Conservatives, True and Pseudo

I want to spend a little more time on the distinction between conservatives and pseudo conservatives. Certainly, we’re not looking at two entirely separate phylum here. Cs and PCs share many common opinions and perspectives. But the differences are substantial also, and I think those differences led directly to the failures of the late Republican Congress and the Bush Administration.

In his essay on “Goldwater and Pseudo-Conservative Politics” from 1964, Richard Hofstadter wrote,

The difference between conservatism as a set of doctrines whose validity is established by polemics, and conservatism as a set of rules whose validity is to be established by their usability in government, is not a difference in nuance, but of fundamental substance.

Put another way, the distinction is between holding conservative values that guide’s one’s opinions and conservatism as a set of dogmas that must be “believed in” and followed loyally whether they work or not.

Understanding this distinction requires digging “conservative values” out from under the cultural and rhetorical detritus heaped upon them in recent years. When you look at a dictionary definition of “conservative,” for example, you find:

The inclination, especially in politics, to maintain the existing or traditional order.
A political philosophy or attitude emphasizing respect for traditional institutions, distrust of government activism, and opposition to sudden change in the established order. …
Caution or moderation, as in behavior or outlook.

The definition doesn’t quite describe today’s American Right, does it?

If you scroll down from that dictionary definition you find another one, taken from a political dictionary published by Oxford University Press:

Originally in Burke an ideology of caution in departing from the historical roots of a society, or changing its inherited traditions and institutions. In this “organic” form it includes allegiance to tradition, community, hierarchies of rank, benevolent paternalism, and properly subservient underclasses. By contrast, conservatism can be taken to imply a laissez-faire ideology of untrammelled individualism that puts the emphasis on personal responsibility, free markets, law and order, and a minimal role for government, with neither community, nor tradition, nor benevolence entering more than marginally. The two strands are not easy to reconcile, either in theory or in practice.

Are we confused yet? Scroll down a little more, and there’s an essay from a U.S. History encyclopedia:

A national political and intellectual movement of self-described conservatives began to congeal in the middle of the twentieth century, primarily as a reaction to the creation of the New Deal welfare state, but also in response to the alleged erosion of traditional values and the American failure to win a quick victory in the Cold War. Among the factions within this movement, traditionalists typically stressed the virtues of order, local custom, and natural law; libertarians promoted limited government, laissez-faire economics, and individual autonomy; and militant cold warriors sought primarily to combat communism. Despite these internal differences, by 1960, conservatives had formulated a coherent critique of liberalism and built a network of political activists. In 1964, they mobilized to win the Republican presidential nomination for Senator Barry Goldwater and, subsequently, remained a major political force.

Now we’re back to what I wrote about yesterday — Richard Hofstadter’s contention that Goldwater conservatives were really pseudo conservatives.

To attempt a broad and brief generalization of Hofstadter’s argument — “traditional” conservatives like Dwight Eisenhower or Senator Robert Taft were conservative more in the Burkean mold, which valued allegiance to tradition, community, hierarchies of rank, benevolent paternalism, and in some cases “properly subservient underclasses” as well (note that Hofstadter doesn’t cite Burke himself, so I may be reaching a little here). Hofstadter wrote in 1964,

Most conservatives are mainly concerned with maintaining a tissue of institutions for whose stability and effectiveness they believe the country’s business and political elites hold responsibility.

(I suspect if I were to drizzle the sentence above around the Right Blogosphere today the righties would disagree.)

But even those conservatives who trace their philosophies to Burke are of wildly diverse types. On one hand there is the relatively benign Russell Kirk, who defined mainstream conservatism in 1953 in his book The Conservative Mind. Kirk’s “Ten Principles of Conservatism,” which you can read about here, drew upon the philosophy of Burke. On the other hand, Leo Strauss — who heavily influenced today’s neocons — interpreted Burke in an entirely different way and reached very different views from Kirk’s.

I suppose here we have to consider whether Hofstadter’s views on conservatism versus pseudoconservatism are still valid, given that conservatism has redefined itself considerably. In response to my last post, Mike the Mad Biologist writes “I would argue that Nixon and Eisenhower both were essentially the right wing of the liberal consensus, and not conservatives as conservatives themselves understand conservatism. Conservatives are a different kind all together.” Well, yes, if we could reconstitute Eisenhower today — let’s leave Nixon where he is — he’d definitely be on the conservative side of the liberal consensus. And if he went back into politics he’d probably be a centrist Democrat. But within his own time frame Eisenhower was a conservative.

This shows us how far right the “conservative movement” has swung. It also takes us back to the quote above, “The difference between conservatism as a set of doctrines whose validity is established by polemics, and conservatism as a set of rules whose validity is to be established by their usability in government, is not a difference in nuance, but of fundamental substance.”

For example, a “usability in government” type of conservative, back in the day, was not necessarily opposed to all social welfare or “safety net” programs, because he might understand them as fostering economic and political stability. Allowing a large underclass of hopelessly poor people to build up is asking for revolution, and revolutions are very un-conservative. So, 1950s era mainstream conservatives like Dwight Eisenhower and Robert Taft were OK — maybe not wildly enthusiastic, mind you, but OK –with some New Deal programs, because they were benevolent and supported domestic tranquility. Such thinking is, of course, utterly rejected by most of today’s conservatives.

