I've written before about how the term "liberal" has lost most of its meaning in our modern discourse. While it actually means nothing more than a willingness to be open-minded and consider new ideas, what it generally gets defined as in our political discourse is "anything with which conservatives disagree". However, that definition actually mistakes the meaning of "conservative" in almost exactly the same way. There is nothing inherent in political conservatism that makes it a natural enemy for political liberalism in regard to most issues.
I am confident in my definition of liberalism, so it must be that either my definition of conservatism is wrong or the political ideals that I oppose are not really political conservatism as it's been commonly understood. To explore that question, lets look at a few of my policy positions here, and see how they fall in light of traditional conservative values:
I believe the Federal Government should help make people's lives easier, safer and more enjoyable, when reasonably possible.
That's a pretty classical liberal view of the role of the federal government. A traditional conservative would hold that a weak federal government, that stays out of the affairs of the people and, more importantly, the affairs of business, is better.
Any marriage between two consenting adults should be legal. In fact, government should not be involved in marriage at all, except in its judicial capacity to settle property or custody disputes. The government's involvement in marriage probably harkens back to several violations of the Establishment Clause.
According to traditional conservative values, in which government should not be involved in the personal lives of individual Americans whenever possible, I could actually be considered a conservative, or even a libertarian, for this view.
All government agencies should operate with balanced budgets and only incur debt for national emergencies. All taxation should be progressive in nature, but the government should not collect in surplus of its needs. Any non-performing government program or agency should be eliminated.
These are some of the bedrock ideals of fiscal conservatism, and are the kinds of things both average Americans and wealthy corporations practice on a regular basis in their private affairs.
No American, regardless of birth, circumstances, wealth, public office or political party affiliation is above the law.
An strict belief in the "Rule of Law" and in the U.S. as a nation "of laws and not men" is a cornerstone of traditional conservative philosophy. This was, at least on its public face, the justification behind the Clinton impeachment.
And, one more:
Unilateral military action is not appropriate U.S. foreign policy in cases where a direct attack has not occurred and/or no threat is imminent. "Nation building" for the purposes of re-aligning geo-political regions, is not an appropriate use of the U.S. military either. A strong, capable military is important, but must be used with great deliberation and caution. Humanitarian intervention is an appropriate use of military force, particularly in cases of genocide or "ethnic cleansing" though, again, it is very important to build international support for such activities.
The conservative belief in these ideals concerning military force and foreign policy was the basis for much criticism of Clinton's use of force in Yugoslavia, even though that intervention was backed by NATO and, later, assisted by the United Nations. While traditional conservatives have been much more skeptical of the U.N. than I, they have been clear in their belief in a coalition-building methodology for military intervention.
These are just a few of the views I hold on a certain policy issues and, as you can see, they tend to trend pretty closely with the ideals of traditional conservatism. Now, that's not to say that I have conservative tendencies in the political sense; there are many positions I hold that no conservatives would come anywhere near. My belief in single-payer health care for one. Or my belief in a maximum wage indexed to our minimum wage for another.
The issue that arises, then, is whether or not today's Republican party and its supporters really are as conservative as they claim. My belief is that they are not, in fact, conservative, especially when looking at the Bush administration. In his post, Greenwald used the term "authoritarian cultists" to describe the new right wing; a personality cult dedicated to the veneration of George W. Bush regardless of public policy stance. I agree but I don't think Glenn actually goes far enough. Bush is just the figurehead of the moment. Their loyalty is to the party and whomever is representing it at any given time.
Thus, I don't see that "conservative" is an apt label to use for the Republicans in power today and their supporters. Now, certainly there are still genuine conservatives and libertarians lurking about. I would argue that those members of Congress referred to frequently as "moderates" are actually conservatives in the original sense of the term. Traditional conservatism has actually become the political center in the United States, and pols like Hillary Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, Ben Nelson, Evan Bayh, John McCain, Joementum and Lincoln Chafee actually represent the traditional conservative ideology, with occasional exceptions.
