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Defining Conservative Down
Today's parties are neither Jeffersonians nor Hamiltonians, but social democrats.
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In what for me illustrates the use of confusing labels, George Will recently complained about attacks of “cognitive dissonance” in trying to understand our political terms. Although Americans identify overwhelmingly as “conservatives,” many of them vote differently from the way they describe themselves. They lean theoretically toward Thomas Jefferson, who advocated very limited government, but vote like Hamiltonians, that is, like disciples of Alexander Hamilton, our first secretary of the Treasury, who favored a strong federal state. Will quotes his favorite “conservative” senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who noted a dramatic disconnect between how Americans think and how they vote. According to Moynihan, who usually gave his vote to the left despite his undeserved reputation as a man of the right, Americans are happy to violate their “conservative civil religion” as soon as they enter a voting booth.

Will’s observations about political labels are highly questionable. He stretches the term “conservative” so far that it means whatever he (and presumably the “conservative” press) wants it to mean. Judging by polls, the majority of Americans stand well to the left on social issues of where the American left and even the European far left used to be positioned. European Communist Parties well into the post-World War II era were strikingly traditional about gender roles, immigration, and gay rights — certainly in comparison to where most American voters currently stand. Our corporate income tax rates are the highest in developed world, and the percentage of our population that does not pay federal income tax seems to be higher than what one finds in most “progressive” European countries. And lest I forget, those who were ranting at the GOP convention about our duty to spread human rights globally did not sound even vaguely “conservative.” They seemed to be imitating the zealots of the French Revolution who sought to carry their “Rights of Man” at bayonet point to the entire human race. No one has ever explained to me how this radical revolutionary foreign policy is in any sense conservative.

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It is equally ridiculous to treat American Democrats as “Hamiltonians.” In the late 18th century, favoring a strong nation state was not a leftist position. It was identified with mercantile power and in Hamilton’s case with distrust of mass democracy and the internationalism of the French Revolution. Not all advocates of state power should be equated with Obama partisans, any more than Jefferson and his partisans should be seen as “conservatives” in their time. In the late 18th century, the political struggle in the U.S. was between nationalists and regionalists, and it is impossible to make that struggle correspond to our present situation. Our polity is too multicultural to be compared to the early American nation state, which was relatively homogeneous culturally and religiously, and we live with a highly centralized welfare state that two national parties are trying to get hold of to accommodate their bases. It is therefore misleading to paste worn political labels onto a political present to which they have no significant relation. What we now see is a ritualized battle between two party blocs centered on the fruits of an expanding administrative state. And from what I can tell, most voters seem delighted with this arrangement and would be furious if we tried to change it.

Since the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are now mostly empty rhetorical phrases, it is not surprising that Obama voters are being classified as inconsistent “conservatives.” Why not call them Martians? The operative terms exist in order to differentiate mostly similar products. To me this overlap is far more obvious than those distinctions the media would like us to emphasize. According to Will, Americans consider themselves to be conservative rather than liberal by a ratio of two to one. But this matters about as much as the fact that some voters have black hair and others brown hair. The real difference is between those who seek to dismantle our centralized administrative state, with its apparatus of behavioral control, and those who support its continuation and inevitable growth. On one side we have the authorized but often indistinguishable “conservatives” and “liberals,” and on the other side, a small percentage of the adult population standing alone and voting for a third party that is not likely to get anywhere.

I’d be happy if we changed our current terminology to something as descriptively useful as “social democrats A” and “social democrats B.” And I make this suggestion not as a libertarian (which I am not) but as someone who favors accurate labeling. It would be nice never again to have to gaze at anything like Will’s remarks about his “cognitive dissonance” in noticing that some “conservatives” vote for the Dems. His labeling problem is certainly not mine.

Paul Gottfried is the author, most recently, of Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America: A Critical Appraisal.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
 
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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Our corporate income tax rates are the highest in developed world, and the percentage of our population that does not pay federal income tax seems to be higher than what one finds in most “progressive” European countries.

