Contemporary American conservatism is a very strange duck. Maybe a platypus.
To begin with, it espouses what has always previously been called liberalism: When our nation was founded, it was the conservative Hamilton who imagined a strong central government and the liberal Jefferson who feared it.
Conservatism has traditionally been in favor of strong government. It is one of its hallmarks through history. Of course, behind that belief in central power was the heart of true conservatism: maintaining privilege for those who enjoyed it. That is why we could talk about Soviet hardline conservatives hanging on to Communism. It was their own privilege they were attempting to save.
It was conservatives who supported the aristocracy in monarchist Europe; it was conservatives who fought reform in 19th century England and justified the subjugation of Ireland; it was conservatives who supported segregation in the American Jim Crow South. The record of conservatives on the progress of human liberation is a dismal one.
There is a graspingness and miserliness at the heart of historical conservatism. All change threatens the status quo and that threatens those who hold the best cards.
But what remains the oddest thing about the current iteration of conservatism in America is the way it marries this retention of old social norms — even injust ones — with a form of political radicalism that would have dumbfounded the founders.
At the heart of the Tea Party movement is what can only be described as “soft” anarchism. One central tenet is the dictum that government is not the solution, government is the problem, and therefore, we need to eradicate government. This is not, in any way, shape or form, conservatism. It has no relation to conservatism historically, nor conservatism in ideal or theory.
The philosophical grandfathers of the Tea Party, let’s face it, are Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and Max Stirner. Get the government out of the way and everything will be peachy-hunky.
Those who call themselves libertarians can sign on to this soft anarchism and feel their views are coherent. But so-called conservative Republicans have a hard time reconciling this anti-government sentiment with the converse idea that everyone should behave according to the Judeo-Christian norms they observe. On one hand, they extoll personal freedom, and on the other hand, they negate it to anyone who disagrees with them.
Even more, those Republicans who have signed on to the Tea Party’s soft anarchism have a difficult time matching that up with their own drive for political power. And we must face the fact that our two-party system is just a bipolar grasping of power. Republicans can claim that government should be smaller, but a short gander at the record proves that after years of striving for the power, when they have it, Republicans use it just as much as Democrats. What’s the point of winning if you don’t get the perks?
That’s why I call this a platypus. The parts don’t belong together.
I suppose one shouldn’t expect any political movement to be philosophically coherent. Politics remains sausage manufacturing and always will. But the part that causes thoughtful people profound disquiet comes with the reflection on history.
This marriage of one radical idea with reactionary social conservatism has along history, and not a history that inspires much confidence or hope.
Every tyranny or reign of terror has its own version of a radical idea melded with a nostalgic longing for a past where everyone was good and righteous and behaved in the old-fashioned ways. Look at the incorruptible Robespierre; look at the agrarian virtues of Mao; look at xenophobic Stalin.
Not to put too fine a point to it, and I don’t mean to equate one-to-one Republicans with Nazis, but the same principle is at work. No one extolled the virtues of family and marriage more than the National Socialists. Hitler loved children and dogs, as they say. The combination of reactionary social ideas with radical political ideas has fueled this kind of crackpotism since the days of Plato.
During the last election, a healthy percentage of Americans turned away from the extremism of the Tea Party, and I don’t have a fear that this platypus will reconquer our politics. America has a long history of quietism, and has always in the past, so far, retreated from any radical departure from the comfort it finds in a stodgy middle class normality. It’s one of our country’s saving graces: We don’t go in, like the French, for theory.
But nonetheless, this water-and-oil mixture of radicalism and reaction is something, as the doctors always say, we should keep an eye on.