Here rightie blogger McQ of Q and O Blog (“Free Markets, Free People”) critiques an essay written by Irving Kristol back in 1976, in which the Father of Neoconservatism argues that Republicans need to construct and support welfare programs. “The idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy,” Kristol the Elder wrote. Kirstol continues,

This is not a question the Republican Party has faced up to, because it still feels, deep down, that a welfare state is inconsistent with such traditional American virtues as self-reliance and individual liberty. Those virtues are real enough, and are a proper conservative concern. But the task to is to create the kind of welfare state which is consistent, to the largest possible degree. That is not an impossible task, though it would be foolish to pretend it is an easy one. It is a matter of relating means to ends. But before one can do that, one has to take the ends seriously. One has to believe that the American people really need some sort of medical insurance program, or old age assistance program. Because the Republican Party has never been able to make up its mind about this, it has left the initiative to liberal Democrats. It then finds itself in the position, when in office, of having to administer Democratic programs in the least extravagant way. That’s no way for a party to govern.

McQ has an ideological meltdown over this, and concludes that “It appears, at least to me, that compassionate conservatism is simply a code phrase for neo-con, and that if you believe in individualism or even traditional conservatism, you’re in the middle of one hell of a con job.” But we’re really looking at a generation gap here. As recently as 1976 — although not much past that — most American conservatives saw some social welfare programs as basic and necessary for running a stable country. They thought Democrats went way too far with them, particularly after LBJ launched his Great Society programs, but they weren’t yet crusading to wipe them out entirely. “Compassionate conservatism,” on the other hand, was never anything but a campaign slogan.

But then, of course, post-New Deal conservatives of the 1950s and 1960s were much at odds with 19th century “laissez faire” conservatives and pre-New Deal conservatives of the 1920s.

John Dean writes here that conservatism seems not to have any core principles or beliefs, but is a hodge-podge of attitudes and beliefs united around an antipathy of liberalism. And I think he’s right.

But “antipathy of liberalism” is not a blueprint for governing. What does a workable and sustainable American conservative government look like? My argument is that people who identify themselves as “conservatives” nowadays cannot run a workable and sustainable American government. Their beloved “ideas,” put into practice, are not workable in government and in time will bring the nation down into crumbling ruin.

Mike the Mad Biologists (whom I don’t want to pick on; I hope this is just good-fun debate) writes “The problem isn’t that pseudoconservatives fail at governing. It’s that they are using government to achieve the society they would like. What she sees as failure, they see as success.” Yes, they are using government to achieve the society they would like, and in that sense it is working. But I say “the society they should like” is not sustainable. It’s ruining the economy, it’s ruining our national institutions, it’s ruining the bleeping planet. I suppose or species could survive even this, but if we keep going down this road the United States of America will become a puritanical version of a banana republic — Brazil without the samba.

So we’re back to —

The difference between conservatism as a set of doctrines whose validity is established by polemics, and conservatism as a set of rules whose validity is to be established by their usability in government, is not a difference in nuance, but of fundamental substance.

Traditional conservatism, whatever it is, appears to be more authoritarian and hierarchical than liberalism. But authoritarian and hierarchical governments can survive. Most governments in human history have been authoritarian and hierarchical. I wouldn’t choose to live under such a government, which is why I’m a liberal. But a person can be “conservative” in the sense of valuing traditional institutions and ideals and run a sustainable government. And I think a governmental philosophy based on Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles would also be sustainable. I’m not saying it would be ideal, but I think it would be sustainable. It could be made to work.

But a government run by current conservative dogmas is not sustainable. Perpetually cutting taxes, eliminating social welfare programs, allowing infrastructure to rot, encouraging income inequality, squandering public resources to enrich private enterprise, starting pointless wars all over the planet, restricting civil liberty in the name of “freedom” — this is just nuts.

10 thoughts on “Conservatives, True and Pseudo

  1. I have no problem with the distinction between conservatives and pseude-conservatives, but I think there’s a better name for the latter: reactionaries.

    It appears to me that Bush wants to take us back to at least the 1870’s, and probably even further–back to the reign of the last King George.

  2. The phrase ‘conservative revolution’ is, on the face of it, doublethink. It is an obvious contradiction, it doesn’t stand up to a moment’s thought, nor is it supposed to.

    It seems to me that America’s ruinous right-wing revolutionaries learned something from Orwell and the Soviets; namely, to get started right away with an assault on reason.

  3. Try wikipedia paradoctor–takes us back to Prussia and Weimar, dolchstosslegende and Night of the Long Knives…

    As for reactionary–it’s too temporal and rationalizing a term. As maha points out, these people were nuts long before there was, for example, a counterculture to react against. They were chasing Reds in the White House and the Army, and such. Pseudoconservative seems to fit better.

  4. Oops, I see I should have checked in earlier; I somehow submitted between edits. What I meant to write was:

    “I think there’s a better name for the current administration: reactionaries.”

    According to wikipedia, both ‘reactionary’ and ‘conservative’ came out of the French Revolution.

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  7. What a great essay. I’ve always appreciated Burke, if not in practice at least from an intellectual perspective.

    The thing that really bothers me about these pseudoconservatives is how its their view you can cause their hoped for revolution in government by just forcing the government to self destruct. As an example of this I would point everyone to the current issue of The Atlantic and “Rove Presidency” by Joshua Green.

    While that article allows written evidence of this phenomenon, you really need to look no further than New Orleans, fires in the Rocky Mountain West, The Justice Dept., or a myriad of other examples to see simple government incompetence.

    In my opinion it is all to re-enforce the myth Maha raised in a different essay about how the right wing today appreciates myths over facts. One of their favorite myths is the government is in-efficient and does not function as well as private industry. To further this myth I think these pseudoconservatives are simply hoping the government fails so they can privatize all services. It scares the hell out of me.

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