Originally Posted by F. U. Shakespeare
In this thread
on Sarah Palin's resignation, there is some discussion of what it means to be 'conservative'. Some are asserting that the last eight years of Republican rule should be used to judge the merit of conservatism. Others are disagreeing, saying that while Republicans have been in power, they have not governed as conservatives.
I think those who say so are emphasizing fiscal
conservatism, of which the Bush Admin cannot be accused (cutting taxes
at the start of a war?!).
The modern, post-Goldwater American conservative movement is ideologically very interesting. From The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America,
by conservative British journalists John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge:
The exceptionalism of the American Right is partly a matter of its beliefs. The first two definitions of "conservative" offered by the Concise Oxford Dictionary are "adverse to rapid change" and "moderate, avoiding extremes." Neither of these seems a particularly good description of what is going on in America at the moment. "Conservatism" -- no less than its foes "liberalism" or "communitarianism" -- has become one of those words that are now as imprecise as they are emotionally charged. Open a newspaper and you can find the word used to describe Jacques Chirac, Trent Lott, the Mullah Omar and Vladimir Putin. Since time immemorial, conservatives have insisted that their deeply pragmatic creed cannot be ideologically pigeonholed.
But, in philosophical terms at least, classical conservatism does mean something. The creed of Edmund Burke, its most eloquent proponent, might be crudely reduced to six principles: a deep suspicion of the power of the state; a preference for liberty over equality; patriotism; a belief in established institutions and hierarchies; skepticism about the idea of progress; and elitism. Winston Churchill happily accepted these principles: he was devoted to nation and empire, disinclined to trust the lower orders with anything, hostile to the welfare state, worried about the diminution of liberty and, as he once remarked ruefully, "preferred the past to the present and the present to the future."
To simplify a little, the exceptionalism of modern American conservatism lies in its exaggeration of the first three of Burke's principles and contradiction of the last three. The American Right exhibits a far deeper hostility towards the state than any other modern conservative party. . . . The American right is also more obsessed with personal liberty than any other conservative party, and prepared to tolerate an infinitely higher level of inequality. (One reason why Burke warmed to the American revolutionaries was that, unlike their dangerous French equivalents, the gentlemen rebels concentrated on freedom, not equality.) On patriotism, nobody can deny that conservatives everywhere tend to be a fairly nationalistic bunch. . . . Yet many European conservatives have accepted the idea that their nationality should be diluted in "schemes and speculations" like the European Union, and they are increasingly reconciled to dealing with national security on a multilateral basis. American conservatives clearly are not.
If the American Right was merely a more vigorous form of conservatism, then it would be a lot more predictable. In fact, the American Right takes a resolutely liberal approach to Burke's last three principles: hierarchy, pessimism and elitism. The heroes of modern American conservatism are not paternalist squires but rugged individualists who don't know their place: entrepeneurs who build mighty businesses out of nothing, settlers who move out West, and, of course, the cowboy. There is a frontier spirit to the Right -- unsurprisingly, since so much of its heartland is made up of new towns of one sort of another.
The geography of conservatism also helps to explain its optimism rather than pessimism. In the war between the Dynamo and the Virgin, as Henry Adams characterized the battle between progress and tradition, most American conservatives are on the side of the Dynamo. They think that the world offers all sorts of wonderful possibilities. And they feel that the only thing that is preventing people from attaining these possibilities is the dead liberal hand of the past. By contrast, Burke has been described flatteringly by European conservatives as a "prophet of the past." Spend any time with a group of Republicans, and their enthusiasm for the future can be positively exhausting.
As for elitism, rather than dreaming about creating an educated "clerisy" of clever rulers (as Coleridge and T.S. Eliot did), the Republicans ever since the 1960s have played the populist card. Richard Nixon saw himself as the champion of the "silent majority." In 1988 the aristocratic George H.W. Bush presented himself as a defender of all-American values against the Harvard Yard liberalism of Michael Dukakis. In 2000, George W. Bush, a president's son who was educated at Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, played up his role as a down-to-earth Texan taking on the might of Washington. As a result, modern American conservatism has flourished not just in country clubs and boardrooms, but at the grass roots -- on talk radio and at precinct meetings, and in revolts against high taxes, the regulation of firearms and other invidious attempts by liberal do-gooders to force honest Americans into some predetermined mold.
