What is Conservatism and What is Wrong With It?

Considering my ongoing campaign against conservatism, and my attempt to awaken my fellow liberals to the reality of what conservatism actually is, I highly recommend this piece by Phillip E. Agre, "What is Conservatism and What is Wrong With it?". I have significant disagreements with many of his recommendations to defeat conservatism, but I feel his definition of conservatism and his analysis of what is wrong with it is dead-on. This serves as a great starting point, since we will be unable to move forward against our enemy unless we identify who the enemy actually is.

What was perhaps most striking to me in the piece was the way in which Agre's identifies many things contemporary liberals do that help reinforce conservative lies. To start with, this passage reminds me of the lie Deaniacs such as myself helped spread during the primary campaign:

Conservatism promotes (and so does liberalism, misguidedly) the idea that liberalism is about activist government where conservatism is not. This is absurd. It is unrelated to the history of conservative government. Conservatism promotes activist government that acts in the interests of the aristocracy. This has been true for thousands of years. What is distinctive about liberalism is not that it promotes activist government but that it promotes government that acts in the interests of the majority. This is obvious, yet we refuse to accept it. Conservatives love expanding the size of government, and clearly have no interest in "small government, fiscal responsibility." Conservatives do have every interest in promoting large, activist government that benefits corporate elites. The last several conservative administrations should have made this very clear to us.

Another problem arises from all this talk about morals, as though we did not have any in the first place:

Liberalism is a movement of conscience. Liberals speak endlessly of conscience. Yet conservative rhetors have taken to acting as if they owned the language of conscience. They even routinely assert that liberals disparage conscience. The magnitude of the falsehood here is so great that decent people have been set back on their heels. From personal experience I know this is undeniably true. My entire life, I have consistently and only chosen career paths that, in my conscience, I felt were making a direct, visible, and positive contribution to the world. This has repeatedly made it difficult to keep my nose above the poverty line, but it is how I feel I have to live my life. Yet, despite this, I am somehow not moral because I am not overtly religious and judgmental? Bullshit. We are a movement of conscience, solidarity, liberation and good works. We do not need new moral values, but we do need to make our existing moral values loud and clear.

Finally, not only do we buy into their lies, too often we revel in them:

Another common theme of conservative strategy is that liberals are themselves an aristocracy. (For those who are really keeping score, the sophisticated version of this is called the "new class strategy", the message being that liberals are the American version of the Soviet nomenklatura.) Thus, for example, the constant pelting of liberals as "elites", sticking this word and a mass of others semantically related to it onto liberals on every possible occasion. A pipeline of "facts" has been established to underwrite this message as well. Thus, for example, constant false conservative claims that the rich vote Democratic. When Al Franken recently referred to his new radio network as "the media elite and proud of it", he demonstrated his oblivion to the workings of the conservative discourse that he claims to contest. What is God's name is Franken doing here? Simply mocking the culture war narrative of heartlanders being mocked and oppressed by a Semitic liberal elite will not deprive the narrative of its power. Mockery of the heartlanders by the liberal elite is one of the pillars of the narrative. We need to break these lies and narratives down, rather than reinforce them.

I'll close today's chapter on conservatism with a quote from commenter Paul Rosenberg:

Please read Agre's piece, and see if you really are or wish to defend conservatives as they have historically defined and defended themselves. If your identification with or defense of conservatism is based on historically recent spin about what conservatives are, then you need to go through detox. And you can probably make an extremely valuable contribution derived from that process. Many, many millions of people have been similarly fooled. We'd like to reach them all. Indeed. We will be unable to develop our own narratives unless we are able to cleanse ourselves of our complicity with conservative narratives and conservative lies. We need to face up to what conservatism is, and who conservatives are. This is half the process of figuring out / remembering who we are.

Tags: Ideology (all tags)



The Republicans coined a very catchy phrase to describe Democrats in the aftermath of Viet Nam: "bleeding heart liberals."  That became a rallying cry for anyone who is against welfare and for the military.  We need a similar catch phrase to quickly and easily identify the new conservative.  "Neocon" doesn't quite do it.  Any ideas?
by gayntom 2004-11-09 09:51AM | 0 recs
Chickenhawk Conservatives
The contemporary flip-side of "bleeding-heart liberal" just has to be "chickenhawk conservative," IMHO.  We've got to repeat it, and repeat it, and repeat it, and, oh yes, did I mention this?--repeat it, over and over and over again.

