Conservatism: What Is It?
To understand Conservatism … shall we read a few good Conservative authors like the late William F. Buckley and George Will (brilliant and good men both), and then summarize the principles they explain to us?
Shall we then organize our notes and write a nice little essay on Conservatism? We can quote a few Conservative leaders like the late Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater (whom I admired), Arizona’s current Senator John McCain, former English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former President Ronald Reagan, and perhaps even President G. W. Bush - thus capturing the expression of Conservative thought in its native tongue? This would have earned us a good grade from Professor Leonard back in “POLS 304 - American Political Thought.” If I were to write such an essay and you were to read it, then we both would surely understand Conservatism, wouldn’t we?
Unfortunately, no, we would not. American Conservatism is a complex thing, and is not easily understood. However, a Machiavellian can begin to understand it if he or she is willing to consider the following ideas:
- Conservatism is a path to power for the groups that espouse it. Conservatism is not a coherent philosophy of government. It has no goals; it cannot describe the ideal society.
- Self-described Conservatives do not all believe in the same things. Conservatism is an alliance of convenience among several vibrantly alive, very ambitious, powerful, very aggressive, distinctly American social movements with distinct and contradictory agendas.
- Groups that belong to the Conservative alliance have declared a truce in their wars with each other so that the common enemy - those who are outside the alliance - can be defeated or assimilated.
- Conservatives want more wealth and more political power for themselves. Non-Conservatives are insignificant from the Conservative perspective. Even other Conservatives are significant only to the extent that they help the general Conservative cause. “Neo-Cons” have only contempt for fundamentalist Christians, but they use them for votes, promising attention to the “Family Values” agenda – a promise which is never kept.
- Liberalism is not the opposite of Conservatism. Liberalism was in power for a while, from Roosevelt to Carter, and during that time Conservatives developed a library of specialized anti-Liberal arguments. If Populists, Libertarians, Feminists, Circus Clowns, or Socialists had been in power, Conservative rhetoric would be anti-Populist, anti-Libertarian, anti-Feminist, anti-Clown, or anti-Socialist. There is no special connection between Liberalism and Conservatism except that the two perspectives struggled for power in America for three-quarters of the Twentieth century.
- Persuasion is the goal of Conservative rhetoric - not communication. Conservative arguments are carefully designed to reduce opposition to Conservative power and build support for Conservative policies. Conservative rhetoric is based on marketing principles, not on veracity. Conservative rhetoric consistently appeals to emotion – not reason – because there are no reasonable arguments that would convince a middle-class American to vote against his or her own self-interest – but that is what Conservatives must do.
- The twin purposes of all Conservative policies - without exception - are (1) to maximize the wealth of Conservative constituencies and (2) enhance the power of the Conservative leadership. Every Conservative policy or program, if implemented, will achieve one or both of these goals. There has never been an unselfish Conservative policy.
Most American Conservatives do not know what American Conservatism is. If you describe Conservatism accurately (items 1 - 7 above) to Conservatives, they will deny that your description is accurate. That is, they are delusional. Self-delusion is a critical part of the Conservative emotional makeup. Just as every good Muslim or Christian is certain that his or her interpretation of their holy books is the one and only correct one, every Conservative imagines that Conservatism is composed mostly of people who act and think like himself or herself.
This is not to say that Conservatives are confused and therefore “bad,” so that Liberalism must therefore be coherent and “good.” Liberalism is an inactive political philosophy whose cadaver is still spoken of as if alive. Its only function now is to serve as a tackle-dummy for Conservative speakers and writers. When it was alive, though, Liberalism was a cerebral and ambitious utopian philosophy that dreamed of a “Great Society”. Liberalism’s methods of social experimentation and social evolution profoundly changed the lives of all living Americans, for better or worse. Liberalism grew increasingly ambitious over its 75 years of writing laws and designing social programs, leading America to her greatest successes and some of her most embarrassing pratfalls. But, Liberalism accepted its many failures with a shrug, fanning the fury of Conservatives. The grandfather of American Liberalism, Teddy Roosevelt, said, “The country needs ... bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it, if it fails admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” A generation later, Liberalism’s father, Franklin Roosevelt, said, “One thing is sure. We have to do something. We have to do the best we know how at the moment... if it doesn't turn out right, we can modify it as we go along.”
Unlike Liberalism, Conservatism is not a utopian philosophy, and it does not try to describe the ideal society. It describes, instead, a set of valued principles and sanctified personal behaviors supposedly inherited from the patriarchs of our culture: Abraham, Moses, the Prophets, Jesus, the Gospels, the Founding Fathers, 18th century economist Adam Smith (pictured at left), Ronald Reagan, corporate managers, and “Free Market” Economists. Like the text of ancient holy books, Conservative values can be used to justify any and all actions. Consistency is not important to Conservatives. Status is important to Conservatives. Authority is important to Conservatives. Power is important to Conservatives. Social class is important to conservatives.
Because Conservative rhetoric is designed to be persuasive rather than informative, you must always remember to ignore what Conservatives say and pay attention only to what they do. “Follow the money,” was Deep Throat’s advice to Bob Woodward, who wanted to understand the Nixon administration. “See who benefits from a policy” is my advice to you. We must look and see who gets money and who gets power because of Conservative policies. That is the only way to understand what is going on, the only way to understand what Conservatives are trying to accomplish with a particular argument or policy. Remember, with Conservatives, their words say nothing; only their actions speak the Conservative truth.
