American Conservatives — you know them from newsbytes and soundbytes and from the seemingly pervasive longing across the many forms of conservatism for the return of Ronald Reagan.
You may think of conservatives as primarily Republican; the average conservative probably thinks of alliance with Republicans as merely a marriage of convenience.
Earlier this week I was reading a long discussion as to what makes conservative America tick. All good constructive thoughts. The criticisms were also thoughtful.
Yet as I read the comments it struck me that possibly, even probably, none of the discussion panel were conservative.
Below is my edited contribution to the conversation — my original was a stream of consciousness.
By the comments that I’ve read so far I would assume several things:
— most of the commentary is by individuals not born and bred, or living long in the South or Western USA, or the lower Midwest (Kansas, Missouri) or rural New Hampshire/Massachusetts or areas with homogeneous populations;
— knowledge of conservatives comes mostly from reading about them and not living with or daily discussion of ideas with them; and
— the names of Thomas Hobbes, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Bertrand Russell are probably somewhat familiar, but what they believed is not. Also there is a very key figure that ties the aforementioned together, he being Thomas Jefferson — everyone knows Jefferson, but have you read Jefferson?! Jefferson is worshiped in modern conservative America.
I was born a conservative. Most conservatives just know that they are conservative. Conservatives feel no need to rationalize their existence or their beliefs. Somehow we intuitively understand and act on our beliefs.
I’m not saying that conservatism is the answer. Or has an answer. My point is that conservatism is not an active thought process. So it is a misdirected thesis to imply that conservatives can even agree on what they believe. Or ever agree.
Conservatism is more like a computer operating system than it is some piece of software that gets installed and then run. Software gives us predetermined functionality; operating systems give us whatever we create to run on them.
Conservatism enables rather than creates desired outcomes by design. Conservatism is more of a ‘background process’ than it is a ‘user interface’. Conservatism can be very user unfriendly to those desiring a program instead.
As one political scholar once put it: “To put conservatism in a bottle with a label is like trying to liquify the atmosphere … The difficulty arises from the nature of the thing. For conservatism is less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a mode of feeling, a way of living.”
So when a conservative ‘boots up’ their operating system they tend to focus on a few key functions that run in the background, not in the forefront:
— Self-reliance: YOU are responsibile for you. YOU will succeed because of what YOU do and learn and achieve. Do not expect help. All help comes with a price. Never owe another.
— Economic independence: See self-reliance; charity to another is to be encouraged; charity received is a shame. You are what YOU make yourself.
— Family: You are your family. Your family is of you. There is no other entity other than God (or in Bertrand Russell’s case: some mutally satisfying blessing of greater good) and family. The family is the most meaningful organization of mankind. You have a responsibility to perpetuate and to protect your family. Family is responsible for taking care of other family members.
— Community: Communities represent an aggregation of like-minded believers. There is a status quo which must be respected. You advance within the community and gain respect through self-reliance and economic independence, thus achievement.
— Tradition: the status quo is exalted as proof that family and community are successful. Your actual traditions are less important than the fact that you have them.
— Recognition of a higher power, but government isn’t it: government beyond the bounds of the community is a thing to be feared. It is not of your family. It does not respect and support your status quo. It does not honor your traditions. Government which governs least governs best is oft heard.
Conservatism as a coherent political philosophy outside of a community is almost an oxymoron.
Translating conservatism to politics at state and federal levels is a messy thing.
Until the 1950s conservatives were protected by living in a white Anglo-Saxon world framed in various essences of Anglo-Saxon Christianity — real or imagined. From Jefferson to Eisenhower there were only moments of intrusion of another world into the conservative world.
—>> Conservatism became primarily a white American philosophy only because the status quo and community failed non-whites so badly. There were nonetheless self-reliance movements among non-white Americans and the essence of how they functioned was hardly different than white conservatism.
The stress of changing times gave us Eisenhower (reassurance and continuity) and with the 1960s came revolution and Goldwater.
Goldwater’s greatest achievement, and challenge, was that he attempted to define conservatism when he ran for president in 1964. He had no choice. Nixon’s defeat in 1960 signaled the end of an era. America turned upside down.
Goldwater created a conversation about conservatism that forced it to seek status as a bona fide political philosophy — which gave us George Will, the late William Buckley and William Safire, all of whom spent the 60s, 70s, 80s, and the 90s attempting to define and to further refine.
Conservatism as software (defined outcome) is not possible. Conservatives do not want defined outcomes. We do not want menu choices as we run our lives. So 45 years later we are embroiled again in Goldwater’s great conversation.
Ronald Reagan, whom we all grew up with (if you were born before 1970), gave us in the 1980s what Eisenhower gave us: reassurance and continuity. What Reagan did not give us was doctrine. Reagan strode the earth as a natural conservative. God bless Reagan.
What came after Reagan were “reformed conservatives”, converts to conservatism. They tried to define conservatism through alliances of communities that either attracted or alienated. We got dogma instead of philosophy — the difference being that dogma demands acceptance and philosophy appeals to you or not.
Reformed Conservatism (I hate this term): Bush 41 and Bush 43 lucked out just by the good grace of having been associated with Reagan, by having stood in his shadow. Neither could lead conservatives because they talked about being conservative instead of being conservative. John Wayne didn’t explain. John Wayne just did it. Reagan just did it.
The conservative world has now crashed upon the rocks of an ethos (America today) that is without ethos.
Conservatism’s bedrock support is community of like-minded believers. Except for small regions, America is now 24/7 multicultural — even among conservatives.
There is no leader or heir apparent of conservatism because if there were we would know his or her name already. We would respect them for their self-reliance and economic or cultural achievements. And their very life would transcend the nuances of how we conservatives see ourselves.
Roosevelt and Eisenhower and Reagan walked among us long before they took the helm of nation.
Conservatives are not without prophets. Yet neither are there giants that walk among us.
So now we are left with a conservative movement that must try to define itself.
Yet how can (and why must?) we be forced to (re)define status quo, and tradition, and most of all family? These things do not require definition. Not to us.
Yet we try. We have no choice. Having no choice frustrates us and builds anger and divides us into combative camps (virtual communities) that lashes out at that which is not family and is not community and which challenges our very notions of self-reliance and economic independence and organization of our lives within our families.
Modern conservatism did not collapse from outside forces. It collapsed from its own weight, its own collection of baggage that was a patchwork quilt of alliances and dogmas and addictions, such as seeing profits and GDP as somehow equating to self-reliance and economic independence.
I believe that conservatism with survive and thrive. But first it must take its own hand from its own throat. Conservatism will thrive when it abandons ‘my way or the highway’.
Conservatism will thrive again when we refocus on community at the community level and compete outside those communities, at state and national level, as Americans that believe in self-reliance and economic independence, dropping all other preconditions for political cooperation.