Not until we get sick of it. Way past then. Until they get sick of it.  And start deserting it in droves. Then we repeat it some more.

I'm not saying there aren't other worthy candidates. Let a thousand epithets bloom!

by Paul Rosenberg 2004-11-09 10:32AM | 0 recs
Re: Chickenhawk Conservatives
If we're going to go down this road, IMHO it should be "purveyors of a modern elitist aristocracy" but doesn't really roll off the tongue. Maybe shortened to "elitist aritocrats" or "purveyors of the aristocracy".
by stevenlohrenz 2004-11-26 09:14AM | 0 recs
Phony Conservatism
Comment repost from an earlier thread:

For many many years the US government was dominated by Democrats, and so this one party became associated with the negative aspects of government, which are almost inevitable (deficits, welfare cheats, etc.).  And the Republicans were able to to appear righteous by claiming to support an end to all those bad things that Democrats supposedly were for.  This strategy worked so well that even Democrats starting referring to common sense government as "conservative" government.  And we even made some of it happen in our desire not to appear too liberal.  We balanced the budget, ended welfare as we knew it, and raised government revenue through economic growth.

But this liberal/conservative split is all smoke and mirrors.  There is nothing inherently conservative about balanced budgets, wise foreign policies, economic growth, and so on.  These just happen to be very difficult things to do and so are not generally associated with the government in power.

True conservatism consists of believing that decisions should be made by a small group of people who know what's best for everyone else.  These people believe that government should be opaque, that the press should be neither free nor independent, and that too much education creates social instability.  Religion is encouraged because it keeps pressure off the government.  Militarism is encouraged because it blames foreign governments for social problems.  Xenophobia is encouraged.  

America was not founded on any of these values.

by Christopher 2004-11-09 10:13AM | 0 recs
Bending Over Backwards
Okay, I let this post slide the first time. But not the second. Most of the problems with the American welfare state derive from the fact that it's too conservative.

Welfare cheats? Do have any idea how much money the welfare state funneled into the pockets of Southern plantation owners? A lot of it was directly in the form of farm subsidies. Then there was county-controlled welfare payments that kept plantation workers alive (just barely) during the off-season, so that plantion-owners didn't have to pay them a year-round living wage. And when planting, cultivating and harvesting time came around, Boom!  They were all kicked off welfare just like that, and forced to take the rock-bottom wages that the plantation bosses paid.

Even in the best of situations, means-tested programs are deeply probablematic. They tend to stigmatize those who receive them, while isolating them politically, making them vulnerable to both poor treatment, and blame.  The best welfare states rely primarily on non-means-tested entitlements--such as Social Security--which can be structured to be significantly more beneficial to those on the bottom without segmenting the system and generating resentments.

Thus, it is the specifically conservative nature of the US welfare state that has made it, in turn, more vulnerable to conservative attacks.
As for deficits. Oh, please! No Democrat could possibly get anywhere near the Olympian deficits of Reagan, Bush and Bush.  The reason is not just that conservatives would never let them--it's also that Democrats insist on spending money on things that grow the economy, thus lowering deficits in the long run.

by Paul Rosenberg 2004-11-09 11:06AM | 0 recs
Re: Bending Over Backwards
I don't think you understood--and that's likely my fault for not being clear.  My point was that fiscal responsibility is associated with conservatism not because conservatives are better at handling money, but because conservatives were always in the legislative minority and thus could talk a lot of bullsh*t about something they weren't required to follow up on.  (I also believe that some deficit spending--as social and economic investment--can be a good thing, but that's a separate issue).

Your welfare analysis is interesting and likely true (though I am no expert).  I am not saying that welfare is a liberal policy, although I've never seen much conservative support for it.  I'm saying that attacking welfare fraud as an example of big government turned out to be insincere in the end.

by Christopher 2004-11-09 01:03PM | 0 recs
Re: Bending Over Backwards
Got it. Sorry for the misunderstanding.
by Paul Rosenberg 2004-11-09 04:13PM | 0 recs
Dereg myth
Conservatives are very much in favor of an activist central government.  A big part of the conservatives anti-activist government myth centers on deregulation.  Government either regulates to protect the health and well being of citizens or it regulates to help industry and corporate interests.  Conservatives do not remove cumbersome government regulations, they REGULATE to increase the profits of their cronies at the expense of the our health and safety.   We need to stop passively accepting their bullshit  and playing their dereg game and start actively defining them as the party of anti-health and anti-safety REGULATORS.
by jnlg3 2004-11-09 10:17AM | 0 recs
We all know that most of Bush's supporters think there is tie between 9/11 and the war in Iraq.

