A CLASSIC WITH CONTEMPORARY RELEVANCE
Back in 2010, just over six years ago, I wrote this post about the frightening turn I was seeing among conservatives as they approached the midterm elections with bloodied claws. I was appalled by the level of visceral animus articulated by the newly risen Tea Party conservatives. There was something ominous about the scapegoating, closed mindedness and abdication of reason exhibited by this reactionary movement.
At the time, the leaders of this new generation of conservatives were Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. They have since fallen by the wayside. The movement they represented, however, lives on and is becoming even more extreme and hateful.
After watching the latest clash between the Republican front-runners I remember thinking, ‘there’s a bad moon rising.’ This inspired me to revisit this old post. Below I offer A Bad Moon Rising: The Direction or Misdirection of Conservative Thought. Read it in light of what we see happening today.
There’s a bad moon lurking over the horizon! I can see its bloody rays casting a sanguine pall over the future of our country. I can see its ill-boding omens in increasingly irrational speeches, websites and protest marches of a new movement. It’s reactionary, militant, institutionalized and armed; all of the qualities of a coming historical era we will warn our grandchildren against repeating in the future. I fear that if we do not get a grip on this, through reason and awareness, then we will experience a period of shame, and perhaps even violence, from which our nation will reel for a generation or more.
The movement of concern is the modern conservative movement. For over thirty years conservatism has reigned supreme in the United States, contributing to our cultural derailment, financial decrepitude and corporate co-dependency. As a practical political philosophy American conservatism has been thoroughly discredited culminating in the economic collapse of 2008. From the top of the rubble heap that used to be America we can see what conservatism has wrought. A two tiered economy in which wealth is distributed upward and the middle class hangs above the precipice of poverty by a frayed tether of personal debt. Our infrastructure, health care and education systems are the laughing-stock of the industrialized world. Our once vaunted manufacturing sector, an institution that won two world wars and stoked the world’s economy, has now been parsed to underage women and children in third world countries. Meanwhile, Americans are locked in perpetual competition over a shrinking sector of lucrative jobs, often leveraging more debt to gain critical credentials from an increasingly expensive higher education system.
Really, there’s nothing more we can expect from conservatives except an apology.
Instead, what we are getting is a conservative reformation, funded by such corporate entities as News Corp and Koch Industries, skillfully manipulating the façade of a grassroots movement. The voices of this movement are a raving paranoid, Glenn Beck, and a witless prima donna, Sarah Palin, both unhampered by the constraints of reason, yet buoyed by cultish charisma. They motivate the most extreme wing of the Republican Party, free market conservatism at its very worst, determined to stamp out any moderating voice in the name of purity.
As a sociologist and a social activist I am an advocate for social movements, even those movements contrary to my goals. Such is the defining characteristic of democracy. Social movements, however, can be caught in a dangerous cycle leading ultimately to cultural nihilism. Social movements should be inclusive, driven by a broad and tolerant ideology that can incorporate many and varied voices. They should be based on sound reason, theory, history and research. The discourse should include democratic paradigms of freedom, equality, peace and justice. When I see these elements institutionalized into a movement, even a movement at odds with my own beliefs, I know that the elements of a free society are healthy.
These are not the elements I’m witnessing with the new conservatives and the Tea Partiers. Indeed, I’m seeing just the opposite. Conservatism today is mired by closure and in-group/out-group tactics. These tactics often lead to scapegoating and advocacy, either rhetorical or real, of violence. It is a movement driven by tactics of obstruction and self empowerment rather than justice and freedom. To justify such methods neo-conservatism has abandoned history and research for revisionist conspiracy theory and paranoia. Neo-conservatism is a mockery of enlightened politics and a danger to democracy as well as to American society itself.
Neo-conservatism is an ideologically closed movement. To be a member one must adhere strictly to the tenets put forth by the demigods of conservative thought. The two foundational tenets of neo-conservatism are caricatured in the persons of Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan. Thou shalt pay homage to the Great Milton Friedman for there is no solution but a free market solution. Thou shalt pay homage to the Great Ronald Reagan, for government is always “the” problem. Shrink government, deregulate the market, and all will be well with the world. True, these interpretations of Friedman and Reagan may not match the historical reality of these figures, for contemporary conservatives, facts are what they make them.
We can elevate Dick Cheney to archangel, if not minor deity. Thou shalt revere Dick Cheney, for everything America does, no matter how heinous, is righteous and justifiable. Then there are the prophets Beck and Palin. Hold the Beck and the Palin holy as everything they say, no matter how ridiculous, is true and right .