You need a metaphor to clarify your thinking. Do not view Conservatism as a philosophy based on a set of consistent and agreed-on principles; something which could be taught in the abstract by a philosophy professor. View Conservatism instead as a vast, deep ocean. Outsiders see only the surface of the water: waves, white foam, the reflection of the blue sky, and the glare of the sun. The surface of the great ocean is like the rhetoric of the Conservative leadership. Its glare conceals what is beneath.
Beneath the surface of the Conservative ocean are many life forms – each pursuing its own destiny according to its own priorities. Some of those life forms are – to us – innocent and playful, some are poisonous, some are carnivorous, some are exotic, some are lovely, and some are bizarre. The creatures that live in the ocean of Conservatism interact with each other according to rules that are alien to land dwellers. Those who live in the ocean are largely indifferent to beings that live on land. That is to say, what happens to non-Conservatives is simply not important to Conservatives.
Conservatives: Who Are They?
whose agenda includes lower taxes on themselves, lower wages for workers, massive government support for their own welfare, higher taxes on the middle class, higher net income for themselves, few government benefits for others, lots of government benefits for themselves, strong police protection for their neighborhoods, no taxes on their inheritances, and no governmental regulation of their private or business lives.
Corporate Officers and Management,
whose agenda includes lower corporate taxes; no governmental restrictions on the treatment of employees, customers, and consumers; massive governmental support for corporate causes; fewer expensive government benefits to individual citizens; no governmental oversight of corporate behavior; massive governmental intervention in markets when needed to increase or protect corporate profits; no government oversight of marketing and advertising, and the suspension of the Bill of Rights in the workplace.
whose agenda includes controlling individual behavior like speech, dance, and dress; the ubiquitous placement of (fundamentalist) Christian icons in public places; the criminalization of abortion; the placement of severe restrictions on birth control (availability and methods); censorship of the political and sexual content of the media; censorship of movie and television content, governmental financial support of “faith-based” (fundamentalist Christian) activities; the placement of fundamentalist church employees on the federal payroll; censorship of the content of university and public school classes; censorship of the content of libraries; the suppression of homosexual behavior in public and private; the suppression or criminalization of non-approved forms of sex-play; the hasty trials of arrested citizens followed by long incarcerations; the imposition of the death penalty with much greater frequency for many more crimes; and the inclusion of “moral” messages (theirs) in fiction and drama to the exclusion of “immoral” (not theirs) messages.
are those who have made a strange religion based on economic cycles and forces, famously named “Voodoo Economics” by President George Bush (the good one). These people imagine that life is always better in every way for every person if the economy is unregulated by government. The “invisible hand” described by Adam Smith that balances the forces of a free economy and keeps it running like an efficient machine is taken by Economic Conservatives to be the equivalent of the Will of God. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith wrote, “...every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who [pretended to do business] for the public good.” People work harder for their own benefit than they do for the benefit of others or for the benefit of society as a whole. That is, if every person seeks his own best interest, then the entire society is lifted to a higher level of prosperity (hence, happiness) than otherwise possible. Government regulation of industry and commerce, which blocks or distorts the virtuous selfishness of businessmen, must by definition be wrong-minded. Whether this was true in Smith’s day or in ours is debatable, but the plain fact is that many people have taken this concept as the foundation on which their political philosophy is built. Remove the chains of government regulation, they say, and allow economic reward to channel human energy, creativity, and intelligence so the world will become a better, happier place.
Many economic conservatives are men and women possessing both noble character and big brains. In a former life I was an educator at a backwater state university. For thirteen years, my office was surrounded by the offices of free-market economists. They were good-hearted to a man and every one had an IQ at least 30 points higher than mine. I would have trusted my wallet and my teenage daughter to any of them. Economic Conservatives are an interesting mix of intellectuals and villains. Just as many con-artists carry a Bible and quote the Gospel while fleecing a sucker, so do many contractors quote Adam Smith and Ayn Rand while bribing the City Council to give them a paving contract.
who believe (like Marxists believed back when there actually were Marxists) that if the government just shriveled away, a free-market paradise would naturally spring into existence. The forces of an unrestrained market, say Libertarians, would punish bad behavior and reward good behavior, so that evil would disappear and hard working happy citizens would inherit the land. Libertarians don’t see a need for government to build roads because private corporations will build toll roads. Libertarians don’t see a need for government to create police forces because private security companies will provide a safe and secure life for their customers. Instead of paying taxes, you would pay fees to private corporations. Those fees would presumably be lower than taxes because of the pressure of competition on service providers. Etc., etc. The fact that this has never happened anywhere on earth at any time in history does not cause them a moment of doubt or hesitation. The Libertarian Wonderland is the natural state of the human race, they argue, and the fact that it has never existed - ever, anywhere, at any time, or at any place in the known universe at any point in history - is conclusive proof – to them – of the evil inhibiting power of government.
