February 22, 2006

The Death of Conservativism

In a previous post, I wrote about how political language has been abused and how words have either lost their meaning through misuse or whose meaning is deliberately kept vague so that they can be used as political weapons.

Glenn Greenwald (over at Unclaimed Territory) points out how this process of distortion is in full swing currently over the labels "liberal" and "conservative." And in the process, he points put that conservatism, as a recognizable political ideology, is dead in America, killed by the very people who currently proudly claim themselves to be conservatives. I am excerpting some key passages from his long essay on this act of ideological suicide but you really should read the whole thing, with its links to supporting examples..

It used to be the case that in order to be considered a "liberal" or someone "of the Left," one had to actually ascribe to liberal views on the important policy issues of the day - social spending, abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, immigration, "judicial activism," hate speech laws, gay rights, utopian foreign policies, etc. etc. These days, to be a "liberal," such views are no longer necessary.

Now, in order to be considered a "liberal," only one thing is required - a failure to pledge blind loyalty to George W. Bush. The minute one criticizes him is the minute that one becomes a "liberal," regardless of the ground on which the criticism is based. And the more one criticizes him, by definition, the more "liberal" one is. Whether one is a "liberal" - or, for that matter, a "conservative" - is now no longer a function of one’s actual political views, but is a function purely of one’s personal loyalty to George Bush.

. . .

People who self-identify as "conservatives" and have always been considered to be conservatives become liberal heathens the moment they dissent, even on the most non-ideological grounds, from a Bush decree. That’s because "conservatism" is now a term used to describe personal loyalty to the leader (just as "liberal" is used to describe disloyalty to that leader), and no longer refers to a set of beliefs about government.

. . .

As much as any policy prescriptions, conservatism has always been based, more than anything else, on a fundamental distrust of the power of the federal government and a corresponding belief that that power ought to be as restrained as possible, particularly when it comes to its application by the Government to American citizens. It was that deeply rooted distrust that led to conservatives’ vigorous advocacy of states’ rights over centralized power in the federal government, accompanied by demands that the intrusion of the Federal Government in the lives of American citizens be minimized.

Is there anything more antithetical to that ethos than the rabid, power-hungry appetites of Bush followers? There is not an iota of distrust of the Federal Government among them. Quite the contrary. Whereas distrust of the government was quite recently a hallmark of conservatism, expressing distrust of George Bush and the expansive governmental powers he is pursuing subjects one to accusations of being a leftist, subversive loon.

. . .

And what I hear, first and foremost, from these Bush following corners is this, in quite a shrieking tone: "Oh, my God - there are all of these evil people trying to kill us, George Bush is doing what he can to save us, and these liberals don’t even care!!! They’re on their side and they deserve the same fate!!!" It doesn’t even sound like political argument; it sounds like a form of highly emotional mass theater masquerading as political debate. It really sounds like a personality cult. It is impervious to reasoned argument and the only attribute is loyalty to the leader. Whatever it is, it isn’t conservative.

. . .

A movement which has as its shining lights a woman who advocates the death of her political opponents, another woman who is a proponent of concentration camps, a magazine which advocates the imprisonment of journalists who expose government actions of dubious legality, all topped off by a President who believes he has the power to secretly engage in activities which the American people, through their Congress, have made it a crime to engage in, is a movement motivated by lots of different things. Political ideology isn't one of them.

This happens to ideologies. Initially they are about ideas, about the principles around which societies should be organized and about how to govern. But when people with a strong sense of ideology get into power, they find that trying to attain their goals takes longer and is more difficult than they anticipated because most people are not strongly ideological and resist being forced to conform to a rigid mold. So then the focus shifts to cutting corners on honesty and ethical and even legal behavior, doing anything to silence their critics and stay in power for as long as they can so that they can attain their goals by whatever means necessary. And in the process, the principles of the very ideology that initially drove them become sacrificed.

When that happens, the original followers of that ideology have a choice to make. Either they stay with their original principles and become critics of those in power or they abandon the principles and become instead power cultists, slavishly and uncritically following the dear leader.

A good test to gauge this thinking is to ask such people if there is anything, anything at all, about the leader's actions that they find objectionable. The signs of cult-like behavior are when those people cannot find anything about the leader's policies to criticize or when they do criticize, point to trivialities ("I wish he would make better speeches") or say that the leader should be even more extreme. ("There should be warrantless wiretapping of everyone!", "We need to invade more countries!", "We should torture not just suspects but their families as well!", "We need to put all foreigners in internment camps, not just Muslims!") Such statements are not really criticisms. They are in reality a form of pandering, because they enable the leader to claim the mantle of moderation while pursuing extreme measures.