Any deviation from the weird themes of the far right are met with scorn. There is no alternative reality. There is no compromise. Those who think that maybe, just maybe, the government should have some small role in…
…governing are derided as socialists or progressive sympathizers. Even John McCain is not immune to this strict, right wing-nut discipline. McCain faces a primary challenge from the Tea Party as a response to the absurd claims that he is a progressive. Right wingers derailed the Republican candidate for the 23rd congressional district in New York, a Republican safe seat since the Civil War, on grounds of closet progressivism. Some months ago conservatives even advocated instituting a so-called purity test. Republican support would be determined by the satisfaction of the bullet point doctrines of the Tea Party agenda. This idea was scratched after being revealed to an appalled public.
As for interacting with other groups the rule is simple. There is no compromise. There is no policy other than neo-con policy. It’s us against them. All those who are not neo-cons are liberal dupes of the communist agenda, plain and simple. There is no in between, no shade of gray. Bipartisanship is weakness. Oh, we’ll talk bi-partisan, but when it comes to actual interaction with the pariah left, no plan supported by those defined as liberals is worth being tainted by affiliation. Even when the left adopts policies of the right it is incumbent upon true conservatives to vote against their own policies in pursuit of ideological purity.
During the health care debate liberal activists watched helplessly as progressive ideas were purged from the Senate legislation one after the other while conservative principles were adopted, all in the hopes of creating some mythical bi-partisan consensus, a creature no more real than a unicorn. Congressman Boehner outlined four elements conservatives wanted to see in the legislation before a single Republican would vote in favor of the bill. All four elements were incorporated into the final legislation in exchange for exactly zero votes.
This in-group/out-group dynamic is called closure. When a group is insulated from the influence of other groups, unwilling to tolerate the other or to admit the possibility of mutual interests, that group is closed. It carefully regulates who is allowed membership within the group and excludes all who may be affiliated with the out-group, in this case the liberal/progressive scum who would lead our country to ruin. Those who might serve as a bridge between the two groups, focal points for negotiation and compromise, are excluded as lacking the purity of a true member. Such groups whether a family, a gang or a political party, are prone to authoritarianism and deviance. Closed and intolerant groups are not healthy and are ultimately destructive to the society around them.
However, when you have the vast resources of one of the nation’s leading political voices, the Republican Party, with its great treasuries and seats in congress, closure is even more dangerous. Governing in the United States has always required bridging the differences between groups with disparate values. The Constitution itself, the professed sacred canon of the far right, was a work of compromise. Yet no such negotiation is possible among an ideologically closed group.
Closure, to be truly effective, must devalue the members of the out-group. It’s not enough for neo-conservatives to define their ideology, then present and defend their claims in the marketplace of ideas. No. The oppositionand all those who disagree are the oppositionmust be diminished by the very fact of their opposition. They must be defined as pathological or threatening. One can always identify the extremist groups. They are the ones accusing their competitors of extremism. So the election of a left leaning centrist president is, to the neo-con, a usurpation of the office by Marxist extremists. Health care reform becomes a government take-over of health care. A back to school address by the president becomes a socialist plot to indoctrinate our children. There is no reasonable explanation. Only the extremist core is presented as reality, and reality defined by the conservative in-group is not to be questioned.
Progressives and liberals, as far as conservative paradigms are concerned, are not competing ideologies with claims of varying degrees of legitimacy. They are certainly not people with whom we should negotiate. They are, in fact, a threat to our way of life. Progressivism is not a movement interested in social justice. Rather it’s a plot to take over the nation, if not the entire world, and make it submit to its sinister plans. And certainly one does not negotiate, nor debate, with a sinister and threatening enemy. One fights.
To the far right progressivism is a disease that, according to the Prophet Beck, must be eradicated. After all, progressivism, liberalism, socialism, communism are all, in reality, just a ruse of fascism and we all know what fascists do. Do we want that to happen to our fine country? Our problems today are not the result of failed conservatism, deregulation and corporate greed. No. The real problem is progressive-fascism undermining the American character, making our nation weaker. It’s this progressive “disease” that must be scourged, must be censored before it infects our children, turning them away from God, country, family and all that we hold dear.
The great political debates of modern times, debates argued so brilliantly and eloquently between such luminaries as Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, Daniel Webster and John C. Calhoun, have been reduced to an apocalyptic fantasy between “real” America and the East Coast Liberal Elites. Conservatives present themselves as the saviors (Messiahs?) of Real America who will rise up and smite the progressive beast.
Revising History…Repeating History
Exactly what are they fighting against?
After all, the history of progressivism is not one to hide. From the advent of public schools and libraries to child labor laws, from women’s suffrage to civil rights, progressives have been on the right side of history. Where were conservatives? Oh, yes. They were the ones arguing that ending slavery would not only be a violation of state’s rights, but ultimately harmful to the poor, stupid blacks who could only be civilized in chains. They were the ones arguing that denying children the opportunity to work in the factories would hurt poor families, after all, it’s a waste to send poor ignorant children to school.