(We avoid the word “racist” here because of its shrieking emotional tone. We want to think clearly and avoid being deafened by overloaded words.) Xenophobia means fear of strangers, and it is a universal human trait. We like people who are like us, and all groups embrace positive stereotypes of their own race or gender. We - all - typically have negative stereotypes of people who are not like us, and this mental habit is very pronounced in some people. Some White people intensely dislike Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and others. These people tend to vote for and support Conservative candidates because Conservatives can legitimately oppose federal action on principle without having to explain their opposition any further. A Conservative can say that he is opposing federal action on Civil Rights because that power belongs to the various state governments. In fact, he opposes action at any level that enhances the opportunities for Blacks or Hispanics to participate in the nation’s economic, cultural, and political life. If his state’s governor proposed vigorous action in the Civil Rights area, he would oppose that too – but he knows that his governor is not going to make such a proposal.
This is not to say that all Conservatives are intensely xenophobic - which would be an unfair stereotype of Conservatives - but many of them are. Their agenda is the exclusion of non-whites from participation in our society - except as busboys, maids, farm workers, etc.
Barry Goldwater was the longtime Republican Senator from Arizona and was a presidential candidate in 1964. He was defeated by Lyndon Johnson. Like Goldwater, many individuals believe that less government is better than more, and that accessible local government is better than the distant federal government. They believe that a healthy free market will provide secure good-paying jobs for middle-class employees who will then be able to afford a good life replete with a good home, a good car, good food, good medical care, money for cultural and leisure-time activities, and middle-class versions of all the consumer goods that make life pleasant. They imagine that they believe in rugged individualism (though rugged individualists have no place in the global economy that they have helped bring into existence). They believe that a society in which there is maximum personal freedom and minimal governmental interference will encourage the growth of functional, healthy, strong personalities (though they generally support laws which restrict personal freedom). They believe that the more capable people among us will naturally become successful, and that the more successful among us will naturally assume leadership positions in their communities. These local leaders will then naturally use their power to the benefit of the communities they love (though the local leaders they support typically use their power selfishly).
Tip O’Neill, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, said, “All politics is local.” To the best kind of Goldwater Conservatives, everything good about life - including politics - is local: observing local customs; eating local food; reading local history; local customers patronizing local businesses, local businesses understanding and serving local customers; local school boards setting the agenda for local schools; old friends interacting with old friends in politics, business, education, culture, etc. - everything meaningful is local. Everything in a Goldwater Conservative’s life has a regional accent.
Strangely, they do not believe that the free market can be an oppressive or destructive force in human life, even though globalization is destroying the regional cultures and local businesses to which Goldwater Conservatives are so dedicated. The persistent delusion from which Goldwater Conservatives suffer is the belief that the “free market” can never do harm to their cherished local communities despite the evidence presented to them by their eyes and ears.
The Easily Persuaded Among Us:
Conservative leaders are brilliant at persuading the easily persuaded. I have met many supporters of Conservative causes who depend on government services, yet who consistently vote for Conservative candidates who would terminate those services. When I ask them why they vote contrary to their own self interest, these voters explain to me that they are voting based on “character” rather than issues. “A good man will do good things,” they say. Conservatism has amazingly convinced the most gullible voters that Conservatism has a higher morality and a stronger sense of propriety than other political perspectives. Conservatives have linked Conservatism to the imaginary membership in a higher social class in the minds of many White voters. Liberalism has become an unrespected position, the those who think less clearly want to be respected – as we all do. Other political views have been associated with a lower social standing, and less thoughtful voters are invited to sneer at the lower classes using stereotypes like the Cadillac driving welfare queen, the dingbat tree-hugger, the traitorous cut-and-run coward, and so on. These stereotypes are drawn with a big brush, they are demeaning, and they delude the voter into imagining that such caricatures actually depict the opponents of Conservatism.
A democracy is limited, alas, by the quality of its voters. Democracy as a political system is severely handicapped by the fact that half of the human race has a below average IQ. (The average IQ is 100 and I would not hire a secretary with that dim a bulb myself.) Furthermore, large groups of Americans suffer from a variety of emotional dysfunctions and self-imposed delusions. I have read polls claiming that 25% of the population believes that aliens from other planets could be walking among us disguised as humans. A poll taken during the Clinton impeachment hearings found that 25% of the respondents did not recognize the name “Monica Lewinsky.” In a famous experiment, most Americans who were approached refused to sign a petition in support of the enactment of laws which turned out to be exactly identical to the Bill of Rights to our Constitution. Take a drive on the freeway and you will note a large number of drivers who are piloting two tons of steel at high speeds yet who apparently do not believe in the scientific laws of motion and momentum. Etc., etc. I am suggesting that 25% to 50% of Americans have severe limitations on their ability to think clearly, either because of a low IQ, poor education, or the crippling power of their emotional and intellectual delusions. This group unfortunately holds the balance of power in every election in our democracy. I am not suggesting that Conservatives are stupid. To the contrary, Conservatives have become particularly astute at persuading and recruiting the less gifted among us. Conservative speakers, talk-show hosts, and writers have developed a strident rhetoric filled with simple-minded talking points and shouted applause lines that resonate with this group.
This is not a nice thing to say, but it is unfortunately true. The agenda of the less gifted among us is simply to feel smug and superior, for obvious reasons. In exchange for their votes, Conservatives treat them to this feeling.