    Surely, when it comes to the taxes paid by a given individual, the only metric that counts is the total annual amount of money paid by him to the government divided by the amount of money received that year? The names and combinations of taxes and deductions used to arrive at that ratio are irrelevant.

    More broadly, the original distinction between conservatives and progressives, between traditionalists and radicals lay in their attitudes to risk. Conservatives and traditionalists wanted change in social, economic, and political institutions to occur slowly, if at all. Progressives and radicals wanted to experiment, believing that institutions designed through reason could outperform institutions whose stability was time-tested. And this was in the 17th Century – conservatism meant supporting autocratic monarchs with a divine right to rule, so the American Revolution to come was certainly a liberal undertaking.

    Both terms have evolved significantly since then. In light of this, I am not sure why an exclusive focus on the size of the government is any more ‘authentically’ conservative than any other distinction (indeed, does it not better reflect the position on an anarchist-institutionalist, in the Veblenian sense, axis?). The present differences between the Republican and Democratic parties are stark. We can call their organising principles shmonservative and shmiberal, if we want to, but they would still be more different than alike on the vast majority of still-unsettled issues.

  2. I wonder if corporate taxes have become a proxy for tariffs. We don’t heavily tax iPhones at the border, but we do tax Apple. Similarly oil, Exxon.

    Levels may be off, but the idea may be sound. If a hypothetical competitor to Apple or Exxon has a full production stack on-shore they are paying all kinds of domestic taxes. I’d imagine that their effective corporate tax rate would be lower for that reason.

    This might be “re-balancing” tax load away from domestic employers (who in a “free trade” environment would carry all of it).

    Of course, I am not a corporate tax accountant.

  3. Also note that when looking at “total tax as percentage of GDP” we are way down the list. Taxing from column A (corporate) rather than B (individual) probably doesn’t make a huge difference. Only an ideologue cares more about the labeling of the tax more than the magnitude.

  4. Rambler88 says:

    The real difference is between those who seek to dismantle our centralized administrative state, with its apparatus of behavioral control, and those who support its continuation and inevitable growth. On one side we have the authorized but often indistinguishable “conservatives” and “liberals”…

    I’d be happy if we changed our current terminology to something as descriptively useful as “social democrats A” and “social democrats B.”

    In line with the point in the first sentence quoted, perhaps more accurate terms would be “corporate statists” and “populist statists”. Neither group has any fundamental commitment to “democracy” in the sense of effective electoral expression, to the degree needed for a healthy society, of the consent of the governed.

    Actually, as is perhaps self-evident, it’s the perennial business of “optimates” versus “populares”, alternating as “ins” and “outs”: one party of power-seekers aligning themselves with a (usually decadent) oligarchy, eternally fighting another party of power-seekers aligning themselves with chronically dependent seekers of income redistribution.

  5. cameyer says:

    Well, that’s the strength of TAC: proceeding from philosophies instead of ideology and why you are gaining readership.

  6. JonF says:

    The infant US was not “homogeneous culturally” at its founding. The Constitution bridged (but only with paper) a deep chasm between North and South, but could not fill it in. 70 years later that chasm erupted with the epic blood-letting of the Civil War. And even that did not fill in the chasm, as a look at the older states (those in the Union before 1860) shows that the old free-slave divide is now echoed strongly in the red-blue divide (with Maryland and Delaware having changed sides– though Virginia may also follow*). Yes, the issues are different today, and things get a bit messy out west, but at the end of the day we are still two different nations yoked together.

    * Florida? Old (19th century) Florida is solidly red; new (20th century) Florida, which was a mostly empty frontier land in 1860, is the purple swing state region.

  7. Hmmm … so most of the American and European politicians who stand for office as conservatives (with or without an upper-case “C”), and most of the citizens who support them, favor policies that are not “conservative” as Mr. Gottfried, and apparently Mr. Will, define the term.

    Indigo Montoya had it — “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  8. “I’d be happy if we changed our current terminology to something as descriptively useful as “social democrats A” and “social democrats B.”

