I have long maintained that there are no real Conservatives in America. Lately, I’m not so sure.
The political ideology that the United States was founded upon in the late eighteenth century – “classical republicanism,” sometimes referred to as “Neo-Harringtonian republicanism” – no longer exists. It died a long, slow death over the course of about half a century, and by around 1820 it was no longer a viable force in American politics. If it hadn’t been enshrined in the structure of government outlined in the Constitution it would have been forgotten. And indeed, most Americans have no idea that it ever existed.
This is why every four years we get puzzled over the existence and function of the Electoral College.
Since the early 19th century, all of American politics has taken place within a very narrow band of Lockean Liberalism. Derived from the writings of John Locke, entering into American political discourse in a significant way in the 1770s, Liberalism is the default ideology of America. It took on classical republicanism and beat it over a fifty-year span. We are all Liberals in this country.
At least I used to think so.
Liberalism is a complex ideology, but one that can be boiled down to a few basic principles fairly easily. For one thing, it is the quintessential form of Enlightenment politics. As such it draws from the three fundamental principles of the Enlightenment:
1. It is based on reason. Liberals are great ones for starting from first principles and working out from there.
2. It is based on the idea of universal natural laws. Liberals firmly believe that this is the proper form of politics for all humanity, regardless of history or culture.
3. It is based on progress. Things can and will get better. The Golden Age is in the future. Using our reason, we can figure out the natural laws that govern human society and politics, and we can use them to make this a better place.
From there Liberalism adds three more principles, things that all Lockean Liberals have in common:
1. The individual is the fundamental building block of society.
Lockean Liberalism is the only major political ideology in the West (and to my knowledge, in the world) that makes this claim. All others are based on the primacy of the group, although which group (the social class, the “nation,” the order, etc.) varies. Liberals believe that it is the individual who is the basic unit of society and therefore that all of society must be set up to benefit and protect this individual.
Now, who counts as an individual varies over time. It wasn’t until the 20th century that women, people of color, or the poor were defined as “individuals” in this sense. But that is an issue to be discussed, not a difference in principle.
2. The primary function of a society is to free the individual from restraints.
Liberals buy into the rather optimistic Enlightenment view of human nature as basically good, rather than depraved. Therefore the job of society and government is to get out of that individual’s way and let him (again, mostly “him” for a long, long time) get on with his life. And the primary purpose of that is:
3. Equality of opportunity.
Liberals believe that all individuals, however defined, should have equal opportunity to get ahead. Note that this is an equality of the starting line, not the finish line – Liberals assume that there will NOT be equality at the end, because people will use their opportunities differently. But a well-ordered society will level the playing field for all by removing restraints on the individual so that that individual can succeed.
These principles can be spun in two different ways, depending on what playing field you want to level.
If it is the political playing field, this leads to a belief in the existence of civil and political rights inalienable from the individual, rights that must be protected by an active government. And everyone who counts as an individual must be given a voice in this government, thus leading to liberal democracy.
Americans tend to call this position “liberal.” It is the position of Progressives, of FDR, of the Great Society and legislation like the ADA and the Voting Rights Act.
If it is the economic playing field, then this ultimately leads to a belief in the sacred nature of private property, the primacy of private interests, and the general worthiness of laissez-faire capitalism, where the atomized individual is freed from governmental or societal restraints to maximize his equal opportunities in the marketplace.
Americans have for generations – perhaps for rhetorical convenience – called this position “conservative.” It is the position of Gilded Age politics, of Barry Goldwater, of Taft-Hartley and small-government activists across the United States.
But it’s all Liberal, in the original Lockean sense of the term.
Real Conservatism exists in opposition to this. It was codified as a coherent ideology in the late 18th century explicitly as a reaction against this – notably against the radical extremes that Liberalism was taken to during the French Revolution.
It is an anti-Enlightenment ideology.
1. Rather than reason, Conservatism stresses tradition and authority. It is not for you to question things and work them out for yourself. It is your role to accept what tradition and authority dictate, because those things are there for a reason. Things don’t become traditions, people don’t become authorities, for no good reason, and you are not fit to question that.
2. Rather than universal natural laws, Conservatism stresses specific histories. The idea that a single ideology could be stretched to cover all peoples the way scientific laws such as gravity cover all reality makes no sense to Conservatives.
3. And rather than progress, Conservatives see the future as grim and fearful. The Golden Age is in the past, and the job of the Conservative is to conserve as much as possible against degenerative change.
From there, Conservatives reject all of the principles of Liberalism.
1. The individual is not the basis of society. Society is based on groups and institutions.
These things were there before you were and will be there long after you are gone. You don’t count. You should sacrifice your private interests to the good of the groups and institutions to which you belong.
2. Individuals should not be freed from restraints but bound by responsibilities and obligations.
Humanity is depraved and cannot be trusted on its own. It must be firmly ruled and tightly bound or it will degenerate into chaos and anarchy.
3. And there is no equality of opportunity. The world is hierarchical. Those at the top belong there. Those at the bottom belong there.
For the latter to attempt to become one of the former is presumptuous and can only end in disaster. You owe responsibilities and obligations to your betters, and questioning them is treason.
For most of American history, nobody believed this. Not on the left. Not on the right. In fact, the most Lockean Liberal group out there in the original sense is probably the Libertarians, long considered the hard right of American politics.
But over the last decade or two I have noticed a disturbing resurgence of true Conservative values.
Here in my own state, Governor Teabagger has been very clear about his role in the decision-making process versus my own. He feels it is his job to dictate and mine to obey. He seems to get very angry when people dare to question his commands.
He has a compliant group of cronies in the legislature that is willing to bend over and take this.
This is why they refuse to discuss the current abomination of a budget bill in Madison – they simply declare their power and expect obedience.
The bill was not shared with opposition lawmakers until last Monday, which is why several of them found out about it on the radio, listening to commercials made by the extremist group “The Club For Growth.” Apparently special interest groups get to hear these things in advance, but elected representatives don’t.
Governor Teabagger insisted that the bill be rammed through the legislature in four days – a 144-page bill overturning nearly a century of successful Wisconsin practice in the name of a radical agenda. That this left no time for lawmakers to seriously consider the bill is obvious. That they were not supposed to consider it is equally obvious.
It is not surprising, therefore, that when the Republicans in the Wisconsin House told Democrats to show up at 5pm on Friday to begin voting on amendments to the bill, they actually began voting at 4:45 and were just about to wrap up and vanish when Democrats arrived and found out about this illegal move. I hope there are impeachments that come out of this.
That the public was to have no role in this – that our role is to accept the diktats of authority – goes without saying.
This is an abomination.
There is no Decider in the American system of government. It is not my job as an American citizen to accept uncritically the vomitus of authority. It is my job as a Lockean individual to question it. To ask for reasons. To express my equality and my views. And to remind our leaders that there are other aspects of Lockean Liberalism that they may not care to hear.
Aspects that did play a role in the founding of this country.
As Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence,
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
If Governor Teabagger insists on becoming destructive to the ends of government, he may find that government altered or abolished around him, and a new government instituted.
This may take some time. A peaceful shift in governance always does.
But it’s the American way.