Essentials: What is Conservativism and What is Wrong With It

Maha noted some time ago how Bush expects gratitude from the Iraqis, apparently for what wonderful things he thinks he has done for them by destroying their country. A bit more of this attitude oozed out during British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s recent visit:

Just in the last week, Bush has let people know what a privilege it is to be near him. During his brief press meet with British PM Gordon "Not-Neutered Poodle" Brown, Bush was extolling to the UK leader how wonderful America is by pointing out, regarding a reporter who had just turned 38, "Here you are — amazing country, Gordon, guy is under 40 years old, asking me and you questions. It’s a beautiful sight." Oh, how everyone laughed, Brown a bit uncomfortably, as if he realized he was standing next to someone who would feel at home with both Charles Manson and Henry Ford. We could dismiss this as a mere joke if Bush hadn’t done it so often in the past.

The Rude Pundit connects the dots on this.

I’d like to use this occasion to showcase a terrific, classic article by Philip Agre. I off-handedly linked to it in an earlier posting, which commenter Pat saw and wrote back with a few questions. I’m sure some of you have seen it. Agre’s article is called What is Conservativism and What is Wrong With It. It directly connects conservativism with aristocracy. It explains how this has been with us since human beings have had cities, and it explains how it is completely antithetical to the founding ideas of America.

Bush’s aristocratic attitude toward us, is and feels obnoxious, because it’s based on a lie. It’s a deception that’s been used by all aristocrats of all times and all places. Moreover, in this country, in our time, it’s a fiction that’s become increasingly threadbare and harder to accept. Agre explains:

…the most central feature of conservatism is deference: a psychologically internalized attitude on the part of the common people that the aristocracy are better people than they are. Modern-day liberals often theorize that conservatives use "social issues" as a way to mask economic objectives, but this is almost backward: the true goal of conservatism is to establish an aristocracy, which is a social and psychological condition of inequality. Economic inequality and regressive taxation, while certainly welcomed by the aristocracy, are best understood as a means to their actual goal, which is simply to be aristocrats. More generally, it is crucial to conservatism that the people must literally love the order that dominates them.

The key to Bush’s success, apart from all his familial advantages, is his unshakable belief that others should defer to him, and his ability to get others to believe in this, as Agre explained. His glad-handling charm is a cover for manipulating people into this deception. Bush further cements this belief, when, in his narcisism, he believes he has a direct line to God. The VRWC is the mighty external machinery, a public relations effort, that vastly amplifies the power of this fiction. Agre on PR and politics:

Conservatism has opposed rational thought for thousands of years. What most people know nowadays as conservatism is basically a public relations campaign aimed at persuading them to lay down their capacity for rational thought.

Conservatism frequently attempts to destroy rational thought, for example, by using language in ways that stand just out of reach of rational debate or rebuttal.

Conservatism has used a wide variety of methods to destroy reason throughout history. Fortunately, many of these methods, such as the suppression of popular literacy, are incompatible with a modern economy. Once the common people started becoming educated, more sophisticated methods of domination were required. Thus the invention of public relations, which is a kind of rationalized irrationality. The great innovation of conservatism in recent decades has been the systematic reinvention of politics using the technology of public relations.

See Philip Agre’s What is Conservativism and What is Wrong With It.

I have thought about doing a series on "the Essentials" – articles like Agre’s which clearly and simply express what liberalism is about and why it has nothing to be ashamed of, and why conservativism (as we know it) is so corrupt and incompatible with American ideals. Many of these Essentials are what they are, because I’ve found them very effective in equipping myself for rebutting the right wing worldview. Agre’s article is in this class. Another classic is A Day in the Life of Joe Middle Class Republican. If you would like to nominate others, drop me a link in the comments.

21 thoughts on “Essentials: What is Conservativism and What is Wrong With It

  1. Yes, isn’t it wonderful how, more than two hundred years later, we find ourselves once again to be no more than subjects of a mad King named George.

    I think about this each July 4th as I see my fellow Americans celebrate their “independence” and “freedom” by getting drunk and blowing things up. Over two hundred years ago, we announced to the world that we had grown weary of being ruled by an idiot son of the rich named George who mistakenly believed he had been appointed by God to exercise absolute, unquestioned authority over the “common” people. Thank heavens we won our independence and freedom! Otherwise, we might still be ruled by an idiot son of the rich named George who mistakenly believes that he has been appointed by God to exercise absolute …..(uh, nevermind).