    Right-wing social democrats vs. left-wing social democrats. That is exactly what our politics has come to. Very good column.

  9. Passing by, to the extent that self-declared “conservative” politicians pledge to restore Constitutional government as intended by our founders, and define that as the mark of “conservatism”, then, yes, very few of them can qualify by their own definition, and that is what Prof. Gottfried demonstrates in this brief commentary.

  10. William Dalton –

    True enough, American “self-declared ‘conservative’ politicians pledge to restore Constitutional government as intended by our founders”. They also pledge to protect Social Security, Medicare, etc. etc. [And UK Conservative politicians pledge to protect the National Health Service, etc. etc.]

    These politicians and their constituents see no contradiction here; they just hold a view of the Founders’ intention different from yours. Perhaps their view of that intention tracks suspiciously with their policy preferences … but then, perhaps so does yours?

  11. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Conservatives and traditionalists wanted change in social, economic, and political institutions to occur slowly, if at all. Progressives and radicals wanted to experiment, believing that institutions designed through reason could outperform institutions whose stability was time-tested. And this was in the 17th Century – conservatism meant supporting autocratic monarchs with a divine right to rule, so the American Revolution to come was certainly a liberal undertaking.

    this comment above does a better job than the author at distilling the essence of conservatism — one is attempting to conserve what is, rather than recklessly revise it, opting for a careful and methodical tinkering within institutional frameworks that are designed to protect the continuity of society.

    lumping both parties on one side and claiming that some sort of libertarianism is the “real” conservatism is a profound misreading — few ideologies are more radical than libertarianism. as Toynbee noted, those who would seek to tear down society in order to go back are not conservative at all but radical — you cannot go back, nor is it wise to wish to.

    lament for the death of conservatism, because it is dead in America — if it ever lived at all, which i doubt. no American in the public square has ever, i expect, explicitly agreed with <a title=”"http://archive.org/details/reflectionsofrus00pobeuoft"Pobedonostsevhttp://archive.org/details/reflectionsofrus00pobeuoft"Pobedonostsev and lived to tell the tale, no matter how valuable his articulation of traditional conservatism.

  12. Passing by,

    Those who argue that programs like Social Security and Medicare are permitted by the Constitution do not argue that such authority was intended to be granted to Congress by those who adopted and ratified the Constitution. If there is an historian who makes that case, please cite his argument. The proponents of such authority are adherents to the creed that the Constitution is a “living” document that should be reinterpreted in ways not previously permitted, but more agreeably to the needs of different times, with our without formal amendment.

    In the legal realm, this division between “originalists” and “living Constitutionalists” is precisely that between “conservatives” and “liberals”, and has been since the Warren Court. It was only prior to the 1930’s, and the death of “Lochner”, with its expansive interpretation of the due process clause (later revived in a different context by “Roe v. Wade”), that it was the “conservatives” who were champions of the broader, non-“originalist” view of the Constitution.

    I also know of no definition of “conservatism” in its contemporary American context that would align it with “socialism”. And yet Medicare and Social Security are quintessential socialist programs – government owned and operated programs of public welfare, first proposed by the Socialist Party before either was acceptable to Democrats or Republicans. Obamacare, as the President has argued, is the antithesis of this, not in its intrusiveness and officiousness of imposing a public “mandate” upon supposedly free Americans, but in its subjection of us conscripts to the mercies of the commercial marketplace, rather than the government itself.

    So, no, those who try to justify Social Security and Medicare with either the Constitution or the concept of a government of free men can not be classified as “conservative”, unless that term is being used simply to describe those who defend the status quo. But it was in that sense that the popular media described the Stalinist opponents of glasnost in the dying days of the Soviet Union as “conservative”. And that is not an association I believe any American “conservative” would claim for themselves.