The Goldwater Conservatism of Grandpa’s day is not exciting to the “neo-cons.” Goldwater was a Conservative back when Conservatives had little influence over government, and he saw government’s pursuit of Liberal policies as wrong-headed. He figured that limiting the size of the federal government would limit the damage it could do. Now that Conservatives control two of the three branches of government, Neo-Conservatives feel that a big central government - and all that intoxicating power - may not be as bad as they previously thought. Term limits, for example, sounded wonderful until they themselves were elected to a term in office and Neo-Cons voted against term limits despite their promises. Neo-Cons have discovered that exercising governmental restraint is not as much fun as using all that federal power to kick butt, bust noses, and maximize their own advantage. Instead of seeing the role of national government as a passive and nonintrusive caretaker of federal power in a nation really ruled by strong state and local governments, they see an opportunity to use federal power to aggressively reshape the nation and the world. The agenda of Neo-Conservatives is -above all - to stay in power and then to use that power to advance their own political and personal causes. In their hearts, they know they are right and what others think, feel, or want is simply not important.
Do not dismiss Neo-Conservatives just because the Bush Administration’s unbelievable incompetence has momentarily made them less popular. Neo-cons are very well funded and they will continue to be a powerful force in America. They will be doing business under another name in the next election.
Of these groups, it seems to me that Fundamentalist Christians and The Easily Persuaded are being exploited by the other groups. Each of the other groups in the Conservative Alliance is getting something from Conservative policies; increased wealth, increased power, or both. The welfare of Fundamentalist Christians and The Easily Persuaded is not enhanced by their participation in the Conservative Alliance. Conservative policies do not benefit them. Their goals – like the criminalization of abortion or the display of their icons on public property -- are given lip service by the others, but no real effort is made to achieve them.
Conservatives: What are they conserving?
“Conservatism is not a coherent philosophy of government. Instead, it is a path to power and wealth for the groups that espouse it.” - Midas Jones.
There is probably not a single Conservative who would agree with that statement despite the fact that it is self-evidently true - when viewed from the Machiavellian perspective. We know it to be true because Conservatives - unlike Liberals, Socialists, Communists, Vegans, Populists, and other Utopians - cannot describe the perfect Conservative society that they want to bring into existence. This is because Conservatives do not have a Utopian vision; they do not have a blueprint of the society they want to live in. They have no path to the future. They just want lots of money, power, and social status for themselves only.
Neither are Conservatives classical theorists who want to restore society to some Golden Age of the past, as some citizens of Imperial Rome wanted to return to the glory days of the Roman Republic when all men were heroes, all women were chaste, and all children were obedient. Conservatives do not want to restore our society to some magical yesteryear when the human heart was pure and life was simple. Though they do romanticize somewhat about the virtues of pioneer America and the sweetness of Norman Rockwell’s small-town America, we note that few Conservatives choose today to chop their own lettuce, much less chop their own wood or walk five miles to work a twelve-hour workday at the local dry goods store.
So, if Conservatives do not plan to lead us up the mountain to a future Utopia or lead us back to a glorious lost age, then what do they want to accomplish with the American government and all its power? Are they flipping coins or rolling dice to decide what their position is on each issue? How can they be the architects of our future if they have no blueprint to follow? The fact is, Conservatives don’t want to be the architects of the future. They don’t even want for there to be an architect. They just want a no-bid, no-audit contract to build the house.
Every Conservative policy without exception is designed to enhance the power or wealth of a significant Conservative group. There is no Conservative policy that would diminish the political power or wealth of Conservatives. To Conservatives, if a policy does not immediately strengthen Conservative power or immediately increase Conservative wealth, then it makes no sense as a policy and they will oppose it. Every play of the Conservative football team must be designed to move the ball toward the Conservative goal line: enhanced power and increased wealth. Conservatism never endorses a policy which has any other effect. Contrast this with Liberal policies of supporting the right of the American Nazi Party to distribute literature or of the Ku Klux Klan to organize marches. If Liberals hate anything more than foreign totalitarian ideologies (against which they fought World War I, World War II, and the Cold War), it must surely be homegrown racist fanatics. Yet Liberals will defend the rights of those they hate - to their own political and personal disadvantage. In contrast, Conservatives only defend the rights of Conservatives. They never espouse a policy that is not in their own immediate self-interest. Conservatives are willing to fight the ill-equipped army of some foreign dictator if there is oil beneath the bare feet of the oppressed, but those who rape and enslave in a nation without attractive and accessible assets do not trouble the sleep of Conservative strategists.
Conservative talk appears to be inconsistent with Conservative policies, but it is not. Remember, the purpose of their Conservative rhetoric is to defeat or disable political opponents – not to explain Conservative policies. The purpose of Conservative policies is to enrich and empower Conservatives alone. Because their rhetoric and their policies have radically different purposes, there is no reason to expect Conservative rhetoric and Conservative policies to be consistent with each other - thus there is no hypocrisy. Conservative rhetoric is like the sales pitch of a used-car salesman: his sales pitch is not related to his goal, which is to get you to pay the largest possible amount of money and get the least amount of car in exchange. If he was honest with you, he’d never sell any cars.