  2. Will the people out there never realize that our Founding Father’s, whom everyone seems to worship, were LIBERAL’S?
    Conservative’s supported the King and were Tory’s! DUH! That’s what our Revolution was about.

    And, now, the Tory’s got what they wanted. A new King George.
    I just wish this one were only half as competent as the last one….

    Democratic representative’s, WAKE the F UP!!!!!!!!!!! You are as complicit in the destruction of this county as the driver of a murderous bank-robbing gang. You should suffer the same fate as the shooter’s that you enabled!

    I won’t vote for you if you are a small “d.” I’ll vote for you if you are a progressive/liberal “D!”

    “None of the above” looks better and better every day. But, then, so does emmigration.

    I’m not giving up yet. I’m ready for a fight. Hell. I want one! In the word’s of the immortal simpering, idiot Chimp, King George IV, “Bring it on!!!”

    I can’t wait, till ’08!

  3. I’d love to see a companion piece to Philip Agre’s, entitled “What is liberalism?” It would argue that liberalism is simply government of the people, by the people, for the people. Yes, I know Lincoln said that originally, but the rethug party has not been the party of Lincoln for a very long time. Here is a piece I wrote a few years ago: What is Liberalism?

    Obviously I don’t claim it to be a classic, but you are welcome to mine it for ideas.

  4. On Andrew Sullivan’s blog today he posted 10 conservative principles from a piece written by Russel Kirk. I found these on line about a year ago and my discussion group and I took a look and just immediately required qualifications about what does this term mean and what is the operational definition of that, etc. There’s hardly a one that I come any where close to without clarifications and stipulations maximo.

    If you all take a look at them let us hear what your reactions are.

  5. Most so-called conservatives could not define their ideology if they had all year and a dictionary. At best they could give a bunch of statements like “I believe in low taxes,” but that’s not an ideology, that’s just a list of positions on issues.

    I’ve heard some definitions over the years, but none really made sense and they were often inconsistent depending on the issue. For instance, conservatives often talk about getting government “off our backs” in regards to taxes and regulations but they favor government intrusion into our homes and bedrooms on issues like drugs, abortion and homosexuality.

    I can define liberalism fairly easily. Liberalism is using the power of government to maximize the quality of life for everyone.

    Now that’s a simple, generalized definition. I could go on about what exactly that means, how it should be applied, and so on, but that, in essence, is what liberalism is.

    I will add this: When I say “quality of life,” I include health, safety, standard of living, and individual liberty. Liberals believe very strongly in liberty.

    It is the authoritarians, which is what “conservatives” should really be called, who want to take away our individual liberty.

  6. #4 & #5, John Dean’s Conservatives Without Conscience spends a bit of time on this same point and concludes pretty much the same thing: that there really are few if any principles behind Conservativism, and certainly not much of a tradition of thinkers or thought on this subject, as much as conservatives try to say otherwise.

    #5, I really like your definition of liberalism:

    Liberalism is using the power of government to maximize the quality of life for everyone.

    #3, I’ll take a look at it.

    One person I’d like to study further is FDR. He gave a number of speeches (and presumably also writings) on this subject, which galvanized the ordinary people of his time against what he called “the economic royalists”, ie the conservatives. From what little I’ve read of FDR, in many ways he and his supporters went through many of the same battles we’re going through today, fighting against the same right wing tactics. It would do us well to study history and not reinvent the wheel.

  7. #5, one more thought – your definition

    Liberalism is using the power of government to maximize the quality of life for everyone.

    …is a beautiful, and simple mantra, that should be spoken directly in the face, eye to eye, of those people who despise (or more likely have been taught to despise) liberalism. Repeate it as many times as necessary, until the point sinks in, until their programming stops, and they can say no more. Such is its power.

  8. What a bunch of crap! Maybe the 25% that still support Bush subscribe to the divine right of kings, but not the remaining 75% who may or may not consider themselves to be “conservative”. There are many types of conservatives and the only type of conservative you could possibly be speaking of here is the religious conservative of the KKK persuasion. There are degrees of black and white, that’s how you end up with gray.