  13. Gaius Marius,

    I’m afraid your link to explain authentic conservatism, something you believe “no American in the public square has ever explicitly agreed with,” didn’t work for me. But it is worth remembering that Konstantin Pobedenostsev made his mark in Russian history by championing and enforcing Czar Nicholas’ program of Russification of his Empire late in the 19th Century. The plan was to unify the people of the Empire by a common faith, the Orthodox Church, and a common tongue, the Russian language. Religious and linguistic minorities were to be cordoned off, their children required to be schooled in Russian and the children of intermarriage to be raised in the Russian faith. Protestantism among ethnic Russians was outlawed. All this was in response to the rise of nationalism in Europe, jeopardizing the legitimacy of imperial realms, like that of the Hapsburgs, the Ottomans, and the Romanoffs, which were composed of a plurality of ethnic, religious and language groups, but who had risen to power when people were accustomed to pledging fealty to an hereditary monarch, who ruled by divine right rather than a national plebiscite. Realizing that the ancien regime was about to fail, Pobedenostsev sought to serve his sovereign with the end of preserving his reign, a conservative cause, but sought to do so by radical, non-conservative means. The campaign of Russification did little to stem the loss of public confidence in the Czar, and, in fact, exacerbated it, driving religious and ethnic minorities to emigrate to lands that permitted them to live by their old values, such as the United States. Losing a core of well educated Germans, Swedes, even Jews and other non-Russian nationals, minorities who had looked to the Russian royal house to protect them from the resentment and prejudices of the majority Russians, undercut the power of the Czar and contributed in no small part to his ultimate overthrow and demise.

    Today, in America, the heirs to Pobedenostsev are clearly those who would replace the traditional common cause of Americanism, the ideal of having a land where all might come and be free to live according to their own creeds and by their own lights, with enforced uniformity in language, English, and a common faith, secular humanism and jingoistic American nationalism, masquerading under a stagnant facade of deism, and strict limits on the immigration of those who would decline to conform to the worship of those idols. These are the elements which, in varying respects, dominate the contemporary Democratic and Republican parties, and those who would dissent from their platforms, the libertarian, the anti-war Christian, have been shoved to the side. You may call Mr. P’s policies conservative or, as I would, the antithesis of conservatism in the American tradition, but they are definitely alive and well in the United States today.

  14. Amen to Paul Gottfried’s wise trashing of “Conservative” and “Liberal” which have come to mean the opposite of what they once meant. A shame in a way, because I indeed would like to remember just what these term originally meant.

    Now let’s trash also the idea the political ideology is only two-fold or can be grafted on a line going from left to right, just as our Algebra teacher told us to do. Political ideology looks more like a Chinese Checkers board than a line. How about instead following what the continental Europeans do, and use colors. Going down the color spectrum:

    The Cultural Marxist Reds

    The Social Democratic Pinks

    The Whig/Hamiltonian/Neocon Oranges (their color in the 18th and 19th Cs)

    The Libertarian Golds of Yellows (as in “gold standard”)

    The Environmentalist and Crunchy-Con Greens

    The Agrarian Limes (Wendell Berry)

    The Burkean/Tory/Orléanists Blues

    The Legitimist/Jacobite/Carlist Blancs

    The Catholic Social Teaching Noirs and their blue collar Jaunes

    The Browns (ultranationalists, Judeophobes, racialists, Catholics of the Coughlin and Dollfuß type, and followers of Mussolini’s movement)

    The Paleoconservative Butternuts (or Greys)

  15. Indeed both parties reek of having nudged the USA towards a socialist state.

    Documented socialist thought espouses two methods to bring about “fundamental change” (See G.D.H Cole’s “Socialist Thought” series).

    A socialist transformation comes about through gradual congressional or parliamentary “reform.” This is the pusillanimous method socialist and communist activists have taken to change the USA. They have called it different things through the decades: New Deal, Welfare…. but they are (and have been) legislative tools to wield fundamental change in America — only one president has said it unabashedly after gaining office surreptitiously.

    The other way to bring about a Marxist’s state is via revolutionary war: civil or otherwise.

    I believe legislative reform was the strategy for the USA because the genius founding fathers insisted in the right of citizens to bear arms.

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