Thursday, September 06, 2007

'Conservatism' as Unprincipled Opportunism

I am currently reading John W. Dean's Conservatives Without Conscience. Let me reveal some of my own mistaken biases: since I'm old enough to have been aware and politically active in the Watergate era I thought, "Oh John Dean, that Blind Ambition guy who was in Nixon's White House; he's just an ex-politico, what can he know?" Well, I was wrong. John W. Dean is an excellent researcher and thinker and Conservatives Without Conscience covered a lot of the ground I've been writing about myself. This guy Dean is a very serious thinker. (Why he's just got to be smart if he's writing about what I'm writing about!) I highly recommend his books.

But let me here develop an idea that he only hints at in his book. He writes at length about how so-called conservatives themselves so very frequently argue that there is no way to define 'conservatism'; they go so far as to revel in this supposed fact and celebrate their right to contradict themselves. Of course it IS difficult to give a definition of a belief system like conservatism or liberalism, there is no question about that; but when you get so MANY so-called conservatives opining that they cannot define their own belief system (see Dean, 2006, pp. 2-10) you should really begin to think about this.

It is hugely convenient for so-called conservatives to take this position. If you trumpet the fact that you cannot define what you stand for and you make an asset out of being able to take contradictory positions--what are the consequences of this stance? It allows you to be unprincipled and opportunistic in your pursuit of a coalition of followers as well as in your pursuit of political power. And it is precisely this that has occurred since Buckley and his colleagues created modern American 'conservatism' in the post World War II era. I have commented upon this earlier calling it the "witch's brew" of pseudo-conservatives (if you wish to see these search in my blog under "witch's"). So-called conservatives have been given a huge pass here by allowing them to mix the most contradictory elements and yet get away with giving the whole mess a single label.

They are for "limited government" but they support the Reagan-Bush-Cheney theory of the unitary executive! (On this see Charlie Savage's Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy; Savage won a Pulitzer for his articles about signing statements and is a very thoughtful, careful fellow.) They revere the great American Constitution but support the dismantling of its checks and balances. They are defenders of "individual freedom" but will rush back to Washington to pass special legislation telling Terry Schiavo's relatives how to manage her feeding tube. They support a "culture of life" but, unlike the Catholic Church which also opposes abortion, they are big supporters of the death penalty. They are the champions of small government but never met a defense department or national security budget increase they didn't like. They support bringing "freedom and democracy" to the rest of the world, just not where it is inconvenient as in the case of the democratically elected Hamas government. They are most emphatically Christians but seem to have 'forgotten' Christ's teachings about feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and sheltering those without shelter. They revere the Ten Commandments including the sixth, "Thou Shalt not Kill", except when it comes to Pat Robertson calling for "taking out" Hugo Chavez. They are absolutely against government interference in the economy except when it comes to passing legislation which weakens labor unions.

They are indeed a mass of blatant contradictions which truly reduces itself to an unprincipled, opportunistic grasping for popular and political power. And their strategy has been remarkably successful in America, especially since Reagan.

7 comments:

no fortunate son said...

James,

As I recently learned, this behavior is what evolutionists call "free rider".

I HIGHLY recommend the book 'Evolution for Everyone: how Darwin's theory can change the way we think about our lives'(2007) by David Sloan Wilson.

This may seem far off from your topic, but try this: go to your favorite bookstore that is likely to have a new science book on the shelf and read pages 155 to 164. I believe those ten pages will convince you that it's worth your time to read the book.

steven andresen said...

I too find this interesting. You said,

"...He writes at length about how so-called conservatives themselves so very frequently argue that there is no way to define 'conservatism'; they go so far as to revel in this supposed fact and celebrate their right to contradict themselves. Of course it IS difficult to give a definition of a belief system like conservatism or liberalism, there is no question about that; but when you get so MANY so-called conservatives opining that they cannot define their own belief system (see Dean, 2006, pp. 2-10) you should really begin to think about this..."

What do you think accounts for this? Do you think their inability to be able to define, or maybe understand their own position, is a matter of their position being just too difficult or complex to understand? Maybe, if it's that, they haven't really tried hard enough to understand themselves? Or, do you think it's just a matter of not wanting to be clear so that they would be able to do the contradictory things and adopt the useful positions, though contradictory, that you go on to point out?

Anonymous said...

There is a connection here to both religious fundamentalists and right wing authoritarians.

Fundamentalists also revel in the idea of mutually contradictory beliefs; that way, faith alone rules. In fact, the right to contradict oneself is usually reserved for the truly holy.

The Bible is loaded with contradictory statements; this has the additional advantage of allowing the faithful to construct arguments for - or against - a position depending on the situation.

For these people, illogicality and proof of holiness go hand-in-hand.

Right wing authoritarians are also known to have problems with logic; they don't really read the parts that lead up to the conclusion that they like. For these people, the capacity to believe non-functional "logic" is a badge of membership by which they identify each other.

Finally, requiring truthfulness and logical thinking in a leader is anti-authoritarian. If I can listen to a speech and decide for myself what to think about it, I repudiate the whole idea of authoritative leadership.

Bill

steven andresen said...

I think I see a problem in the Repubs that also appears with the dems.

You said the conservatives are opportunists because they argue for "limited government" but also support Bush's "unitary" President ideas.

I think you are confusing our understanding of conservatives, much like we've had our understanding of liberals confused.

So, when I listen to Rep. Paul talk about how he thinks of limited government, he also opposes his Party's efforts to bring about the "unitary" President. He thinks it's all one big mistake. As I read him, the repubs have taken a huge wrong turn by going for big government and a President with unchecked powers.

So, when you say conservatives are "opportunists, it seems that you have to distinguish who you are talking about. Are you refering to the neo-cons who seem to be big on Big Government of the fascist style. Or are you talking about the Paulist libertarian types who try to be more consistent?

The same conflation can be seen in the right's criticisms of left and liberal policies. If the left is for "butter" instead of "guns" then why should we think the dems who now support the wars in the middle east have anything to do with liberalism or leftist priorities?

James A Bond said...

Steven Andresen,

I think they do not want to define 'conservatism' because they know there are contradictions in what they espouse that they do not wish to deal with. They are opportunists to whom power is central and consistency is irrelevant. And they're getting away with it so why should they fix it. They want to be able to include whatever comes up for them that will mobilize more people and win elections.

James A Bond said...

Bill,

Yes, as you know from Bob Altemeyer's "The Authoritarians" these folks are not good at being consistent. And yes again having strong criteria for truthfulness and logic is a part of the liberal tradition. I'll post something today on how Morris R. Cohen defined 'liberalism'.

James A Bond said...

Steven Andresen,

I consider Ron Paul a libertarian rather than a 'conservative'. Libertarians are consistent 19th century liberals who really are against big government in a consistent fashion. The people I label pseudo-conservatives-- yes including the neocons, but also Bill Buckley and most of the rest of the people who have called themselves 'conservatives' since the early 1950s-- these people are hypocritical opportunists who say they revere the Constitution but repeatedly violate it when they wish, who say they are for limited government but have never met a 'defense' budget increase they didn't like, who say they are against government interference with the economy but are happy to support legislation hurting trade unions, etc.