  9. As I explained a few years ago, the organizing princples of liberalism are right in the preamble to the US Constitution:

    “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

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  11. marijam — somewhere there are people who are “conservative” in the sense of being cautious about change and inclined to limit the power of the federal government, but these are a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of a fraction of the critters running around calling themselves “conservative” these days. Most of ’em may pay lip service to “principles,” but they don’t mean it.

  12. How many “every day” conservatives do you know, personally? What most people know is the loud mouths, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh et al. I really do think most Americans are both conservative and liberal. A mixture of the two. Its the ideologues on both sides who have gotten us into the mess we are in. Unless and until we can find what unites us, instead of focusing on what divides us, we’re never going to be able to move forward. Its the oldest trick in the political book “divide and conquer”. Don’t get me wrong, its President Bush that has taught me how to hate – intensely. I am very thankful every day that a president cannot be president for more than 8 years.

  13. How many “every day” conservatives do you know, personally?

    Only one I can think of. He feels like an endangered species, though.

    I really do think most Americans are both conservative and liberal.

    If you are going to argue here, I advise you to think your points through before commenting. First you say that there are vast numbers of genuine conservatives who don’t fit the Agre pattern; now you say most Americans are neither conservative nor liberal, but somewhere in between. Which is it?

    I think you are right that most Americans don’t fall neatly into either conservative or liberal camp, but the post was about people who identify themselves as conservatives. The true believers, in other words. Not just “every day” people who aren’t strongly ideological one way or another.

    Regarding ideologues on “both sides” — exactly which “liberal” ideologue has “gotten us into the mess we’re in”? First, genuine liberals have been marginalized and shut out of the system and mass media for the past thirty years and more. Second, few contemporary liberals are all that ideological. With the exception of Iraq, liberals these days share values but not dogma.

    Bottom line: Think before you comment. I find people who comment without thinking highly annoying.

  14. Agre’s argument has fundamental problems which seem to me due to an inadequate understanding of sociology and political science. To start with, it is entirely common (though not in any sense a rule) for the non-metropolitan population of a country to be conservative. This is often due to traditionalism in such matters as economic arrangements, gender roles, religious ideologies, etc. In some political systems it becomes possible for an aristocratically minded elite to ally with this sentiment in support of their power, like business elites and the religious right in America. In other systems, this popular conservative sentiment is opposed by the elites, as the Islamist parties are in Turkey. In Germany, the Christian Democrats tend to support more of certain kinds of social benefits, say bonuses for births by German citizens. In our own history, William Jennings Bryan perfectly encapsulated a political movement which was socially conservative and economically redistributive. For those who know some history, think to yourself how you would characterize the classic American progressive movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Was it conservative in its attempts to control and “civilize” the urban immigrant masses? Was it liberal in its attempts to reform public schooling? Even currently, the politics of immigration divides the economic elite from the conservative populace.

    Perhaps in the broadest sense conservatism can be seen as a sentiment to maintain existing power structures, but sometimes these structures are the paternalistic role of the man in the household, and sometimes they are the ability to have a cheap and easily exploitable labor force. These are different interests, which depending on a contemporary situation may or may not be allied.

    Agre’s piece is more of an attack on current political alignments in the United States. Even though I may be sympathetic to it, I wouldn’t mistake it for telling analysis of conservatism in all places and all times.

  15. Specifically highlighted above and also erroneous is the conflation of conservatism, anti-intellectualism and anti-reason (Romanticist) sentiment. Anti-intellectualism is a populist sentiment with particular resonance in American culture (a la Hofstadter) and can be mobilized to a lot of different purposes. Anti-reason (anti-enlightenment) sentiment, such as the classic Romanticism of nineteenth century Germany, is a different and powerful force of its own. Sometimes it comes across as a benevolent impulse to trust your feelings, i.e. Emerson or some parts of the environmental movement and can be opposed to economic elites. It also sometimes supports bigotry and provincialism. Sometimes it is the motivation behind both great art and bigotry, such as with Wagner.

    Again, I would say that Agre’s piece is simplistic and particular to a very specific time and place.

  16. Again, I would say that Agre’s piece is simplistic and particular to a very specific time and place.

    I disagree, and I assure you I have a pretty good grasp of history. The fact is, in every time and place I can think of there has been a gap between what conservatism thinks it is — the stories it tells itself about itself — and what it is, really. If you dig back into 19th-century conservatism in the U.S. and Europe it’s essentially the same pile of crap, albeit without the faux populism.

