Posted by: coloradokiwi | March 8, 2009

Whither Conservatism? Wither, Conservatism!

Quite a lot has been made recently out of the fate of the Republican party, and by extension conservatism more generally.  On the heels of a bad electoral defeat, we have a series of aggravating and hilarious miscalculations, stemming mainly, it would seem, from Republicans not quite understanding the problem isn’t just branding, it’s the product.  In the mean time, a civil war is brewing between the Palinite crazies and the “thinking” conservatives who, it’s fair to say, have a clearer idea of why they’re getting pasted right now.

Others have analyzed that whole thing more eloquently, so far be it for me to pile on there.  I would prefer instead to work through the problem of the way in which conservatism’s branching out into the electorate via populist rhetoric has finally come back to kill whatever it is “conservatism” was initially supposed to be, at least as a coherent platform.  Basically, the inherent problems with conservatism are the mismatch between who conservative ideas tend to benefit the most and who the “party faithful” turn out to be.  This is no shocker, but it is worthwhile to examine how we got here.  

First, some parsing is I think in order, as there are different kinds of conservatives/conservatism we’re talking about here: 

1.  Conservatives who see the world as rendered in talk radio by the likes of Hannity and Limbaugh.

2.  Conservatives who may or may not see the world in these terms, but could  very well just be carrying the water of the truly powerful (Limbaugh; I think it’s fair to say Hannity is far too stupid to differentiate between what he says and what he believes). 

3.  Conservatives who wield considerable power and who capitalize on the  “unscholarly” aspects of conservative thought in order to pursue policy 
agendas  which would otherwise be unacceptable to most people (probably Cheney, although it’s worth asking:  to what extent does he believe what he says, and to what extent is he really a duplicitous Sith Lord?). 

4.  Conservatives in terms of philosophical, social and economic theorists, who  are just as academically rigorous and powerfully-minded as their ideological  opposites, who are likely appalled by the likes of Limbaugh, even if they recognize that such figures help instill acceptance of some conservative principles, however twisted the stated reasons might be.  

To cite a specific issue, some people oppose things like welfare out of 
ignorance and fear (I don’t want to subsidize lazy people), while others oppose it because they believe it to be a form of economic apartheid whereby poor people are kept poor and become dependent on the state, so that they will/must support the expansion of state bureaucracy.  Both could be considered “conservative,” but for vastly different reasons.  To channel Yogi Berra:  conservatism is not 
the same thing as conservatism.  

Back to the main thrust here:  once upon a time, the social and economic ideas that are ostensibly “conservative” were based on or derived from serious intellectual labor. This is the “conservatism” of Rand, Plato, Heidegger (to some extent), early  Fukuyama, Hume, Burke, Mundel, Laffer, and to some extent the Austrian School of economic theory, among others.   (There’s a considerable amount of difference between these in terms of what their objects of study are and how much intellectual merit each may have—the point is that these sources are regularly mined by conservatives.)

So much for that, eh?  Well, perhaps:

It’s easy in the current climate to dismiss “conservatism” as a list of mental afflictions incompatible with critical thinking, or as rooted primarily in fear, selfishness and psychological projection, or as inhabiting a space of pronounced cognitive dissonance, or of a crassly implemented means of false  consciousness.  It is/has been all of these things.  But it is also an array of principles that have considerable heft and influence, which can be defended on substantial philosophical and empirical grounds, or at least have an entirely different set of values on which they base their assumptions.  

Over the last several years, we have been treated to an avalanche of asinine reasons to support conservatives and/or conservative causes, through which “real” conservatism (as well as mere cronyism and kleptocracy) have stormed in to our governmental policies.  Now with “conservatives” out of power and in civil war, this has effectively ended for the time being, but it’s a marriage that could be renewed.

Or so it would be.  But “serious” conservatism is of course at the moment out in the cold.  The dittoheads have mounted a coup, and it certainly appears as if the party elite are held hostage (willingly or otherwise) to “movement conservatism” which is grounded in nothing more intellectual than the musings of Joe the Plumber.  These are people who in some instances deny humanity’s hand in global warming, refute evolution, refute cosmology, etc.  This is not because they are “unscientific,” it’s because they understand research to be merely the extension of politics, its authority to be used as a cudgel in policy debates.  Whether or not they realize it, they are the ultimate postmodernists in a sense, seeing all Knowledge as (political) discourse.  Knowledge in their view is not what we know, it’s who has the authority to articulate what is “true”.  It’s the application of power.  And no matter the reason for most academics leaning left (I happen to think some of it is a rational reaction to the anti-intellectualism that dominates one side of the political spectrum right now), it’s evidence to them of the power and authority that rests with knowledge-creators.  Reality itself is contested territory, which is subject to a “higher order” truth than mere facts (this is something I’ve already touched on, but it bears repeating here).

So let’s diagram this more simply:  Step One:  there are intellectual critiques put forth which are ostensibly “conservative”.  Step Two:  there are also quasi-intellectuals like Buckley who combine these notions with more pedestrian cultural and ideological concerns, to articulate “conservatism”.  Step Three:  with Reagan as president, and thereafter with the rise of talk radio, “conservative” policy ideas are articulated on largely intellectually empty grounds, but which have a broad appeal to “average” Americans, whether this is because it is cynically marketed this way for the benefit of the elite, or because the elite legitimately believe what’s best for them is best for everyone.  Step Four:  people vote for “conservatives” who enact ostensibly conservative policies, and yet these people can’t understand why their lives aren’t getting better; since they have been convinced that it is the fault of everything other than conservatism, they lurch further to the right, while treating ideas which were originally intellectual positions as mere dogma, something that everyone “knows”.  Step Five:  “average” Americans with no experience or credentials, whose main qualifications consist of dogmatic belief in “conservative” values and principles, ascend to places of power and influence by appealing to other average Americans (see Sarah Palin).  

Just like with Rush Limbaugh himself, movement conservatives have essentially taken over, to where even in places where they don’t hold office, they effectively organize at the grassroots level.  And movement conservatism is inherently anti-intellectual—even against conservative intellectuals.  The contradiction between conservatism as an intellectual movement which (for the most part) props up the elites, and those elites’ appeals to non-elites’ most base fears and prejudices, has finally collapsed in on itself.  Although capitalism has yet to really sew the seeds of its own destruction, conservatism may just be at this point.  We can only hope.


***Closing note:  I just want to make clear that I am not decrying the ascendancy of the non-elites.  The problem is that these particular non-elites seem to have a problem with “elite” things like facts, logic, and the fundamentals of argumentation—a contempt which has been ingrained in them by elites for decades now.***


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