Here is a simple riddle, what is “Conservatism?” It seems an easy enough question until you actually think about it. One could go back to good old Edmund Burk the spiritual father of the movement and plant your flag there. There is a small problem with that as Edmund supported monarchy, the Aristocracy and the Church Of England full stop. Trying to shoe-horn Burkian notions into the American reality of a Secular, Constitutionally limited, Representative, Democratically elected, Federal Republic is a very frustrating exercise. Burk becomes more of a talisman, than a serious philosophy of governance.
Modern Conservatism finds its real roots in the USA with the post-progressive Republican Party that buried Woodrow Wilson. The best exemplars of this brand of Republicanism were Warren G Harding’s vow of returning to “normalcy” and the presidency of Calvin Coolidge. Both were prime examples of a strain of Conservatism that will be labeled “Satus Quo” Conservatism or “Preservationist” Conservatism. In its most progressive form it argues for a go slow approach to change. In its purer more Burkian form it argues for no change at all.
Cool, taciturn Calvin Coolidge term in office was the best example of how this type of philosophy affects governance. Coolidge was a minimalist in all things. He passed no great reforms, he made no great speeches, and he was famous for his taciturn ways. Everything about Coolidge was conservative, from his button-down clothing to his button-down demeanor. The most outrageous thing he did was wear an Indian Chief’s headdress for a photo op. Coolidge was very friendly to big business and to Wall Street letting the good times of the 1920’s roll.
It worked out well for Coolidge and for his small government ideology. The only real blot on his record domestically was the rise of the KKK and rise of the speculative bubble during his term. It was for his successor, Herbert Hoover to get fricasseed by the Wall Street volcano and the subsequent Great Depression.
In a way Conservatism never really recovered from the New Deal and its progeny. The growth of government under the New Deal, WWII and then the Great Society sent shock waves through the political landscape. By the time Eisenhower got into office the Republican Party sent up a white flag on major portions of the New Deal. Eisenhower had no interest in resurrecting Herbert Hoover or in proving him right. Eisenhower accepted the Status Quo as he found it. His was a no sudden moves, preservationist conservatism. He was dragged into action most times. Look at the seminal foreign policy achievement of Ike’s term—Containment.
Containment was a very conservative response to the threat of Soviet Hegemony. It sought to preserve the non-Communist nations as it found them. France, Italy, Spain, West Germany were re-built and joined into a defensive arrangement. When Hungary revolted Ike did nothing to prevent the Soviets from reclaiming their own. Lip service was given to freedom and democracy but the US was more than happy to support any anti-Communist government as it found it. Containment was the prevention of the spread of Communism in the hope that it would eventually collapse of its own weight. As a matter of fact JFK ran against what he claimed was Ike’s pacifism and over cautiousness.
What happened next is legend. JFK was the fuse that set off the Baby Boom of the 1960’s. The new normalcy of the late 40’s and the 50’s gave way to the counterculture. If to prove Hagel correct the New Left of the 1960’s helped to also stir the New Right. Countercultural Leftism gave rise Movement Conservatism.
Movement Conservatism was not Ike’s type of Conservatism, it was active, it was radical, and it was rude. Unlike the more stayed and proper form of Conservatism it was a pitch-fork and torches affair. More to the point it was reactionary and regressive. It wanted to undo what it saw were the excesses of New Left.
Movement Conservatism in essence wanted a return to what is saw was a purer and more wholesome time. Some wanted to go back to the glorious conformity of the 1950’s. Others wanted a return to the small government Shangri-La of Calvin Coolidge. Some even thought that the changes enacted by Teddy Roosevelt needed to be expunged.
Movement Conservatism in its NeoCon form was not satisfied with the temporizing of containment. It wanted a much more robust response to the Soviets. From time to time it found itself in opposition even to its Golden Boy Ronald Regan. The NeoCons never had an adequate response to Gorbachev exactly what do you do when the Soviet Primer follows your advice and tears down the Berlin Wall? More to the point what do you do when one of your central ideological pillars, anti-communism, goes the way of the Dodo?
