Modern conservatism began with the French Revolution. Horrified by the excesses of the Reign of Terror, European conservatives were forced to think about what they believed and then defend it in a new, revolutionary world. Philosophers such as Edmund Burke established a manifesto that embraced a love of tradition, religion, order, class hierarchy, old-fashioned habits and manners. Then and now, they revere leaders and centers of authority – the military, police, corporations (three key tools in Hitler’s rise to power). They love their leaders even when they stray from tradition, and they turn a blind eye to institutions which have outlived their usefulness (if any), to include slavery and racism; not only will they not abandon old institutions, they resist implementing the kinds of repairs and modernization which could preserve the institutions they love. They despise those who don’t share this reverence for tradition and authority, and they dread change, particularly rapid change such as we’ve had for the last century.
That European model of conservatism it didn’t translate well in America. The trouble for American conservatives began right at Lexington and Concord, when the Founding Fathers, radicals all, broke virtually every rule of conservative doctrine, overturning tradition, questioning religion, challenging royal authority, tossing out class structure in favor of democracy. Russell Kirk, a key conservative philosopher of the last century, argued that the Founders were really conservatives fighting back against radical royal innovation, but that’s nonsense. The Founders were radicals, pure and simple.
They didn’t stay that way: having defied 700 years of British traditions, they set about building their own: reverence for the money class in the north, reverence for rich slaveholders in the south. Now, however, conservatives had a second serious problem: terrible memories of the abuses of the British crown made hatred of authority an American tradition, particularly with respect to governmental authority. They established a doctrine of small government limited by the Constitution, state’s rights rather than federal power, libertarianism, small balanced budgets, eschewing the nanny state for self-made men taking responsibility or themselves and their society, and low taxes -- some of the lowest tax rates in the world, notwithstanding the howls of the laughably misinformed teabaggers. But how do you revere authority and despise it at the same time?
This model of limited government worked out fine for a key power base of the conservatives, the community of business and finance. Conservative thought and political needs happily coincided in this area: everyone out there to the right could agree on laissez-faire markets which were believed to be perpetually self-correcting, limited regulation, a reverence for property, a suspicion of the Federal Reserve, a tolerance of corruption linking businessmen to politicians, a fear of unions. When the trade issue raised an internal contradiction, the conservatives did an extraordinary pirouette: when free trade hurt businesses, they hollered for protective tariffs, but when they realized they could use free trade to exploit cheap overseas labor, they suddenly fell in love with the idea.
The conservative revulsion for governmental institutions worsened significantly eighty years ago: America began building new institutions, but they were being built by Franklin Roosevelt and the liberals. Conservatives didn’t want to worship those institutions, they wanted to destroy them. Neatly enough, the leaders of the first Republican renaissance, Eisenhower and Nixon, didn’t try to bring down those institutions, but the Reagan coalition had a better idea.
The Reagan revolution was ostensibly a declaration of war against big government. But to build that coalition, Reagan had to get in bed with allies who actually wanted a lot of government action: social conservatives who want a holy war on abortion, school prayer, gay marriage, and sex in the media, and messianic, nationalist, imperialist, “patriotic” neoconservatives who reviled the Republican isolationism of the previous century and want to launch preemptive wars to spread democracy around the world.
So they came up with a new philosophy: we like government institutions and traditions which help the GOP or its allies, or institutions which the GOP controls. The ones that don’t help Team Red, those are of course the bad ones.
While the Republicans were hard at work building up the governmental institutions they liked, leaders such as George Bush were hard at work wrecking the governmental institutions they hated, although to be accurate it must be said that Bush was so destructively incompetent that he damaged both the institutions which Republicans like and the ones they hate.
Their devotion to principle is elastic, therefore, when Congress or the White House changes party. Republicans were fanatically devoted to the notion of Congressional oversight of presidential power when the topic was Bill Clinton’s penis, but neatly forgot about controlling the president when Bush took over. In fact, Bush and Cheney showed vivid contempt for the idea that anyone would question their authority. King George III pretty much took the same position back in 1775.
Another way to damage the government: destroy the Senate confrimation process for senior officials. Currently GOP Senators have blocked dozens, if not hundreds, of the officials Obama needs to run the government. And if the process takes months or years to complete, the best and the brightest candidates will start refusing to go through the vetting process, and go back to the private sector.