The Republicans who actually control Washington and whom Bush woos as his base really have very little in common with traditional conservative values on most issues. I drop Glenn's use of the term "cultist", though it certainly applies, and name what I see as the prevailing philosophy on the political right as "authoritarianism". It's the political representation, essentially, of "might makes right", with some religious social ideology tossed in to make things more interesting.
The key tenets of authoritarian social policy seem to be the following:
- A deference to power as authority. There can actually be multiple authority figures, some quite intertwined, all of which are to be obeyed with little or no questioning. Currently, the authority figures are Bush, the gatekeeper of the GOP agenda, and, by extension, all those pols and pundits who support that agenda. Of course, the more generally defined wills of "God and country" are to be obeyed as well. The corollary to this is that those with power, either political or economic, are accorded high respect and privilege, regardless of the source or truth of that power. It's also worth noting that the fears and ambitions of those in power are required to be the fears and ambitions of the rank-and-file.
- A rigid ideology. Perhaps no political movement at any other time in U.S. history has been as skilled at uniformity as the authoritarian Republican party. The platform is very clearly defined and deviation from it is barely tolerated, if at all. Any idea that does not conform to the tenets of the authoritarian ideology are generally labeled "liberal" and are discarded without delay. The key, however, is that the ideology can be changed by those in authority at any time without notice. Adherence to established ideology is essential for gaining authority, but once authority is established any heterodoxy by the authority figure is merely assimilated into the authoritarian platform.
- The stifling of dissent. Any notion of criticism towards the authoritarian ideology or its proponents is considered bad manners at best. Accusations of disloyalty are swift for any questioning of President Bush or the GOP agenda. Further, any criticism of the United States itself as a symbolic entity or God as the supreme authority, is met with swift and unwavering condemnation.
- The limitation of individual rights. These limitations are born from the belief that certain behaviors are either immoral or uncouth, and that the individual really can't be trusted to govern his or her own behavior. The authoritarian looks to institutions such as the government, the church and the family structure to limit behaviors considered undesirable. And finally...
- The power of belief. Authoritarian moralism has its foundations in literalist religious dogma. The ideology of the authoritarian has little concern for factual arguments or scientific debate; belief trumps all other factors.
In a nutshell, the authoritarian believes those in authority should be obeyed, so long they remain true to the authoritarian ideology (which they are allowed to change at will). This is the cultist aspect that Glenn talks about, I think. The federal government, while in the hands of an authoritarian president like George W. Bush, has no need of critical oversight or limitation. Bush's policies are the authoritarian ideology because he's the one in authority and, thus, is beyond question. Further, Bush, as Commander in Chief of the United States, represents the aims of the state completely. Thus, any policy undertaken by Bush is undertaken by the United States as a whole and is, then, unquestionably good. The role of the people is not to question the government, but to obey, because to do otherwise would show disloyalty and offer comfort to our enemies. Finally, authoritarians believe that religious literalism (primarily Christianity) must be the bedrock of American society and needs no separation from the state.
Now, lest anyone think I've gone completely around the bend on this, let me give some examples of what I mean, so as to flesh out the reality of the authoritarian policy under which we're currently living.
First, the war in Iraq, and the general "War on Terror" established the basis for a shift to authoritarian beliefs in the country. Bush and his supporters claim to derive authority from an electoral mandate, which is a specious claim given the last two very close and heavily contested presidential elections. In reality, Bush derives his authority from the fear of terrorism and calls to national identity. I could name other leaders who've done the same, and I would invoke Godwin's Law to do so. Suffice to say, using fear and nationalism to stir public support is nothing new.
