What Is A Conservative? The Answer May Surprise You

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It is very fashionable in America today to identify oneself as a conservative. More Americans claim to be Republicans than Democrats for the first time in — well, a really long time. But what does being a conservative mean?  The question is about more than just politics. Answers to questions about how to meet the challenge of a warming planet are directly affected by people’s attitudes about renewable energy, electric cars, biodegradable plastics, and reducing carbon emissions.

George Will
Image credit: George Will/Twitter

The Atlantic magazine has two excellent articles —  one from 2012 and the other from 2019 — that help answer the question, “What does it mean to be a conservative?”  The earlier article begins with this lead: “The word [conservative] is invoked to refer to a number of surprisingly diverse worldviews — and politicians take advantage of that.” Writer Conor Friedersdorf then lays out a compendium of statements he says people who identify as conservatives use to define their world view.

  1. An aversion to rapid change; a belief that tradition and prevailing social norms often contain within them handed down wisdom; and mistrust of attempts to remake society so that it conforms to an abstract account of what would be just or efficient.
  2. A desire to preserve the political philosophy and rules of government articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
  3. A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, through cultural norms.
  4. A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, using cultural norms and the power of the state.
  5. An embrace of free market capitalism and a belief in the legitimacy of market outcomes.
  6. A belief that America is an exceptional nation, a shining city on a hill, whose rightful role is leader of the free world.
  7. A belief that America should export its brand of democracy through force of arms.
  8. The conviction that government should undertake, on behalf of the American polity, grand projects that advance our “national greatness” and ennoble our characters.
  9. An embrace of localism, community and family ties, human scale, and a responsibility to the future.
  10. A belief that America shouldn’t intervene in the affairs of other nations except to defend ourselves from aggression and enforce contracts and treaties.
  11. A desire to return to the way things once were.
  12. Affinity for, identification with, or embrace of Red America’s various cultural cues. (For example, gun ownership, a preference for single-family homes oriented around highways rather than urban enclaves organized around public transit, embrace of country music, disdain for arugula and fancy mustard, etc.)
  13. Disdain for American liberalism, multiculturalism, identity politics, affirmative action, welfare, European-style social policies, and the left and its ideas generally.
  14. A desire to be left alone by government, often coupled with a belief that being left alone is a natural right.
  15. A principled belief in federalism.
  16. The belief that taxes should be lower and government smaller.
  17. The belief that the national debt and deficits put America in peril.
  18. The belief that whenever possible, government budgets should be balanced.
  19. Consciousness of the fallibility of man, and an awareness of the value of skepticism, doubt and humility.
  20. Realism in foreign policy.
  21. Non-interventionism in foreign policy.

Notice that several of the items on that list are mutually exclusive or contradictory. The author cautions that politicians use those anomalies to target their appeal to a wide range of voters. That article was written before the advent of micro-targeting on social media, a technology vehemently supported by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, that drives more and more wedges between us (and puts millions of dollars into Zuckerberg’s pockets).

George Will, Patriarch Of Conservatism

The 2019 article is based on a conversation with George Will, who many see as the de facto leader of American conservatism now that William F. Buckley, Jr. has departed the scene. Will’s 15th and most recent book is called The Conservative Sensibility. Atlantic contributor Peter Wehner interviewed him about the book and came away with some startling insights on modern politics, particularly the difference between populism and conservatism.

Will says populism is the obverse of conservatism. “Populism is the belief in the direct translation of public impulses, public passions. Passion was the great problem for the American Founders. Populism is a direct translation of popular passions into governments through a strong executive — someone who might say something like, ‘Only I can fix it.’ Which, of course, is what the current president said to the convention that nominated him in 2016.”

Will argues that James Madison understood the need to “filter and refine and deflect and slow public opinion through institutions. To make it more refined, to produce what Madison called, in one of his phrases that I’m particularly fond of, ‘mitigated democracy.’”

If you remember your high school civics class, the idea that the raw passions that rule the House of Representatives are like a boiling, bubbling cup of coffee. The overflow of those emotions should be allowed to cool in the saucer of the Senate, a more deliberative body. To prevent populism from overrunning the government, members of the House all stand for re-election every two years while Senators serve for 6 years, with only one third of them up for re-election every two years.