Supreme Court, same idea. When the Court was loaded with Democrats, the rhetoric from the right was all about the stare decisis and the original intent of the Framers – “The Court shouldn’t do anything! They shouldn’t legislate from the bench!” But now that there are more Republicans on the bench, we are seeing the very judicial activism the Republicans formerly loathed – now that they have more control over that branch of government, they want that branch to take action.
Just as they like institutions better when they control, they also like ideas better when they can control their implementation. When John Maynard Keynes advocated deficit spending to clean up the damage from Republican incompetence during the Depression, the GOP howled. Deficits are bad! But when Reagan came along, suddenly deficits were good: using the power of the Laffer Curve, deficits will mysteriously pay themselves off through the magic of the market! Bibbidy bobbidy boo! Only Republicans are allowed to hand out free lunches!
Same thing with the most important institution of all, the Constitution. The Republicans conveniently forgot all about the Constitution when Bush spent eight years crapping all over that “goddamn piece of paper”, but now that Obama is in charge, they’re all about constitutional restraint upon the new president. Or even the individual provisions in the Constitution: they proclaim their adoration for our founding document, but conservatives hate the Bill of Rights because it protects people they dislike. Except, of course for the Second Amendment, which they revere because the deep-pocketed NRA told them to.
If their entire philosophy now consists of “we like institutions that help our party and our cronies”, how do they peddle such hypocritical bullcrap as an actual philosophical doctrine? Simple: that isn’t a philosophical problem, it’s a marketing problem.
In 1971, after 40 years of liberal ascendancy, Lewis Powell warned that the conservatives needed to launch an “intellectual” counterattack: get into the think tanks, the colleges, the courts, the media. William F. Buckley helped create the illusion that there was an intellectual fundament to conservatism. Rupert Murdoch’s empire-building helped immensely, and so did the incredibly preferential advertising deal that allowed Rush Limbaugh’s producers to market his radio show across the country at extremely low prices.
Since the conservative doctrine was based on empty philosophy and intellectual dishonesty – “we only love big government when it does what the GOP wants” – they have aimed to clog the marketplace of ideas with lies, attacks and distractions. They declared war on intellectualism: attacking academia, the media, and anyone else who can hold the crooks accountable or criticize their behavior: appealing to tradition over reason, simple unambiguous solutions to complex problems, populist rhetoric, appeals to religion.
Today’s media are enabling this dishonesty, because they simply don’t fact-check our leaders the way they did 30 years ago. The networks would rather entertain us than inform us, and the newspapers are at the point of collapse.
Conservatives have always thrived on anger, fear and uncertainty: fear of the revolutions freeing blacks and women and gays; fear of multiculturalism and the onset of a non-white majority.
They particularly exploit the fear that goes with unrest, from the French and Russian revolutions to Pearl Harbor and 911 to anti-Communist hysteria, to the ghetto riots and Vietnam protests by upstart college students. And they excel at throwing gasoline on the fire, pushing the buttons of their followers by screeching about taxes and welfare queens and abortion.
And here’s a clear sign of their intellectual bankruptcy. Three times in the last year or so, the Republicans have launched very public efforts to open a new GOP campaign to fight Democratic ideas with Republican ideas, along the lines of the Contract With America in 1994. But all three times, the Republicans failed to come up with any ideas of consequence. Instead, all three times they left it up to their own supporters to fill in the blanks with their own ideas: Party Platform via Mad-Lib. The Republicans don’t revere the Contract With America because it was full of great ideas: they love it because it helped them win Congress.
Using these tools, conservatives endeavor to hide the fact that all three factions of the Reagan coalition have been discredited: America has turned its back on the social conservative jihad against abortion and gays, Reaganomics and deregulation left us a titanic debt and crumbling economic and fiscal institutions, and the neocons led us into a morass in the Middle East.
And with an entire generation of supporters who just don’t think, these tactics have worked. Reagan screwed over the farmers and unions and they still voted for him. The Republicans have been promising for 30 years to overturn Roe v Wade, and the social conservatives stuck with them despite the total failure of the repeal effort. Their followers keep electing Republicans on a small-government platform even as Republican politicians increase the reach of government year by year.
So their plan is to expand the parts of government they like (or control), shrink the parts of government they fear, and bamboozle their followers so they don’t notice what these guys are up to.