Tuesday, August 4, 2009

American Conservatism Today

It's time now to look at the more modern conservative movement in the United States. As I mentioned previously, modern conservatism differs in many ways from classical conservatism. I'll try to point out the major differences in this post.

I can remember in 1964 when Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson for the Presidency. During the campaign, "Fact" magazine published an entire issue called "The Unconscious of a Conservative." It was among the most scurrilous political pieces I can ever remember having seen. The main thesis was that Barry Goldwater was unfit to be President. It was every bit as divisive and fallacious as anything that has been done during our recent Presidential campaigns. Bare-knuckles, bloody political combat isn't limited to one side or the other; this "swift-boating" was done by Democrat partisans.

I bring up Barry Goldwater because he was probably the most well-known conservative of his day. William F. Buckley was also a prominent American conservative contemporary with Goldwater. Like Edmund Burke before him, Buckley would articulate a systematic treatment of conservative thought. As a practicing Roman Catholic of a very traditionalist stripe, he provided a bridge between strictly political conservatives and their religious brethren.

Despite figures like Goldwater and Buckley, however, American conservatism's rise in the sixties was perhaps a bit premature. Goldwater went down to a huge defeat against Johnson, and it wasn't until the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980 that American conservatism would really be at the top of the food chain. Some of the excesses that came after Reagan's election probably resulted from a huge sense of hubris as the result of his becoming President.

Classical or historical conservatism, as described by Burke, was essentially free of ideology, at least in the sense of having some sort of blueprint for constructing a more perfect society. Over time, however, with Ronald Reagan's election, hubris and a rising sense of destiny produced the Neo-cons, many of whom would later direct major aspects of George W. Bush's administration, some to disastrous effect.

The ideology that motivated the Neo-cons seems to me to be a sense of America's destiny in the world, a notion that we are to lead the rest of the world toward a utopian future. As they seemed to think, given that we have the most perfect political system, as well as the world's greatest economy, it was only right that we should shoulder that well-deserved burden. We would lead with diplomacy if possible, and with force and "regime change" if necessary. No one could stand in our way, because we were pre-destined to succeed. To put it another way, modern conservatives, at least those who would be proud to wear the label "neo-con," had a definite sense of American triumphalism.

Modern conservatism also seemed more and more to be about not only maintaining the status quo in terms of their political power, but actually reducing and ultimately eliminating any groups that differed from them, or who might threaten their power base. Tom Delay, for instance, was instrumental in attempting to put in place a "permanent Republican majority." There was no place in the minds of these folks for a two-party system. Karl Rove showed how it was done by successfully guiding the campaigns of George W. Bush in 200 and 2004 for the Presidency.

Modern American conservatism also seems to be even more about materialism than earlier variants. American society in the twentieth century was more and more about bigger, faster, longer, larger, in short, things that were more "super" than what went before. American conservatism fell right into this mode of thought. The rich got richer, and the less rich, well, they stayed less rich, for the most part. The gap between the highest wealth Americans, and those on the bottom, only got larger and larger during this time.

As I mentioned in the last post, the tension between those in power and those on the outside who want some of that power is a reality that's been true for hundreds, even thousands, of years. In the 2008 national elections, that tension was once again in evidence, as the conservatives at the top were toppled by those who had gotten fed up with their arrogance, their lack of caring for things that mattered to those out of power, and in many cases, their incompetence to do the things that those in power are supposed to do. As the Republicans look over their defeat in so many elections, they're trying to make sense of what happened. There's a real debate within the party over what needs to be done--should they moderate their message? Was it too extreme and narrowly focused? Do they need to be more vocal about hardcore conservative values? Can they be the loyal opposition, or is it necessary to have a "my way or the highway" mindset? Is it better to be willing to persuade and work toward a consensus with the Democrats, or is it time to work harder to polarize the country even more? Demogogery seems to rule the day--conservative talk radio hosts get the base going, and no liberal target is safe.

This is the fractured landscape of modern American conservatism. In the next post, I'm going to look at the Christian life, as it was lived by the guy who gave it its name, and as it's lived now.

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