Politics in a conservative age

Published online 29 April 2012

GoGoGoEverton asked me:

You must see the political spectrum of the US: (6+ / 0-)left 2%

Center 4%

Conservative 94%

Am I close?

The answer is yes.  GoGoGoEverton is indeed close.  Try

Left: not consequentialCenter: not consequential

Conservative: 100%

Much has been made of America’s “rightward drift” during and after the Reagan administration.  Perhaps it’s true in some areas more than others: economics, for instance, more than gender politics.  But it’s definitely true of economics.  I think it’s at the point at which we can say that we live in a conservative age, an age in which we can be said to be living in a “risk society” in which all other models appear to be “risks” — there are environmental risks and security risks and social risks and health risks, and we are said to do best to minimize those risks and uphold the status quo.It’s going to continue to be this way as long as large numbers of people claim to be “progressive” or “liberal” and continue to vote for candidates who are in important ways conservative, of which Barack Obama is only one.  I think the best strategy at this point is for the self-described “progressives” to give up the mantle of “progressive,” and to claim instead to be conservatives.

Maybe we can smooth the path a bit by claiming to be “philosophic conservatives” or some other such modified term.  But I think it’s time that we admit to participation in our society’s conservative streak.  Moreover, I think that doing so would allow us to see what will really be necessary if radical, world-changing ideas (a solution to global warming, perhaps) are to be put into practice.

To understand why this is so, let’s engage a brief overview of this year’s Republican primary season.  Probable nominee Mitt Romney fended off challenges from two candidates (Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich) who claimed to be better conservatives than he was.  Rhetoric during the primary competition consisted of a narrowing of the definition of “true conservative” and a consequential devolution into political insanity, as candidates vied to make ridiculous proposals.

You can imagine, then, how a further narrowing of the definition of “conservative” could lead to a worsening of the political climate.  Imagine a dystopian future in which the Nazis became a credible force in American politics.  Said Nazis could claim to be the only “true conservatives,” to which all other professed conservatives had to measure up.  Imagine, then, all of the professed conservatives signing on to more and more dangerously insane right-wing proposals in an effort to catch up with the Nazis.

That’s just an extreme version of what we have today in the US.

I think that it’s time, then, that we reclaim the label of “conservative” from the wingnuts, and restore to the word its original meaning, the one it had before the neoliberal era began and the wingnuts took over the Republican Party.

Actually, I’m going a bit further than this — I would suggest that we currently live in a conservative era, in which voiced political positions which are not conservative are of no consequence.  I think this characterization is appropriate to an era in which the defenders of the status quo have become inordinately powerful by comparison with the rest of us.  As David Graeber pointed out in a recent piece, we live in an era of “there is no alternative,” certainly an essential conservative doctrine if there were one such thing.

The Wikipedia definition of “conservatism” is taken from the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics and Britannica.com:

Conservatism (Latin: conservare, “to preserve”)[1] is a political and social philosophy that promotes the maintenance of traditional institutions and supports, at the most, minimal and gradual change in society. Some conservatives seek to preserve things as they are, emphasizing stability and continuity, while others oppose modernism and seek a return to “the way things were”.[2][3]

Now of course this is not said (in the same article) to be the definition in operation in the United States:

The meaning of “conservatism” in America has little in common with the way the word is used elsewhere. As Ribuffo (2011) notes, “what Americans now call conservatism much of the world calls liberalism or neoliberalism.”

The identification may be a bit off, but you get the idea.  We have narrowed the definition of “conservatism.”  The problem with such a move is that even if we were to suggest that the word “conservative” ONLY applied to Republican Party wingnuts, we would still need a word to define “those who advocate and defend the preservation of the status quo.”  I vote that this word be “conservative.”  The old definition, the one given at the top of the Wikipedia article, hasn’t gone entirely out of circulation, and we certainly can’t call them “progressives,” since they’re not progressing toward anything, nor can we call them “moderates,” since they’re not moderating between any extremes.  When there is no alternative, there are no extremes.Now, of course, just because society in this era is conservative does not mean that it is completely devoid of political conflict.  There are, for instance, political conflicts in this society over the legitimacy and availability of same-gender marriages, or of abortions.  These conflicts do not disturb the rule of the wealthiest 1% or the continued access to material wealth of the military industrial complex.  As I pointed out in my diary “To the neoliberals on this site,” congratulations, you won.

Moreover, I don’t think a redefinition as “conservative” should be much of a problem for the Obama 2012 campaigners here at Kos.  It should not be much of a stretch to show that Obama’s brand of conservatism is better than Mitt Romney’s, not with all the bad press Romney gets here.  (My explanation of the difference between corporate conservatism and antipublic conservatism is given in this rec-listed diary — there are, then, better and worse varieties of conservatism in the world, and if we are going to live in a conservative age we might consider the virtues of the better ones.)