There are a few rules of thumb to keep in mind when evaluating Conservative speech. What Conservatives say they want is not what they want. What they say they are going to do is not what they are going to do. What they say they believe is not what they believe. If Conservatives meant what they said, we’d have a small federal government, a balanced budget, prayer in the schools, strong city and state governments, laws against homosexual behavior, an amendment forbidding the burning of flags, an amendment forbidding gay marriage, etc. If Conservatives said what they think, we wouldn’t elect them to office. Ignore the rhetoric and observe the actions, as our mentor Niccolo Machiavelli advised. Machiavelli understood Conservatism before it had a name.
Here are a few examples of Conservative speech versus Conservative action, to help you think of others...
Regarding Family Values:
- Fundamentalist Christians - sometimes called social conservatives - and some other Conservative groups speak of the family values of small-town America. Yet, Conservative economic actions are destroying small town America and replacing it with gigantic, smoky metropolises filled with underfunded schools, gridlocked traffic, and palatial skyscrapers where corporate CEOs can look down on their empires - places where small-town culture cannot possibly survive, places where Norman Rockwell could not find anything to paint.
- Conservatives argue that the traditional family farm is a crucial part of American culture. But, Conservatives do nothing to change the fact that family farms are being replaced by gigantic agri-corporations tended by underpaid, undocumented foreign workers - in fact, they encourage it.
- Conservatives say that they don’t want the sight of Janet Jackson’s pasty to damage the fragile psyches of American children - all of whom they cherish - but funding for schools, day care, child nutrition, child medical care, school sports, school arts programs and any other services to American children that actually cost money are being cut by Conservative policies and by Conservative anti-tax fanaticism.
- Consistently, Conservatives express support only for intangible family values - that is, the ones that don’t have a price tag - like religious faith, chastity, pledging allegiance to the flag, and learning nothing about evolution (it costs very little to keep our children ignorant). However, Conservative corporations do not mind marketing fattening junk food, $150 sneakers, expensive cell phones, slutty clothing styles, and psychologically twisted video games to America’s pudgy, under-challenged, poorly educated children. Conservative leaders do not even criticize their corporate sugar daddies; much less threaten to regulate them – even to protect children. Conservative politicians are too distracted by Janet Jackson’s boob, apparently, to even notice.
- What then is the real Conservative position on “Family Values?”
It is this: Other members of the Conservative alliance are willing to support fundamentalist Christians regarding “Family Values” because it doesn’t cost anyone any money if a few homosexuals are prevented from marrying or if movies have to depend on just violence and special effects instead of sex, violence, and special effects for income. If abortion is outlawed again, no harm is done to wealthy families whose daughters will continue to be assured of safe, off-the-books “procedures” and fundamentalist daughters - all of whom are chaste - never need abortions anyway. Regulation of personal behavior in public and private does no corporation’s income any harm. Supporting “Family Values” is a win - no loss arrangement: fundamentalists win the ability to forbid the personal behaviors that they find objectionable - thus enforcing God’s Will and obtaining His Approval - and there is no loss to any other major Conservative constituency, no loss to corporate profits, no loss of Conservative power, no meaningful loss of any kind to Conservatism.
Regarding Local Control
- Conservatives speak of local control and states’ rights, but when a Florida court ordered a re-count of the Florida vote in 2000, Conservatives quickly asked the five Conservative Justices of the Federal Supreme Court to overturn local law as interpreted by local judges - and those Federal Justices - all Conservative appointees - eagerly did what was expected of them.
- When the government of the City of Berkeley decided that banks operating in the city limits could not charge ATM fees, then the Conservative banking industry quickly filed suit in Federal court to have the local law declared contrary to the Federal Constitution’s “Interstate Commerce” clause - which Conservatives usually despise.
- Conservatives currently want the Federal government, not the states, to define marriage at the national, not the local, level. This is a complete reversal of what they have argued for many generations: local control, local values, local decisions.
- When the cities of Milwaukee and Madison passed a minimum wage law that was slightly higher than the Wisconsin state minimum, Conservative state legislators acted quickly to pass a law preventing such actions. The Conservative argument was that such actions by local governments would create a “hodgepodge of differing standards” in various parts of the state. (Isn’t the imposition of differing local standards the very definition of “local control?”)
- Conservatives want the Federal government, not local school boards, to set performance standards for students.
- What, then, is the real Conservative position on local control?
It is this: Consistently, Conservatives want control to be ceded to any level of government that favors their interest. Consistently, Conservatives favor lessened control of themselves by all levels of government. Consistently, Conservatives favor heightened control of non-Conservatives by every level of government.
Regarding Frivolous Lawsuits:
- Conservatives decry “frivolous” lawsuits and cite examples of lawsuits filed over spilled coffee and hurt feelings, but they do not criticize the music industry for filing suit against a twelve-year old girl who downloaded a song onto her computer (a shocking example of corporate child abuse which should have been handled by child welfare authorities).
- They do not criticize the pharmaceutical industry for using the courts to extend their patents by simply filing suits that they fully expect to lose - after many profitable years of litigation - against generic drug manufacturers. The whole purpose of these suits is to delay the ability of consumers to purchase cheaper medicine from competitors, and the legal strategy is chosen for the slowness of its pace rather than for its legal merit.