This defense of progressivism does not belie the fact that there have been some philosophical wrong turns. Yes, some progressives have backed failed and short-sighted, even inhumane, ideas. There was a time when progressives stood for temperance, believing that making alcohol illegal would get men and their money out of the bars and into their homes with their families. It was well-meaning, but wrong. There were some progressives who supported forced sterilization, believing this to be a humane way to deal with poverty and mental illness. This idea was horrendous in its consequences.
But Glenn Beck is right about one thing. Progressivism is about evolution. As progressive strategies failed, liberals abandoned them. The original liberals were free market radicals advocating taking the power of the economy from the hands of kings and parliaments and putting it in the hands of individuals. When it became obvious, however, that market institutions could be just as oppressive as the most autocratic kings and politicians liberals abandoned this idea and advocated for working men and women held under the industrial lash. Temperance didn’t work. Now progressives are at the forefront of ending the ludicrous War on Drugs. Forced sterilization was a horror show, but now progressives are the primary advocates for the rights of women all over the world to make their own decisions about their bodies and reproduction.
Progressivism may be flawed, but it isn’t the “disease” claimed by Beck. To justify such allegations, however, the Prophets of conservatism must re-write history in such a way that they are the heroes and liberals are the villains. And they are literally doing just that as such “histories” as Liberal Fascism can attest. Right wingers must also dispel our understanding of the last hundred years of history by describing a vast conspiracy of progressives to mislead the electorate and indoctrinate the children in our vile public schools. Conspiracies abound, from Cloward/Piven to Saul Alinsky, from the claim of fake birth certificates to the absurdity of government-run death panels. None of these conspiracies are true, of course, but they are the mainstay of neo-conservative ideology.
This combination of factors is nothing new to history. Despite Glenn Beck’s claim that liberalism is nothing more than fascism in disguise, it is the neo-conservative combination of closure, scapegoating and revisionism that most closely approximates Nazi Germany.
Don’t believe me? Compare Glenn Beck:
“Progressivism is the cancer in America and it is eating our Constitution. And it was designed to eat the Constitution…It must be cut out of the system because they cannot co-exist. And you don’t cure cancer by – well, I’m just going to give you a little bit of cancer. You must eradicate it...“
To this by Hitler:
“How many diseases have their origin in the Jewish virus? We will regain our health only by eliminating the Jew.”
Or this by Goebbels:
no humanitarian task, but a task of the surgeon. One has got to cut here and that most radically or Europe will vanish one day due to the Jewish disease.”
Now I’m not going to reduce my essay to Beckish nonsense by claiming that because neo-conservative statements are very much like Nazi statements that contemporary conservatism is nothing more than fascism in disguise. It is not. I will claim, however, that similar tactics can very easily lead to similar results. Just exactly how does Glenn Beck suggest that progressivism be “eradicated?” Historically there has only been one method to eradicate any belief system. Is this not cause for concern?
Indeed, America is not immune to the paranoid contagion of conservative extremism. World War I effectively shut down the advance of the Progressive Age of the early 20th century, leading to the Sedition Act of 1918, the Palmer Raids and the Red Scare of the early 20’s. Charles Schenck was imprisoned for exercising his constitutional right to speak out against war, as was Eugene Debs, a three-time presidential candidate. Shortly thereafter the House of Representatives established the House Un-American Activities Committee, famous for blacklisting some of America’s greatest artistic and literary talents. Senator Joseph McCarthy catalyzed one of the greatest liberal witch hunts in American history with a conspiracy theory about communist infiltration at the highest levels of government. These episodes have long been a national embarrassment, examples of the destructive influence of fanaticism on democratic society.
Will this be the ultimate extension of neo-conservatism? Will we have to explain to our children and our grandchildren just what life was like during the progressive witch-hunts of the early 21st century? And if we do, what side of history do you want your grandchildren to learn you were on?
How did we get here? Where are we going?
What happened to conservative discourse? There was a time when conservatives presented rational arguments for their positions. Men like William F. Buckley lent an air of authority and legitimacy to the movement. Even Ronald Reagan, despite his pandering to rhetorical, often racist, archetypes such as the “welfare queen,” and the “tax and spend liberal,” at least presented a positive vision for America. His brand of conservatism was one of pride and hope for a nation reeling from political upheaval. Reagan’s conservative revolution was not one of reactionary paranoia. Reagan was trying to restore the pride of a nation. Though I believe his politics was wrong, I’ll concede that his mission may have been noble.
But there is nothing noble about the current crop of conservative reactionaries. They are an institution motivated by fear and dogma. The foundation of everything that they hold dear has collapsed, revealing the rot lying beneath. Everywhere free market dogma and conservative policy has been put into effect, from Chile to Russia to South Africa, has suffered political and economic disparity, disillusionment and collapse. It’s no wonder that they want to re-write history. It’s no wonder they want to place the blame on others.
But that does not mean we have to let them. Neo-conservatives and Tea Partiers need to be called to task for their irresponsible rhetoric. No, we do not need to “eradicate” neo-conservatism. We need to marginalize it as the reactionary balderdash that it is.