I wonder how many of the so called prolife people (100,00 dead in Iraq doesn't matter) think that if Roe v Wade is overturned that that would be the end to abortion in the United States. My guess is that they think it will that easy. You see, even if it is overturned - which it won't be - but if it was, all that does is kick it back to the states. That means that they can outlaw it in their own states but their daughters and wives will only have to travel to New York to get their abortions. I'm sure they don't realize this just as I'm sure why the republicans don't inform them of it.

We should.

by forjoeb 2004-11-09 10:28AM | 0 recs
Limited Government
One of the most diabolical things that conservatives have done is kidnap the phrase "limited government." They do it to attack programs that lift up those on the bottom, as well as preserve and expand the middle class.  Anything at all that helps us actually be a civilization is fair game for their attacks under the banner of "limited government."

But aside from the obvious contradictions (there's a bottomless money pit for corporate welfare, prisons, wars, etc.) there's a deeper fraud being perpetrated here--the very meaning of the term has been perverted. "Limited government" historically had nothing to do with the size or extent of government.  It was one part of an opposing pair: Conservatives supported absolute (monarchy) government. Liberals supported limited (constitutional, parliamentary, representative) government.  

This is not just the historical meaning of the term, but, as Ashcroft, Abu Graib and Bush v. Gore all remind us, it is the current and eternal meaning of the term as well. The very notions of checks and balances, and open, democratic deliberations in lawmaking are fundamentally liberal ideas, dating back hundreds of years. And now, with conservatives fully in power for the first time since the 1920s, we are seeing just how quickly and contemptuously they toss these fundamental principles aside.

This is not going to be an easy one to reverse, but that's all the more reason to start working on it now.  We've got to reclaim and rehabilitate the notion of "limited government," and shove it down the crypto-fascist conservatives' throats.

by Paul Rosenberg 2004-11-09 10:49AM | 0 recs
Introducing the Classical Liberal Democrat
As we play around with the question of what the Democratic party stands for, I thought I'd throw out my own identity:

I consider myself to be a classical liberal democrat. What does that mean? Well, in the simplest terms, it means that I think ALL personal liberties should be defended -- so I'm pro-choice, pro sexual privacy, pro separation of church and state AND pro-gun, pro-property rights... as you can see, this posture incorporates elements of both MODERN day liberalism and conservatism... Somewhere along the way, both sides lost track of our classical roots, and decided to cherry-pick their preferred rights... -- the Right for instance says gun rights are absolute in the name of personal liberty, but can't find a right to sexual privacy in the constitution... And many on the Left scorn property rights to a good degree... Anyway, that's the "classical liberal" in me...

At the same time though, I think government should use its ENUMERATED powers for the public good. The powers to tax and spend, or regulate commerce for example, are undeniably there... So a firm safety net and environmental protection, for instance, are perfectly appropriate uses of power...That's the "democrat" in me...

In the end, you end up with a strong island of government power, within a vast sea of personal liberties...the courts protecting the latter by limiting the power of the former to its "islands"...funny how the modern Right cheers limited government, but bashes a court as "activist" when a judge actually LIMITS GOVERNMENT (i.e.., keeping it out of our bedroom, etc.)...

In my heart, I think there are a lot of people who feel the same way I do -- people who don't mind regulation, so long as it stays far away from ALL forms of true personal freedoms (not just those pushed by the loudest special interests)...they don't quite feel at home in either party...imo, this is a huge untapped segment of the population...a sort of social libertarian / economic progressive interest...

not sure if that makes sense...and not sure how to package it...


by HKingsley 2004-11-09 11:16AM | 0 recs
Re: Introducing the Classical Liberal Democrat
I'm glad to see you're not a nutcase libertarian, but you've swallowed a portion of their a-historical hoo-ha.

First the detail: There never was an historical individual right to own guns. The nobles would never allow it in England, anymore than they'd allow poaching.  We may wish it were otherwise, but it's not. It is not a part of "classical liberalism"

Now the big picture: "Classical liberalism" is a myth. Liberalism is a dynamic philosophy of progress, rooted in experience and critical thinking. It has thus, quite consistently, continued to evolve over time, and has never had a fixed "classical" form in any meaningful sense. For example, John Locke articulated the idea of government deriving its just powers from the "consent of the goverened." But this didn't mean he supported the right to vote. That was a long way off. From where we sit today, it's impossible to say what, exactly he meant by that. But that's because he was in the midst of a long process of figuring stuff out.
There was, of course, a major divide between early 19th Century "free trade" liberals and the "New Liberals" who emerged as thinkers in 1870s England, and took power just before WWI. The former hadn't yet seen Dickensian England (which was a theoretical impossibility from their POV). The latter had. They learned from experience, and spent a lot of hard work thinking about it.  60 years later, liberals in America were still playing catch-up.  But those early 19th Century liberals were just as far removed from French liberals like Voltaire another 60 years before them.