- They do not criticize large computer and software corporations for using courts and lawsuits against small innovators and shoestring entrepreneurs as a part of their marketing strategies. A pointless lawsuit against a clever competitor’s exciting new product might keep it off the market for a year or two - or forever.
- They do not criticize lawsuits like the one in California where a large corporate dairy producer sued a small family dairy farmer for putting this phrase on his milk carton’s label: “We do not inject our dairy cows with hormones.” The corporate producer argued that while the statement on the label was true, it might lead consumers to deduce - correctly - that the corporation’s cows were in fact injected with hormones, thus causing milk drinkers who wish to avoid hormones to prefer the family farmer’s product. The small farmer, unable to match the large corporation’s legal budget, removed the truthful statement from his label in exchange for the withdrawal of the suit - and other small dairy farmers surely took note. (When your children have their cereal tomorrow morning, take a look at the milk carton and see if there is any mention of hormones. I’ll bet next month’s rent that there is no statement of any kind regarding hormones. No matter. The cereal they are eating with their hormonified milk is crap anyway.)
- What then is the real Conservative position on frivolous lawsuits?
It is this: No Conservative has ever defined a “frivolous” lawsuit. No Conservative ever calculated the number of “frivolous” lawsuits versus the number of meritorious suits that are filed every year in any jurisdiction. No method has ever been recommended for punishing those who file “frivolous” lawsuits while allowing those who file meritorious lawsuits to proceed. The fact is that “frivolous” lawsuits - those with no supporting legal argument - are summarily dismissed by judges and present no problem to the legal system. Conservative action - as opposed to rhetoric - is not against “frivolous” lawsuits at all but instead seeks to cap the legal damages available to any and all personal plaintiffs regardless of the merit (or frivolity) of the suit. There is, however, no Conservative effort to reduce the number of “frivolous” lawsuits filed by Conservative corporations against each other, against customers, against governments, against competitors, or even against little girls.
These examples are not given in an effort to suggest that Conservatism is inconsistent, because nothing could be further from the truth. To understand the purpose of Conservative policies, simply follow the flow of money and power. Who gains and who loses from Conservative policies? The answer to that question will reveal to you the real purpose behind those policies. In each of the examples above and in every other one I can think of, Conservatives consistently enact policies that will increase their own wealth or power and they oppose all other policies without exception. They consistently support government interference in “free” markets, without exception, if such interference enriches a significant Conservative constituency. They consistently support federal interference in local matters, without exception, if that interference will enrich a significant Conservative constituency.
Nor are Conservatives hypocritical. They may say one thing and do another, but to the Conservative political mind words have one purpose and actions have a very different purpose. Remember each Conservative constituency is trying to enrich and empower itself at the expense of all other groups. If that were plainly said, then Conservatives would find no support for their policies. The purpose of speech is to reduce opposition to Conservative policies – not to explain them – because explaining them would cause them to be defeated. The purpose of Conservative policies is to enrich Conservatives and enhance their power. Conservatism has been infused with corporate thinking, and we all know that corporations say one thing - this is called marketing - and do another - this is called management. Conservative policies are marketed and marketing is not lying. Marketing is simply telling the customer the words that will result in his purchase of the product, and that is seen by businesses as a service to the consumer and to society. We are asked to believe that it is only by the sheerest coincidence that this also enriches those who perform this public service.
Each and every example I mentioned above will be indignantly challenged by your Conservative friends, who will mount arguments about patent and copyright laws, the entrepreneurial spirit, free markets, interference by activist Liberal judges, the intent of the Founding Fathers, free trade, sexually transmitted diseases, intellectual property, the importance of the Ten Commandments in legal history, homosexuality, abstinent teenagers, intolerant Liberal professors, the Satanic nature of Halloween, tax-and-spend Liberals, crippling Liberal regulation on business, the special Christian heritage of the United States, Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations, protecting family values, the Liberal media, welfare Cadillacs, spilling hot McDonald’s coffee in one’s lap, the farmer whose farm was confiscated by EPA because he ran over an endangered mouse with his tractor, Janet Jackson’s boob, home schooling, the deterrent value of the death penalty, intellectual property rights, etc., etc, etc. You can safely ignore all that verbiage. While Conservatives are talking, just think about being on vacation in the Bahamas. You’ve heard it all before, so you won’t be missing anything. Conservatives only have one song, but it has about fifty verses. They don’t mean any of that stuff and they will enact no policy to enforce it. Just remember that Conservative rhetoric is a marketing tool, not an effort at communication. Trying to understand Conservatism by analyzing Conservative rhetoric would be like trying to understand the global oil industry by reading a Texaco advertisement in Sports Illustrated magazine. Debating these issues with Conservatives is a waste of lung power. To them, debate is just a bug spray for Liberals. Like the personal injury lawyers they despise, they articulate a particular argument because it is effective, not because they believe it to be true.
What defines a policy as Conservative is whether or not the policy will accrue money and power to a significant Conservative constituency. To Conservatives, the goal of politics is to win an advantage for themselves and themselves alone. That which wins is good. That which loses is bad. To Conservatives, politics is a team sport, like professional football, and - like professional football - it is not a game and it is not played for fun. It is played to obtain Glory and win the rewards of the Victor. The opposing team must be defeated at any cost. The Conservative team must win. Failure is not an option. Sportsmanship is for losers. There is a saying in sports that is equally applicable to Conservative politics: “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” Winning is everything.