The presidency, at four years, was meant to split the difference between the two, the idea being that raging passions would need at least 4 years to replace the chief executive and the majority of Senators. The Founding Fathers hoped that would be a long enough time for cooler heads to prevail.

“The principle of representative government, which is at the heart of conservatism, is that the people do not decide; the people choose who will decide. And that’s why populism inevitably becomes anti-intellectual,” Will explains. Wehner asked what would most concern the Founders about contemporary politics. “Political leaders today seem to feel that their vocation is to arouse passions,” Will replied, “not to temper and deflect and moderate them.”

Arousing passions is, of course, precisely what micro-targeted social media advertising is all about and what the Founding Fathers feared would doom their efforts to create an enduring government model for the new nation.

Will suggests supporters of the current president “misunderstand the importance of culture, the viscosity of culture, and I think they are not conservatives, because they don’t understand this. Nixon’s…..burglaries were surreptitious; that is, they were done in secret because they were unacceptable to the country, and once exposed, they were punished and the country moved on. What Mr. Trump has done is make acceptable, make normal, a form of behavior that would get a third grader sent to the principal’s office or to bed without dessert.”

Will argues that Trump’s agenda, to the degree it pleases conservatives, is what any Republican president would have done — cut regulations and lower taxes. “So the question is, ‘What does Trump bring that’s distinctive?’ And it’s all vulgarity, coarsening, semi-criminality.”

Words matter, George Will might say. “To revitalize politics and strengthen government, we need to talk about talk. We need a new, respectful rhetoric — respectful, that is, of the better angels of mankind’s nature. Mankind is not just matter, not just a machine with an appetitive ghost in it. We are not what we eat. We are, to some extent, what we and our leaders — the emblematic figures of our polity — say we are.”

Democrats & Republicans, You Have A Problem

Progressives have a problem, Will asserts, which seems like a bit of an understatement given the chaos taking place in the Democratic primary process at the moment. In 1964, 70% of Americans said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing. Today, that number is 17%. “I would think my progressive friends would be alarmed by this, because their entire agenda depends on strong government, and strong government depends on public confidence in the government.”

“What I’d like conservatives to take away from this book,” he adds, “is the sense of the enormous intellectual pedigree behind conservatism from Madison to Lincoln to Hayek and the rest.” Conservatives need to answer this question, Will suggests: “What does conservatism want to conserve?”

And therein lies the dilemma. Thinking about such things requires the very types of intellectual analysis that the rampant populism loose in America today makes difficult if not impossible. Societies today are governed by enraged mobs rather than sober leaders. Things are not likely to end well for humanity if that trend persists.

Thank You, Charles Koch

George Will spends a lot of time thinking about the formation of the American government. He ascribes its initial success to the bulwarks the Constitution created, known as the system of checks and balances. Central to that system is the notion of three co-equal branches of government that somehow have to get along if the government is to function. Today, that separation of powers is but a distant memory. Congress has willingly — almost gleefully — abdicated the powers assigned to it by the Constitution, giving them over carte blanche to the executive branch. Similarly, the courts have shown increasing deference to the executive as well. How did that happen?

There is no one cause, of course, but the vast increase in the impact of money on the political process is certainly a significant factor. And the influence of money can be traced directly to the activities of Charles Koch over the past 4 decades. Koch was one of the first to understand how to corrupt the charitable tax deduction process and make it serve his own selfish ends.

Instead of giving money away to some organization that may or may not use in a way that served his best interests, he created his own quasi-charities — tax deductible organizations that would faithfully do his bidding. Thanks to the way he twisted the tax laws, the citizens of the United States ended up funding a portion of his campaign to remake America in his own image.

Charles Koch gave us trickle-down economics, the end of welfare as we know it, the demonization of so-called entitlements, the Tea Party, Citizens United, and so much more. He created an environment that embraced the hateful messages purveyed by Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. He empowered the lunacy of Newt Gingrich, Rudy Guiliani, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and so many others. He crafted a Supreme Court that shut down the vote count in Florida in 2000 and handed the presidency to George W. Bush. He fomented the politics of divisiveness, all to serve his worldview — a vision passed on to him by a father who served tyrants by providing the fossil fuels that powered Stalin’s army and the German Wehrmacht.