Now, it's fine with me if you want to create a simple, stripped-down political philosophy. You have freedom of choice, you can choose to do it. But please don't add to the historical ignorance of the American political scene, okay?

by Paul Rosenberg 2004-11-09 12:53PM | 0 recs
Re: Introducing the Classical Liberal Democrat
<<Now, it's fine with me if you want to create a simple, stripped-down political philosophy. You have freedom of choice, you can choose to do it. But please don't add to the historical ignorance of the American political scene, okay?                       <p>                                                                                                                              Relax, Mr. Speaker...quit being so elitist in  your criticism :)...Seriously, I don't agree with you that classical liberalism is a myth. Though each generation might see it through a different practical lens, it is indeed a firm PRINCIPLE worth defending, imo...grounded in Locke's Natural Rights philosophy, and uniquely "Americanized" through the philosophy of our founding fathers...When we enter society, we retain inalienable rights that are off-limits to government power, period... and they should NOT be subject to political manipulation.... Specific issues certainly present new challenges for how the philosophy should apply, but that's no reason to "revise" the principle out of existence...... And I think people who find broad rights in certain areas (abortion rights), while ignoring them elsewhere (gun rights), aren't being honest about the Ninth Amendment, etc... it's a problem with consistency...

And I'm telling you, there are many potential democrats out there who think like I do... those who think both sides have been very selective about their history -- servicing each issue like a lawyer representing a given / static position, rather than as an American objectively applying American principles...


by HKingsley 2004-11-10 03:53AM | 0 recs
conservatism is a brand, not an ideology
The current Republican party is much more than the usual electoral coalition - it is a brand. It is not a coherent ideology but a place for one-stop idea shopping. Too many Americans are "shopping" only at the Republican Hut.

The Republicans are destroying the Democrats on the issue of branding. They have a great majority of the country convinced that there is only one political brand with any consistent record of success and coherence. Even the Democrats are tearing their hair with the belief that their party is not "coherent" like the Republicans.

Objectively speaking, both parties stand for clearly different things. The Democrats own cosmopolitanism, diversity, liberty, more equality and more opportunity. The Republicans own provincialism, homogeneity, order, less equality and less opportunity.

A large portion of the Republican party, those who vote against their economic self-interests, are hoodwinked into thinking the that the Republican party sticks up for them. The Republican leaders point to "Democratic elites" and note how these cosmopolitans talk down to the red-state provincials. And the Democrats do this - as all cosmopolitans do - and so the poor red-state Republicans can be persuaded that the Democratic talk of more equality does not mean more equality for me.

The key to beating the Republicans is matching their ability to market their electoral coalition as a brand.

It's worth noting that the method of modern marketing is just exactly the same as Karl Rove's method of building his base. The modern marketer does not try to create something that will instantly appeal to everyone. Instead the effort is made to build the brand's supporters one small group at a time. Different ad campaigns are drawn up for different venues. We all know the Republicans are doing this. We need to match it.

The motto of today's most successful brand creators? "Loyalty beyond reason." What better describes the attachment so many have to the Republican party?

I'm one of those who think the problem is not our ideas or our policies. It's our marketing. And we get killed not in the six months before an election but in the twelve months after an election.

Right now, the Republicans are furiously studying to see what can be done TOMORROW to build their brand further. And they'll pass the plate this weekend and get started on the small donations that will create their 2006 war chest.

by HumptyDumpty 2004-11-09 11:41AM | 0 recs
Feeling torn
While the marketing and branding comments have a lot of merit, I am a little uneasy about an explicit campaign to demonize the term "conservative."  I know a lot of self-described conservatives who are fine people.  Certainly "liberal" needs to be rehabilitated, but I believe for the party to be successful in the 21st century, especially in the near term, it must be able to build coalitions with people who consider themselves conservative.  That doesn't mean conservative in the sense of Rush or Coulter, but people like a lot of Southern Democrats.  Neither end of the political spectrum has a monopoly on truth.  Take welfare reform.  Conventional wisdom on the left was that this would be a disaster.  While probably not the overwhelming success its proponents want to make it out to be, it seems to be working reasonably well thus far. I only mention that as an illustration of an issue that the left was, arguably, in the wrong.  There are some of them.