One of my Dallas relatives – an unrepentant east Texas Conservative of the worst kind – told me that the Super Bowl was supposed to be an event in which the Dallas Cowboys crushed, devastated, destroyed, and humiliated the second place team every single year, perhaps by a score of 150 - 0. A Super Bowl with any other outcome, she said, made her feel like she had been cheated by God. She talks about politics the same way.
Conservatives: Working Together for a Better Future
The Conservative alliance is composed mostly of the Wealthy, Corporate Managers, Fundamentalist Christians, Libertarians, Economic Conservatives, Xenophobes, Goldwater Conservatives, Neo-Conservatives, and the Less Gifted Among Us. The agendas of these groups either overlap nicely or are mutually exclusive. How does this work?
- Wealthy Americans and corporate managers benefit from the same policies. Most wealth in the modern world is derived from corporate activity. What benefits Corporate America - low corporate taxes, low employee wages, unregulated markets, loose accounting practices, no unions, unregulated workplaces, no minimum wage laws, no workplace safety regulations, no overtime pay, and no benefits - also favors Wealthy Americans, whose wealth is generated by those corporations. Wealthy Americans and Corporate managers are not stupid people, and neither are their lawyers, accountants, lobbyists. The Senators and Representatives serving them are sometimes not so smart, but they are obedient. The Wealthy do not support a policy unless it benefits them. This class of individuals is becoming immensely richer and vastly more powerful as the years go by, at the expense of America’s middle and lower classes.
- Libertarians, Economic Conservatives, and Goldwater Conservatives are gratified by the ongoing dismemberment of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society - Liberalism’s Most Recent Hurrah - and its expensive entitlement programs. Government, they wrongly think, pollutes the cultural atmosphere with inhibiting regulatory toxins. The less government, the more breathable the cultural atmosphere. It is inconceivable to Libertarians, Economic Conservatives, and Goldwater Conservatives that oppression can come from any source but government or that improvement can come from any source but the “free” market.
- Neo-Conservatives came to power to dismantle the Federal government, but they have since been seduced by its power and potential. In exchange for power - and substantial wealth - they are willing to deliver governmental services to Corporate America on demand - and to withhold governmental services from non-Conservative groups.
- Xenophobes - Some White Americans are alarmed about the increasing presence of both legal and illegal residents of swarthy complexions or alien tongues among us. While no group of Conservatives openly recommends the re-segregation of American culture, you and I both know that what Conservatives say is not necessarily what Conservatives do. Clearly, government funding for private schools, school vouchers, and home schooling are motivated in part by the desire to separate the White from the off-white in America. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society tried to outlaw racism in the voting booth, the workplace, and elsewhere. The Conservative attack on the Great Society’s anti-discrimination programs and the Conservative plan to replace them with **nothing** is also in part an effort to soothe the anxiety of xenophobes in exchange for their votes. There are many other Conservative under-the-radar re-segregation initiatives and we all should recognize that re-segregation is the goal of those initiatives.
- Fundamentalist Christians in the Pews - unlike their limousine leadership - are not overly concerned with wealth. They are mostly people who want to be good people. They are working class in their attitudes, even if some of them are making a pretty good income. Middle-class life is good enough for them. They do not demand a lot of material things. Their Christianity is deeply rooted. They think that their lives should be ones that God would approve of. God has made it clear to them, by methods that the rest of us cannot fathom, that He is against abortion, euthanasia, secularism, birth control, the values of the Enlightenment, public sexuality, environmentalism, homosexuality, elaborate sex-play, non-standard sex-play, relativism, the penetration of an anus by anything but a medical instrument, thought-provoking educational practices, the findings of the life sciences (biology, botany, neurology, zoology, genetics, etc.), scientific research that is not associated with product development, Communism (whatever that is), Socialism (whatever that is), the scientific investigation of DNA, and Liberalism. Jesus, to them, was and is a Republican, a businessman, a supporter of the free market, a Protestant, and an American. On the other hand, God has communicated to them, by the same mysterious methods, an unconditional approval for the presence of religious icons in public places, censorship of mass market books, censorship of textbooks, the death penalty, gun ownership, and patriotic wars in which Conservative children are not drafted to serve.
- Despite some occasional thunder in the press over Creationism vs. Evolution in the schools, gun ownership laws, etc., nothing on the Fundamentalist Christian agenda is ever achieved. Their goals are ignored by the other members of the Conservative Alliance.
- It is obvious to non-Christians that the best Christians are in the pews and the worst are in the pulpit. The innocent goodness of these people has been hijacked by an utterly corrupt and simple-minded leadership, who bring out the worst in their flocks. The well-being of these folks is not a high priority for Conservative leaders.
- The Easily Persuaded are those individuals who are not gifted analysts of political issues but who vote for the group that seems to represent the “proper” perspective shared by all “good” people. Remember, half of all American adults and children have a below-average IQ. Those for whom the glass is half-empty want to feel included, and they like feeling smug, too. Conservatives have been brilliant at recruiting and mobilizing this group, and this group has regularly provided them with the margin of victory in most elections. The Easily Persuaded Among Us have not really articulated an agenda for themselves. They have been persuaded that the goals of the other members of the Conservative Alliance are theirs too. The well-being of these folks is not a high priority for Conservative leaders.
