White House during the Mariel boat-lift of the Carter years. Otherwise, we might have been treated to the sight of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln confronting a flotilla of barefoot Cubans navigating toward Miami in inner tubes and driftwood. There is a rational fear of porous and unsecure borders, borders that could allow, not economic or political refugees into the Nation, but also perhaps suicide terrorists self-infected with, say, smallpox or anthrax. Or just your garden-variety drug traffickers. (For that reason, I disagree with President Obama’s priority, and advocate securing the border first.) But one suspects that conservatives’ fear of an unsecure border exceeds such rational justification and impinges on a certain phobia about demographics: the Nation is becoming more … well … in a strictly generic sense … more brown. Anyway, less Ozzie-Harriet-The-Waltons white. In fact, this is a question that contemporary conservatives seem especially reluctant to ask themselves: to what extent is their concern about immigration motivated by apprehension that, in a couple of generations, the United States north of the border will look as brown as the United States south of it. (Pat Buchanan is anomalously honest about such fears in books like this and this.) Even the “paleo-conservatives” of my undergraduate years might have balked at asking the question in such stark terms. (Buchanan even doubles down on this attitude.) Expecting today’s conservatives to ask it is probably ‘way beyond the pale.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott walker is likewise anomalously honest in his advocacy of the university, at least, Wisconsin universities, as institutions whose first purpose is not, as the universities’ mission statement used to read, “the search for truth”, but rather basically professional job training for cube-drones in the Corporate State. We subsequently discovered that Walker had checked his spine at airport security when asked about evolution during a visit to London. The Texas school board not long ago attempted to mandate – I’m not sure what the status of this effort is now – the rewriting of American history texts to omit reference to Thomas Jefferson, since Jefferson did not express his love of Jesus with a degree of alacrity sufficient to satisfy the board. Likewise, attempts are being made to rewrite American history curricula in Colorado to present to students a more positive and upbeat account of American history by fumigating away references to nasty rumors like slavery and “Indian resettlement,” the latter euphemism courtesy of the Andrew Jackson Administration. A bill – SB 56 – is now being considered by the Kansas legislature that would render secondary-school teachers criminally prosecutable for using teaching materials deemed obscene or pornographic by State education authorities. (Alice Walker’s The Color Purple would almost certainly be on the proscribed list, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird just might. One cannot but wonder about potential objections to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, given that Frodo’s and Sam’s relationship is … shall we say? … open to adverse interpretation … And yes, I’m quite serious!) In this case, we must admit that today’s conservatives do have a point: excellent teaching and excellent education are always indeed subversive, because both encourage – even “seduce”, as it were – students into critiquing traditional beliefs. Even if, in the end, the beliefs do not change, such questioning is always seen as a threat to orthodoxy, i.e., to what conservatives most want to … well … conserve. Hence the fear: “Beginning to think is beginning to be subverted” – Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.
o Gun control
The area of conservative opposition to gun laws is probably the issue on which contemporary conservatives’ fear is most nakedly evident. Guns are weapons, whether weapons to use in hunting or weapons to use in warfare is beside the point. Guns are weapons. Their purpose is always – legitimately or illegitimately – to injure, maim, and kill. One does not hang an AR-15 on one’s den wall, the better to admire it as a nice piece of abstract sculpture. Charlton Heston’s iconic remark at the NRA convention about prying his gun from his “cold, dead hands” was an attempt – wildly successful; hence is present status as a rhetorical icon – to play to the fear of his audience, a fear already latent – and, really, not all that latent – in his audience. The conservative community these days is collectively undergoing a massive “fight or flight” reaction. Their passion, often to the point of fanaticism, on the whole gun issue is a kind of psychological bet-hedging against the day when, conservatives think, they might have to opt for the former alternative.
In many ways, time and tide are running counter to conservative orthodoxy. The national reversal of attitude toward gay / lesbian / LGBTQ marriage equality has been nothing less than dizzying. The number of people self-describing themselves as “None” on surveys of religious attitudes is still a decisive minority, but is the fastest-increasing religious cohort among all such groups surveyed. The demographic trends in the country, even discounting the effects of illegal immigration and considering only legal immigrants, will lead to a much “browner” United States by mid-century. Survey after survey shows that the American people – not NRA members, but the entire Nation – overwhelmingly favors restrictions on the type of guns that can be sold, magazine capacity, etc., etc. Hence conservatives’ fear. Hence their stridency. Hence their resort to a policy of doubling-down on attitudes and actions in many cases long since discredited (e.g., advocacy of creationism and intelligent design).
They are scared. I don’t blame them. In their place, I would be, too.
James R. Cowles