Probably the biggest single weakness the party has today in winning over conservatives is that a lot of them do not trust it on defense issues.  The baggage from the anti-war movement of the 60s is proving difficult to shake.  To construct a winning message, the party has to be able to convince a fair number of the right that it will take care of business when it comes to defending the country.  Easier said than done, but that's probably the chief challenge facing us.  After that, I'd say the party has to convince conservatives that their tax monies are being spent responsibly and well.  I think most people, even conservatives, are willing to pay taxes if they're convinced they're not wasting money, and getting something of value from it. To so successfully probably does involve a lot of framing and wrestling control of the language of the debate.  But that is going to take time.  Like it or not, huge numbers of voters think the term conservative fits them just fine.  To win elections, the party is going to have a pitch a tent big enough to hold some of them as well as the left.

by Randi 2004-11-09 12:05PM | 0 recs
I'm a Liberaltarian
Or a Socialist Libertarian.  Or whatever silly name you can come up with my (fairly unique) belief system.  Basically:

The government should not prevent you from doing anything that doesn't harm others, although it can discourage certain bad behavior, and it can do stuff to promote the general welfare of the nation, and tax people to pay for it.

I am therefore for:

A safety net for the unemployed (unemployment insurance, welfare if neccessary).
Free health care for all.
Well funded and free public schools and colleges.
Strong enviromental laws (especially laws against companies harming others-I'm a little more iffy on protecting every subspeices of every bug).
Legalized gambling, prostitution, and drugs (although feel free to tax the shit out of this, provided the taxes aren't so high that they equal defacto prohibition or encourage rampant tax fraud).
Little or no zoning laws.
Little gun control beyond mandatory licensing and training.
No laws that exist mainly to exist-regulations that do little but create a beuarcracy.
Taxes to pay for all of the above, applied in a progressive manner.

by Geotpf 2004-11-09 05:37PM | 0 recs
Re: I'm a Liberaltarian
... this is pretty close to what I'm saying... and a consistent defense of liberty... Geotpf, nice job... I live in a very, very red state -- we had the only Kerry yard sign for miles... Many of my friends are NOT Christian zealots, and don't even mind being taxed... and trust me, they certainly want their sexual privacy protected by the courts :)...But they vote Republican no matter --  valuing property rights, and living the myth that Dems are weak on defense... I can't put my finger on it, but somewhere in there is untapped potential...


by HKingsley 2004-11-10 04:03AM | 0 recs
HKingsley/Geofpf --

You're both thinking in terms of current issues.  We need to think deeper, in terms of ideology, before building up a narrative to convey that ideology and frame issues in terms of that narrative.

by dbt 2004-11-09 11:13PM | 0 recs
Re: Ideology
I know what you mean, and philosophically I think we should push a simple message of secular government / personal rights / economic opportunity... However, sometimes I think the best way to grasp ideology is in real world terms...For instance, here's how my thoughts translate on a few random issues:

  1. Gay marriage -- the government should completely untangle itself from the unavoidable religious connections... therefore, the word "marriage" should leave the books altogether, replaced by a single objective "civil union" definition. there is no legitimate government interest beyond survivorship / legal rights

  2. Health care -- NO socialized system; private delivery, with government filling the gaps to cover the uninsured...leveraging people into the private system via subsidies, etc. (close to Kerry's plan)...

  3. Federal no-call list -- stupid expansion of federal power... people don't need federal help to answer the phone...

  4. pollution controls -- should be strong

  5. Endangered species protection -- should be strong, BUT with a broad definition of "takings" so landowners can be properly compensated under the constitution...

  6. Foreign policy -- alliances, not unilateralism

  7. prayer in school -- not in public schools

  8. 10 commandments -- have no place in court buildings

  9. Gun purchases -- instant checks, but NO waiting (cooling off) periods...

  10. Abortion / sexual privacy -- fundamental rights... courts should push back local / federal efforts to deny them... (sex toy shops have a fundamental right to exist, contrary to the recent Alabama ruling)...

  11. Civil Rights -- we should NOT let 9-11 change us here... firm fourth-amendment protections...courts energetcially acting to check executive power...

there's a start...


by HKingsley 2004-11-10 04:41AM | 0 recs


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