- If you think about those constituencies, you can see that their agendas either dovetail nicely or that there is absolutely no competition among them. The wealthy and powerful can achieve even greater wealth and power. Corporations can be freed from the shackles of environmental, accounting, and employment regulations. The Libertarians can believe that that wealth is somehow being used to make America greater than she would have otherwise been. Goldwater Conservatives can see government shrink as the Great Society is dismembered. Economic Conservatives can feel relieved that no matter how bad things are, they would have been worse if the government had tried to fix things. Xenophobes happily find ways to separate themselves from alien races - yardwork and housework excepted, of course. Those who want the death penalty used more frequently can enjoy the thought of “Old Sparky” sending evil people to Hell with greater regularity. Many Conservative policies have a win-win feature to them: Goldwater Conservatives can enjoy the dismemberment of the Federal government and the wealthy can enjoy the resulting lower federal taxes - on themselves only of course. Fundamentalist Christians can feel good about having church employees on the federal payroll and all Conservative constituencies can benefit from having tens of thousands of church workers transform themselves into zealous poll workers on election day.
Yin and Yang.
One hand washes the other.
All humans live in human culture. Even hermits are reacting to human culture by retreating from it. Imagine that human culture is like an ancient, pristine forest. Imagine that human beings of different personality types are different kinds of animals that reside in it. One may say, “I am just a non-obtrusive beaver. All I want to do is build a nice secure nest for my family and eat fat, delicious fish.” Or, you might say, “I am a lioness and I am the leader of my hunting pack. My goal is to build my corporation into a world-class competitor.” Or you might say, “I am a prairie dog. All I want to do is dig a comfortable burrow and enjoy communing with the other prairie dogs in our nice prairie dog village.” Or, you might say, “I am an eagle, who flies high above the landscape and views everything beneath me, but I don’t really get involved in whatever is going on down there.” Machiavellianism is totally relativistic, and any goal that suits you is as good as any other from the Machiavellian point of view. Machiavellianism is a perspective on the world. It describes but it does not prescribe.
But, no matter whether you are a beaver, a tiger, or a prairie dog, or an eagle, you are not the most fearsome animal. Imagine that wealthy Americans are like a herd of ancient mammoth elephants. They can easily trample you. Corporate America is like a herd of fearsome tyrannosaurs, and your only protection from them is to be too small to be noticed by them. Fundamentalist Christians are like a pack of hyenas: once the pack has picked you as its target, you are pretty much dead. One hyena will bite your foot while the other bites your butt and another bites your hand while you are trying to kick another one away. They will snap at you and harry you until you are too exhausted to fight back. You will reach the point where you would rather be dead than fight any more. Christian leaders are, paradoxically, merciless and unforgiving people.
Conservatism is predatory. It feeds on the assets of others. It seeks to transfer existing wealth to its own membership and create new wealth for itself whenever possible. It enhances itself by claiming a larger and larger share of the national bounty. It creates little that is worthwhile, unless you consider a new advertising campaign or Netflix to be an important accomplishment. It does not tend to the national infrastructure. It does not consider the welfare of future generations. It does not look into the future any farther than the next election or the next quarterly report. It has led the nation off a cliff more than once. The oil price disaster and the housing finance/repossession disaster are only the two most recent examples of Conservative neglect. Both disasters were predictable. Both were predicted. Both could have been prevented. Conservatism steadfastly opposed any action that might have jeopardized the short-term profits of the oil industry and the banking industry, two key Conservative constituencies. After leading the nation into a predictable, preventable disaster, Conservative spokesmen then refer to the economic turmoil they caused as if it were an inevitable but somehow unpredictable product of the laws of economics.
After leading the nation into yet another disaster, Conservative leaders will come to the rescue -- and what are their proposals? They wish to pour federal dollars into the industries whose leaders led us over the cliff in the first place. And, for good measure, they usually recommend a tax cut for the wealthy, the end of inheritance taxes, and less regulation on corporations.
The thing about national disasters is that not everyone suffers. Those whose houses are repossessed suffer, but those who loaned them the money to purchase the house and who then sold the loan to a third party prospered -- twice. Those who buy gasoline at the pump suffer, but those who refine and sell the products of oil prosper. Conservatism is always on the side of the prosperous. Conservatism is not for losers.
Ask a Conservative friend this question. How much of the national wealth should 1% of Americans own? Fifteen percent seems like a generous slice of the national pie to me. What if 1% of Americans owned twenty-five percent of the nation’s wealth? Isn’t that concentrating too much power into too few hands?
The fact is that in the United States, the richest 1 percent of households owns 38 percent of all wealth. The top 1% of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 95% percent. The bottom 40% of households own one-fifth of 1% (or 0.2%) of the nation's wealth. If you don’t believe me, Google “how much wealth top 1% of Americans” and see what turns up.
World wide, according to the United Nations, the richest 1% of the world’s population owns 40% of the world’s wealth. That top 1% does not wish to settle for a measly 40%. They want more, much more. And Conservatism is their public image. Conservatism is clumsily crafted, but it doesn’t take much to fool most people. As Machiavelli pointed out, most people believe what they hear from others, not what they see with their own eyes.