When this kind of thing happens on a large scale, it signals the impending death of the ideology. It is what we currently see happening in the US for the movement formerly known as conservative.

Greenwald's essay seemed to have touched a nerve, with many "conservatives" trying to deny the existence of a Bush cult and to discredit his main point that conservatism these days is measured by the degree of blind allegiance to whatever Bush does. He has responded to those arguments in this post.


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I agree with Greenwald that the line between liberal and conservative has been blurred during George Bush's presidency. Two hotly-contested presidential elections will polarize the country. However, to claim that conservatism as an ideology is almost dead is an irrational conclusion.

History has shown that every thirty years or so, we get a phenomenon called political realignment, where the the composition and views of the major parties significantly changes to accomdate current-day politics. The last major realignment involved the southern states and their shift towards the Republican party. As the "religious right" stretches the welcome of the Republican Party, I wonder how much longer the true conservatives in that party will tolerate their presence. The united image that the Republican Party choses to portray is a double-edged sword.

As a classical conservative, I often wonder about the state of my ideology. I see the Republicans who claim to be conservative; I see the religious right, who claim to be conservative. The religious right really aren't conservative at all. They are really liberals. Then, why aren't they Democrats? Abortion?

The religious right are currently hindering progress of the conservative ideology. Unfortunately, power trumps ideology and the religious right are being welcomed into the Republican Party. I want to believe that as soon as the Republicans can win an election without their support, the religious right is promptly ignored.

The ideologues of the religious right distort party lines. Their presence has significantly changed how politics are played. I would not be surprised if they are the principle contributors to the next big political realignment, which historical is due any year now. Their death lock on conservatism will only be tolerated for so long. They won't kill it, they'll just polarize it so that it emerges with a strong and loyal base that is true to its roots.

Posted by Gregory Szorc on February 22, 2006 12:09 PM

The idea of periodic realignment is interesting and probably true though I am not sure how good the time estimates for their occurrence are. I suspect that it is kind of like earthquakes. You can estimate a likely time for them to occur but the actual occurrence seems to require an unpredictable confluence of events. What this implies for political realignments is not clear.

It is true that people of all stripes hitch on to the winning bandwagon in order to wrest some benefits for their own agenda. Perhaps, as you point out, the rejuvenation of traditional political conservatism may require the jettisoning of those people like the religious right.

I don't know that I would agree that the religious right are really liberals. If you take Greenwald's position that what used to characterize liberalism were positions on things like "social spending, abortion, the death penalty, affirmative action, immigration, "judicial activism," hate speech laws, gay rights, utopian foreign policies", etc., it is not clear that the religious right would agree with the so-called "liberal" positions on them.

It is this impenetrable murkiness of the politcal landscape that makes me hesitate to use the labels liberal and conservative anymore. They used to have useful meanings but now I am not sso sure they do.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 22, 2006 02:17 PM

It's interesting that this is not merely an issue of ideologies but semantics. The word "conservative" is bandied about not based on its original definitions, but on the "branding" that has been applied to it by the new right. George & Company have reinforced this new brand of conservatism through repetition of their ideas. If you say X is Y often enough, then people will assume it to be so.

Meanwhile the old style conservatives no longer have a label of their own, and in losing that label, they—to a degree—have lost their voice, or rather their ability to identify each other so that they may group together to follow their own political ideas.

My mom (Goldwater Republican, pro-choice, pro-gay rights) and I were e-mailing about this recently. I told her that the party had changed so much that she really had to consider herself a liberal, while I—a moderate—am now a crazy leftist pinko. I can simply call myself a democrat, but she's more in limbo.

I don't know where this leaves the real leftist pinkos—the ones who want to give control over to the state, but perhaps Greg is right and they are now the far right! (With obvious exceptions regarding social welfare)

On a related note there is a book called What's the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank in which he discusses much of the irony involved in this movement. I've not read the book yet, but you can listen to a podcast of a lecture he gave at U.Va. at

Posted by cool on February 22, 2006 02:54 PM

Thinking more about Greg's comment, I think that the neoconservative goal of global conquest may have done more to undermine traditonal conservative beliefs than he religious right.

That movement has spawned a budget-busting, big government, anti-individual freedom ethos, all of which are antithetical to the "paleoconservtive" ideals.

Posted by Mano Singham on February 22, 2006 05:00 PM