  17. marijam, I’ll only address one point you made in #12:

    Unless and until we can find what unites us, instead of focusing on what divides us, we’re never going to be able to move forward. Its the oldest trick in the political book “divide and conquer”.

    Without a doubt, finding what unites us is important. But it’s also important to be clear about one thing: The people on the far right have expressed many times their intention of destroying us – the left or anyone who doesn’t think like them. Witness their purge of moderates from the Republican party. They are not at all interested in finding what unites us. They want the whole loaf, and are not interested in sharing. Wasn’t it Grover Norquist who said “bipartisanship is date rape”?

    Deception is their stock in trade. We see this every single day in this country, simply tune into Fox “News” or Rush. This alone is responsible for destroying public discourse in this country over the last few decades, destroying the very ability to find common ground. And, as Agre points out, this has been going on forever, in one form or another.

    While I’m all for finding common ground – because I’m practical and because there are moderates and conservative people who likewise seek the same – let’s be clear about who hijacked the Republican party and what their aims and techniques are.

    The goal of Agre’s piece is “know thy enemy” and to bring some badly needed historical context to this, by providing a high level, big picture view of the liberal vs conservative conflict. And to not get sucked into whatever deceptions may be afoot, because deception is standard procedure.

  18. I’m not criticizing your knowledge of history, but if you just disagree, can you fit William Jennings Bryan as the standard bearer of the left for decades with his championing of the anti-evolution side of the Scopes trial? How about the correlation between women’s suffrage and the (anti-Catholic immigrant) temperance movement? In Agre’s formulation, was he a conservative or a liberal? What about Theodore Roosevelt?

    What about the alliance between elite business interests and abolitionists in the Civil War era Republican party?

    Can you explain the elite dominance and repression of the popular Islamism in Turkey? What about the Hashemites in Jordan? Who’s conservative? Are democracy activists from the Muslim Brotherhood progressive or conservative?

    What about politics in the former Soviet satellite states? In Agre’s formulation, are the old communist nomenklatura the aristocratic conservatives? The new rich robber barons? The religious traditionalists?

    I would agree with you that there is a gap between the stories conservatives tell about themselves and what the movement really is about. But isn’t that true of any political movement?

    A major weakness is that Agre does not account for the divergence of interests between various elites in their drive to increase and maintain their own power. He also does not give any explanation as to why social conservatism sometimes sides with elites and sometimes does not.

    My sense is that there a number of significant fallacies in Agre’s argument, and that if one takes a closer look at it, the whole ting starts to fall apart. For instance, was it really conservatives who invented modern public relations? What about demagoguery from the left? He argues for a metropolitan, multiculturalist idea of social capital, but ignores the observation of pretty much all of the great theorists of modernity (Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Veblen, Simmel, etc.) that the breakdown of traditional orders meant great declines in the social capital of most of the population. He sees nationalism as naturally allied with conservatism, despite its contribution to the sense of community that maintains progressive impulses (Tamir). The article is full of these kinds of shortcomings.

    Perhaps one is better off with less sweeping theories than ones that claim to explain all conservatives or all progressives. Agre’s fails to give any real explanation as to why William Buckley saying he would take the first 50 names in the phone book to run NYC was so resonant, and how that conservative populism morphed into the radically dangerous political movement we have today.

  19. Pete (#18 and earlier) you know a lot more about history than I do. Your one point –

    For instance, was it really conservatives who invented modern public relations?

    My understanding of “the science of ballyhoo” (see wikipedia’s article on Edward Bernays), is that whether or not conservatives invented it directly, they were the ones who saw its potential and were its biggest users, and use it to this day. Bernays’ technology for controlling the masses fits the conservative need for the same.

    Agre may be too sweeping for your tastes, and I can’t answer you intelligently as to how well he fits or doesn’t fit with many of the instances you cite. But overall, his ideas fit the contemporary circumstances I’m familiar with quite well, and further, they bring a dimension of understanding that I find lacking in the more superficial explantions I’ve seen for the same. He at least has part of the puzzle figured out, in my view. And as a big picture person (I can’t help myself) I am drawn to big ideas like his.

  20. Good answer, moonbat (#19). It’s here and now, and there’s no sense in getting distracted by a comprehensive analysis of historical conservatism through the ages. Take what you will and leave the rest? Deference and manipulation of language… for me, in the here and now.

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