While I think this is a fair description of the mainstream, it papers over some major factional differences. I think the following separate groupings or tendencies can be broadly identified, and they don't always see eye-to-eye on everything, even though there is some Boolean intersection between them:
Nativist, anti-immigrant, economically protectionist, economically populist (hostile to Wall Street), socially/religiously conservative, foreign-policy/military isolationist. Acknowledged leader is Pat Buchanan, founder of the new America First Party.
2. Religious conservatives:
Anti-abortion, pro-school-prayer, etc. Similar to paleocons (considerable overlap), mainly different in emphasis. Different on foreign policy -- the religious conservative movement includes "Christian Zionists" who support Israel; paleocons are anti-Israel and anti- any military intervention abroad, including in Iraq. Also some religious and demographic differences -- the religious-conservative movement is rooted in Evangelical Protestantism and Southern WASPs, while Buchanan is a conservative Catholic and appeals to white "ethnics." Have their own Constitution Party.
They used to be politically marginal, even avoiding politics on principle as an occasion of sin, until Jerry Falwell organized the Moral Majority in the 1970s.
Foreign-policy imperialists/hawks, solidly pro-Iraq-War, solidly pro-Israel, economically neoliberal/pro-globalization. Essentially an intellectual/policy-wonk movement with no mass base as such but considerable mass appeal on their issues (and considerable influence in the Bush Admin). Ideologically committed to spreading "democracy" and free-market capitalism throughout the world, with very heavy influence on the latter.
Socially liberal to the extent they want drugs legalized, abortion rights protected, etc. Hostile to biggummint in all forms, including the welfare state, a big military establishment and intervention abroad. Seem to be split on immigration -- Ron Paul, current leader of the Lib faction within the Pubs (as distinct from the Libertarian Party
), takes a hard line on immigration. Some Libs are committed to "open borders" as a form of "liberty."
5. Business conservatives:
Substantially bankroll the whole movement. Favor whatever is good for the corporations; distinguishable from the Libertarians, who are hostile to government regulation of business but equally hostile to government subsidization, bailouts, sweetheart contracts, and the military-industrial complex.
6. White supremacists/separatists/just plain racists:
Marginal as such, but that just means most won't publicly self-identify; hostile to welfare, which they see as mainly subsidizing the breeding of nonwhites; hostile to immigration; likely to support either paleocon or libertarian candidates if given the option.
Not in the modern left-liberal sense of the word, but in the tradition of the early-20th-Century Progressive Era. John Anderson
is a prominent modern Progressive. Anti-establishment, equally hostile to corrupt government and corrupt business interests. Traditionally favor a progressive, graduated income tax, hence their name. Not hostile to government as such, but to partisan-ideological government -- "There is no Democratic or Republican way to pave a street." Favor a technocratic-professional approach to government. They don't want too much government regulation but they do
want efficient, effective government service.
Fiscal-conservative, very suspicious of deficit spending. Economically protectionist. The Reform Party
was rather ideologically incoherent, and ultimately split up, because it was a coalition of Progressives and Paleocons. The Paleocons went on to form the America First Party (see above), the Progressives the Independence Party,
which has had notable success only in Minnessota.
Now, these are the activist
conservative groupings; of course, political activists are a minority in any society. For the grassroots groupings, see the Pew Political Typology,
particularly the Enterprisers, Social Conservatives, Pro-Government Conservatives, and probably the Upbeats.
Up until recently, the conservative movement's success has been based on most or all of these factions joining forces in a "no enemies to the right" strategy. But now, there are signs that the coalition is starting to fragment. Viz. this year's flap between Rush Limbaugh and David Frum
over the GOP's future direction.