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American Id August 11, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Political Philosophy, politics.
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The conservatism that  liberals love to hate is dying—a victim of the Bush Administration’s disastrous attempt to govern by its principles. But, as is evident in the health care reform debate, a new conservatism is arising, more volatile and dangerous than the old one. If it is to be neutered we must understand it.

In 2005, Thomas Frank’s important book What’s the Matter With Kansas dominated discussions of the nature of conservatism. Frank was attempting to explain why working and middle class, conservative voters vote for politicians who harm their economic interests by advocating corporate-friendly policies that destroy jobs and ruin communities.

Frank’s answer was that conservative voters are duped and distracted by right wing media and political campaigns that pander to religious preferences and focus on moral issues such as abortion and gay rights while ignoring the real economic issues that ought to be more important to them. According to Frank, this “bait and switch” strategy was exacerbated by liberals who failed to develop a populist economic program that was attractive to the middle class, co-opted as they were by corporate interests as well.

I never found Frank’s thesis persuasive because (1) I don’t think most people are dupes, (2) conservative voters were genuinely concerned about the religious and moral issues on which they voted, and (3) conservative voters were morally committed to principles of free market capitalism despite their being harmed by them.

Conservatism was a place where people of sincere moral conviction, however misguided, could reside. Thus, I argued in Reviving the Left, that liberals lacked, not an economic agenda, but a moral agenda that could compete with conservatism.

That version of conservatism is now in tatters. The conservatism of the Reagan-Bush years rested on three pillars: (1) religious fundamentalism, (2) free-market fundamentalism, and (3) anti-government animus. Today, the public seems to have lost interest in religious fundamentalism’s moral crusade as a political force, and some evangelicals are having doubts about the marriage of politics and religion. Abortion is only a marginal issue and society is increasingly more accepting of gay persons, as gay marriage makes inroads in a number of states. In addition, free-market fundamentalism has lost any plausibility it may have enjoyed as a guarantor of prosperity or meritocracy in the wake of the collapse of the housing and financial markets and the display of incompetence, corruption, and greed that precipitated it.

That leaves anti-government animus as the driving force behind contemporary conservatism, a disposition clearly on display in the health care debate. Conservatives rail  against the Democratic health care plan claiming it will cause old people to be euthanized and the disabled to be killed, turn the U.S. into the Soviet Union, lead to toilet paper rationing {?}, while suspecting that Obama is keeping an enemies list of reform opponents. Most of the ordinary citizens who repeat this drivel seem oblivious to the fact that any of them could lose their health insurance at any time should they get sick or lose their job.

Like the earlier conservatism, in this new version, some sort of “moral” conviction trumps economic self-interest, although not because the Democrats have failed to offer an alternative. It is the alternative that has conservative voters incensed.

Furthermore, although professional Republican operatives and media hacks are driving and funding this allegedly “grassroots” movement, it would be a mistake to think the anti-government disposition of ordinary people is not genuine.

Opposition to government is deeply embedded in the American psyche. The anti-tyranny rhetoric of the American Revolution and the staunchly self-sufficient characters that populate the “myth of the frontier” provide powerful images that resonate with the conviction that the government is always tyrannical or ineffective.

Thus, some people have convinced themselves they prefer a life governed by “you’re on your own” instead of “we are all in this together” despite the fact that none of them could last a day if they were really “on their own”. As much as they claim to hate the government, they seem to enjoy their social security, government sponsored research,  consumer protections, military adventures, and federal subsidies to rural locales, which per capita gets more development aid that the rest of the country.

Among the humorous episodes of this debate over health care are the many instances of conservatives insisting that the government stay out of Medicare—which is of course a government-run, medical insurance plan for people over 65.

Conservatives have always harbored such contradictions but they made sense of them by appealing to religious conviction or moral beliefs about prosperity or merit—God and capitalism inevitably serve the good so any outcome must be perfectly just. But this new version of conservatism is so unreflective and devoid of thought that it barely qualifies as hypocrisy let alone a serious attempt to find moral meaning. Furthermore, putting aside the corporate interests driving the recent protests, the populist version is neither a cynical strategic ploy to win votes nor a naked expression of self-interest since many would benefit from health-care reform.

We seem to have a new beast on our hands.

To be sure, this anti-government stance is so delusional precisely because the moral justification for it has collapsed. As the moral justifications slip away, the belief system finds no anchor, especially without men in power who could authorize their delusions as Reagan and Bush so often did. That in itself would explain the incoherent, inarticulate babble that passes for political discourse among conservatives these days.

But it doesn’t quite explain the rage. Self-interest or ideological differences exist with every policy debate. They typically don’t produce the venomous, paranoid ravings that are now standard fare among conservative media outlets and ordinary citizens, which suggest an origin in the darker caverns of the human psyche.

The current attempt to defeat health care reform has to be placed within the context of the birther movement, the backlash to Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation, the debate about “real Americans” during the election, and the simmering controversy over immigration. The common denominator is nativism, anti-foreignness, and racism.

I doubt that opposition to health care reform is solely about health-care reform. Neither are the “tea-parties” about tax policy. Any proposal by Obama, regardless of how sensible, seems destined to be trashed by vile insults and fear-mongering.

The ugly, brown shirt tactics and threats of violence we see at town hall meetings are based on animosity toward a black man who is now in power. In the absence of any moral context in which to place recent events, conservatism is giving expression to America’s darkest impulse—racial animosity over the loss of white privilege.

Thus, this “new conservatism” no longer rests on a moral vision of proudly self-sufficient individuals willing to forgo the ministrations of government even when crushed by bad fortune. They are more like cattle on the range who, having been fed stories about wolves their entire lives, stampede at the mere sight of the magic negro.

Liberalism was not successful at stopping the rise of the old conservatives. Will it be more successful this time? I suspect that some so-called moderates are not thrilled with the prospect of being associated with these “new conservatives”. Senators Baucus, Nelson, Snowe, and Collins have an existential choice to make—join the bigots  or try to find a solution to our health care problem.

Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America












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