One of the things you do is try to re-create the Communist menace in a new form. Internationally you cast something called “Islamo-facism” for the roll once occupied by the Soviets. This is a problem because to quote that old Bolshevik so-and-so Joseph Stalin “How many divisions do they have?” Well OBL has exactly squat for divisional strength. On a good day Al Qaeda has some 30,000 people under its sway. They own no tanks, no air force, no navy, no APCs, no rolling stock, no supply chain. OBL and his unhappy collection of thugs is in no shape or form the existential threat to the United States that the old Soviet Empire was. At best OBL can possibly unleash a tactical nuke in a major city. This is not a good thing but it pales in comparison to the former Soviet Union’s ability to vaporize the entire USA hundreds of times over. Yet visit any right-wing site or listen to the “thinkers” on the right and one would believe that OBL was prepared to invade Cleveland with millions of Jihadist warriors.
Domestically with the real Communists dead and buried with Gus Hall one must go on a McCarthyite search for their fellow travelers. Thus we have screams of “socialism” coming from the right. This is a tiresome diatribe because a Socialism, or more appropriately European Social Democracy is not the bugbear that the right portrays it. More importantly the programs of the Democratic Party are pushing for are not equivalent to what bad old Europe is doing. Still this does not prevent the usual fools from proclaiming the Party of Jackson and FDR the “Democrat-Socialist” party. This type of fear mongering is actually counter-productive. The continued pairing of Obama’s policies to Socialism will only improve the unwashed masses opinion of Socialism not bring a halt to Obama’s policy proposals.
Besides Socialism, the government’s control of the heights of economy, no longer exists in Europe. Governments have gotten out of the business of owning business. The only classically socialist governments still in existence are the Communist governments in North Korea, Vietnam and China. Of the three only the pompadoured and jump-suited Elvis wana-be Kim Jong IL still qualifies as the last of the Stalinist true believers. Every one else is running some kind of mixed economy. Socialism is dead; long live the Welfare State and Social Democracy.
While real socialism is rotting in its grave, the pejorative marches on. The straw-man socialist; anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Life, anti-Capitalist, only concerned with personal aggrandizement and the destruction of the nation has never been healthier. As a scarce tactic it works for a small section of the populace. For the rest of the unwashed masses it has all the believability of Godzilla movie.
If it make people happy to imagine that a man in a rubber suit stomping through a miniaturized model of Tokyo actually represents some kind of real threat go for it, just don’t be surprised when more rational people make jokes behind your back. The
“Socialist, Islamist, Black-Power, Liberal, Fascist, Communist, Obama” is such a man in a rubber suit. It is a object of fancy, a construction that is obviously fraudulent, only a complete fool would believe in or be frightened by it.
Unfortunately for the conservative movement such foolishness abounds. The right has returned to its Eisenhower roots and has retreated into irrational conspiracy theories. The term rational conservative has become an oxymoron. This is many because the right has conflated reactionary conservatism with the movement as a whole. It has conflated discipline with rigidity and worst of all it has conflated leadership with crypto-authoritarianism. It has conflated religiosity with Fundamentalist Christianity. It has conflated liberty with libertarianism. Worst of all it can still not see how the excesses of the Bush Administration grew out the authoritarian streak that always threatens to undermine the Conservative cause.
Bush’s willful idiocy was part and parcel of reactionary right wing movement that was part of Movement Conservatism. The Free-Market absolutism, the shredding of the Constitution, the absolutism, the support of Christianist causes, all had an excellent right wing pedigree. Bush was more than willing to shrink the part of the government that protected the general public: EPA, FDA, SEC, FEMA etc. His corporate cronies had a field day deregulating major portions of the government for their own enrichment. Meanwhile the authoritarian will to power found its expression in warrantless wiretapping and in the whole structure of the “Black Site” prisons where torture was enacted. Remember Bush got elected in the 2000 primaries because conservatives did not trust Johnny Mac to stay true to the cause. Bush was the “real” conservative back in 2000 in opposition to the “maverick” candidacy of McCain.
So if Bush is no longer a Conservative, if he never was a Conservative then what is a Conservative? If there is a gravitational center it is the idea of tradition and the need to preserve the tried and true institutions that have served us from the dawn of civilization. How that plays out in the post-Bush world is anyone’s guess.