On the surface, his agenda is the traditional mantra of all conservatives — smaller government, lower taxes for the wealthy, and fewer government regulations. But here’s where the process he created slips over into an area that borders on criminal activity. He lavished campaign donations on pliable politicians so long as they marched to his tune. But if they strayed, he cut them off at the knees by funding someone else. Over the past decades, many members of Congress have found themselves voted out of office after they lost a primary contest to someone funded by Charles Koch and his empire of special interest groups.

When the Republicans were debating the gigantic tax cut for corporations and wealthy Americans in 2017, the Koch forces were so emboldened by their unchecked power they bragged the “piggy bank is closed,” meaning no more campaign contributions for those who refused to go along. Most recently, Congressman Adam Schiff talked about how Republican senators who refused to acquit the president would find “their heads on a pike” if they didn’t play ball. That statement may be provocative, but how else to explain the monolithic obedience of Republican senators to the dictates of Mitch McConnell, himself a frequent beneficiary of Koch largess?

The disastrous Citizens United decision, which struck down campaign finance limitations as a violation of free speech, grew directly from legal campaigns funded by Charles Koch and his acolytes, according to a recent article in The Guardian. Those unlimited campaign contributions are what are funding today’s divisive micro-targeted social media campaigns, the ones that undermine reasoned discourse and focus on inflaming the passions of voters. They are the very sort of anti-intellectual thinking that George Will warns us follows naturally in the wake of populist movements.

An American Crime Wave

America is in the middle of a crime wave perpetrated by the president and the majority of members of Congress. It is a crime wave engineered by those who crave access to the levers of power in order to manipulate them for their own personal gain. Greed and hatred of “the other” are at the heart of such efforts.

The Founding Fathers had a wealth of experience with tyrants and they did their level best to build barriers against tyranny, but they never anticipated the collapse of social institutions like a vigorous free press or the rise of public discourse measured in syllables instead of paragraphs. They never foresaw a citizenry that would actively oppose scientists and intellectuals, smothering the knowledge arising from both under a torrent of invective and disdain. Unless America learns how to stop the attack on reason, it is doomed to become a failed state.

Fear Of Change

The pace of change is accelerating and many Americans feel they are being left behind by technological advances that upset conventional wisdom. Artificial intelligence can now create new AI applications in record time. Many people feel adrift, unable to find their footing. They flail around desperately in search of an island of stability in a maelstrom of change, but the changes keep coming faster and faster.

It’s no wonder people look back longingly at a time when they felt more in control. Many feel a need to impose their view of what is normal and safe on those around them. That’s where the populist influence takes over and subverts the “mitigated democracy” that George Will says is at the heart of conservatism and the US Constitution. The United States is now being swept daily by deep, destabilizing tides of discontent and passion. If that trend continues, the great nation our Forefathers envisioned will be lost, perhaps forever.

Anti-intellectualism is rampant upon the land and it will be the ultimate destroyer of America’s experiment in representative democracy. The idea of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” is in peril. Those who cheer its demise are not conservatives, they are anarchists bent on winning — whatever that means — at all costs.

In many respects, they resemble the villagers who went in search of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster carrying torches and brandishing pitchforks. Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley specifically to describe the reaction of ordinary people to technological change and is pertinent to the same subject today. It only takes a small intellectual leap to see the resemblance between the Tiki Torch-carrying white supremacists who marched at Charlottesville and those frightened burghers in Shelley’s novel.

True conservatives do not run trillion dollar deficits or propose nearly $5 trillion in new federal spending that will put American further in debt. True conservatives understand that “conservative” and “conservation” are opposite sides of the same coin. Pillaging the Earth for profit is not congruent with the ideals of conservatism. America needs people of conscience to put an end to the pandering and perfidy of fake conservatives. It needs true conservatives in the mold of George Will to stand up and be counted. It’s time for more profiles in courage and fewer acts of cowardice.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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