The Iraq war, in particular, shows a stark departure from traditional conservative ideals and straight into authoritarianism. All of the testable causes for war have been proven false, either errors or outright fabrications. Hussein was not a threat, he had no significant weaponry, no power outside his own borders and no connection to Al-Qaida. The only remaining reason for the Iraqi occupation given by Bush, that we are "building a democratic Iraq" runs completely contrary to his condemnation of nation building during the 2000 election. However, since Bush is "the authority", he is free to change the ideological stance of his supporters without reason or question. Thus, Bush supporters are now in favor of nation building, because Bush says they should be. Bush's supporters also continue to believe that Saddam Hussein was a grave and immediate threat to the United States, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, because, as stated above, authoritarian belief cannot be assailed by facts.
In the context of the "War on Terror", the authoritarian view is very clear as well. Bush's role as Commander in Chief in a time of war, as defined by the Constitution, means, to the authoritarian believer, that Bush has essentially unchecked power to prosecute the war. Of course, Bush's supporters also grant him the authority to determine the scope and duration of the war as well, which means that the "War on Terror" involves whatever Bush says it involves, will last as long as Bush decides it will last and will be fought in whatever way Bush feels is appropriate. Further, any attempts at oversight by either the Congress or the people is actually considered insulting by authoritarians, for they see no need to question Bush. Authoritarians see an existential threat to the United States and have granted Bush unlimited authority to meet that threat. Since they don't believe authority should be questioned, as authority is essentially "good" on its face, then they see no need for oversight. Bush is the authority and thus, for his authoritarian supporters, his word is always enough.
On the economic front, the authoritarian philosophy is very simple: whatever Bush says is good for the economy is good for the economy. If Bush says deficits don't matter, then they don't. If Bush says tax cuts for corporations and wealthy investors will spur economic growth, then they will, regardless of the reality. If Bush says the estate tax is unfair, then authoritarians believe it's unfair and will fight to have it repealed. This largely has the effect of wealthy business interests de facto rulership of the United States, given that Bush's particular policies are heavily slanted in favor of such interests. Since Bush and the GOP believe business and economic growth are the most important aspects of public policy, their authoritarian followers agree and support any pro-business initiative regardless of its effects on the country or its citizens.
Finally, on the social front, the authoritarian belief coalesces around conservative religious social ideals. According to authoritarians, the United States is a Christian country by design, and religious freedom is constrained within that boundary. Authoritarians believe that their religious beliefs are natural laws and, thus, should only naturally be statutory laws as well. The criminalizing or marginalizing of any practice or group deemed "sinful" or socially undesirable, such as abortion, homosexuality or sexual freedom, is encouraged. Forcing certain Christian beliefs and symbols into public life, such as school-led prayer and scriptural monuments in public buildings, is also considered important. The Christianity of authoritarians is authoritarian as well; the passive, socially-conscious Jesus of the New Testament is given a backseat to the authoritarian God of the Old. Such beliefs are also beyond question, as they originate from the ultimate authority, vested in various writings and institutions. Pluralism and secularism are considered socially irresponsible and are generally blamed for every social ill that has ever befallen society.
The point of all this is that the term "conservative" really no longer describes the Right side of the political spectrum in the United States and the failure to recognize that is one of the weaknesses of our current political establishment. The Republican party was once the realm of political conservatism; a belief that centralized government was a bad idea and that personal liberty was the most important aspect of American life. In some ways, the two ideologies, conservatism and liberalism, clashed as much for their similarities as for their differences.
Times have changed, however. Today's Republicans party is the party of authoritarian power. It's an ideology of unchecked government power, cults of personality and unquestioning loyalty to party, God and country. It's an ideology completely incompatible with a democratic society for long. It wants a society where the powerful are comfortable in their power, while the powerless are ignored for being inconsequential. It wants a society where religious ideology always trumps personal morality, because God is the authority and the authority is not to be questioned or disagreed with. It wants a society that sees other nations either as a resource or a threat, and sees military intervention as the preferred way of dealing with said threats. It wants a society where religious beliefs trump science, not because science isn't valuable, but because science often disagrees with the established authority and that is not to be tolerated. This is authoritarian society and it may be closer today than it's ever been.