A friend of mine suggested an alternative label for those who wish to avoid being called “conservative” — “meliorist.”  Policies, for instance, such as the attempt to limit denials of health insurance coverage as given in the PPACA might be regarded as “meliorist.”  I think my friend has something else in mind than the dictionary definition here, defining “meliorism” instead as a movement to mitigate the worst aspects of the status quo.

I’m not clear that such policies make that much of a difference.  Sure, they might make a difference to a few people. That’s good.  In their immediate effects they carry the appearance of pandering.  What will matter, in the end, is the economic trend described by Harry Shutt — as the surplus of capital becomes more and more unable to find profit in a system characterized by declining growth rates, it leans upon government to perform as a handmaiden of capital, and there becomes an increasing crunch as government benefits (to the people, of course, not to the corporations) decrease.  Thus the ridiculousness of bank-led EU policy imposed on Spain, for instance.  In the US we might see that the government’s passage of a stimulus was counterbalanced by its passage of ten years of automatic budget cuts.

Thus I think it best that we all be regarded, and regard ourselves, as conservatives, until such time as we break out of the conservative age and establish an age in which political perspectives other than conservatism are capable of political traction.  Barack Obama, once again, has taken the lead in this regard:




If Barack Obama is going to regard himself as completing Reagan’s legacy, and if we’re going to regard ourselves as supporters of Barack Obama, at some future point we’re going to have to explain to the historians our role in completing Reagan’s legacy.  I’m not sure that some longwinded explanation about how we were “really progressives” but we “had no choice” is going to make us look legitimate.

As for policy, I think it’s fairly clear at this point that the Obama administration, dragging the whole of Congress and the rest of us in tow, has granted us extortionist student loan policies and legalized fraud as a job-making policy and inadequate foreclosure fraud settlements and spying on everyone and an individual mandate to buy health insurance and ten years of austerity planning with the help of the Super Congress and automatic budget cuts and a useless war in Afghanistan and no global warming policy and manipulating 19.9% unemployment to give the appearance of a job recovery.  If you add to this the legitimate talking points from this list, you get an administration that has been (and will be) fundamentally conservative, with a mildly meliorist streak at certain points, largely justified by the administration’s pandering to working-class constituencies.

Now, Mets102 has already voiced a number of objections to this portrayal.  Mets102 believes in a number of genuinely “progressive” things.  Or, rather, they would be genuinely progressive if our society were actually progressing toward something other than an accumulation of catastrophes.  But most of these things are things in which conservatives can also believe, and others in this list are beliefs which are of no consequence given Mets102’s belief in a particular version of “pragmatism”:

The only way that can get done?  Make sure we elect a Democrat to the White House and make sure we elect Democratic majorities to both houses of Congress.

I don’t really see how this is going to forward Mets102’s goal in this regard:

I believe we need to get off fossil fuels.

Is anyone in government really discussing this?  It would take a sea-change in politics for the US to “get off fossil fuels,” or in the worst case a disappearance of the fossil fuels themselves, in which case we have a runaway greenhouse effect.  It would require an international treaty to keep the grease in the ground.  What the Democrats have given us so far is a global warming “policy” designed to benefit natural gas interests.Barack Obama, moreover, is not the first of Presidents, or Presidential candidates, to endorse neoliberalism, and to have won the allegiance of the great bulk of self-defined “progressives” in the same stroke.  He’s at the end of a list which includes Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry.  I think neoliberalism, today, counts as conservative because it is pretty much the status quo as a philosophy of governance.

I think that in this regard it counts as a running contradiction that self-defined “progressives” have with near-unanimity endorsed such a string of conservative candidates.  And, frankly, I think that the next conservative neoliberal to acquire the endorsement of the Democratic Party will also gain the endorsement of this same group of “progressives.”  A redefinition of the whole group as “conservative” carries with it three benefits: 1) it removes the “progressives” as a target of the Right, 2) it carries with it the flavor of honesty, rather than with these conservative rationalizations about how “I criticize Obama but I support him” and how “we must be pragmatic and realistic” and how “real change is incremental,” and 3) it allows the “progressives” themselves to recognize what sort of enormous sea-change would really be necessary if we are to put an end to this conservative era in which we currently live.

I also do not think we should stop trying to get out of the era of conservatism.  But I do think we should see our attempts as attempts, and not be ashamed if they fail.  It’s only been recently that we’ve realized how daunting the revolutionary task-at-hand is.


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